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It was a celebratory evening at Hill Hall as the UNC Symphony Orchestra accompanied the winners of the annual concerto competition. The place was packed – the stage with 110 + musicians and the auditorium with classmates, friends, parents and significant others of the performers. Even the odd choice of an opener, Brahms’s Tragic Overture, couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm.
The annual UNC concerto competition is held every fall semester and encompasses both instrumentalists and vocalists. This years winners were a pianist, a cellist and a soprano, and all three made unusual selections for their appearance with the orchestra.
The UNC Symphony, directed and conducted by Tonu Kalam, is a huge ensemble – a good deal larger than the North Carolina Symphony – and the sound they can make in the small hall can be overpowering. While the musicians are still students, they are also seasoned performers with years of training in youth orchestras and private lessons; they are well-disciplined and precise in their entries. Nevertheless, in the opening Brahms, they were not yet sure of their dynamics, and the music went from loud to louder, with the quiet passages sounding tentative – something quite common in such large ensemble unaccustomed to playing together day in day out, year after year.
All three competition winners are also seasoned young artists with only two of them aiming for professional careers in music. Pianist Samuel Gingher, a third-year Bachelor of Music candidate, picked the most challenging work by far, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, originally composed for one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Ravel, conscious of the smaller sound produced by the left hand alone, saw to it that the soloist and full orchestra rarely play together, but rather alternate, thus preventing the orchestra from overpowering the pianist. Gingher managed the required large leaps in range with precision and flair. An accomplished jazz musician as well, he was particularly effective in the jazzy middle part of the Concerto. The orchestra had some trouble, especially in the difficult opening measures, where the cellos, double basses and contrabassoon have to play in their lowest range.
Cellist Michael Lotito, the orchestra’s principal cellist and a senior in business administration with a minor in music performance, is clearly not destined for a career of waiting tables while waiting for the next gig. He tackled Max Bruch’s moving and contemplative Kol Nidrei with a sensitive yet somewhat introverted interpretation. It was an original take on this piece, which is frequently played at some point during the Yom Kippur service with too much emotion. Kalam managed to mute the orchestra sound adequately, so as not to drown Lotito out.
Soprano Elizabeth Rebecca Beal, a candidate for Bachelor of Music, has had extensive experience performing with area groups in opera, oratorio and religious music. She has a striking stage presence and a lovely voice with little and well-controlled vibrato. In “Me voilà seule dans le nuit …Comme autrefois” from George Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles, she conveyed, both in voice and in gesture, the heroine’s fear and loneliness and her joy at memories of past love. She did the same in the “Silver Aria” from Douglas Moore’s opera The Ballad of Baby Doe.
The evening ended with the Baccanale from Samson et Delila by Saint-Saëns, loud and boisterous enough to bring down the house.