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The Fayetteville Symphony Orchestra's history is worth recounting, for several reasons. According to its website, it's "the oldest continuously-funded orchestra in North Carolina." One must always read these things carefully, for the wording is generally precise – or vague, if you happen to be associated with a competitor somewhere. Anyway there's little doubt that the FSO, in its 57th season, is the senior still-running community ensemble of its kind in our state; and the final program for the season that ended in Huff Concert Hall, the central component of the Reeves Fine Arts Building at Methodist University, demonstrated that it's an orchestra that merits the attention it clearly commands.
In addition, the FSO underscores several points made from time to time in these pages: that community orchestras are the life-blood of our artistic existences, that there is some exceptional music-making going on in them, thanks to a mix of professionals and highly-skilled amateurs who, collectively, can and often do turn in superior performances of great music; that in our state one need not travel too far to find one of these groups; and that they're known mostly within a fairly narrow compass, the work of one rarely penetrating into the service area of another. That's a mixed blessing, particularly when considering a group like the FSO, which had over 70 players on the stage for this concert of music by Berlioz, Bruckner, and Brahms. Even the strong reputation of the orchestra and of its ten-year-veteran maestro, Fouad Fakhouri (who is a composer, too), had not adequately prepared us for the truly remarkable artistic experience we were to enjoy.
The auditorium is one of those low-slung, one-story, multipurpose things we're all familiar with, complete with no padding on the seat backs, tile floors, and a fairly short ceiling. That said, there seem to be no two surfaces in parallel, so the sound was remarkably fine, even though the HVAC system was a tad noisy and microphones were needed for the choir, in the Bruckner, since the vocalists (including the soloists) were behind the orchestra. Anyway, it was a surprisingly good room for orchestral music, and wow! what wonderful orchestral music it was!
Things got underway with one of Berlioz's less familiar overtures, the lively one known as "Le Corsaire." Berlioz is no piece of cake, but Fakhouri cut his players no slack and they, in turn, delivered. Here were enough strings to produce a lush sound (with the lowers strings particularly fine throughout the evening), woodwinds playing from strength, and some of the most polished horns (yes, they count as woodwinds, for some reason) and brasses one could hope for – perhaps staffed by former members of some of those great bands the Army is so famous for (because of course Fayetteville is an Army town). Balance within the orchestra was very, very good, and the sound was projected into the hall (abetted by a shell at the back) with plenty of intensity and handsomely-managed dynamics.
There followed Bruckner's lively Te Deum, one of the great Romantic religious works by a notable church musician who (humbly) dedicated some of his compositions to God. The five-section Te Deum calls for four soloists, a choir, and a large orchestra. The soloists, often not readily heard in this music, were here much more prominent that is the norm, and fine, too: they were (in SATB order) Kristin Schwecke (a Fletcher scholar), Cristy Lynn Brown (based at Salem College), the distinguished veteran John Fowler (now at ASU), and David Mellnik (widely known and admired throughout central NC). The hundred or so members of the chorus came from the ranks of the Cumberland Oratorio Singers and the Methodist University Chorale (both directed by Michael Martin). The orchestra was radiant here, too, and the organ (ad lib in the score) was not really missed, thanks in large measure to the extreme proficiency of those lower strings and low brass.
Here again the Maestro's tempi were often bold, turning reflective where needed; and the balance was fine, aside from some inadvertent (and brief) spot-lighting of some individual voices, thanks to the amplification. Fowler seemed to have most of the solo singing but his colleagues constituted strong presences. Overall this was a bracing and inspiring performance, one that will likely live long in the memory. If we were amazed to the point of being almost speechless, it was due to the fact that we had not previously realized what treasures there are in Fayetteville.
And then the FSO turned to Brahms' Symphony No. 2. This is not a work for slouches, and there was no slouching going on! I'd been working on some discographies earlier in the day, and not thinking too much about what I would hear that evening, I played Stokowski's German recording of the Brahms (with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra). This could have been a very unwise move on my part, but in fact the FSO and Fakhouri stood up well to the comparison, and of course live performances are almost always better than recordings. Here the strings, shepherded by acting concertmaster Fabián López, were in their most expressive element. I must add that the cellos, headed by Nathan Leyland, were, for me, the stars in the second movement, wherein such radiance as they produced – enlivened ever so slightly with touches of portamento – was a rare treat. And the stars of the whole symphony, in a manner of speaking, were those French horns, headed by Steve Skillman, who nailed phrase after phrase after phrase, virtually without blemish – and maybe without even taking a breath.
So it was a heck of a show, as some Broadway hustler might say. Bravo all 'round. We'll be back, for sure.
Did we mention that there was a brief pre-concert conversation with the conductor, the chorus master, and the concertmaster – and that the welcome was given by the chairman of the board? And the program notes were by our friends at WordPros. Yep, the FSO does things right (by which we mean correctly).