Orchestral Music Review



University of North Carolina School of the Arts: Mostly Beethoven, Mostly Excellent

April 18, 2009 - Winston-Salem, NC:


Student concerts, by their very nature, are unpredictable – is there enough rehearsal scheduled? Is the music too difficult? Do we have enough violas this time of year? Is the "flu bug" going around on campus? Happily, except for the wish for more violas, this UNC School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra concert more than satisfied audience wishes and expectations. The program included a performance of Richard Danielpour's Concert for Violin, A Fool's Paradise, played by the ruggedly handsome rising star, Tim Fain.  The concerto was bookended by works of Beethoven; the overture to Fidelio, and the Fifth Symphony (replacing the expected First Symphony of Brahms).

Dr. Richard Cook, of the UNCSA and Elon University faculties, led the orchestra in a clean and serious rendition of the fourth overture Beethoven penned for his only opera, Fidelio, originally entitled Leonore. Cook's technique is precise and clear and except for some inattention in the violins, his somewhat sober tempos were well followed.

After a brief introduction by Maestro Ransom Wilson from center stage, violinist Tim Fain took charge of the appealing and intriguing violin concerto by American composer, Richard Danielpour. Except for the tender and expressive second movement ("Cantabile, con rubato" [rubato = lit. "stolen time," cf. "freely"]) this is visceral music, with pounding rhythms and glorious orchestral colors.

The first movement starts mysteriously with low dark sounds and a small gong played while being lowered and raised in a tub of water, giving an unworldly ineffable character to the atmosphere.  The violin enters almost immediately on its lowest "A" and weaves a spell leading to a fast rhythmic ostinato in mixed meters, filled with hemiola (2 beats against 3, or 3 vs. 4; think of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story... "Ev'rything's fine in America"). One is reminded of Mexican composers Carlos Chavez and Silvestre Revueltas, or closer to home, the late American composer, Russell Peck. After invoking the mysterious introduction a second time, a more insistent and regular reprise of the hypnotic rhythm (this time, mostly in three) leads to a short cadenza where one cannot but admire the impeccable intonation and lovely vibrato and tone of soloist Tim Fain.

A high oboe solo opens the second movement, yielding to the clarinet and then the flute and eventually duets in a slow waltz tempo (think "Moon River") and with the same theme, moving into a lilting 4/4 meter.  The oboe theme is brought back with the violin solo in canon, eventually leading to a mysterious coda – strange chords on the strings, a growl in the low brass and the violin soloist plays a descending scale of repeated notes (seven or eight, like mumblings and a sigh) and silence…

The exciting last movement was fast, gigue-like (think "Jig of the Irish Washerwoman") and very much in the style of a classic Rondo. Once again, hemiola is widely used and the percussion section even doubled its whips (hinged wooden clap-sticks). The audience roared to its feet, probably reacting to the driving effect of the rhythm and the excellence of the soloist. This critic looks forward to hearing Tim Fain, an Avery Fischer career award winner, in more works, including the classical repertory – presenters, take note!

The second half of the student concert was dedicated to the performance of Beethoven's legendary Fifth Symphony. The orchestra played very well for the most part (clams and fluffs are part and parcel of live performances and happen even in premier orchestras) and was very attentive to Maestro Wilson's directions. I was impressed that the brass, which often overwhelmed the strings and woodwinds, quieted down immediately at the hint of his left hand! 

On the other hand, students don't do "pp" very well. After years of being taught to project sound and expression, playing "wallflower" is difficult! So dynamic contrast is always a challenge for young players, except, perhaps, in very large ensembles, such as the Venezuelan youth orchestras that have been touring the world under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel.

I was delighted that Maestro Wilson chose to play the repeat in the grandiose last movement because it makes the sudden modulation to E major so much more impressive. The tempos he chose were leisurely, harking back to a more romantic era. However, they were all remarkably similar to each other, robbing the piece of some contrast.  (For more about Beethoven's tempos, click here.)