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The Chancellor of the prestigious University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Lindsay Bierman, welcomed the packed house at the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem to a concert more varied than this writer has ever seen, a musical potpourri of the highest quality! The compact concert early in the evening was the warm-up act for the NextNow Scholarship fund-raising event for UNCSA patrons (which later included a flash-mob version of Ravel's Boléro) and also the preamble for the UNCSA students' Beaux Arts Ball at the Millennium Center, a final fling before exams and graduation.
The Dean of the School of Music, Brian Cole, served as Master of Ceremonies, providing smooth transitions through the inevitable shifts of pianos, music stands and other equipment and personnel. His witty comments emphasized the depth of commitment to the artistic ideals which inhabit the very beings of the students and faculty.
Mark Norman, professor of tuba at UNCSA, conducted the large group of brass players who lined the apron of the stage for two fanfares for brass and percussion. They opened with the first (of five written over a 7-year period) "Fanfare for the Common Woman" (1986) by Joan Tower. This fanfare gives much work to the percussion section, in particular to the timpanist, and a short but lovely solo line to the tuba. Its better-known predecessor, thanks in part to its 44-year seniority, Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" followed with a sort of powerful serenity.
This grandeur of brass and percussion did nothing to intimidate the beauty and simplicity of the last movement of César Franck's gorgeous Sonata in A for Violin and Piano, beautifully played by Eva Wetzel on violin and Jacob Wang on piano, who made one of the most difficult piano parts appear simple. The canonic theme with its playful switches from major to minor and back again made me sigh with longing each time it appeared.
Daniel Bukin, a graduate student in conducting, directed the large string section of the UNCSA Student Orchestra in the first movement of the Concerto Grosso (1946) composed by the first President (now changed to chancellor) of UNCSA, Vittorio Giannini. The young Bukin, with his buoyant beat, maintained strict and tight control over his excellent strings.
Composer (and baritone saxophonist) Timothy Bachman's recent composition, "Switch," a short minimalist work, was performed by the chamber ensemble TellTale with astonishing precision. Unpredictably, but always precisely together, attacks of the same combination of superimposed fifths were sustained by flute and viola while the piano and sax (slap-tongued) acted as percussion. Fascinating!
Ralph Vaughn Williams' Serenade to Music is a gorgeous romantic setting of part of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, composed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sir Henry Woods' first concert. Originally scored for 16 soloists, chorus, and orchestra and subsequently reduced several times, this performance featured seven members of the Fletcher Opera Institute, the Cantata Singers (the School of Music's chorus), as well as the student orchestra, all under the sensitive and intelligent direction of faculty member Nathan Zullinger.
Two Études-Tableaux of Sergei Rachmaninoff were effortlessly but nonetheless spectacularly performed by pianist Owen Dodds.
Anticipating a year-long centenary tribute to Leonard Bernstein, Dean Cole then introduced the closing three works on the program, the first from the Mass (1971), which will be featured in a major all-school spectacular in September, and two from Candide (1956). With conviction and in his beautiful baritone voice, Andrew René sang the "Simple Song" from the Mass, probably the Mass' most memorable song.
Claire Pegram sang the popular "Glitter and be Gay," from Candide, with brilliance and humor. Soprano Anyeé Farrar was very impressive along with tenor John Ebrahim in "Make Our Garden Grow," also from Candide.
The "Mambo" from the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story was the unannounced encore, allowing us to hear the full symphony orchestra by itself for the only time in the evening. And what a rousing performance it was, lacking only the spinning basses of Dudamel's Venezuelan Youth Orchestra.
All the Bernstein works were conducted brilliantly by Christopher James Lees, music director of the UNCSA Symphony Orchestra. Sadly for UNCSA, Maestro Lees will be leaving to assume increased responsibilities with the Charlotte Symphony, where he functions as assistant conductor. Although short, his tenure at UNCSA was inspiring to the students he directed and taught as well as to the audiences, including yours truly!
A novel feature of some recent concerts of the UNCSA School of Music has been the lighting which changes colors subtly from piece to piece and even sometimes within a piece. The synaesthesic intermingling of senses has long fascinated artists, poets, composers and even neurologists. From subtle peach tones through pale blues and occasional bright reds, these colors added interest to the performance – if not also intrinsically to the music. And if a member of the audience were to object, it is easy enough to close one's eyes!