The School of Music, Theater and Dance of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro (UNCG) filled the stage of the Stevens Center with orchestra and chorus, and the hall with well-wishers and fans while performing an eclectic program of familiar and rarely heard pieces, under the direction of three able faculty members.

The concert opened with the familiar Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin by Richard Wagner under the direction of Welborn E. Young, who is described in the program notes as primarily a choral and opera specialist. The orchestra sounded great in this four minute work; wouldn’t it have been cool to have continued on to the next piece in the Wagner original, the Wedding March – especially for those of us who were in the Stevens Center three weeks ago for Mendelssohn’s Wedding March as part of the staged version of Shakespeare/Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream!

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) was not only a superb composer, but a gifted singer and a virtuoso pianist. His “Prayers of Kierkegaard,” for soprano soloist, chorus and orchestra was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky, and premiered by Leontine Price and the Boston Symphony in 1954 under the direction of Charles Munch. Barber chose four prayers of Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), as the text for his work, which plays out as a unified single movement with great contrasts. Conducted by the much admired Carole Ott (who also conducts the Winston-Salem Symphony Chorale), the work starts a cappella with just men’s voices before adding orchestra, women’s voices and eventually solo soprano, Chelsea Bonagura. Dr. Ott led the structure of the work with authority and clarity, saving the forces for the climax near the end of the third prayer and carefully guiding the fugal interlude before the fourth prayer and the satisfying Bach-like chorale at the close. Ms. Bonagura has a beautiful sound, warm and rich, but was hard to understand from the first row of the balcony, even following the printed text in the program notes. On the other hand, the purity of the vowels of the chorus made them easy to understand although there was an almost allergic avoidance of the sibilant “s!”

The entire second half of the concert was given to the shortest of Gustav Mahler’s nine (or ten) symphonies, the charming and almost Schubertian Fourth Symphony in G, under the direction of Kevin M. Geraldi. Mahler is always a challenge to the principal players of the orchestra, who must not only handle the tonal and technical demands of their parts, but also the idiosyncrasies and innovations of Mahler the composer – things such as playing an un-tuned violin (scordatura in the second movement) or lifting the oboes or clarinets or horns high, with their bells pointing upward. And then there is the problem of balancing the modern brass with the strings, even without trombones or tuba. Occasionally, especially in some very soft passages, one wished for a dozen more string players to augment the 43 already on stage. Maestro Geraldi was clearly at ease with his forces and the score, although occasionally his “deliberate, unhurried” tempos plodded. Soprano soloist Joann Martinson has a delicate but beautiful and simple voice; unfortunately it rarely carried over the orchestra to the balcony. There were some very fine solos from  Craig Giordano, principal horn, Anna Darnell, clarinet , Casey Davis, English horn, and by the concertmaster, Ryan Silvestri.

Academia often provides an advantage that is not afforded professional ensembles: rehearsal time, and plenty of it, usually stretched over several weeks, thereby giving the young musicians time to assimilate new works and to practice between rehearsals. The sometimes under-rehearsed professional orchestra has, by contrast, the advantage of highly trained seasoned performers who meet daily for a number of hours at a sitting. Because of the costly but limited rehearsal time, the rehearsal is terse (sometimes tense) and the conductor is called upon to gesticulate efficiently and precisely, offering explanations only when the gesture has failed to communicate.

And so in this concert, the admirable precision of cut-offs, attacks and entrances occurred because of excellent rehearsing and sometimes despite the gestures of the conductors rather than because of them. (I am thinking if some intricate mallet entrances in a slow section of the Barber, and some 16th note cello and bass passages early in the Mahler.) And perhaps for the same reason, sometimes conducting gestures appeared grandiose rather than forceful, balletic rather than expressive and suggestive rather than precise. Except perhaps for moments in the Barber, the performances seemed safe rather than daring and careful rather than carefree: the element of risk had been eliminated.