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The Wake Forest University Orchestra performed recently in Brendle Hall at the Scales Fine Arts Center. Filling the stage were some seventy undergraduate students and three guests. Remarkably, only one student was a music major, and all the rest were volunteers – music amateurs in the best sense of the word. As such, this was an outstanding demonstration of the power of citizen-artists to band together to produce beautiful music on an otherwise ordinary wintry evening. At one time in my life, I knew a mentor for whom the characteristics of educated humans included the ability to play (or notate) music that s/he heard. Clearly these young people, who will populate academia, business, health care, law and many other fields, are well on their way to fulfilling this educational ideal!
Their venerable leader in this quest for musical experience is David Hagy, Orchestra Director on the faculty of the WFU Department of Music for the last 21 years. Dr. Hagy also leads the fine Salisbury Symphony, a town and gown community orchestra with professional aspirations, now celebrating its 50th anniversary season.
The major work on the program was the 8th Symphony, Opus 88, in G by Antonín Dvořák, occupying the entire first half of the program. Opening with a lovely cello melody backed by trombones, horns and bassoons, this signature theme yields to the alluring bird-call of the flute beckoning the auditor to a rambunctious and energetic romp of delightful Bohemian melodies. The second movement, Adagio, featured some lovely solos from the principal clarinet and horn, but elsewhere there were occasional quests for unanimity of pitch. Smoother and cleaner was the lovely waltz-like third movement and even lovelier trio – all culminating in a quick coda, taken wisely at a safe tempo! The Finale, Allegro ma non troppo, a theme with variations, is not one of my favorites, with its hard-to-hide major profile and repetitious nature, but it allowed Hagy to unleash the brass who clearly relished the rich parts Dvořák offers them.
After intermission, a musical pot-pourri was presented, with appropriate introductory comments from Hagy. First was Aaron Copland's An Outdoor Overture, introduced by trumpet player Jeremy Sexton' lovely solos, balanced by a powerful bass drum. The famous "Nimrod" excerpted from the Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar followed and was one of the most effective moments of the evening. Wake Forest University Professor of Composition Dan Locklair, was featured in the musical elegy, In Memory - H.H.L. for strings, written to honor his late mother. This is a lovely, delicate and poignant work, more complex than appears on first hearing. To close, the entire ensemble played "The Jedi Steps" and "Finale" from Star Wars: The Force Awakens by the indomitable John Williams.
Brendle Hall is more often used as a recital hall than for the presentation of symphony orchestras, which tend to overpower the acoustics of the hall, making it very difficult to create a true piano sound. As a result, most passages were either loud or louder. Balance was not the only obstacle the young musicians faced – with the large contingency of violins (I counted 22), two double basses were woefully overwhelmed, as was the small handful of violas. The other most evident problem was unsure intonation. I have often wondered if the increasing reliance on tech tools (portable electronic tuners, in this case) may cause us to mistrust our own ears, leading to intonation uncertainty.
In any case this was a lovely concert, played with passion as well as courage! Bravo!