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The UNC Symphony Orchestra, which lists 105 players on its current roster, ended the season in Hill Hall on April 28. The group will be back, if everything falls into place, in late October, for a gala evening in Memorial Hall featuring soloists and university choral groups in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Hill is a venerable venue where many outstanding concerts have been given, over the years. Memorial has had its share of successes, too, and much is riding on the University's investment in its future and in the arts as essential components of education.
Meanwhile the UNCSO, led and enhanced for many years by Music Director Tonu Kalam, has long been a major force in regional culture. Reflecting on the orchestra's long and distinguished history and its leadership, over time, it is easy to think of it in terms of the famous Timex commercial – this is a group that keeps on ticking! It's a vehicle for UNC's many fine music students, of course, and its ranks are augmented by experienced players from the community. The strings have long impressed, and not only because of the size of the sections; on this occasion, the winds and brasses seemed truly to come into their own, too, producing more consistently reliable sound, with greater blend and better definition, than on many previous occasions.
The program was rock-solid, too. Cynics might have wondered about a program book-ended by two certifiable warhorses – Sibelius' "Finlandia" and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony – but we must remember that this orchestra is an arm of a major educational institution, and some musicians were surely playing these works for the first time in their lives. The performances reflected both freshness and joy, and Kalam managed to make the pieces – which in truth no longer turn up as often as they did in previous generations – sound new, in many respects.
Sibelius' famous piece was a stirring concert opener. It was written in 1899, Robert Layton reminds us (in New Grove), as part of "a pageant mounted in connection with [a] press pension celebration," but given the then-increasing oppression of the Finns by (Tsarist) Russia, the event "became a rallying point for patriotic sentiment," and even today the theme of the last section of "Finlandia" (revised in 1900) is often heard in the form of a hymn, in Lutheran and other churches. The composer himself did a revision in the '30s to incorporate words ("O Finland, see, your day is dawning") by Veikko Antero Koskenniemi, and it would have been an added treat if UNC choruses had been brought in to sing them – but where would the vocalists have stood? The familiar orchestra version was more than splendid – it growled to life with rip-snortin' brass and bristled with strength and passion.
Concertmaster Matthew Kiefer was then featured in a spell-binding reading of Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending" (1914, rev. 1920). There was no bio in the program, but the violinist is a student of Richard Luby, and he gave a magnificent performance of the solo part, which includes many unaccompanied passages, all of which, without exception, were delivered with awesome technical skill and outstanding musical understanding. His orchestral colleagues delivered the goods, too, providing atmospheric support from all quarters, including a triangle. (Speaking of the printed program..., it would be good if at some point UNC would emulate Duke(!) by engaging budding musicologists – or even members of the UNCSO – to write short notes on the works being played....)
It is almost beside the point to note that Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony (1888) is a classic; its warhorse status stems from the fact that it is – pardon the pun – a true thoroughbred in the symphonic literature. It was here that the winds and brasses were perhaps most impressive, projecting solidity and reliability most of the time. The strings, too, were superb, and the dynamics were handsomely managed. Kalam cut the players no slack in terms of the tempi; it wasn't pushed at any point, but no moss was allowed to grow, and on a few – very few – occasions there was a bit of straying within the ensemble. The results compared favorably with the brilliance of the Sibelius and the sensitivity exuded in the Vaughan Williams, and at the end, after the triumphant finale, there were yells and cheers and bravoes from the attendees, who leaped to their feet in appreciation.
Fans of "The Lark Ascending," a prime example of English pastoral music, will have three opportunities to hear it again in May, when Brian Reagin performs it with the NCS in Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh. See our calendar for details.