The Chapel Hill Philharmonia ended its season with an attractive, nicely-realized program called "Inspirations," the inspiration being Beethoven's, on composers who came after him who represented what we have come to call the Romantic Era. Even listeners who are not particularly conversant with Beethoven or the composers who followed him surely know something of his revolutionary impact on music, impact that was made manifest in this concert of important works by Mendelssohn, Mercadante, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. And along the way, the CH Phil. demonstrated its ever-increasing skills. Yea, verily, this outfit has come a long way since its early days, 29 years ago, when it gave open public rehearsals as the Village Orchestra of Chapel Hill. (Now that is something to ponder.)
The orchestra used classical seating for this concert, dividing the violins to the left and right of the platform, with the violas where the second violins usually are and the cellos on the right, behind the seconds. In halls like Hill, this helps give the violins a very forward sound that makes the overall string section really glisten. It remains a problematic room, despite some recent attempts to tame its sound, and it often takes a few minutes to readjust to its acoustics. The opening work – Mendelssohn's Ruy Blas Overture – seemed like too much of a good thing at first, but gradually listeners became acclimated to the fullness of sound. That sound was crisp, nicely articulated, and well balanced, so the Overture, one of Mendelssohn's less-frequently-heard orchestra works, made, ultimately, a lovely impression.
Even better was the somewhat slimmed-down sound in the first movement of Saverio Mercadante's famous but rarely-heard Flute Concerto No. 2, which featured Jake Beerel as the soloist. The home-schooled Wake Forest flutist, a high-school senior, is a student of Rosene Rohrer (and member of the Triangle Youth Philharmonic) who won the CHP's Young Artist Concerto Competition this year. One could readily see why, for he is a polished, accomplished player who exuded confidence as he brought the concerto to life. He was warmly, enthusiastically received; here's hoping he will continue to reward us with his playing in the years to come.
Part two of the concert featured two great orchestral showpieces, works often brought forward to demonstrate the skills of virtuoso ensembles. Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn isn't, really (although Brahms didn't know that at the time). I was a little apprehensive when I saw it on the program, but the musicians pulled it off almost without blemish – and the ensemble blemishes that there were, were minor and fleeting. Almost everything about this reading spoke of technical excellence and artistic sensitivity, so Music Director and Conductor Donald L. Oehler had every reason to beam at the end, as applause rolled toward the stage.
Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy was almost as effective, although the sonic darkness made for some boominess in the auditorium. It's an admirable, intensely dramatic piece that gives listeners most of the famous story in about 20 minutes, and the crowd appeared to relish it, judging by the many happy standees at its conclusion.
Community orchestras are where it's at, in a manner of speaking. If you think you prefer the pros and have never visited a community group, you owe it to yourself… And in addition, the CHP merits special praise, thanks to its exceptional program notes by concertmaster Mark Furth. Check the calendar next fall for this orchestra's 2012-13 performances.