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The East Carolina University Symphony Orchestra began its 2015-16 season in impressive style at Wright Auditorium on the ECU campus, aided by one of the finer musical instruments in the region, if not the state, John Kramar's wonderful baritone voice. In particular, the orchestra showed off excellent string and woodwind sections in a varied program of 19th and 20th century works.
The strings displayed a polished sound that one might not have expected in the first concert of a new school year, especially when one considers that a portion of the orchestra from last year has gone and newcomers have taken positions for the first time. This was especially true for the lovely "Voyage," for string orchestra, by contemporary American composer John Corigliano, which was conducted by master's degree student Laura Morgan, a violist in the orchestra. She has a fluid and graceful style, using arms and baton to not only keep tempo but also to indicate dynamics. The music itself is beautiful, with distant echoes of Barber or Copland, and the string players in all sections acquitted themselves quite nicely, with a lush sound, especially in the softest passages, which could have come across as thin or dry.
The program opened with Felix Mendelssohn's overture "The Fair Melusina" ("Das Märchen von der schönen Melusine"), in which the playing was notable for its crisp attacks and lively tempo. The strings provided a soft cushion in the lighter passages but also delivered energy on the faster, more emphatic sections. Also contributing to the success of this piece was good playing by the woodwinds, especially flutes, clarinets and oboes.
Kramar, a stalwart on the ECU voice faculty and director of the ECU music school's annual operas, presented a fine reading of Five Mystical Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams, based on poems by George Herbert. Two of the songs, "The Call" ("Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life") and "Antiphon" ("Let all the world in every corner sing") are especially well known. Kramar's strong baritone was in fine form in these sections, including the tricky key changes in the latter. His forte singing was impressive on "Easter," his shift in dynamics to a softer tone was lovely on "I Got Me Flowers," and his more emotional reading of "Love Bade Me Welcome," perhaps the most mystical of the five songs, received wonderful support from the cushion of strings.
Actually, Kramar's singing was excellent form from start to finish, powerful yet never booming (even in the large space of the auditorium), always melodic and with well controlled vibrato. The orchestra provided good support from start to finish, too, with a particularly good string sound in the long coda at the end of "Love Bade Me Welcome." (These songs often are sung with chorus; it would be nice to hear a repeat of this work with Kramar and the ECU Chamber Singers joining forces at some time in the future.)
The program closed with "Vysehrad" from Bedrich Smetana's Ma Vlast, one of those occasional pieces of music that, while quite melodic, is also a bit maddening in that it never seems to go anywhere – there doesn't seem to be any forward, linear movement in the melody line. Winifred Garrett provided a lovely harp introduction, joined by the low horns, then woodwinds and higher brass, and finally the full orchestra. Despite a few (tiny) missteps from the brass, the orchestra did quite well: entrances and cutoffs were precise, the dynamics were spot on, and the overall ensemble sound was full and rich. In all, this was quite an auspicious opening to a new season by the ECU Symphony, which was conducted in the Mendelssohn and the Smetana by Jorge Richter.