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Those who played in the University Symphony Orchestra concert, given in UNCG's Aycock Auditorium on December 6, got a thorough musical workout. Two tumultuous scores sandwiched a pastoral composition for an unlikely solo instrument, and three conductors shared the program.
The Overture to Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman is a favorite with audiences because it so colorfully evokes a great storm at sea. Currently in her second year of a Master of Music degree in orchestral conducting under the direction of Robert Gutter, Jaemi Loeb is a promising maestra whom we have previously reviewed favorably. Her interpretation captured the sense of the surging rush of a storm with crisp attacks, judicious balances, apt dynamics, and dramatic phrasing. The five horn players — all women — were splendid, demonstrating close ensemble — as did the warm strings and mellow woodwinds. There were very good solos from the principal horn, English horn, oboe, and trumpet.
UNCG composer Gregory Carroll's Six Studies in American Folk Idiom, for cello and piano, was commissioned by the NC Music Teachers Association and was inspired by inspired by Vaughan Williams's Six Studies in English Folk Style (1926). Fellow faculty member Dennis Askew then asked the composer to adapt the work for his instrument, the tuba, and the orchestral version, completed in July 2003, was premiered by the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra in November of that year. (A more recent version for tuba and concert band was premiered last July at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, during the 2004 convention of the International Tuba/Euphonium Association, of which Askew is President Elect.)
In some thirty years of going to concerts, I have heard two tuba concerto performances, both of the same work — Vaughan Williams' Concerto. These struck me as a mixture of pastoral music, sumo wrestling, and plumbing, with a dash of cappuccino brewing thrown in for good measure. Carroll's music comes across altogether better. A program note by the composer indicates that "The outer sections are based upon a pentatonic melody, with a contrasting middle movement featuring the Lydian mode." The reduced orchestra is dominated by strings, and from the podium Carroll readily secured a web of pastoral sound to serve as the background for Askew's extraordinarily seamless and smooth singing line. The tuba played with woodwind instruments — clarinet and piccolo for example — from time to time. Sometimes the scoring for orchestra evoked the droning of a rustic bagpipe or organ. In the slow movement, the tuba seemed to serenade us with a ballad. Opening with the xylophone and percussion, the fast and jaunty third movement ended with a surprise after a false pause. As an encore, Askew's tuba caroled us with "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer," supported by the conductorless orchestra.
Music Director Robert Gutter said that this concert marked his first-ever performance of Sergei Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, Op. 45. His conducting style is usually pretty straightforward, but this time he executed some leaps that would have done "Lenny" Bernstein proud. Hairpin changes in dynamics, tight section ensemble, gorgeous solos from almost every section, and a palpably relentless sweep combined to create a fully satisfying performance. Bravo!