Frequently, during the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36, one had to remember that this was “only” an ensemble of college-age players. Notes could be dropped. Pitches could be missed. Mistakes could be made. And still the players would deserve hearty applause.
But the ensemble of more than 70 players assembled on the Wright Auditorium stage for the first concert in the East Carolina University Symphony Orchestra’s 2010-11 Season needed no apologies or excuses. This was a splendid performance of a gigantic work, one that requires top-notch string players, skilled wind players and brass players who often must be exposed for demanding passages.
And this ensemble was up to just about every challenge in the score and every demand of conductor Jorge Richter, who did not appear to cut the players any slack. From the opening chords in the horns through the lilting waltz in the first movement (andante sostenuto) to the famous pizzicato (scherzo — pizzicato ostinato) in the third movement to the rousing finale (allegro con fuoco) of the last movement, the orchestra gave an immensely satisfying reading. One would be hard-pressed to experience a better performance by a regional professional orchestra.
The program actually centered on “4” — the opening selection was Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 in G, Op. 39, and the middle selection was Robert Schumann’s Konzertstuck in F, Op. 86, for four French horns and orchestra. The Elgar work is perhaps his second-best known such march, and the orchestra gave the piece a nice account, with crispness in the strings and a subtle yet ever-so-British martial theme augmented by snare drums. The middle work acknowledged the 200th anniversary of Schumann’s birth in 1810. It would have been easy to program one of the four Schumann symphonies, or perhaps his ever-popular piano concerto. Instead, the audience was treated to the Konzertstuck, a sort of four-horn concerto that doesn’t receive as much attention among that composer’s works.
The soloists were ECU horn graduates Laura Carter, now working on her doctorate in music performance at Boston University; Abigail Pack, who teaches horn at UNC-Greensboro; Bryan Adkins, who plays in Pittsburgh-area orchestras; and Cheryle Naberhaus, who plays in Florida ensembles. All were students of Dr. Mary Burroughs of the ECU faculty.
The composition has some compelling moments for the listener, but it also shows why the French horn is often considered the most difficult instrument in the orchestra to play. The soloists frequently had to clear out moisture from various places in their instrument, keep the valves from sticking and perform other minor maintenance while the piece was going on. (Schumann must have understood this, because the score permitted such adjustments on-the-fly.)
The orchestra provided good support throughout the three movements, especially in the middle romanze movement. During most of the piece, the four soloists played together in ensemble passages, although in the slower romanze, with its hymn-like or chorale-like melody line, Carter and Pack often played in pairs, as did Adkins and Naberhaus. The performance was not flawless (some pitch problems occurred on occasion, especially at the top of especially tricky ascending runs or figures), but the overall sound was quite nice, and hearing four well-played French horns in the spotlight, often in harmony, in front of an orchestra instead of near the rear, was a pleasure one does not often experience.
The program closed with the Tchaikovsky symphony, and what a glorious conclusion to the concert! Special commendation goes to the wind players, notably clarinet, oboe, flute and bassoon, for the lovely exposed passages in the second andantino movement, and to the entire string section for the clarity and precision of the third pizzicato movement, including such careful attention to differences in dynamics. And the entire ensemble did not appear to miss a note in the fantastic finale, with the strings playing furiously and the brass thundering. The final notes prompted a well-deserved standing ovation, and Richter sat his charges down to repeat the last several measures of the piece for an encore.
Having heard the orchestra several times since fall 2006, I am guessing that a music director must play the hand he or she is dealt, for better or worse, and the hand usually differs from one year to the next. In some years, the overall quality and expertise of the college students might be at a level lower than in other years. But this ensemble has seemed to improve dramatically in that period, especially over the past two seasons. The string section provides a full, rich sound without squeakiness or intonation problems, from first violins to cello and bass. The winds acquit themselves admirably either in solo passages or in small ensembles. And the brass, which can be the downfall of many an orchestra far larger and more experienced than a college symphony, showed only the slightest hint of uncertainty — a cracked note here, a missed pitch there — but nothing that detracted from the overall weight, intensity and strength of the sound.
The ECU Symphony appears to be undertaking a challenging season this year — Brahms’ Violin Concerto in December, Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” in February, Penderecki’s Symphony No. 4 in March and Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber” in April, among other works. But they will be hard-pressed to surpass the quality of the opening concert.