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Concerto competition concerts always leave me with mixed emotions as regret that entire works are not played is set against the chance to hear unusual scores or neglected solo instruments. Such was the case on May 2 during a concert in Aycock Auditorium that featured seven winners winnowed from some 32 UNCG School of Music contestants. All are at the graduate level, and many have already begun to build impressive resumes of performances. Student conductors led two works, but otherwise the alert and enthusiastic student orchestra was under the baton of Music Director Robert Gutter. All the pieces had been very well prepared. There was a change in adjudication this year, and two non-UNCG faculty were used: NCSA's Clifton Matthews judged keyboard players, and Meredith's Ellen Williams reviewed vocalists. Gutter selected the other instrumental winners.
A beautifully directed Finlandia opened the concert. LaTannia Ellerbe is completing her master's degree, studying violin with John Fadial and conducting with Gutter. The ominous opening brasses were phrased perfectly and the dynamics were graduated with taste. Ellerbe's stick style was no-nonsense, with a clear beat and no wasted motion or show-boating. All sections played with tight ensemble. Reticence to bask in applause was her only fault. After leading her selection, she took her place as concertmistress for the rest of the concert.
Paul Hindemith's orchestration for his Clarinet Concerto in A ranges from muscular tutti to lighter episodes with pizzicato strings and prominent solos for horn and oboe. The concerto was commissioned by Benny Goodman. The two movements played gave full scope to DMA candidate David Allen. His clarinet playing has a mellow and warm tone that was pleasing from its guttural lower range to its bright and precise higher top.
Cellist Grace Anderson is familiar to music lovers as Principal Cellist of the Winston-Salem Symphony. She is a winner of the Artist International Competition and an award from the National Federation of Music Clubs and has a long list of impressive recitals and tours. She played the first movement of Dvorák's Cello Concerto with confidence and flair. Her phrasing was excellent, and her clean articulation, impressive. Gutter secured well-balanced and stylish accompaniment. Anderson is in the second year in her doctoral program.
The Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, Op. 26, by Paul Creston (1906-85) deserves to be added to the standard concert repertory. The skilled orchestration is immediately attractive with winning writing for woodwinds and delicate scoring for strings. There are jazz and blues-like elements in its treatment. DMA candidate Andrew Hays brought out the song-like quality of the solo, playing with great breath control and phrasing with sensitivity. In fast passages, his fingers coursed over the sax keys flawlessly.
Graduate composition student Daniel C. Pappas stepped from the second violin section to take his stand on the podium to lead the world premiere of his "The Silence about heaven." Two long paragraphs by C.S. Lewis about why God chose to create individuality inspired the composition. Pappas managed to create his own distinct sound. The piece begins and ends simply, with light scoring featuring woodwinds. The string writing managed to suggest spaciousness not unlike Copland but without any of the Brooklyn-born composer's "stylistic fingerprints." There were waves of intensity across the sections of the orchestra. Pappas led his score with confidence, and the players responded with commitment and enthusiasm. This first hearing whetted the listener's appetite for more.
Gutter and his student players provided outstanding accompaniment for the two remaining scores, both by Ravel. The balances were ideal, the full kaleidoscope of instrumental colors was brought out, and the rhythms were alert and vital.
Baritone Ted Federle, last reviewed as Captain Corcoran in UNCG's Opera Theater's production of HMS Pinafore, is in his first year of graduate study in Voice and Performance. Ravel's Don Quichotte à Dulcinee gave Federle plenty of range within which to reveal his skill. His pleasing and well-focused voice was evenly projected. Full texts and translations in the concert program supported the assessment of the high quality of his diction. The third song, "Chanson à boire," brought out the singer's comic flair as he grasped the banister of the conductor's podium and seemed to be unsteady on his feet.
From the first snap of the wood slats, a performance of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G swept up all the listeners. Yong Im Lee, a DMA candidate in Piano Performance who studies with Andrew Willis, played with command and intensity. Her professional flair also reflected an impressive record of achievement including extensive tours of South America. It's too bad the complete concerto could not have been given. The performance was white hot.