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As first semester draws to a close, we had the opportunity to see what the ECU School of Music students and their teachers have learned (and what they have not, but in all honesty, this was a 95% favorable concert).
The way in was thronged with students giving out music appreciation chits. Although I arrived in good time, St. Paul's Church was almost full, and by curtain time it was SRO. It is usual in this building to reverse the orientation of the building for concerts by turning the chairs to face the organ in the rear instead of the altar in the east. Thus "up at the front" there was an inaudible talking head; most of the audience saw this time as a chat break, and the talking head was unamplified. He might have been talking about Dvořák, the binomial theorem, or baptism by total immersion. for all I could tell. During the performance I was not offended by the kids in flippy floppies, nor even by the Napolean Dynamite wannabe wearing his baseball cap in church (although that's pretty pitiful); they got to hear some good Mozart and some great Beethoven. The adult who stood up through the entire Te Deum, holding a video camera, cannot achieve forgiveness even by playing the doting-parent card….
In partial fulfillment of the requirements for a MM in instrumental conducting, Brandon Martel conducted the orchestra in Mozart's overture to La clemenza de Tito, K.621. The playing was cohesive, with mostly excellent balance: the bass was a little heavy, but that may well have been the booming acoustics of the church, more suited to majesty than clarity. The winds had notably good intonation; the presentation was excitingly spirited. Martel is also Principal Trombone in this orchestra.
Jorge Richter led the orchestra in Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 (A Minor, Op. 92). Although it took the strings a few bars to figure out that they needed to sound like they were going someplace, their intonation was praiseworthy from the beginning. Maestro Richter maintained a careful balance throughout the piece, which was played straight through, with each movement following subito on the heels of the previous, a very neat effect. The sound, the playing, everything, gave no hint that this was a band of talented students; these all sounded like thoroughgoing professionals. The final Allegro con brio was clear and totally transparent. It is rare around here for anyone to have the opportunity to hear a live performance of a Beethoven symphony. It is rarer still to hear one this well played. No apology is needed for the limitations of the area that so often pervade performance today. This was not "good considering it was eastern North Carolina"; this was not "good considering it was students." This was just plain good!
The orchestra was joined by the University Chorale and the University Chamber Singers, all conducted by Andrew Crane, Director of Choral Activities at ECU. Sixty-two listed instrumentalists, 124 in the Chorale, and 38 Chamber Singers made a crowd on the risers and a huge roar in the church in performance of Dvořák's Te Deum in cantata form, Op. 103 (1892). I suppose the Latin text is known by heart throughout eastern North Carolina; it was deemed sufficient to provide only an English translation. The beginning was powerful, and it grew mostly louder from there. There was a notable passage of beautiful a cappella singing in the Sanctus. Rachel Copeland, soprano, was operatic and unintelligible. John Kramar's strong voice stood up to everything Maestro Crane could throw at him. There was some lovely singing in the Miserere towards the end; that which was forced the least was the best. There was a definite feeling throughout the piece that the purpose was to feature the singers, not Dvořák.
Full marks go to Maestro Richter for the splendid Beethoven as well as to Martel for a fine job of the Mozart. While Maestro Crane's singers seemed to be well prepared and the orchestra played well, there is very little good to be said about this performance of Dvořák as a work of art.