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Amateur orchestras occupy interesting and important niches in the musical life of the communities they serve. Quite often they end up being the overlooked stepchild in a hierarchy ranging from youth symphonies to big professional orchestras. They often have to rely on the largesse of neighboring universities for both rehearsal space and orchestral parts. The one guiding factor in the makeup of these organizations is that everyone who plays in them is there for one reason only – love of the music and the desire to stay involved in performing despite the demands of daily work and life.
The Chapel Hill Philharmonia (CHP) is an organization that attracts some of the best, brightest and most talented residents of the Triangle – people with a wide array of day jobs and experience. Formerly known as the Village Orchestra, the group changed its name last year after considerable debate about the new moniker. Some felt the previous name retained the small-town communal, friendly ambience and there was no need for any change. Despite the name change, the orchestra, its music director, and its commitment to presenting a high level of orchestral programming remain. The members of this group encompass an extraordinary cross-section of the community ranging from prestigious surgeons and chairpersons of academic departments, to students and even working musicians who want yet another outlet for their talents.
In order to attend a concert by this group, audiences for many years had to navigate the labyrinths of UNC's Hill Hall to find room 107 – the main rehearsal room for the Music Department. On December 9, however, the concert was held in Hill Hall's auditorium. Those who think that is an improvement over a rehearsal room... have probably never been to Hill Hall auditorium. Having played there many times with the UNC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Tonu Kalam, I recall that a great deal of time was spent in finessing the orchestra's style of playing to accommodate the peculiarities of this unfortunate venue. Failure to do this, even minimally, can compromise much hard work and otherwise excellent playing. Just as an instrumentalist needs to adjust his playing if he has to use a different instrument, so an orchestra must adapt the attacks, the concept of loud and soft, and the balances when going from a rehearsal space to an unfriendly environment. Most of the problems with this performance had to do with this particular challenge.
The Music director of the CHP is Donald L. Oehler, Professor of Clarinet at UNC, who several weeks ago gave a wonderful performance of the Finzi Clarinet Concert with the UNCSO. Before the concert began, Oehler introduced himself to the audience, explained that the orchestra has increased its yearly programs to three, and noted that their February concert will feature a world premiere.
The December 9 program featured a pair of composers who, like many of the masters, lived appallingly brief lives. The excellent program notes, which included drawings of the composers, were written by Concertmaster Mark Furth.
George Bizet will always be best known for his wildly popular opera Carmen, but he is far from a one-hit wonder. Bizet composed the music to accompany the play L'Arlesienne, but when the drama proved to be a complete flop he extracted some of the numbers and set them as two suites. On this occasion, the Second Suite was played. Oehler is an attentive, clear conductor who provides a precise beat pattern and effective displays of the character and shape of the musical line. While this might seem like the definition of what a conductor should do, quite often these basics are forgotten in the pursuit of personal "expression" that does little to help the players. Each of the four charming sections of this Suite conveyed a different character, and the players displayed great sensitivity to the shadings and shifting emotions.
Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 4, completed in 1851, is harder than it sounds. This Symphony seems to be a favorite for local orchestras, having been played by both the UNC and Duke Symphony Orchestras in the past three years. It is filled with sections that will bite players who have not practiced their arpeggios and scales, and it requires great variations of mood. Although it is in four distinct movements, it is to be played without pause. This performance had a long break between the first and second movement. It was in the sections with full brass that the harshness of the attacks and the inattention to the acoustics of the hall became painfully apparent. At times it sounded like speakers that were about to blow. The woodwinds seemed to have the most trouble blending and playing in tune, but the performance was well paced and the players' spirit carried the day, resulting in a satisfying reading that was, despite some technical shortcomings, a pleasing artistic experience.