Large UNC Ensembles Play & Sing in Memorial Hall
by John W. Lambert
Gala festivities surrounding the reopening of UNC's Memorial Hall continued on October 28 with a long-anticipated performance of Beethoven's "Choral" Symphony and other works by estimable ensembles from the Chapel Hill institution's Department of Music and guest artists and groups. Given the importance of the venue and the school's Wind Ensemble, Symphony Orchestra, and choirs (the Carolina Choir and Chamber Singers, Women's Glee Club, and Men's Glee Club), one could argue that this program ought to have come ahead of the parade of high-profile visitors who have already appeared in Chapel Hill, but of course it took these groups a while to pull this ambitious program together. That it was done so well, and still so early in the academic year, attests to the excellence of all the participants and their distinguished leaders.
The concert was magnificent. Things got underway with a substantial fanfare by Frank Ticheli (b.1958) that allowed for musicians on center stage, on the left and right sides of the platform, forward, and in the hall itself. "Pacific Fanfare" also demonstrated the singular excellence of the UNC Wind Ensemble and its outstanding director, Michael Votta, Jr., whose leadership (at UNC, Duke, and of superior-quality "civilian" groups) has led to a renaissance in band playing hereabouts that has, in turn, significantly enhanced public awareness of the importance of the literature itself.
The first half came to a moving close with Karel Husa's stirring "Music for Prague 1968," a score that has been heard locally on several occasions but rarely if ever with the power that was behind it this time, although it is a sure bet that the current plight of our nation may have informed the perceptions of more than a few listeners. The playing of these two works was technically polished and clearly from the heart, and the response of the capacity crowd reflected the magnificence of the music and the performances. It may be worth noting that program annotations by Votta himself shed good light on the genesis of both scores.
Performances of the Ninth Symphony have become ubiquitous – it's used for all manner of occasions, celebratory and otherwise. It is therefore a tribute to Maestro Tonu Kalam and his immense orchestra – the region's largest, by far – that this rendition was at every turn fresh, exciting, insightful, and intensely beautiful. For many of the participants, of course, this was a first performance, literally, and that makes a difference, especially with such an iconic work. The UNC Symphony Orchestra's huge string sections were partly in the hall, on the lip of the stage, so their cohesive sound packed both immediacy and visceral textures often lacking in other, less favorable circumstances. Kalam is a grand master of his trade whose devotion to education is as great as his conductorial savvy, so hearing the score unfold under his leadership was a delight that was often revelatory. His players never let him down – the few minor glitches passed almost unnoticed in the compelling sweep of the performance.
The first movement began softly, as it should, and was atmospheric throughout – in retrospect, this reading reflected much greater attention to dynamics than last week's two-piano version heard at Elon, and thanks to the precision and clarity Kalam elicited, the music could be – and was – heard in sparkling detail. No moss grew on the second movement, and in a few places one might have wanted a bit more breathing room for some of the wind players, but the Maestro's overall conception was sound, as the performance demonstrated.
The soloists – soprano Jane Jennings, mezzo-soprano Jane Dutton, tenor Carl Halvorson, and baritone William Stone – and the massed choirs came onstage before the slow movement, providing a moment of respite for the instrumentalists.
The third movement seemed to glow from within, prompting reflection on the spiritual nature of the work and its program companions. The overall design of the evening's offerings seemed to stress martial themes, from the opening fanfare to the suppression of the Czechs to the conflicted and conflicting themes of the end of the Ninth. Music of the kind played this time around reminds one that if the state of the world were left to its artists, as opposed to its politicians, chances are this would be a somewhat better, healthier, and altogether happier place.
The finale benefited from a fine vocal quartet, positioned within reach of people at the front of the hall. Memorial's stage is deeper than it used to be – despite the handsome new shell, the choir sounded a bit remote in a few of the softer, subdivided passages – but the space is the same width it's always been, and the concert demonstrated that for programs involving large numbers of people, this facility still isn't big enough. (Indeed, it probably won't accommodate full-size touring orchestras, given that several members of the mid-sized NC Symphony, which has resumed playing in this venue, have noted how cramped they feel there.)
Stone, first among equals, is the only soloist who's from 'round here. He is, as we're noted previously, the Great American Baritone of our time, and he was stunning throughout the "Ode to Joy." Tenor Halvorson shone a bit less brightly, sounding somewhat strained in several places where more ring and heft would have helped. Soprano Jennings negotiated the famous (or infamous) high note and nailed it but didn't overwhelm this listener; one suspects she'd have welcomed somewhat more "historically-informed" pitches. (This piece is a killer in terms of its tessitura, and not only for the soprano.) Dutton brought warmth and precision to the relatively few moments in the sun allotted to the mezzo.
The massed choir, prepared by Susan Klebanow (Carolina Choir and Chamber Singers), Sue T. Klausmeyer (Women's Glee Club and guests from the Chapel Hill Community Chorus Chamber Singers), and Dan Huff (Men's Glee Club), did a truly remarkable job putting across the words from the risers at the back and side walls of the stage. They were stentorian where needed, serene and restrained in other places, and almost always there with the requisite intensity, even at low dynamic levels. Kalam integrated all with the utmost skill. He was cookin', figuratively (and literally, too – the hall seemed too warm, much of the time). At the end, there was a tremendous and well-deserved ovation that paid tribute in equal measure to the artists and to the concluding work itself. It's good to have UNC's premiere performing arts organizations back in UNC's great hall. Here's hoping that the UNCSO's appearances therein will not be limited to celebratory occasions. Indeed, given the sad state of Hill Hall, it would be nice if UNC student groups would routinely use Memorial, which is after all their hall as well as the University's most prestigious venue. Perhaps in future seasons the bus-and-truckers and other visiting outfits can be scheduled after the home teams....
P.S. There are major problems with concerts at UNC, centering on access. The parking situation is beyond belief – empty lots in the vicinity of the hall are closed till 8 p.m. or later, forcing patrons to use for-pay facilities behind Swain Hall or hoof it from town streets, where new bike lanes and construction have eroded once-available places. On busy evenings, the bottleneck created by folks coming from east and west causes delays, delays that are repeated after performances, when people are eager to leave the area. The October 28 concert was presented under the auspices of the William S. Newman Artists Series, so its prices were reasonable; other offerings in the revamped venue are ticketed considerably above the norm in this area. On this occasion, UNC's culture tsar, using a microphone in what is said to be a state-of-the-art hall with state-of-the-art acoustics, delayed the start of the performance with a commercial veiled as a welcoming speech; he might more advisedly have concentrated on the slow stage crew, which took half an hour to prepare for the second half. The sum of the delays resulted in a relatively short program lasting till well after 10 p.m. Surely there will be improvements in the overall logistics as those who are operating the hall settle in.
Note: Readers who missed this concert will have another shot at the
Ninth, in Winston-Salem, on 11/19 – see our Triad