A Week of Music in Chapel Hill: Two Conductors, Two Concerts, One Young Composer, a fine Pianist and a Cat
This is a piece about coming of age, so I suppose I should start with Tonu Kalam’s cat, always more vocal than musical, but who has approached gravitas since kittenhood two years ago with remarkably matured powers of persuasion! “Dolce” belongs to Kalam and his fiancée, Karyn Ostrom. And his progress towards getting what he wants with supreme efficiency seems to match the improvements I hear in the UNC Symphony Orchestra, which Kalam directs and manages, and where Karyn plays violin among the firsts. In his maturity, “Dolce” has nearly mastered the front doorknob to go outside and roll all over the concrete path and collect pollen, which he unaccountably enjoys. In the past, the expression of his wishes might have seemed less coherent. Today it is focused and not to be trifled with.
Similarly, the UNC Symphony two years ago occasionally sounded a bit green with pollen, a little furry and uncollected here, a bit out of tune there—no fault of the conductor. Now, almost to one’s astonishment, it frequently transcends itself into fully mature professional territory. To hear Kalam explain it, it seems that the competitive draw of the prestigious Kenan music scholarships has resulted in a better caliber of player, even though the fact remains that half the members of his orchestra are not music majors.
Several years ago, during a stunning performance of Hovhaness’ “Mysterious Mountain” Symphony and the Dvořák Symphony No. 5 in F, I became aware of a young percussionist and conducting student in the orchestra of immense talent. Vincent Povázsay, at the timpani, had that special “pushme-pullyou” sense of rhythm which is at the heart of much good music-making. Today, I find that he has founded his own small orchestra, the all volunteer UNC Lab Orchestra, and has developed into an accomplished conductor, at ease with the physical process of leading and cuing and astute in the psychology of getting players to want to play well.
One of the keys to learning conducting is to conduct whenever there is an opportunity to do so. Povázsay has made his own opportunities: he recruited and conducted pit orchestras for the UNC Opera productions of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito in April 2013 and for a double bill of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Michael Ching’s Buoso’s Ghost in March 2014. And he led the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony at the UNC Symphony Orchestra’s February 2014 concert, at Kalam’s invitation (a mature and insightful performance nearly miraculous in the accuracy of its intonation). Povázsay will enter the Master of Music degree program in conducting at Northwestern University this fall, studying with Victor Yampolsky. He is a natural and will go far.
I was intrigued, then, to hear Povázsay lead his Lab Orchestra in the first of two concerts I attended here, on Sunday, April 13th. The program featured four selections from Berlioz’ Les nuits d’été, (sung beautifully in perfect French by mezzo-soprano Laura Buff, a recent alumna of UNC-Chapel Hill and now a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro), the Bach 5th keyboard concerto, with Kalam solidly at the piano, and the Stravinsky Dumbarton Oaks concerto, done by these 27 players as nicely as I have heard it. Even more intriguing, Povázsay commissioned the first work on the program, a shortish piece titled Over the Wing, by Ash Stemke, a former UNC composition student, who graduated last year with highest honors and has been/is a violin/viola player of some accomplishment in both UNC orchestras.
It is a rare thing when a new piece of music can triumph in the company of a program like this. But Ash Stemke’s Over the Wing soared with such lift and polyphonic beauty that one wanted to hear it again. It sounded a bit like Benjamin Britten at his least thorny, the sort of music you’d love to play on a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee. I had the opportunity to talk with Stemke at some length and came away with the sense that many more attractive pieces will eventually be in the offing. Here is a composer who simply composes music he wants to hear, because it is beautiful, spouts no unpleasant theories, and manages nonetheless to avoid the too-well-known and trite. Hats off, ladies and gentlemen: a composer!
And hats off to Vincent Povázsay, who elicited from these players great beauty of tone, despite a slightly clangorous acoustic in the soon-to-be-renovated Hill Hall! Hill started out in life as a library reading room and probably has too many parallel reflective surfaces, insufficient to scatter the sound. Anything in the treble becomes both reverberant and penetrating. Despite the beauty of her performance, it was hard to remove an acoustic wateriness from Laura Buff’s singing. But the bass sonorities in the hall are warm, and Povázsay balanced his small group of players into a plummy and appealing sound, despite having only one double bass.
The next day was yet another eye-opener. With Povázsay now on timpani during the Sibelius First Symphony and his number two, Matthew Kilby, in that slot for the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which preceded it, I attended the final full rehearsal for the UNC Orchestra’s big Wednesday evening concert. The new rehearsal hall has acoustics by Kirkegaard and the remarkable ability to clarify sound without deafening the players. It was the first time I have had the opportunity to see Tonu Kalam rehearse since our boarding school days together, and I was impressed by his technique for doing it. He corrects a list of spots—a few bars here—a few bars there. But then he lets them play, and the orchestra gives its all, knowing it won’t be stopped. Orchestras hate being brought to a halt unexpectedly, yet this is how I have seen so many conductors do it, musicians as diverse as Karl Böhm, Rafael Kubelik, Edo de Waart and Leonard Slatkin, to name just a few whose rehearsals I have attended. Each pause is always a let-down that way. Eventually the players get miffed or lose heart.
The pianist for the Rachmaninoff was Chinese-born Clara Yang, now a highly acclaimed UNC music faculty member and recitalist, seemingly too young for the weight of her accomplishments, but extremely effective in the piece. I admired her two years ago, when she performed Beethoven’s impossibly difficult Choral Fantasy with Vladimir Ashkenazy and his European Union Youth Orchestra. I worried a bit about the plangency of her tone on the rehearsal hall piano, only to realize at the concert itself that with a better instrument she could be devastatingly limpid and pliable.
Indeed, at the concert, the Rachmaninoff sounded fully professional in the warm Memorial Hall acoustic. Clara Yang’s technique was effortless and smooth, and her rendition of the famous 18th Variation romantically memorable. It was wildly and deservedly well received by the audience.
Next came the Sibelius First Symphony, James Moon setting the mood with a flawless and eerie clarinet solo, Povázsay was at the timpani, and I was intrigued to see how well this not fully professional orchestra could pull off Sibelius’ incredibly fast metronome marking for the opening allegro. I deliberately listened to the new Osmo Vänskä recording with the Minnesota Orchestra several times recently, as it is the only one which even attempts to meet Sibelius’ swift and convulsive markings. No doubt Minnesota is the more professional orchestra, but with the immense number of strings in Memorial Hall, I find I actually preferred Kalam’s approach, balanced more fully to a rich and warm sound below—despite full success at the breakneck tempo! Woodwinds and trumpets were superb throughout and the the basses beautifully weighted, despite there being only five players this year. And I am perhaps a sucker for timpani, but I loved Vincent Povázsay’s sheer power and ability to break through the texture. In days gone by, I used to hear Eugene Ormandy always shush the timpani in front of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and they tended to produce a tubby result, as if playing on cotton candy sticks. Povázsay was impressively explosive, and the conclusion of the Scherzo, which is a blast of sheer sound, was the most exciting I have ever heard. I greatly look forward to the YouTube Video of this concert.
Not everything was perfect. The horns are young this year and not as accomplished as the ones Kalam had two years ago, but the ability of the student strings to play in tune was astonishing, leaving only two or three places of marginally insecure brass notes to detract in any way from the proceedings.
These performances brought down the house and the audience to its feet with screams. With student players like this, not to mention professional ones, one may be forgiven for thinking the Cassandras of the music world are nearly in the grip of a psychological disorder. The formality of concert going may be disappearing, but the level of playing has never been better. There is no crisis in classical music, I dare to posit! Indeed, one should try to imagine how bad it really was in the past. I expect the UNC Orchestra is as good as many of the orchestras Brahms had to deal with as a composer. And it is astonishing to read that, had anyone wanted to hear all nine Beethoven symphonies in Vienna during the last half of the 19th century, he would have had to wait seventeen years!
Here, then, at UNC we find a vertigo-inducing array of talent. That mere fact is uplifting in itself. It was a fine and illuminating visit for this sometime critic and former conductors’ agent. There is nothing more satisfying in life than to find the world improved. Even “Dolce” the cat—who used to attack me in my sleep—was “improved.” Yet the improvements are real, and there is no need to be Voltaire’s starry-eyed and naive Pangloss to think so. Bravo to music at UNC!