A large and enthusiastic crowd cheered the University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ Orchestra in a program of middle-European music, entitled “New World,” led by the ebullient James Allbritten, Director of the Fletcher Opera Institute and of orchestral studies at the UNCSA School of Music. The orchestra, benefitting from a large number of graduate wind players, was strong in all sections and played at a quasi-professional level across the board, unusual for a student orchestra. From the musical froth and mirth of the opening work by Dohnányi to the closing horn solo of the New World Symphony of Dvořák, the orchestra delivered first-rate solos and tight ensemble playing.
The opening work of the evening, Symphonic Minutes (Szimfonikus Percek), Op. 36, by Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnányi, listed as such without movements or details in the playbill, is actually a suite of five contrasting movements, lasting a quarter of an hour. As Maestro Allbritten explained after the work was over, in his detailed but entertaining oral program notes, Dohnányi (1877-1960) grew out of the Austro-Hungarian music stream, having studied composition with a student of Brahms and piano with a student of Liszt.
The effervescent opening, featuring brilliant woodwind arpeggios, was more than a bit reminiscent of Roussel and Ravel and even a bit of Strauss (Richard, not Johann) with harmonies more derivative of Brahms than of compatriot Liszt – definitely “Old World,” despite being composed in 1933. A rhapsodic slow movement ensued, featuring a lovely English horn solo played by John Hammarback, followed by a mixed meter scherzo-like work. At this point, not knowing what else was going to follow (this was the first time I had ever heard this scintillating piece), I assumed it was a sort of miniature symphony, such as Gounod had written. Wrong – the next movement was slow, a chaconne of sorts with a fermata at the end of every variant. The next movement was unmistakably the Finale, a spritely rondo reminiscent of the many musical attempts at perpetual motion. Taken for what it is, “Musical Minutes,” the piece is marvelously well-orchestrated and highly entertaining if somewhat short on unifying thematic structure.
The Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, Opus Posthumous, by Béla Bartók, is a problematic work, at best. Assembled and orchestrated from notes and sketches by Bartók’s long-time friend and colleague, the violist and composer Tibor Serly, the work is episodic, presenting an artistic challenge to both conductor and soloist. Beginning with a monologue, lento parlando, the work frequently leaves the viola alone to either begin or reflect back upon orchestral sections played together. UNCSA Concerto Competition winner, Rachyl Duffy was splendid, regardless of the structural ambiguities, bravely tackling the many soliloquies and floating effortlessly above the large orchestra. Her intonation was impeccable, her tone warm and passionate and her vibrato expressive and suited to the mood of the moment.
The second half of the concert was devoted to the Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, “From the New World” by Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák. Written and premiered in the United States in 1893, the work was shipped off to N. Simrock, publisher, in Berlin, and to save time the plates were proofed and corrected by Brahms, a devoted admirer of Dvořák. It is this Brahms version which has dominated the concert halls, including this performance, despite the publication in 1951 of the original version by the Czech editor, Artia. To be sure, the differences are few, but include some interesting tempo differences.
Within the confines of the encrusted traditions, this was a great performance. There was some excellent playing – horn-player Jessica Appolinario and English horn-player Hammarback among them – a lovely, well-balanced double bass D-flat major chord to end the slow movement (eight double basses, what abundance!) and some well-balanced brass playing throughout. There were, however, a couple of moments, notably at the climax of the first movement, where the brass peaked before the rest of the orchestra had reached the full measure of its crescendo.
Tradition has wrought havoc with tempos, though, and there is a ceaseless assault on the tempos that Dvořák penned into his symphony, notably the needless slowing of secondary themes in the first and last movements and the speeding up of the introduction to the first movement and of the woodwind triplet figure in the slow movement.
Nevertheless, this great work has withstood the test of time, regardless of the edition, and is always a pleasure to hear and re-hear. Bravo to all!