The sky was crystal clear; the temperature was dropping. Orchestra members gathered to warm up while the audience assembled. Since 1983, the Chapel Hill Philharmonia has provided a place for amateur musicians to play and over the years has become an institution. But the orchestra is more than that, and on this night, the music-making provided solace for a shaken community. Professor Donald Oehler offered a few well-chosen remarks and finished by saying, "Let the healing begin."*
There could have been no better selection to open than Franz Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony." A two movement symphony with uncertain history but great warmth, this is a beloved piece for orchestras and listeners. The cellos opened with the somber yet tender melody that sets the tone for the first movement. By the development of the first movement, the violin sections seemed to have adapted to the space. Certainly the challenge of contrapuntal passages rallied their attentions. And finally, their focus was pointed with Schubert's sweet, affirming melody of the second movement. Oehler coaxed waves of beautiful sound; the winds were luminous, and the lower strings, exceptionally well in tune.
The first of two guest artists, Jennifer Curtis, performed Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending." A favorite of violin aficionados, the composition leaves plenty of room for artistic expression. Curtis took advantage of this, playing with great assurance and glorious tone. She bowed every note from what seemed to be a palette of infinite color – and with such ease! What puts her in a league of great improvisers is her ability to stretch and compress time, almost imperceptibly. The orchestra was exceptionally responsive, and the audience was genuinely moved.
A pianist and faculty member at UNC-CH, Professor Thomas Otten has a long list of accomplishments, including important recordings: Tristan und Isolde: Piano Transcriptions of Franz Liszt (MSR Classics, 2005), and Leslie Adams' Piano Etudes.
Otten played Mozart's Concerto No. 20 in D minor (1785) with utmost authority. He immediately allayed my angst about performing this with such a large orchestra. To my delight, the orchestra carried it off. Each of the piano solos was like a jewel in a crown. Otten's phrasing was luxurious, with buoyant rhythmic precision; and his embellishments, like freshly ironed lace, were articulate and clean. It was a superb performance and the perfect conclusion for this part of the concert.
The orchestra presented another special musical offering. The cello section and harp (played by Casey Perley) opened the second half of the concert with Garth Molyneaux's lovely arrangement of "Le cygne," from Le carnaval des animaux by Camille Saint-Saëns. Richard Clark, longtime principal cellist, played extremely well and so did his teammates. It was a delight to hear this exceptional group of musicians perform "up front and personal."
This program was supported by the Orange County Arts Commission.
*The allusion is to the murder of three students in Chapel Hill on Feb. 10. For details, click here.