It's inexplicable. Two performances of Schumann's "Rhenish" Symphony in two consecutive days, not involving a touring ensemble but instead two difference orchestras, and 235 miles apart? There must be something in the water – something other than Rhine gold, as our colleague Ted McIrvine hinted in his review of the April 30 concert given in Flat Rock by the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra. Anyway, Schumann got there nearly 20 years ahead of Wagner. And that the maestri of two fine community orchestras would be inspired to revisit this most appealing of Schumann's orchestral scores on the same spring weekend says volumes about the beauty of the symphony and its importance in the overall scheme of orchestral things.
On May Day, the venue was East Chapel Hill High School's very attractive if somewhat inadequately marked Auditorium, a vast improvement in acoustic terms over UNC's Hill Hall, the customary home of the venerable Chapel Hill Philharmonia (so here's hoping the orchestra will move north permanently if there are no sonic enhancements to the older room during the renovations now being completed). And besides, the parking lots at the high school aren't gated.
This orchestra fielded 100 players on this occasion, including close to 80 strings. Few other area bands can afford to do that. In this racket, size matters, in terms of richness of sound, and the sound on this occasion was plenty rich and full, too. Donald L. Oehler is the ensemble's music director. He's a distinguished clarinetist and chamber musician whose orchestral leadership skills seem to improve steadily from year to year.
This concert began with a frothy rendition of Johann Strauss II's Overture to Die Fledermaus. Everyone on stage seemed to be having a good time playing it, and everyone in the nearly-full hall clearly enjoyed hearing it.
There followed the first movement of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto. This featured young (14-year-old) Aram Lindroth, a student of Susan Greenberg and the winner of this year's CHP Young Artist Concerto Competition. Oehler was an ideal artistic partner, one whose close attention to the soloist and to all his other instrumentalists helped ensure a beautifully balanced and thoroughly meshed performance. The pianist clearly has superior technical skills and just the right approach to this wonderful music in interpretive terms; lots of young keyboardists have cut their orchestral teeth on this music. There were no evident glitches anywhere and very little perceptible hesitation, even – on anyone's part. At the end, as is so often the case in these debut appearances of contest winners, we wished they'd gone on to play the rest of the piece, so enjoyable was this first movement.
After what seemed like a longish intermission (but it was only 21 minutes), the program continued with that aforementioned Schumann essay, the formal citation of which is Symphony No. 3, in E-flat Major, Op. 97 ("Rhenish"). We know this and a good deal more about it thanks in part to the CHP's exhaustive program notes, again provided by the man who is among our very most erudite concert masters, Mark Furth. Among other things, it's numbered three (of four) but is the last of Schumann's symphonies. Although there's no formal program, it suggests a trip along – or maybe down – the Rhine, and this writer can attest to the fact that it was this music that ran through the mind's ear during a river cruise there long ago, with the exception of different tunes near the Lorelei Rock and in the vicinity of Rüdesheim, where drinking songs are de rigueur.
There was much to admire in the performance itself, little to elicit critical comment. The horns and brass did remarkably well, considering their frequent exposure. The winds were admirable. And the richness of all those massed strings was something quite wonderful to hear. It's not only the last but without question the best of Schumann's symphonies, and it's a pleasure to report that the musicians of the CHP did it proud. Well done!
Note: The orchestra fields two chamber programs this summer, on June 26 and August 7, in Person Recital Hall at UNC. Mark your calendar and see ours closer to those dates for details.