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Classical music concerts at the University of North Carolina Asheville have their limitations. On Sunday, November 22, when Ron Clearfield conducted the "UNC Asheville Symphony" in a program of eighteenth-century music, these limitations were evident.
To begin with, the name is a misnomer. This ensemble is a 38-member chamber orchestra, not a symphony orchestra. The UNC-A music department concentrates on electronic music and jazz, so few students are majoring in classical music. Recognizing these limitations, Mr. Clearfield scheduled five relatively short selections by Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, and Handel.
J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos can work well for small ensembles. Four student soloists were highlighted: Holly Rhymes and Sarah Fluharty, flutes, and Erica Schinasi and Amanda Fujikawa, violins. The flutists were fine, but the solo violinists did not have a big sound, so there were balance problems between them and the strings in the orchestra. There were also internal balance issues within the ensemble. The upper strings (fifteen violins and violas) were consistently overpowered by the seven cellos and double basses, especially when two of the violinists were playing solo parts.
In the Bach, and indeed in all the baroque selections, the string players differed in their use of vibrato. I am not a purist who insists on gut strings and no vibrato when playing Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel, but minimizing vibrato is wise in this contrapuntal music. Some first violin and cello stands had one player using a broad vibrato and their stand partner using none whatsoever.
Aurora Keeler soloed in the middle movement of Mozart's Concerto for Bassoon. This young student displayed a great singing tone, fine intonation, and a confident cadenza. The orchestra seemed to sense the soloist's dedication and pleasure in performing and rose to the occasion, complementing her playing with a fine accompaniment. This was the highlight of the afternoon.
Alumna Maria Potapov was soloist for Vivaldi's violin concerto, "Winter." Mr. Clearfield made introductory comments about both Vivaldi and his works but did not mention that The Seasons, the four concertos of which "Winter" is a part, were accompanied by four Italian sonnets that are possibly by Vivaldi. "Winter" is an early piece of program music. The first movement represents the sonnet's snowstorm while the second movement depicts "happy days by the fire." A rapid downward scale in the third movement mimics the sonnet's words "going in haste, sliding and falling down... until the ice cracks and opens." The orchestra unfortunately did not slide in unison, and in the rapid solo passages Ms. Potapov's tone became unpleasantly thin.
Sara Kobliska joined the orchestra for the middle Andante movement from Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21. The piano soloist needs to create great emotional depth through relatively few notes in this deceptively simple movement, and this was not achieved on this occasion. Perhaps the young pianist had retreated a little in awe of Mozart's genius.
Six movements from Handel's Water Music concluded the concert. There were some French horn problems, but the orchestra performed generally well. The difficulty in this suite seemed to be that the conductor adopted inconsistent and odd tempos. The first Allegro was especially puzzling. Clearfield started under tempo, sped up to what appeared to be the right pace and then returned to his unsatisfactory original choice before speeding up a second time. The orchestra attentively followed these gyrations; it almost appeared that they were deliberate choices that had been rehearsed.
As remarked earlier, the UNCA's music department does not concentrate on classical music performance, so in spite of problems along the way, it was heartening to see genuine effort expended by UNCA students in presenting ensemble music of this calibre.