The Wilmington Symphony Orchestra‘s 2015-16 season’s third Masterworks program, presented in Kenan Auditorium on the campus of UNCW, brought to the fore a magnificent program of relatively-rarely-heard compositions, two of which were written in the 20th century. Quite beyond the overall high quality of the playing and interpretations, the lineup reflects innovative and imaginative work on the part of a team of seasoned and experienced musicians who are dedicated to bringing the very best to the music lovers of the Port City and its environs.

The orchestra’s long-time music director (since 1986) is Stephen Errante, a member of the UNCW music faculty whose compositions, particularly including the “Battleship North Carolina March,” have also enjoyed considerable exposure and renown. On this occasion he called on a UNCW colleague as the evening’s soloist – the academic pursuits of Daniel C. Johnson, the university’s tuba and euphonium professor, also include musical technology.

Kenan Auditorium was quite generously filled by an eager and enthusiastic audience. The WSO’s board and staff are clearly doing something right, something other community and regional orchestras might do well to investigate and emulate!

Board President Karen Smith offered welcoming remarks, inviting attention to the orchestra’s ongoing raffle (want a snazzy little Audi at what appears to be exceptionally good odds?) and upcoming “Magical Mystery Tour” pops concert, planned for  CFCC’s new Humanities and Fine Arts Center in March.

The concert’s first work was Mozart’s Symphony No. 28, not one of the young master’s better-known scores but a fine one that was a delight to hear as realized by this orchestra and no doubt particularly welcome to those who attended last season’s complete Magic Flute in the same venue.

One sometimes seeks a common thread among programs, but there seems to be none here. Mozart’s Symphony No. 28, in C, K.200, missed being the first of the composer’s “major” orchestral works by a nose – that honor fell instead to No. 29. Indeed, I don’t recall ever hearing a “live” performance of No. 28, across a lifetime of listening. It’s typical of the period and its Haydnesque models, and reasonably substantial, too, coming in four movements (basically, fast, slow, minuet, fast). There were many lovely moments, including lush, dark strings in the pensive second movement, with lots of handsome phrasing and excellent dynamic contrasts. Only occasionally did this listener’s angst level rise, as ensemble once or twice seemed briefly on the verge of unraveling, a challenge that was to be manifest again – very intermittently – in the concert’s finale.

A raft of additional players came onto the stage for Vaughn Williams’ Tuba Concerto (1954), for which Professor Johnson was the consistently distinguished soloist. Solo brass instruments are rarely heard in concerted works, and the repertory tilts toward higher ones, like French horns and trumpets.  Indeed, if you put “tuba concerto” in Google’s search block, the results start with Vaughan Williams. Yet it’s much more rarely heard than Kleinsinger’s “Tubby the Tuba” (which is a tuba concerto, sort of…). And hearing it so nicely played and accompanied was a real treat for what was clearly a very appreciative crowd. The orchestra gave Johnson outstanding support, and Errante’s close attention ensured good balance and notable clarity throughout.

Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony (1934) preceded the opera of the same name by four years. Mathis refers to throwback Medievalist painter Matthias Grünewald (c.1470-1528). The orchestral version is surely one of the composer’s most important and lasting compositions, yet it’s no walk in the park, so it was perhaps brave of the Wilmingtonians to undertake it; that they did it so well, overall, is strong testimony to the orchestra’s many strengths and its music director’s diligent leadership. On this occasion, there were projections of relevant art work, specifically the famous Isenheim altarpiece. The performance was at once musically and interpretively solid, and the response to it from the orchestra’s enthusiastic patrons was appropriately strong.

So here was a remarkable thing in a time when dwindling audiences are the norm in too many places – a big crowd for a challenging, partly “contemporary” program, played by a fine regional orchestra that clearly enjoys the support of its home base. Well done!

The Wilmington SO’s next Masterworks concert will feature another 20th-century essential, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 (1915-19), along with winners of the orchestra’s annual concerto competition. Click here for details.