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The Chapel Hill Philharmonia began life as the Village Orchestra, its early moniker capturing its grassy roots and determinedly amateur standing a good deal better than its high-flown, newer handle. Its conductors have included some wonderful artists with strong UNC or Chapel Hill ties, among them Edgar Alden, Ruth Johnsen and Brent Wissick, and incumbent Donald L. Oehler. In the early days, the rehearsal hall was the group's primary venue, but in recent years it has taken over Hill Hall for its public events. More than any of the other Triangle orchestras, the Chapel Hill Philharmonia represents community music-making traditions at their best. The band is chock-full of professionals, but most of them are professionals in fields other than music who play for the sheer love of the art. The bottom line is that the spirit is almost always willing but the flesh is sometimes a mite weak. What saves the day for the CH Phil., nine times out of ten (more or less...), is that overriding spirit – the joy of bringing great music to life in a community effort.
In recent years, Music Director Oehler has challenged the orchestra – or permitted the steering committee to challenge the orchestra – with more and more major works, and the program presented in Hill Hall on December 10 was no exception. The concert began with Samuel Barber's Overture to The School for Scandal, an early, mostly traditional work that was criticized for being too mainstream, as Concertmaster Mark Furth relates in his detailed program notes. That said, it's tricky, and it's laden with exposed passages, and the reading was sort of touch and go for a while until everyone approached the same wavelength. The boisterous, energetic piece received a good reading, by and large. Among the highlights were fine wind solos from Judy and John Konanc.
Pianists Barbara Rowan and Francis Whang, who perform together as the Janus Duo, were mainstays of the UNC Department of Music who have retired in Chapel Hill and who still delight themselves and their myriad admirers with frequent concert appearances. They joined the CH Phil. for Mozart's celebrated Concerto in E Flat, K.365, for two pianos and orchestra, playing the department's matched pair of Steinways (which, ironically, are named for two singers – Terry Rhodes and Stafford Wing). This concerto is one of Mozart's most felicitous inventions, and the interplay between the soloists and with the orchestra was wonderful to experience. It came on the heels of another great Mozart work for two solo artists, the Sinfonia concertante, K.364, also in E Flat, that was heard at Duke the previous Wednesday. The big Mozart anniversary year bounced along here in the Triangle with many highlights, including all the late sonatas for piano and violin at Meredith College, but these two university-based concerts were among the most special of them all – and isn't it curious that the Köchel catalog listings are consecutive! The Chapel Hill performance was warmly received and two large bouquets were presented, thus enriching the local floral vendors as well as the audience in Hill Hall.
The second half of the concert was devoted to a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. There was a time in the lives of music lovers of a certain age when this symphony, with its "V for Victory" opening motif, was so overdone that folks avoided it like the plague. But war horses, of which this is certifiably one, are popular for good reasons, and this happens to be one of the greatest works in the repertoire – and one that was around long before the code named Morse was invented. Oehler and his musicians threw themselves into the music, and the results were amazingly fine, with solid contributions from the horns and other wind and brass sections and with inspiring resonance coming from the lower strings, in particular. The audience loved it, demonstrating once again the merit of community orchestra performances of the classics, at which readings there are – as someone once said – people hearing these great scores for the first time... and, perhaps, for the last time, too. Well done!
The next Chapel Hill Philharmonia concert will be February 11, in the same venue.