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The University of North Carolina Symphony Orchestra under the brilliant leadership of Tonu Kalam began another year of excellent student music making four days later than originally scheduled due to water problems in the auditorium during Hurricane Michael. It was a concert of three interesting and varied pieces of music, each enriching the performance experience of the young musicians and the listening experience of all in the good-sized audience.
Opening the program was William Walton's Spitfire Prelude and Fugue, music extracted from his 1942 film, The First of the Few, starring David Niven and Leslie Howard. The film traces the career of R.J. Mitchell, who designed the British Spitfire that played such a significant role in the Battle of Britain. The Prelude section begins with a brilliant fanfare, which gave the full brass ensemble a chance to shine. The fanfare gives way to a lush string theme. This year's orchestra, with a very large contingent of string players, delivered a rich, silvery sound that at times was quite magical.
The busy fugue is introduced by the upper strings, followed by the lower strings, woodwinds, and brass. As played, this was a remarkable display of challenging ensemble. A middle section featured a gorgeous violin solo played by concertmaster Emma Schubart with harp accompaniment played by Naomi Sutherland. The fugue returned, and the piece ended on a heroic and triumphal cadence.
The featured work on the program was John Adams' The Wound-Dresser, with UNC faculty baritone Marc Callahan as soloist. He holds advanced degrees from different music conservatories here as well as in France and England. He is widely experienced as an opera and oratorio singer and also has done significant work in the field of opera production. His rich and powerful voice provides an ideal instrument for the featured work on this program.
The Wound-Dresser, scored for chamber orchestra, premiered in 1989. It is a setting of a fragment of Walt Whitman's poem of the same name, reflecting an intimate sharing of Whitman's activities during the Civil War, during which he arose early and spent his days tending the sick and wounded in the tent hospitals erected in the D.C. area. He wrote letters home for those unable to do so, he gave gifts of fruit, candy, or tobacco, he cleaned and dressed the wounds of the maimed and amputees, and he often spent the night with those enduring the worst agony.
Adams immediately takes us into a different world. A plaintive rocking figure in the violins creates an eerie mood. A solo violin in its highest register hovers above the baritone soloist as he recalls his activities. Throughout the piece, the colors change by unexpected combinations of instruments as the moods and emotions subtly reflect and underscore the activities. At the opening of another stanza, a solo trumpet doubles the soloist as though echoing from a distant battlefield. The orchestration is ethereal throughout, underscoring the brutality and sadness of war's consequences, but never excessively.
The composer writes this about the piece: "The Wound-Dresser is not just about the Civil War, nor is it just about young men dying. It strikes me as a statement about human compassion of the kind that is acted out on a daily basis, quietly and unobtrusively and unselfishly and unfailingly. Another poem in this same volume states its theme in other words: 'Those who love each other shall become invincible.'"
Thanks to Callahan's knowledgeable and sensitive singing, Schubart's awesome violin playing, and Thomas C. Richards' beautiful trumpet playing, members of the audience were able to look over John Adams' shoulder and catch a glimpse of the compassion, the love that Whitman lived in the 1860's.
After an intermission, the full orchestra returned to the stage and the audience returned to their seats to experience together a delicious taste of perfection: Franz Schubert's Symphony in B minor, D.759 ("Unfinished"). Such fine music may make us ponder why Schubert never attempted to finish this symphony. He may have decided that creating music that would balance and complete the quality of these two movements was unreachable. It is a large enough miracle that we have the vast treasure of his creative genius that we do have from the barely 31 years he lived.
The orchestra seemed to love the music into existence. They took the code, the lines and dots and symbols on the printed page, and translated these marks into luscious melody and sweet harmony, moving the audience to awe and wonder. All 80 or so orchestra members did their parts well; solos by clarinet, oboe, flute, horn, and trumpet principals were all superb. All the elements of an outstanding performance were met. Thanks again to the UNC Symphony Orchestra and to the maestro Tonu Kalam.