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On November 22, Stevens Center was packed with parents and friends of the student members of the North Carolina School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra. Music Director Serge Zehnacker selected two Romantic warhorses that we doubt we have failed to hear somewhere in the region within every two seasons at most. There were sixty-eight strings on stage and enough clarinets, trumpets, and percussion to switch teams between the two works. The hall's warm, string-friendly acoustics added to the rich sound generated, especially by the lower strings.
Zehnacker cushioned his soloist with a full and sonorous accompaniment for the Third Piano Concerto of Rachmaninov. Ensemble was tight and the dynamics were held so as never to cover the soloist. Born in 1976 in Tambov, Russia, Denis Plutalov studied at the Rachmaninov College of Tambov before getting his undergraduate degree from the Russian Gnessins Academy of Music in Moscow. He began expanding the number of his national and European recitals, and in 1999 he became a Diploma Winner at the 1st Liszt Piano Competition in Wrozlaw, Poland. In the spring of 2002, he won a scholarship to study at the NCSA, where he is currently completing his MM degree under internationally renowned pianist and teacher Eric Larsen. He won the NCSA Concerto Competition in May, resulting in this performance. Plutalov generated huge sonority with little apparent physical exertion. In this we were reminded of "golden age" pianists such as Earl Wild or Luiz Carlos de Moura Castro, to name two who have played in the Chapel Hill-Durham area. He had his own conception of this concerto, which he pursued with unrelenting determination that swept the listener along in its wake. In response to the audience's enthusiastic applause, he played an encore with a well-known striding theme, Rachmaninov's Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5.
Zehnacker really whipped up the other warhorse, Dvorák's Ninth Symphony ("From the New World"), for a spirited dash! None of the agile musicians fell off during the first movement, which skirted closely to the edge of being too fast. On this occasion, however, it came across as an exciting and fresh approach. The famous melody for solo flute was beautifully presented by Laura Dangerfield. The more conventionally paced Largo featured a warm and expressive English horn solo by Anna Lodico. The horns, led by Clark Matthews, deserve special praise for their subtle and well blended playing in both works. Despite having heard the Greensboro Symphony and the North Carolina Symphony in the same week, no allowances were needed for these conservatory-level musicians.