Choral Music, Orchestral Music Review Print



University of North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, Soloists and Chorus Present Blockbuster Concert

April 13, 2010 - Chapel Hill, NC:


To celebrate the reopening of renovated Memorial Hall October 28, 2005, all the musical forces of the UNC Music Department were brought to bear in a blockbuster, celebratory performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. From the stage of the hall, Music Director Tonu Kalam alluded to that gala event and credited UNC's "Arts' Czar" Emil Kang for the idea of this night's concert. The program combined a world premiere of faculty member Stephen Anderson's Piano Concerto with a sumptuous performance of Carl Orff's ever popular Carmina Burana. Kalam used the huge UNC Symphony Orchestra and pooled the forces of four campus choruses. The auditorium was packed and there was a heartening turn out students.

Composer Stephen Anderson (b. 1970) provided more than two pages of notes about the genesis of his " Dysfunctional," a concerto for piano and orchestra, (2010) along with some fairly technical aspects its construction. The work was commissioned by the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University for pianist Steven Harlos and the University of North Carolina Orchestra, Maestro Tonu Kalam, conductor. Anderson writes he had studied scores and recordings of major piano concertos and had focused on avoiding any of the "many gestural clichés from each era" such as cadences, harmonics, phrase structures, and rhythms. He "sought to amalgamate … coloristic orchestrations and a driving palette in a way that is sometimes funky, jazzy, idiosyncratic or humorous."

Pianist Steven Harlos played the concerto with a score but was never glued to it. He was ever alert to the complex interactions between him and orchestral soloists or sections. The concerto opened with brief piano phrases taken up by replies from one and then increasing numbers of players. Anderson's orchestration is certainly colorful and immediately attractive. The woodwind and brass writing is imaginative and there can be few piano concertos with such extended scoring for bass drum or tuba! One of the most interesting parts of the work is an extended solo episode for piano about two-thirds of the way through the one movement piece. Kalam kept his orchestral forces carefully balanced with Harlos' keyboard and the rhythmic drive was as precise as it was infectious.

The performances of the ever popular Carmina Burana by Carl Orff (1895-1982) are becoming as ubiquitous as the seasonal rotation of Brahms' German Requiem, Handel's Messiah, and Verdi's Requiem. As Peter Perret pointed out in his 2/26/09 CVNC review, "Orff preferred rhythmic repetition and percussive effects over a simple harmony framework." Few works have such immediate accessibility to even the most unsophisticated audience member. The texts are a collage of Medieval Latin and various medieval regional languages such as Middle High German, Provençal, and Old French. These writings by boisterous students, settings celebrating the joys of drink and of the flesh, are best sung by college choirs whose members' life styles are closest to their medieval predecessors.

Kalam pulled out all the stops for this performance with more than 300 performers packed on stage! The forces of four university choral forces: UNC Chamber Singers (Corro piccolo) and the Carolina Choir (both directed by Susan Klebanow), the UNC Men's Glee Choir led by Daniel Huff, and the UNC Women's Glee Club led by Susan Klausmeyer, were tightly arrayed on five risers across the entire back arc of the stage. Most of the string sections of the 100+ member orchestra, projected beyond the proscenium. Despite the huge number of singers, the diction of the combined choir was extraordinarily clear throughout the performance. The dynamic range was wide from pp to a hall-shaking fff. The a capella sequence by the men was superb. The tonal range of the chorus was amazingly expressive. Kalam kept his orchestral and choral forces in exact lockstep and his rhythmic drive was infectious.

The vocal soloists were as fine a threesome as I have ever heard for Carmina Burana. All three really threw themselves into the spirit of the work more like they were in an operatic performance than the more staid oratorio approach. Soprano Kiera Duffy's pure, seamless high singing was breath-taking, especially as she soared stratospherically. Most moving was her hushed final lines which were magnificently supported by a p solo horn. The two male singers were miraculous eleventh hour substitutions for indisposed scheduled soloists. The bulk of the solo work is given to the baritone, and Earle Patriarco's vivid performance was simply magnificent. His diction was astonishingly clear in the fastest passages and his even, warm tone was most welcome. His brief episode singing in his highest range was delightful. The famous song of the burnt swan was given a striking performance by tenor Matthew Plenk. His expressive delivery made one almost feel the searing flames below the spit!

As I joined the audience in a justified prolonged standing ovation, I surveyed the vast forces on stage and quipped to a music faculty member that, if you could squeeze in a children's choir somewhere, UNC ought to program Mahler's Symphony No. 8 for its next blockbuster concert!