UNCG's Aycock Auditorium stage seemed fuller than the hall for the University Symphony Orchestra's December 8 concert. The ensemble included 26 violins, 13 violas, 10 cellos and 9 double basses in addition to enough woodwinds and brass to rotate personnel in several works.
Two guest conductors shared duties as part of their fulfillment of degree requirements for the Master of Music in Conducting. Brahms' "Tragic" Overture is a tricky work to bring off, and Jaemi B. Loeb met many of the challenges. Her rhythmic control was excellent in the opening but grew a little slack later. Ensemble within and among the sections was excellent. Orchestral balance was also very good, and the phrasing was well within the traditional approach. A good, rich string sound was secured with fine solos from the woodwinds and good playing from the horns.
We reviewed Matthew Troy, conductor of the Salisbury Symphony Youth Orchestra, earlier this year. He perfectly gauged the quiet flute and harp opening of Debussy's "Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un Faune." The horns were well blended and the tremolo strings, clearly articulated. Concertmaster Fabrice Dharamraj had the first of many stylish solos for the evening.
Mark Engebretson, Assistant Professor of Composition and Electronic Music at UNCG, was present for the well-received North American premiere of his 2002 composition, Duo Concertante, for two alto saxophones and orchestra. According to the excellent program notes, credited to both guest conductors, "The Duo is a one-movement work that pits a soaring lyrical theme performed by one soloist against a driving rhythmic theme played by the other. The two soloists are then matched against the orchestra. As the music progresses, elements of one theme can be heard to invade the other: the fun is in listening to see which idea (if any) ultimately emerges as the 'winner.'" Among the special effects are tone color changes and quartertones. Robert Gutter, the orchestra's regular conductor, held the "high-octane energy" and "over the top expressivity" together, providing ideal contrast to the agile alto saxophone soloists, Steven Stusek and Susan Fancher. A cadenza gave both soloists an opportunity to "strut their stuff." The work merits additional hearings.
All sections of the orchestra seem to play at their peak during Gutter's stimulating interpretation of Elgar's "Enigma" Variations. His widely contrasted dynamics within "Nimrod," a personal favorite, were particularly noteworthy. In addition to concertmaster Dharamraj, principal violist Alvoy Bryan and principal cellist Gina Pezzoli brought a warmth and richness to their solos, which were most extensive in the sixth ("Ysobel") and twelfth ("B.G.N.") variations, respectively.