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Hill Hall's very un-air conditioned sauna or auditorium was nearly full Friday night May 2 for the first concert of the re-christened Chapel Hill Philharmonia Orchestra. It was an auspicious show of community loyalty. Founded in 1983 as the Village Orchestra, it was first directed by George Taylor, then violist of the Ciompi String Quartet. Beginning the following fall, UNC cellist Brent Wissick and violinist Ruth Johnson shared conducting duties for the next four and a half years. In the Spring of 1989 retired UNC violin professor Edgar Alden took the helm and began programming complete symphonies. UNC clarinet professor Donald Oehler assumed the reins in the spring of 1993. This orchestra exists to allow amateur musicians to play through the great works of the repertoireand they can join without auditions. While their love of playing music is always apparent, don't expect the instrumental polish of a professional regional orchestra or a well rehearsed conservatory ensemble. The concerts, originally very frankly called "open rehearsals," are given free.
The slow opening chords of the Overture to Die Geschoepfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus), Op. 53 by Beethoven opened the concert. The violins sounded pretty good, the woodwinds were all right and the brass sounded more nearly together and on the note than they had in the warm up rehearsal before the concert. Orchestral balance was good.
The first movement of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto in C Minor, Op. 37, served as a splendid vehicle for the winner of the Chapel Hill Philharmonia's 2002 student concerto competition, Arnav Tripathy. He began piano lessons at age four, and since the age seven, has studied with Victor Recondo. Currently he is a student in the seventh grade at Phillips Middle School where he excels in mathematics, taking AP Calculus at Chapel Hill High School. The violins brought a good dark sound to join the somber woodwinds in the extended orchestral introduction. Timpanist Roger Halchin played a vital role throughout. Playing without score, Tripathy entered with a crisp attack, playing with assurance and sensitive phrasing. His playing came across as a conversation with the orchestra, not just a rote run through the score. A lovely dialogue with the bassoons comes to mind. He used a wide dynamic range and he brought intensity to the unidentified cadenza. Horns were fine in some "pp" playing and the horn solo went well. Tripathy received a well earned standing ovation for a very fine performance. I look forward to hearing him do an entire concerto in the future.
Despite the stuffy heat, most of the audience stayed on for the performance of Jean Sibelius's Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43. Conductor Oehler's interpretation was well within the traditional range. The orchestra made a decent full sound in the first movement and the violins were really good in their big tune. Horns were usually pretty good. Basses were very good near the end, timpani and bass pizzicatos playing vital parts in the second movement. The orchestra was taxed at points, there was a strange "strangled trumpet-like" sound that may have been an unfortunate woodwind blend. The violins were good in the last movement. After some rough spots, the cellos pulled together nearer the end. The broad outline of the piece was there and more often than I dared expect, the horns and other brass were able to hold together to good effect.
Updated 5/29/11, based on input from the CHP's historian, cellist Richard Clark: "[Y]our [account] is essentially correct. George Taylor conducted us for only the second semester of 1983. He then went to Eastman and Brent [Wissick] and Ruth [Johnsen] took over. [Three years ago] I ... summarized the history of the CHP on our web site (www.chapelhillphilharmonia.org). Joel Carter and Ed Jackson really were the two moving forces that got us going. Ed was the treasurer for many years. ... We have had a wonderful 28 years and look forward to the future."