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The audience in the Stevens Center probably shared mixed emotions about this concert featuring some of the best students from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts' School of Music. To the joy and pleasure at witnessing such a high standard of performance was wedded a tinge of sadness for parting. Besides being the last local concert for graduating seniors, this concert was also the final concert to be given by departing Music Director Ransom Wilson with his UNC School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra. Unexpected extra-musical matters added negative undercurrent.
Wilson added comments from the podium before the performance of each selection. He recounted his fond memories of two talented students at the Idyllwild Arts Academy in California before he and they came to the UNCSA. Wilson's conducting student, Bulgarian-born Konstantin Dobroykov, had been a crack percussion student in California before adding conducting studies at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Dobroykov directed a superbly prepared performance of the “Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy” by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93). The slow introduction was carefully delineated and there was plenty of fire in the faster sections. The love music was as glowing as it was gorgeous. Balance among and between the orchestral sections was excellent, and his choice of dynamics was subtle. The musicians responded to his crisp and clear beat with great discipline. The prominent solo lines, played by oboist Michael Dwinell and bassoonist Juliana Mesa, were performed beautifully. The percussion parts were especially well done.
Taiwan-born Felix Chen began violin studies at the age of eight. Wilson said he showed phenomenal talent in tackling difficult modern works while still at the Idyllwild Academy.
He has served as concertmaster of the UNCSA Symphony among others, and he will be featured as a soloist with the North Carolina Symphony later this year. Chen delivered a remarkably mature and technically polished interpretation of the Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35, by Tchaikovsky. He played with a glowing, warm tone and with immaculate intonation. He didn't just accurately play all the notes – his phrasing was carefully considered, and he was deep "inside" the music. Wilson and the student musicians responded with a carefully balanced accompaniment that fitted like a glove. The solo playing of clarinetist Rashad Hayward and flutist Milan Jeremic was outstanding.
Wilson had seen an amazing YouTube performance by beatbox flutist Greg Pattillo and was dumbfounded about how Pattillo did what he does. Even sitting next to the flutist at an audition did little to explain it but it led to Wilson commissioning a flute concerto from a favorite composer, Randall Woolf (b.1959). The work, “Native Tongues,” was the last of four LINKS commissioning awards given by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute of the Arts. This was the work's world premiere. Watching Pattillo play beatbox flute reminded me a little of the vocal percussive effects made by Bobby Mc Ferrin. Pattillo wears a light-weight microphone as he plays the flute. In a May 16, 2010, preview in the Winston-Salem Journal, conductor Wilson describes this technique: "While (Pattillo) is playing a flute note, he is also making percussive sounds with his throat and mouth. It sounds very much like a bass drum and other instruments…" The sounds picked up by the microphone are played over the hall's sound system.
My distaste for all amplified instruments in concert made me wary of “Native Tongues ” but my overall first impression was positive. The work is set for beatbox flute and string orchestra. Woolf's scoring for strings was especially pleasing with complex sections set against ostinato episodes. Pattillo's playing was certainly amazing to both hear and watch. To my surprise, I would not mind hearing the work again. In response to the audience's fervent approval, Pattillo's brief encore suite was hilarious with the theme for Sesame Street and Star Wars’ Darth Vader making an appearance!
The concert ended with a superb and vital performance of the 1919 version of The Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Musicians at every stand played their hearts out. The refined orchestral color was a delight, and the choice of dynamics was dramatic, especially in the "Dance of King Kashchei" section. Among the fine orchestral soloists were concertmaster Terris Roberts, cellist Louise Grevin,* bassoonist Kristen Goguen, clarinetist Allison Bates, oboist Michael Dwinell, and Jennifer Weaver on horn.
A discordant note to the evening came in Wilson's parting words spoken before the last work was played. He said he was leaving the School of the Arts because of irreconcilable differences with the current administration. His comments received hearty applause from many of the students in the hall. For more on this incident and for a copy of Wilson’s longer parting remarks (shared with the paper in Winston-Salem), see the article in the Winston-Salem Journal. Be sure to sample, too, the fairly vehement reactions, pro & con, from readers – to see them, scroll to the bottom of the online article.