The Fayetteville Symphony Orchestra concluded its season with a concert in Huff Concert Hall, on the campus of Methodist University. Music by Schubert and Berlioz was served up with verve, precision, and keen artistic insight.
The FSO was established in 1956 in the kitchen of a violinist who sat behind us at this concert; that it is our state's oldest community orchestra is beyond dispute. It is also increasingly apparent that it is one of the finest local symphonic ensembles in our state – and that, too, is pretty much beyond dispute, based on this latest program.
The orchestra's music director is Fouad Fakhouri, an experienced maestro and composer, too, with rock-solid academic and professional credentials now in his tenth year in Fayetteville. (A celebration of the conductor's work is scheduled for April 18, for details of which, click here.)
It’s worth noting that the FSO seems to do all it does in thoroughly professional ways. There are pre-concert lectures that involve musicians, there are outstanding program notes (by, let the record show, two of the four founders of CVNC, working together as Word Pros), the lobby staff is welcoming and engaging, and there are introductory remarks by senior volunteers. And then there's the music and the playing. What's not to like?
On this occasion, the bill of fare encompassed Schubert's Symphony No. 3 and Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, a remarkably effective and enlightening pairing. The composers' birthdates are less than seven years apart, and the two works were penned just 15 years apart, but there are light-years of difference in the frothy classical aspect of Schubert's 21-minute four-movement delight and Berlioz's ground-breaking re-imagination of the symphony, projected by a far larger orchestra as a thoroughly dramatic undertaking that points the way to the full flowering of European Romanticism. (That flowering was to occur elsewhere on the continent, since Berlioz established no school and no viable direct imitators either, but his mastery of orchestration in effect freed all who followed him as the 19th century unfolded, musically.)
All that said, the Schubert was nonetheless breathtaking as realized on this occasion, for it sounded crisp, incisive, totally ready, and brilliantly unified in terms of attacks, phrasing, and releases as well.
There wasn't much to criticize. On a previous visit to this venue we'd noted its immediacy. One might have viewed the opening movement of the Schubert as bordering on brash, at least at the outset. But this could also have been part of the listener's always-crucial reorientation to the acoustical properties of a somewhat unfamiliar hall, for in the rest of the work – and throughout the far more substantial Berlioz – there can have been few if any reservations.
The Schubert won on all points: the winds and brass are exposed, as indeed are the strings as well. All sections fulfilled all expectations, solo artists playing consistently from strength and sections playing in precise unanimity. The fast parts were bracing, and the slow parts were refined and musically insightful. The finale was at once joyous and effervescent.
The conductor himself thanked all who help make these concerts possible before turning to the Berlioz, providing just enough supplemental material (and a few musical examples) to pique interest in what was to come.
The music unfolded before our ears as if on a vast canvas, richly textured and colored. The work is reasonably well known but of fairly infrequent live performance; across a long listening career I can recall only a handful of concerts in which it has been played, generally by world-class orchestras and conductors. This performance ranked among the best, live or on record. I hear you asking, "How can this be?" Well, we might start with the music's floor, provided by a larger-than-usual complement of basses and cellos, playing with such energy and incisiveness (there's that word again) that they often seemed obsessed. The violas were exceptionally rich and well-defined, too, and there were no apparent weaknesses in the upper strings (although that exceptional work might have been even more obvious had the first violins been split off from the seconds and placed across the full front of the stage).
In the music was magnificently revealed the story behind the movement titles – reveries, the ball, in the country, the march, and the Witches' Sabbath – during which the bold reiterations of the "Dies Irae" have rarely made such a stunning impact. (Read the program notes or refer to our colleague William Thomas Walker's exposition in his review of a concurrent series of performances of this piece by the NC Symphony – the direct overlapping of two readings of this great symphony on the same night constituting something of a programming miracle for central NC music lovers!)
The Fayettevillians (who actually hail from all over the region) did well, remarkably well, revealing every shade and nuance. Throughout, Fakhouri's restrained but effective podium manner seemed to provide all the guidance his instrumentalists required to ensure correct balance, inspire spot-on intonation, and elicit the sort of close listening on the parts of all the players that one seeks in an ideal artistic world but in fact rarely encounters – except during the most heightened performances. This one was breathtaking and amazing. At the end there was an immediate ovation with applause from standees lasting many minutes as the maestro gave individual recognition to his many stellar players, including those who'd so enhanced the beauty and impact of this music with off-stage performances.
A short note: A year ago, this conductor demonstrated his skill in handling large choral forces in Bruckner's Te Deum. That concert also included the "Corsair" Overture, giving us a foretaste of the orchestra's skill in performing Berlioz. This Symphonie fantastique underscored that capability. What these musicians, working together, have accomplished gives one hope that the great dramatic symphony Romeo and Juliet may at long last garner a live presentation in our state. The Fayetteville Symphony Orchestra and its seasoned leader would appear to be ideally positioned to deliver this gift to Tar Heel music lovers. Let us hope. Stay tuned.