Serge Zehnacker's Farewell Concert: NCSA's Kids Play Like Pros
by William Thomas Walker
November 18, 2006: After the concert celebrating conductor Serge Zehnacker's seventeen years directing the North Carolina School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra, he was swamped with flowers and Dean Thomas Clark presented a plaque from the faculty. It quoted one of the charges for the conductor: "to help student musicians to realize their full potential." Four well-selected pieces of music had just demonstrated the fulfillment of that goal in spades. A well-filled Stevens Center audience of parents, administrators, donors, and other music lovers had just heard a stage filled with the NCSA Symphony Orchestra made up of students, ranging from a few from the high school through the advanced, deliver a performance of which any professional orchestra would have been proud. Added to this was the fire and passion of players whose enthusiasm had not been dulled by routine. An abundance of woodwinds allowed for some rotation of principal players for each work played.
Every section of the orchestra gets a workout over the course of the overture to Verdi's opera La Forza del Destino. The six opening brass exclamations were given with crisp attacks and releases while a good full string sound characterized the seething and rushing "destiny" or "fate" motif. Each section played with exemplary tight ensemble and balance throughout the entire concert. Ronnal Ford played the lovely oboe solo accompanied by delicate first violins and subtle pizzicatos by the other strings. Low brass, particularly the trombones, and woodwinds later made fine contributions. Melodies based on Alvaro's famous tenor love song and Leonora's plea to the Virgin Mary were given heart-felt expression.
No announcement was made of a change from the printed program's order, so music lovers expecting the tone row of Wagner's Prelude to Tristan und Isolde were astonished to hear an extended solo for the entire viola section that was repeated several times throughout the Adagio First Movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 10. This was the only movement of this work that was fully orchestrated by the composer before his death. The credited edition was by Ratz. The student musicians and Zehnacker conjured up that special quality of angst and regret instantly recognizable as Mahler's. Phrasing and the subtlest dynamics were given with great care. The horns and low brass were superb. Several principal players — Concertmaster Stefani Collins, cellist Dorothea Vit, and violist Christopher B. McClain— turned in excellent extended solos. The woodwinds were delightful. Mahler embeds elements from the Wagner prelude within his own adagio, so the Wagner piece makes a natural concert companion.
Sumptuous cellos and Michael Rogalski's warm-toned oboe were highlights of Zehnacker's experienced way with Wagner's Prelude and "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde. His tempos were ideal, allowing phrases room to breath. The soaring and surging waves of the ecstatic "love-death" portion captured much of the theatrical experience, wanting only the soprano's lines.
The musicians of the NCSA Symphony met every challenge set by Richard Strauss in the "Dance of the Seven Veils" from his revolutionary opera Salome. Entire sections turned upon a dime as they followed every twist and change of tempos and rhythm. Sensual woodwinds with an Oriental allure featured fine solos from principal oboist Michael Rogalski and Ronnal Ford on English horn. The glowing, repeated viola solo was played by principal Christopher McClain.
After repeated hearty standing ovations, the Alsace-born Zehnacker said he would be a renegade if he did not play something French. At his down beat, the brassy and swaggering sounds of the "Procession of the Toreadors" from Act III of Bizet's Carmen burst forth. Perhaps the presence of too many of their elders suppressed the rhythmic clapping that had begun instantly in some of the audience. This was a glorious finish for Zehnacker's seventeen years as conductor which has had, among other highlights, Beethoven's and Mahler's Ninth Symphonies, and Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, all reviewed by CVNC.