A plethora of faculty, friends, parents, siblings, relatives, schoolmates, and other music lovers were on hand in Stevens Center to hear the all-student University of North Carolina School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra strut their stuff. Guest conductor Matthew Thomas Troy's program paired two fine and interesting rarities with a central warhorse of the Russian Romantic repertoire. A talented winner of the school's Concerto Competition was featured as soloist. These young musicians' solid, professional quality performance testified to conductor Troy's effective use of rehearsal time. His brief, enthusiastic comments from the stage before the performance helped listeners whose programs lacked the briefest notes about the music, listing only the selections, the orchestra roster, the biographies of the conductor and soloist, and future concerts.
The Scheherazade, Symphonic Suite after "A Thousand and One Nights," Op.25 by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) is a major arrow in the quiver of every professional orchestra player. The composer's treatise on orchestration, along with those by Hector Berlioz and Richard Strauss, has long been a core source for composers-in-training. Rimsky-Korsakov's Op.25 makes high demands upon every player in the orchestra and also gives many principal players extensive, prominent solos. The composer withdrew the titles of the work's four interlinked movements.
Two motifs recur throughout the piece, the tenor-and-bass theme of the harsh sultan in the first six bars, and the extended violin solos, often coupled with other instruments. The later often represents the Sultana Scheherazade. Every section of the orchestra played precisely together whether at full throttle, during the opening or the storm in the finale, or during delicate, hushed accompaniments such as the opening of the second movement. Concertmaster Michael Pearce's extensive solos began fine and grew even better in quality over the course of the work. His violin was frequently paired with the passionate lines from cellist Louise Grévin. The assured bassoon playing of Sebastian Castellanos was a highlight of the second movement along with solos from clarinetist Allison Bates, oboist Michael Dwinell, trumpeter Kish Abendroth, trombonist Timothy Boyer, and first horn Jessica Appolinario. Conductor Troy maintained excellent orchestra balance and plenty of forward drive. He led some remarkably fine sustained quiet playing.
Concerto Competition winner Benjamin Robinette was the very able soloist for the Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra of Henri Tomasi (1901-1971). French composer and conductor Tomasi in 1916 shared first prize in harmony with future celebrated violinist Zino Francescatti at the Conservatoire de Musique de Marseille. After World War I, he entered the Paris Conservatoire where D'Indy was one of his teachers. In 1927 he won a First Prize for Orchestral Conducting and the Prix de Rome. He composed some 16 concertos over his career. Tomasi's music is basically lyrical, highly colorful, and scored with characteristic French elegance. According to the Tomasi Association website, the composer said "I've always been a melodist at heart. I can't stand systems and sectarianism. I write for the public at large. Music that doesn't come from the heart isn't music." The Saxophone concerto is about 18 minutes long and consists of two parts, a languid opening leading to an extended fantasy and ending in a virtuosic finale, "Giration," by turns free-wheeling and jazzy. Tomasi's orchestral accompaniment is as interesting as his writing for the soloist. Ben Robinette is in his second year of graduate studies in Saxophone Performance at UNCSA where he also serves as the teaching assistant to Taimur Sullivan. Since his time at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Robinnette has racked up an impressive array of competition winnings. He played with extraordinary dexterity and produced a pleasing, warm tone. Troy's accompaniment fit like a glove. Tomasi's elegant and colorful saxophone concerto ought to be programmed much more often!
Conductor Troy said he wanted another work to keep with the Arabian Nights' theme. "Seven Passages" (2000) by Iranian born composer Behzad Ranjbaran (b. 1955) proved to be an immediately attractive and brilliantly orchestrated choice. The composer received his doctorate in composition from the Juilliard School where he is currently serves on the faculty. "Seven Passages" received its premiere March 25, 2000 by the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. It is the first part of the composer's orchestra cycle Persian Trilogy inspired by ancient Persian legends recounted in the 11th century epic poem Shahname (The Book of Kings), depicting the beliefs and values of Iranian society before the coming of Islam. The composer's rich orchestrations, vital rhythms, and powerful climaxes conjure ancient battles. Delicate, lyrical episodes provide contrast. Troy led a powerful and stirring performance in which his student players gave him everything he asked for, following every twist and turn of a fascinating score. Bravo!