UNCSA Chancellor John Mauceri led a stellar student orchestra in an excellent performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony in D minor, Op. 47, in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Steven’s Center in the heart of Winston-Salem. The concert also included the winners of the most recent UNCSA concerto competition as well as three budding young conductors from the school’s graduate conducting program.
Having observed conductors for many years, I have concluded that a successful conductor is one whose technique “works,” that is to say, whose combination of gesture, musical conception, and personality strike a responsive chord in the orchestra at hand. There is also some of the elusive quality which lovers and matchmakers call “chemistry.” Also, in a successful conductor, one sees flexibility and adaptability; having been baffled by the enigmatic and somewhat mysterious technique of Herbert von Karajan when in front of the Berlin Philharmonic, I was transfixed by the clear and simple “universal conducting technique” he used with a less familiar orchestra — at no cost to his prodigious musicality.
Three conductors led the works in the first half of the program, all current students of Maestro Ransom Wilson, but none using him as a model. And applying the yardstick of “universal conducting technique,” which is based primarily on physics, biology, and psychology, all three conductors varied widely. However all three appeared to know the intricacies of the pieces they conducted, and in the case of the two accompanied works, the soloists were well-served by their very attentive conductors.
Befitting an anniversary celebration at UNCSA, which comprises high school, college, and post-graduate students, the concert started with an accurate but timid performance of Brahms’ "Academic Festival" Overture, conducted by the tall, elegant, and suave Andrew McAfee. Eschewing the usual rhythmic beat for what I assume was a geometric projection of musical phrases, he appeared a bit stiff and dispassionate in front of his engaged and moving young charges. Except for overly loud trumpets in many forte passages, the orchestra played well and with warm tone.
The next work on the program, "The Upward Stream," by NC composer, Russell Peck, had its world premiere on this same stage in 1985 with former UNCSA saxophone teacher James Houlik. Here it was played by 17-year-old Corey Dundee, a high school senior at UNCSA. Making this difficult work sound easy is no mean feat, and that it did so is testimony to the extraordinarily fluent (fluid?) technique the young Dundee already possesses. His rich tenor sax tone was warm and liquid and his technique, marvelous. The large orchestra was also in great form (notably the first oboe), and the brass and percussion lent themselves enthusiastically to the rock-influenced score, occasionally even drowning out the soloist. The audience gave the performers (and the concerto itself) an enthusiastic standing ovation.
The Peck concerto was well-directed by the 23-year-old Bulgarian conductor Konstantin Dobrykov, who negotiated the tricky meter changes, hemiola (twos vs. threes in the same broad meter) and syncopations (off-beats) of the Peck score handily. He has a tendency to want to beat ahead of the music, which can lead to unsteadiness in unsuspecting musicians. However many German-trained conductors have the same proclivity, and some American conductors (Michael Tilson Thomas, among others) occasionally follow this practice.
The closing work in the first half of the concert, Swiss composer Frank Martin’s intimate "Ballade," for flute and chamber orchestra, was anti-climactic after the huge tumult of the sax concerto. Scored for reduced strings and piano, the work, a quasi-concerto in one movement, was exquisitely performed by concerto competition winner Kristen Vanderschaaf, flute. Written in 1941, and of a decidedly modern style, the "Ballade" is one of six such works Martin wrote. Soloist Vanderschaaf played the work very expressively, with a beautiful tone and vibrato, especially remarkable in the low register, where it was full and warm, never airy! This sultry low register gave way to a moving cadenza for solo flute and ended in a dance-like triple fury. The "Ballade" also has its dramatic moments, with the soaring flute over pulsating strings and percussive piano.
The "Ballade" was very well conducted by 35-year-old Italian-born conductor and composer Valentino Piran, who showed the most maturity and experience on the podium. He led the work with a clear precise beat that left no doubt as to his intentions. And in the rapid closing section, he thoughtfully switched from beating in 1 to beating in 3 and back, as the needs of the musicians changed. I hope we see more of his work, perhaps in more familiar works of the repertory.
The entire second half was filled with Shostakovich’s monumental Fifth Symphony. Chancellor Mauceri, who provided oral program notes to introduce the work, is an elegant man and an eloquent speaker, situating the work not only in its historical context but also in the context of the celebration of the Stevens Center’s anniversary and of his relationship to the first conductor to lead the (then) NCSA student orchestra on this stage, Leonard Bernstein.
The orchestra for this command performance was superb, surely the crème de la crème of each of the various instrumental studios. And the strings (61-strong), which start the symphony, were dramatic; and the violas, in the long first movement passages, were especially expressive and mournful despite their smaller numbers. Later, in the multiple divisi parts of the third movement (Largo), the string sections were expressive and powerfully tragic. Special kudos go to freshman oboist Michael Dwinell for his many solos and to principal horn Jennifer Weaver, a junior, for her almost perfect canon with the flute in the first movement of the Symphony, and to Josh Holritz, concertmaster, for the solos in the trio of the Scherzo.
Preferring an episodic approach to the symphony rather than an architectonic one, Maestro Mauceri was clear, powerful, and impassioned as he obviously inspired his young musicians to play beyond their expectations. The encore, "Take Care of This House," from Leonard Bernstein’s 1976 musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (a resounding flop!), gave us a glimpse into Mauceri at his best, as an attentive, enabling, and take-charge opera conductor!
[Full disclosure: The author was one of the panel of three who judged the UNCSA concerto competition in May, 2008. He also conducted the first performance of Peck’s "The Upward Stream," in 1985.]