The famous sports cliché, "There is no 'I' in team," can also be applied to membership in an orchestra. There is no 'I' - both literally and in the sense that your playing is part of the whole, and for the most part attempts to inject individual personality into the mix are frowned upon. That is why it is a nice change of pace when we get to hear members of orchestras put on their soloists' hats and get in front of the band where they are usually employed as worker bees. Bonnie Thron, Principal Cello of the North Carolina Symphony, has been heard in numerous solo cello parts and has always impressed listeners with her beautiful tone and sensitive phrasing. On May 13 at the Chapel Hill Bible Church, we got to hear her perform Haydn's D Major Cello Concerto.
The guest conductor was Grzegorz Nowak, director of the New Warsaw Philharmonic - among a long list of other appointments. The well-balanced program began with Trittico Botticeliano (Three Botticelli Paintings), composed in 1927 by Ottorino Respighi, a master of orchestration with an unmistakably unique style that is often described as "musical fireworks." Much of his reputation rests on his programmatic tone poems, many of them depicting the culture and geography of his native Italy. "Tone painting," another term for these types of works, is especially appropriate for a composition such as this, which attempts to depict in music three paintings by the early Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). Dabs of colors and changing textures are constantly tossed about in a brilliant display of orchestral writing. The middle section ("The Adoration of the Magi") transforms the medieval hymn known today as "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" with unusual and creative harmonizations. The orchestra gave a beautifully controlled yet almost carefree reading of a too-little performed work that engages the listener from start to finish.
Haydn's D Major Cello Concerto had a long history of dubious authenticity and bad editions until the original manuscript surfaced in the 1950s. It is now recognized as one of the staples of the cello concerto literature, one that every aspiring cellist needs to learn. It is more relaxed and darker than its C Major counterpart, but it is also a virtuoso showpiece, infused with lovely, typically Haydnesque themes.
Finding, setting, and keeping the appropriate tempo for the performers, style, and composition is something that might seem to non-musicians an easy and trivial task. Nothing can be further from the truth, and this performance's flaws lay with slow and dragging tempos in the outer movements. Thron had a few problems in the upper registers, but other than that her playing was wonderfully phrased, lively and rhythmically energized. Although it might be counter-intuitive, sometimes playing slower than you are used to can cause technical problems, and this may have been part of the problem. The third movement, Rondo, was especially lethargic when it should have been dance-like and lively. Concertos of this type do not have the most interesting or challenging orchestral parts, especially when the soloist is being displayed. It is up to the conductor to keep the players engaged and Nowak really dropped the ball on this one. Indeed, he did a disservice to Thron's outstanding musicianship - I would have preferred hearing her play her part without accompaniment, rather than with such lazy and bogged-down backup.
I was almost tempted to leave after intermission but since Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 ("Italian") was one of the first works that drew me to concert music, I stayed. I also decided to change seats from near the front, where I usually sit, to the very back of the church. This was quite a revelation. I am certainly no acoustician, but perhaps the tent-like structure with the ceiling sloping down to about 10 feet at the back gives that area a wonderfully clear and separated sound. My reservations were totally unfounded. The conductor and orchestra came out revitalized, alive and brimming with the verve, crisp articulation and energy that are requirements for great performances of Mendelssohn. The woodwinds were especially tight and balanced in the opening theme of the symphony. From my new-found seat in the back I was able to hear lines and parts that I had not fully appreciated before - and I thought I knew this work well. It is hard to believe that Mendelssohn never got around to "fixing" the orchestration of this symphony as he had intended, since it sounds perfect as it is. It fits its subtitle well - it is sunny, bright and full of life. The orchestra was resurrected from my temporary disappointment and played at the level we have grown to expect and cherish.