On November 6, the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra performed under the direction of Steven Errante in Kenan Auditorium on the campus of UNC-Wilmington. The program offered three 20th-century works: two contrasting suites flanking a concerto for clarinet and strings.

The concert opened with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, the symphonic version of music composed for the Ballets Russes in 1919-20. The composer had previously collaborated with the company on Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, but unlike the material for these earlier productions, Stravinsky based Pulcinella on pre-existing scores from the 18th century. The Ballets Russes’ impresario Sergey Diaghilev, as the story goes, wanted music redolent of a past era for a ballet featuring characters from the commedia dell’arte of the 16th and 17th centuries and gave Stravinsky a collection of pieces attributed to Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-36) – although many were actually by Domenico Gallo, an Italian composer born a generation after Pergolesi. Stravinsky re-orchestrated the music, modifying rhythms, textures and timbres as he saw fit, but overall the compositional surgery was cosmetic. Describing why he felt drawn to “recompose,” Stravinsky wrote in Memories and Commentaries, “Whatever interests me, whatever I love, I wish to make my own (I am probably describing a rare form of kleptomania).”

The Pulcinella Suite showcases a variety of instrumental solos. Indeed, in an educational setting, one could almost use the work in place of Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” Particularly praiseworthy were the violin solos of Concertmaster Nobuaki Yamashita. Also of note was the trumpet playing of Christofer Ackerman (especially during the Toccata and Finale) and the fine performance of oboist Fumiko Yamashita, although an “off night” in the horn section detracted from her solo in the “Gavotta” movement. On the lighter side, the jocular duet between trombone and double bass evoked chuckles from quite a few in the auditorium, although people facing stage left probably had difficulty hearing the bass, a problem directly related to the acoustics of the hall. (One eagerly anticipates the completion of a new cultural arts building and concert hall, scheduled to be finished in the summer of 2006!) The orchestra played Pulcinella well enough, but the fact that Stravinsky did not alter much of the original material leaves us (a few moments aside) with twenty minutes of music in the style of the late Baroque. Surprising transformations are conspicuously scarce, and one would have to know the Pergolesi/Gallo scores quite well to appreciate most of Stravinsky’s modifications. It is perhaps the style of the work that resulted, at times, in a half-hearted effort on the part of the orchestra.

The highlight of the concert came before the intermission with Bryan Crumpler’s performance of Gerald Finzi’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, composed in the late 1940s. The work’s form is traditional (it includes, for example, a Rondo finale), as are the melodies and harmonies, which generally reflect back to the 19th century. Crumpler, a Wilmington native, engaged the audience with his musicianship and his stage presence. Instead of standing rigid and emotionless, he obviously was moved – literally and figuratively – by the music, turning the bell of his clarinet to the left and right of the hall and animating his execution as an actor might recite a soliloquy. The Concerto’s Adagio was the movement I enjoyed most, as it showcased Crumpler’s sensitivity toward phrasing. He molded each phrase with what might be called “syntactical logic;” in other words, he was saying something. Had the violins not experienced some intonation problems playing in the upper registers, this movement would have been almost flawless. Nevertheless, Crumpler was magnificent throughout the entire Concerto, and he made the work sound better than it actually is.

After intermission, the audience returned to a rather brief second half featuring Ravel’s Suite No. 2 from the ballet Daphnis et Chloé, composed just before World War I. The orchestra rebounded from the somewhat tepid performance of the Stravinsky by putting their hearts into the Ravel, and Errante seemed similarly inspired. Conducting, of course, involves much more than keeping tempo, and Errante deserves plaudits for conquering this score, which is no small task. The sheer variety of timbre combinations in Ravel’s instrumental works demands that the person on the podium be well aware of “who-does-what-when.” Not only could Errante answer this question at any time, but he also controlled the orchestra’s dynamics with refined proportions, so the difference between mezzo-forte and forte was palpable on this occasion.

With the latter half of the evening being so short, one might have expected to hear another piece. Indeed, it would have seemed the perfect opportunity to perform something a little less… pleasant. The music was all very nice, but little of it challenged the ear. If a symphony concert is an opportunity to compare and contrast historical styles for an audience – and by putting Pulcinella on the program, I think the Wilmington Symphony acknowledges this idea – then before the Ravel we might have heard a work contemporaneous with Pulcinella or the Finzi Concerto – a piece less nostalgic and more representative of the other, less tonal trends in the music of the last century.