The Gate City possesses in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Symphony Orchestra one of the finest ensembles in the region and in Kevin Geraldi, a magnificent conductor. Tuesday night's Aycock Auditorium concert was a testament to the high quality of the music-making that comes from the UNCG School of Music and, moreover, a performance that will live on in the memories of all who attended.
First on the program was César Franck's symphonic poem The Accursed Huntsman. As critic Harold Schonberg once put it, Franck was known for “stained-glass chromaticism” due to the frequently pre-Impressionistic nature of his music. However, this work was the complete opposite of what I was expecting. Graduate conducting student Eduardo Vargas led the performance. He placed the French horns antiphonally around the stage, as the piece starts with a call and response motif. This made for a delight opening and was but a small taste of the rest of the piece. "Robust" is not the first word that comes to my mind when I think of French music. This composition is an exception to that rule. If anything, it sounded very Germanic – the influence of Wagner and Liszt was readily apparent. This is not a condemnation – I mean it as a compliment. It is a very exciting work, and Vargas and the orchestra played it to the hilt. Kudos to the brasses in particular, who handled Franck's ambitious writing with aplomb (indeed, the brass shone forth many times this evening). Honestly, this piece could make as effective a closer for a concert as an opener. It's not often I get excited about a piece I've never heard of, but this work was an exception.
Next up on the program was Gustav Mahler's early song cycle Songs of a Wayfarer. Leading the work was Kevin Geraldi. The baritone soloist was Robert Wells, associate professor of Vocal Activities in the UNCG School of Music. This song cycle and Mahler's First Symphony share many musical gestures, especially in the second and fourth songs, and Geraldi made this readily apparent. Having performed Mahler's Fourth Symphony last February, Mahler's music was already in the orchestra's blood. Indeed, there was some very fine playing, and Geraldi made the orchestra an active participant, rather than merely relegating it to an accompaniment role. I actually found myself listening to the orchestra weaving magic more so than Professor Wells, who was placed a little too far back for listeners to make out the words and for those words to command attention. Mahler wrote a great deal of emotion into this music, and I don't feel that this was adequately conveyed in this otherwise excellent program.
Following the intermission was Ludwig von Beethoven's Third Symphony, subtitled “Eroica.” First, I have to congratulate Geraldi and the orchestra for playing this composition. As Johannes Brahms once said, "A symphony is no joke." The more I hear the University Symphony, the better they get at large scale works, so I fully believe that they commit themselves to the utmost. Geraldi has led some scintillating performances over the last couple of seasons, including a wonderful Beethoven Fifth in May of 2010 that left me cheering for more. Now we have it. Geraldi injected life into every bar, making this worn old warhorse into a stallion of the highest quality. I'm quite familiar with this symphony, and it was as if I was hearing it for the first time. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, waiting to see what would happen next. The ensemble held onto every note, giving their all in every movement. The second section of the work was especially moving, and it was a joy to hear it not weighed down in its own rhetoric. The orchestra didn't miss a beat throughout any of the work, and it made it all the more engaging. I can hardly wait to hear what magic is worked at the next concert. I feel as though this is but a prelude to great things to come. Performances of a lifetime don't come around very often, and I was incredibly thankful to be in attendance.
The next UNCGSO concert will be presented on April 24. For details, click here.