The snow is mostly gone now, except for some residual amounts on north-facing road banks. Perhaps that was the last of it for this year. We’ve not been alone in our misery, if that’s the word. Things are even worse in the UK and in Europe. So it was good to be reminded of some sunnier, happier times – well, bittersweet, at least – as were attendees of the Chapel Hill Philharmonia‘s latest concert, presented on a bright Sunday afternoon in UNC’s Hill Hall.

On the way in, someone thanked us for coming. I protested that we do not need thanks, that we really like our fine community orchestras, and that we ought to support them and attend their concerts, for they are the life-blood of our artistic communities. I could have added that chamber music ensembles are the engines that, in part, drive these larger-ensemble undertakings, and that our youth orchestras, scattered here and there across the land, provide the fuel that run them all, whether in terms of players or just enthusiastic audience members and, eventually, patrons. It’s the community that matters. And as I have said so many times, in print and in person, music lovers owe it to themselves to check out these lower-profile organizations and not limit themselves to just the big-ticket outfits. And besides, the repertory is often un-hackneyed and thus refreshing (as was the case on this occasion) – and never mind that most of the musicians play for the love of it – and that shows in all they do. (Lest I offend the singers among us, our community choirs likewise merit the attention of serious music lovers, and for many of the same reasons.)

So anyway the place was reasonably full by the time the concert began. Some folks had been busy reading Mark Furth’s amazing program notes – the professional outfits do these things, too, but no one holds a candle to the dissertations the CHP’s concertmaster routinely produces. (They don’t appear to be online; perhaps they should be.)

The menu consisted of music by Smetana, Mozart (maybe), and Bartók, grouped somewhat loosely under the banner “Showcasing Middle Europe.” The opener was not the usual suspect from Smetana’s Má Vlast (My Country) but instead the third of the tone poems, “Šárka,” the one about the warrior women who resist (for a time) being ruled by men. (See? These concerts can have relevance in our daily lives!) The playing was exuberant and handsomely managed by conductor Don Oehler. The orchestra sounded good. (There were 55 string players in the published roster and 80 musicians, total; the result made for a full stage and full sound in the hall. The result was a real orchestra, in terms of size alone. A community orchestra.)

There followed the Sinfonia Concertante in E-Flat, K.297b, for four winds, played here by seven of ’em because the three horn soloists each took a movement in turn. The soloists were Mérida Negrete, clarinet, Judy Konanc, oboe, Chris Myers, bassoon, and hornists Garth Molyneuz, Rick Lehner, and Sandra Svoboda (given in the order in which they played). It’s a somewhat meaty piece, one that sounds heavier than some of Mozart’s essays for solo instruments and strings. It may not be by Mozart, despite that Köchel number. Furth’s program notes detailed all the ins and outs. Readers who want to know more may look online, starting here. The crowd liked it and the playing of these fine members of the orchestra.

The last work was Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3, called by many North Carolinians “The Asheville Concerto” because it was in part composed there and because embedded in it are musical imitations of the bird calls the composer heard while in the Western NC town.* It was played by Greg McCallum, one of our best resident concert artists. He’s not affiliated with any college or university (which sounds like some sort of tax disclaimer, doesn’t it?), so he ideally exemplifies the “town-&-gown” aspect of the CHP (which is not formally affiliated with UNC, although its conductor is, and many of its players are or have been, in one capacity or another). McCallum and the orchestra were triumphant at every turn in this wonderful but still too-little-appreciated masterwork. (It often reminds one of Prokofiev’s Third.) The orchestra and soloist played with technical polish and with enthusiasm bordering on exuberance, resulting in a rip-snorting performance of the fiery parts with more than sufficient love pouring forth from the reflective sections, including that gorgeous slow movement (marked “Adagio religioso”). It was in retrospect easily among the best work of the CHP to date that I have heard – and from McCallum, too. And this after having rehearsals wasted by the storm. Maybe we should hope for snow and ice more often? Maybe not. But either way, this was a concert to remember.

Hear the orchestra next in May. For details, check our calendar a bit closer to the event.

*Asheville’s in Buncombe County, not Transylvania, but this concerto might as well have been written there, if not :”back home,” for it exudes all things Hungarian, albeit there is some filtering of the light through an American prism.