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There was little formal concert atmosphere at UNC's Hill Hall on Tuesday night, October 9, before the University Of North Carolina Symphony Orchestra began its program. With many dorm-mates, family members and friends of the more than one hundred orchestra musicians greeting each other, taking snapshots and running video cameras, the din was extraordinary. But the packed house settled down quickly when the lights dimmed and was gratifyingly rapt and focused once the concert began.
There was good reason, for the orchestra made a very strong impression, especially in the several modern pieces. One is always prepared to give some leeway to campus-based groups but little was needed here. The orchestra, made up not only of music majors but non-majors and community members as well, was great confidence, precision and skill.
The first half of the concert was made up of modern works. Conductor Tonu Kalam gave the premiere of his orchestration of the Prelude from Bach's Partita No. 3 in E Major (BMV 1006), a work originally for solo violin. In a clever programming touch, Kalam had the orchestra's concertmaster, Ana-Laura Diaz, precede his full orchestra version with a performance of the original. The prelude is a daunting bravura piece for any violinist but Diaz braved its terrors with concentration and energy. She had good dynamic and rhythmic control and articulated the voices nicely, although with some lack of precision and accuracy.
Kalam, joining a long line of Bach transcribers and orchestrators such as Stowkowski and Elgar, made the Prelude into an all-out showpiece, employing a whole flank of percussion as well as the full array of the other instruments. He used sparkles and flashes of color in the beginning, moving deftly back and forth between light and heavy scoring, building to an exhilarating climax. If the sharp intrusions of the woodblock, the slapstick and the cymbals are a little startling to some, and if the whole piece goes a little over the top for others, it nonetheless is an grand way to show off an orchestra's range. The UNCSO played it with verve and admirable unity.
Next on the program was the Concerto No. 1 for Flute and Strings, Op. 45 by Sir Malcolm Arnold, written in 1954. For this more than half of the orchestra left the stage to sit in the already crowded audience to watch Tara Schwab, a senior flute major, perform the piece as one of the winners of the 2000 UNC Concerto Competition. That she was deserving of such honor was never in doubt from her first notes. Her calm, firm control made easy work of the spiky arpeggios of the first movement, the wandering, dissonant flights in the second and the nervous whirling of the third. Kalam led a beautifully clean, rhythmically tight reading, the strings rich in the lyrical moments and warm in the introspective sections. A most satisfying performance.
The first half ended with the catchy, danceable Points of Departure (1987/1993) by Robert Moran (see News page for John Lambert's notes about the composer). A regular, driving rhythm propels this short piece into a brass-led climatic outburst which then continues with a searching, uplifting theme, filtered through sudden syncopation's to end in a placid calm. Once again the whole orchestra got to shine, the players' intense determination and cohesion a credit to Kalam's inspiration.
The entire second half was devoted to excerpts from Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake. The Hill Hall acoustics were just right for this kind of music, allowing the big climaxes to resound with full effect. It was good to hear this lush music played by an orchestra with nearly 70 strings (compared, for instance, to the normal 40 of the North Carolina Symphony) and Kalam had instilled a true romantic sweep in the players.
However, this music exposes the strings in many passages, requiring a co-ordination and clarity that these players could not always maintain. There was a thinness in the opening section with the famous theme and a sluggishness during the Hungarian Dance.
Least effective was the music for the big pas de deux from the second act. This gossamer music contains a long violin solo line which, to be effective, must float freely and lightly throughout. Diaz was the soloist again but here she was unable to keep in tune much of the time, the rough playing made more earthbound by too little vibrato. Kalam was unable to keep this section from losing momentum.
Nonetheless, the big moments were thrilling and their effect was obvious on the many students attending, who were reacting strongly to the rhythm and rush of the music, reminding the more experienced listeners that Tchaikovsky's works are often the entry point to classical music for many people. The vociferous ovation at the end gave hope that live orchestral performances may indeed have a place in the techno future.