Having taken a huge bite, the Appalachian Chamber Orchestra did its best to chew, digest and assimilate the Berlioz and Beethoven works that it had sunk its jaws into. And by and large, the effort was successful, although the appropriateness of the repertory to a small chamber orchestra might be questioned. The Rosen Concert Hall (400 seats) at the Broyhill Music Center on the Appalachian State University campus is a wonderful hall for chamber music, with its many faceted architectural surfaces, polished cement floors, and wooden stage surmounted by a dozen acoustical flying saucers. However, the orchestra of 46 more than filled the hall with sound!
Composed of a felicitous mix of faculty (playing most of the principal positions) and students, this chamber orchestra has adopted the methods of professional orchestras, which usually have only four or five 2½ -hour rehearsals for a concert, based on the assumption that the musicians are all masters of the music they play. Therein lies the hitch – while professional musicians have already played this repertory for many years and have at least a dim recollection of not only the tunes, but the bowings and the fingerings of the music, young students can rely only on a passing acquaintance with these venerable masterworks. And whereas symphony orchestras, with institutional memory and the depth and variety of instrumentation, do bring concerts to fruition with few rehearsals (cf. Sergiù Celibidache, who demanded and received nine full rehearsals, even with the London Symphony Orchestra), most professional chamber orchestras spend more rehearsal time than symphonic ensembles because of the exposed nature of their instrumentation.
The Overture to Le Corsaire by Hector Berlioz, the innovative French composer of the first half of the 19th century, opened the program. With only a baker’s dozen violins, four violas, four cellos and two basses it was difficult to balance the full (and sonorous!) brass section as well as the more usual woodwind contingent required by the Berlioz work. This overture is a technically difficult work and the difficulties showed, especially in the opening bars which challenge violins of even professional caliber. There were some beautiful quiet moments when polished and warm sounds emanated from the woodwinds.
The other work on the program was Beethoven’s colossal masterpiece, Symphony No. 3, Op. 55, in Eb Major, “Eroica,” which is surpassed in length only by his 9th Symphony. The first movement began in a brisk tempo with the two attention-grabbing chords. Intonation problems marred the otherwise expressive statement of the first theme in the cellos, which was somewhat better on the repeat (Bravo, Maestro, for respecting the repeat!). Apart from the glaring absence of a horn in the recapitulation, the first long and very difficult movement came together well with balance a disturbance only in the loud passages.
The hauntingly beautiful oboe tone of Ms. Alicia Chapman made the second movement "Marcia funebre – Adagio assai" the highlight of the afternoon.This is a remarkable composition: the bass line, with its all-significant grace notes, prefigures all the important events in the movement, including the maggiore section, the rising theme of the powerful double fugue which leads to the climax of the movement, and even the high suspended Ab in the violins which eventually leads to resolution and the coda.
This is a remarkable composition; the bass line, with its all-significant grace notes prefigures all the important events in the movement, including the maggiore section, as well as the rising theme of the powerful double fugue which leads to the climax of the movement; and the high suspended Ab in the violins, and leading to resolution of all the tension in the basses and cellos.
The "Scherzo" was boisterous and rapid, and the three horns were great in their famous trio. Next time they may want to move farther from the back brick wall which gave them an uncharacteristic harshness. The "Finale" introduces us to one of the manifestations of Beethoven’s genius, the art of variation. The pair of fugatos held up well and led to a magnificent conclusion prior to the entrance of the slow version of the theme. A lesser composer would be at a loss if he discovered that his theme was as beautiful played slowly as fast; Beethoven just included both versions, and then some, ending with a rapid coda.
In general, one wished for more control of the dynamics; no pp remained so for long, and mezzo-mezzo was the reigning flavor of the day all the way through, except when the tympani (with or without the brass) were playing, in which case the level was either loud or very loud!
James Anderson is a talented conductor, with an excellent sense of timing and a flair for the dramatic elements in the music he is conducting. He led his musicians with a clear and clean style with convincing tempos, only occasionally resorting to “over-conducting” when his young charges tended to stampede, or to drag. The major question is why he chose repertory better suited to large ensembles (viz. symphonic works) than to chamber orchestra in this small but very lively hall.