The Chapel Hill Philharmonia's current name probably elicits chuckles among folks who recall the group as "The Village Orchestra," and who remember their early not-quite-ready-for-prime-time public events (which, as program annotator Richard L. Clark notes, the members were for years reluctant to call "concerts"). Nonetheless, this community orchestra is now celebrating its 25th season, and the party continued in Hill Hall with a program focusing on youth. It began with Mendelssohn's Overture, Op. 21, to A Midsummer Night's Dream. There are few more frothy and delightful scores, and never mind that the kid was all of 16 when he wrote it. The performance was ok, basically — it's a tour de force for the world's greatest orchestras and conductors, so characterizing this reading as "ok" means it was, relatively speaking, a tour de force for the CHP and Maestro Donald L. Oehler, too.
This orchestra, like many others hereabouts, holds an annual concerto competition, and this year's winner — the top contestant, with no second place — is pianist Melissa Chan, a freshman at Raleigh's Enloe High School who currently studies with Mayron Tsong, of UNC. You do the math. She's young, too, and she flat-out tore up the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, for reasons not altogether clear generally one of the first "big" concerti crackerjack young players are assigned. There was a clunker at the outset, perhaps intended to demonstrate her humanity. The rest sounded like the work of, well, her brilliant teacher — or any first-rate itinerant soloist you may wish to name. This earned her and her on-stage colleagues the first of the evening's big ovations, and justifiably so.
It was a short first half, and there was a buzz in the hall during the intermission. That's because the second part of the concert was devoted to the first public performance of former Chapel Hillian Jay Greenberg's Symphony No. 5. This requires some clarification, for many readers will know that Greenberg, now 16 years old, wrote most of this thing when he was 13, and indeed it was recorded several years ago by none other than the London Symphony Orchestra — presumably during one of its studio gigs that didn't benefit from a public concert in advance. Greenberg's accomplishments — remember, please, that this is his fifth symphony — led to a huge barrage of coverage, in the New York Times, on "60 Minutes" (in 2004), and elsewhere. Last October, his new Violin Concerto was premiered by Joshua Bell in Carnegie Hall, and at the end of April his Concerto for Piano Trio and Orchestra was launched by the Eroica Trio in Texas. The young man's prodigious gifts are being compared with Mozart's, and that's no joke. It was therefore good to welcome him back to Chapel Hill for this performance, which may be seen as capping the end of his Juilliard studies (for now, perhaps — he's said to be looking for someplace to go to school!).
The large-scale work, in four movements, sounds a bit like a whole lot of things but not too much like any one thing in particular. He is perhaps overly generous with themes and shorter melodic ideas — Greenberg writes of the "six distinct themes" of the first movement alone, woven, he relates, into a "sonata-form tapestry that sets the tone for the entire work." There are some strange goings-on here and there — for example, some (at first hearing) out-of-place brass lines in the slow movement — but this is for the most part a singularly impressive opus, one that would surely repay repeated listenings and one, too, that must have been a great delight for the members of the Chapel Hill Philharmonia to tackle and grow into. There is a lot going on, a lot of the time, and there were some evident performance issues here and there, along the way, but by and large the ensemble did the music and itself proud, and at the end — following a buildup that would surely have pleased Rott or maybe even Mahler — the place erupted with applause and cheers. Just think what this composer might be like when he reaches his maturity or perhaps gets to be as old as the CHP!