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The Wilmington Symphony Orchestra opened its 34th season with two mainstream 19th-century works: Beethoven's "Triple" Concerto, for violin, cello, and piano, and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3, the "Scottish." Under the direction of Steven Errante, who is approaching his 20th year as its conductor, the orchestra was joined by UNCW faculty members Joby Brunjes, Richard Thomas, and Barry Salwen for the concerto.
Together, the soloists call themselves The Atlantean Trio. Whether the ensemble is referencing the Titan strongman Atlas or the lost civilization of Atlantis remains unclear, but regardless, their performance was hardly the stuff of myth. Violinist Brunjes should be spared most of these negative comments; his playing was clearly the strongest of the three. Pianist Salwen was generally musical, but when running into difficult measures (such as arpeggios moving in contrary motion in the first movement), he missed notes badly. My suspicion is that Salwen failed to memorize the more challenging passages and perhaps found himself caught somewhere between the score and the keys. Cellist Thomas had the most trouble, especially in the area of intonation. (The program notes indicated Thomas's instrument is relatively new, and I find myself wondering if he is yet comfortable with it.) The orchestra performed fairly well during the concerto, especially when passages at forte dynamics chased away the tentativeness sometimes heard during quieter moments, yet overall the sound was not that of Beethoven's middle period. It is likely the Atlanteans sapped the energy onstage; regardless, listeners must have considered the concerto an inauspicious start to the 2005-6 season.
Fortunately, things turned around after the intermission. Rebounding as if Errante had given them a Vince Lombardi half-time speech, the orchestra approached Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony with focus and concomitant delight. Although I thought the range of dynamics was slightly too narrow at times (though one can never be entirely sure about these things in Kenan Auditorium), the conductor and players deserve credit for their confident approach to a challenging work that must often sound carefree – the second movement in particular. Marked "Vivace non troppo," this movement demands that a rapid, motor-like accompaniment be maintained beneath the various appearances of a Celtic tune. The strings were especially competent during this section, with the violins noticeably improved over last year. Solos by the principal clarinet, oboe, and flute also warrant praise, though it must be mentioned that collectively the woodwinds sometimes have trouble agreeing on a pitch. The same can be said of the cellos, whose handling of a soulful melody in the third movement was somewhat diminished by intonation problems. Toward the end of the final movement, which was treated with appropriate energy and swagger, comes the curious, hymn-like coda that has perplexed more than one musicologist over the years. Errante and the orchestra took full advantage of the noble scoring, concluding the evening with a satisfying benediction. Particularly enjoyable were passages in the horn section, whose players seemed to have been waiting for their moment and were going to be heard.
Rallying after a rocky start can sometimes prove more revealing about an ensemble than if everything goes according to plan. This concert was such an instance, and if the performance of the "Scottish" Symphony was any indication of the group's commitment to putting forth their best effort, it surely points to some fine concerts to come.