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Here we are in the middle of March Madness, when it seems that the only thing important about a university is its basketball team. But the big teams from the big schools aren't the only show worth watching, and top high school athletes aren't the only kids worth recruiting.
Instead of gluing ourselves to the TV on Sunday afternoon, we attended a concert at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church by the Furman Chamber Strings, a 22-member chamber orchestra made up solely of undergraduates of Furman University in Greenville, SC. Under the direction of conductor and violinist Thomas Joiner, these young people — only about half of them music majors — put on a thoroughly professional performance. Anita Burroughs-Price, the North Carolina Symphony's principal harpist and an alumna — and current harp teacher — of Furman, joined the ensemble in a lovely performance of Debussy's Sacred and Profane Dances.
We realize that oohing and aahing over a student performance can be misread as a kind of condescension — "isn't it marvelous what these children can do!" But that's not the point. The Furman Strings play with the absolute precision in phrasing, dynamics, entrances and intonation of a professional orchestra. The pizzicato movement from Benjamin Britten's "Simple Symphony" was so together that it sounded like only one musician from each section was playing. And Joiner was obviously confident enough of his bunch that he programmed the Strausses' "Pizzicato Polka." Concerti by Corelli and Vivaldi fared just as well. Although our only quibble with the concert was that we wish they had played a more unusual program — there are other Vivaldi concerti than "Winter," from The Seasons, and other Corelli concerti grossi than "The Christmas Concerto" — these warhorses are so familiar that everyone can appreciate how well or badly they are played.
Furman is one of those first-rate small liberal arts institutions that are little known outside of their own region of the country, attracting the best, brightest and — unfortunately — well heeled. Its music department is exceptional, catering to talented students seeking both first-class musical training and skills they can utilize in "day jobs," while most conservatories maintain a narrow focus for would-be pros only. By building and maintaining a full roster of ensembles from jazz bands to string quartets to an opera workshop and the faculty to lead them, Furman attracts and nurtures students who can if they wish go on to conservatory as graduate students. Among its alumni is Keith Lockhart, guest conductor of this past weekend's North Carolina Symphony program.
Attracting such musical talent requires as careful recruiting as any athletic team. In addition to checking out the various all-state orchestras in the region, Furman's music department has produced a slick magazine/brochure, Con Brio, and a bouquet of CDs showcasing its ensembles, faculty and famous alumni. You can explore the department at www.musicatfurman.com.