Music Review

UNC's Revisions and Rethinkings: Festival on the Hill

April 16, 2004 - Chapel Hill, NC:

From April 16 to 20, 2004, the UNC-Chapel Hill School of music produced its second (of what is now the biennial) Festival on the Hill. Each festival has a theme and is meant to involve as many of the School of Music's faculty and performing groups as possible. While the first one in 2002 was focused on a single composer (Stravinsky), this year's festival was called Revisions and Rethinkings, a catchphrase covering the concept of changes composers make to their existing works.

The impetus for this year's theme came from the publishing, in August 2003, of faculty member Jon W. Finson's critical edition of Robert Schumann's original 1841 version of his Symphony No. 4, in D minor (the familiar version is Schumann's revision in 1851). Organizers realized that a whole series of concerts could be planned around differing versions of the same pieces, allowing an examination of the effects of those changes.

The admirably ambitious project included four full concerts and an all-day symposium. The four speakers at the symposium (Phillip Gossett, University of Chicago, on Verdi's three versions of La forza del destino ; Annegret Fauser, UNC, on Wagner's two versions of Tannhäuser ; Susan Youens, Notre Dame University, on the French version of Schubert's Winterreise ; and Jon Finson on the two versions of the Schumann Fourth) all made the same basic points - changes are not always improvements and differing versions can have equal validity.

CVNC had planned to cover all the concerts and the symposium in depth. Last minute emergencies and scheduling conflicts regretfully prevented that. Only the April 16 concert could be covered. The concert was an eclectic affair, structured to feature four different performing groups from within the UNC-CH School of Music.

The first section featured the 60 singers of the Carolina Choir. There was quite a contrast between the disconcerting din they had been making while waiting in the front rows of Hill Hall's auditorium before the concert and the sounds they made once they had positioned themselves on stage. In choral settings of solo songs by three twentieth-century American composers, the singers impressed with their precision, clarity and confidence, a tribute to both the preparation and the execution by director Susan Klebanow.

The three a cappella songs by Ned Rorem from his cycle From an Unknown Past were models of mood and atmosphere. "My Blood So Red" had a moving, ethereal wistfulness, "The Miracle" had lovely waves of sound woven together by close harmony and tight rhythm, and "Tears" had a silvery simplicity underpinned with appealing warmth. The choir was powerfully focused in Samuel Barber's "Sure on This Shining Night," from Four Songs, Op. 13, supplying subtlety-modulated crescendos and sudden dynamic shifts that filled the hall resoundingly. Aaron Copland's "The Boatman's Dance," from his Old American Songs, is a familiar recital item and Copland wisely kept a solo aspect to his choral version. Bass Choir member Jonathan Rohr sang the verse sections with astonishing assurance, the choir backing him on the refrains with boisterous energy and sharp control. The Barber and the Copland were beautifully supported by Mary Hamilton at the piano.

The heady atmosphere created by the choir was soon dispelled by the re-arrangement of the stage to accommodate the UNC Cello Choir, necessitating placement of chairs and stands while the choir filed back into the auditorium. Once settled in, the seventeen cellists launched into Arvo Pärt's Fratres in one of the several settings the composer has made of this work. A number of the parents and friends in the audience at first seemed unprepared for the strange sounds of the ghostly high harmonics that sounded almost like wrong playing. But they were pulled in by the hypnotic repetitions of the theme that became lower, richer and louder before drifting away into nothingness again. Adding to the meditative aura of the piece was the constant drone in the lower register and the repeated percussive sections (accomplished by fingers on the instruments' bodies, pizzicato and bows tapping strings) that signaled each new version of the theme. Director Brent Wissick kept the piece moving yet tightly controlled in a performance satisfying for its balance and unity.

Unfortunately, the mood was shattered as chairs and stands were hauled out and noisily set up by several crewmembers for the 47 players of the UNC Wind Ensemble, a process taking almost 10 minutes. Once all the players had filed on stage, director Michael Votta took them in hand for a fine reading of Arnold Schoenberg's difficult Theme and Variations, Op. 43a, its first form before being turned into the version for orchestra. The piece challenges with its many little melodic lines wandering about within its overall weightiness. The rhythms change suddenly and rapidly, with instrumental solos popping up here and there, then building to a bold, grand climax. The players were supremely confident throughout and deserve much credit for their ability to convey the work's complexities so clearly.

The choir joined the Wind Ensemble on stage for the final number of the first half, Charles Ives' choral setting of his song "The Circus Band." As a solo, this number creates a wonderful feeling of summer's youthful joy; however, the choral version with wind band is overkill. The three-minute piece, as performed here, was a raucous free-for-all, the chorus totally unintelligible and the orchestra blaringly loud, the only unsatisfying part of an otherwise first-rate first half.

With the departure of the singers and many instrumentalists (and their corresponding family and friends), the crowd for the second half was considerably diminished, even though it contained the most important performance of the festival: the first US playing of the 1841 version of Robert Schumann's Fourth Symphony.

Through an intensive three-year project by Jon Finson, the score for Schumann's first version (of what was actually his second symphony chronologically) was published last year. The piece is scored for a smaller orchestra than the familiar 1851 version, is written in one continuous movement with transitions and has fewer repeats. Schumann changed the introductions of the two outer movements of the 1851 version and doubled many of the instruments (purportedly because the orchestra for the 1851 premiere was not very good). Finson presented his analysis of the reasons for and the relative merits of the two versions in a paper delivered during Saturday afternoon's symposium.

Tonu Kalam led the UNC Symphony Orchestra, appropriately reduced for this version, in a revealing performance. The opening had an Olympian, Schubertian feel, smoothly and lightly played. In this version, the opening theme's clouds are less threatening and their movement fleeter. It also sounded perfectly right for the music to flow on into succeeding movements without a real break. The second movement had a warm gentility, the third a bold crispness enhanced by the lovely trilling of the violins and the charming chatter of the woodwinds. The fourth movement had good tension and a pleasing lilt.

Kalam's tempos throughout were bracing, never tarrying too long over the reflective moments and emphasizing the extremes of dynamics and rhythms. He kept a connective line running from beginning to end, truly making it one whole work. The student players responded to Kalam's direction with well-rehearsed poise. There were a few muddy or ragged string passages but more damaging were the too-dominant horns and overpowering timpani, marring the established lightness of the overall orchestration. Nonetheless, Kalam and his players are to be congratulated for devoting their energies to such a worthy project, especially as they also had to play the 1851 version in the last festival concert, challenging them to remember which version they were playing and all the subtle differences in notation, articulation and instrumentation.

[The April 17 concert included most of the American choral songs in their original solo voice version. The April 20 concert included the version of Fratres for solo violin, strings and percussion. For the complete list of works on all the concerts, go to [inactive 10/06].]