The University of North Carolina School of the Arts orchestra under the direction of Ransom Wilson, played a spectacular concert in Crawford Hall on the UNCSA campus. Crawford Hall was chosen as the location for this concert because unlike the Stevens Center or Reynolds Auditorium, Crawford Hall does have an excellent Fisk organ, recently restored with a gift from the Kenan Institute for the Arts. (Other suitably large halls with organs in Winston-Salem are to be found at Wake Forest University and Salem College.)
The program, introduced by Maestro Wilson, began with Samuel Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17, a work premiered in 1942 by Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic. It is a compact 10-minute work, starting slowly and calmly enough, but building in intensity and volume to a powerful climax. It was masterfully led by conducting student, Joseph Edwards, with great economy of gesture and tight control of the progress of the piece. The effective orchestration was well played by the very large student orchestra in the lively hall.
Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’àprès-midi d’un faun, a seminal work in the history of music, was conducted (by memory) by graduate student, Konstantin Dobroykov. Special mention should go to principal flutist, Erika Boysen, whose many long solos set the tone for this enigmatic masterpiece. Dobroykov adroitly conducted the Prélude with subtlety and poetry through the many changes of tempo and mood, all of which the orchestra handled beautifully, more like seasoned pros than adolescents and young adults.
The Concerto for Flute and String Orchestra by French composer André Jolivet, the “most difficult flute concerto in the repertory,” according to Ransom Wilson, who conducted the reduced string orchestra, was spectacularly played by graduate student Megan Szymanski. Modern-sounding, but not offensive to the ear, this concerto is in three movements, the gigue-like first movement preceded by a long slow introduction and the powerful second and third movements being linked by a short cadenza. Especially memorably was a dreamy episode in which each phrase ended in trills. The performance whetted the appetite to hear more Jolivet!
The second half of the concert was dedicated to a performance of the popular Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, “With Organ” by Camille Saint-Saëns, introducing new faculty member Timothy Olsen on the organ. Officially divided into two movements, the symphony nonetheless follows the traditional 4-movement schema but uses the Liszt-ian innovation of a cyclical style which causes the thematic material to evolve throughout the whole piece. Fittingly, the symphony is dedicated to Franz Liszt, who died shortly after the symphony’s London premiere in 1886.
In addition to the pipe organ, which plays in two of the four sections, Saint-Saëns’ score calls for four-handed piano as well as the largest orchestra of the evening. The effect of the piano arpeggios in the last movement is scintillating and the hushed tones of the organ in the slow second section gave it a spiritual quality. But the real reason for the symphony’s popularity lies in the grandiose loud passages, especially near the end when the organ “pulls out all the stops’ in an effort to top the orchestral brass. (The brass won!) And the audience went wild with cheering and whooping. The concert was repeated the following afternoon.