Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
The UNC Symphony Orchestra
Tonu Kalam, conductor
Thomas Otten, piano
December 6, 2016
Berlioz – Overture to Les francs-juges, Op. 3
Britten – Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op. 33a
Grieg – Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16
The China Philharmonic
Long Yu, conductor
Clara Yang, piano
December 8, 2016
Chen Yi – Four Spirits
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47
I had the pleasure of visiting Chapel Hill at a festive, eclectic time early last December. It was exam week at the University of North Carolina. This won’t quite be a review as a result—more a series of hopeful impressions from that impressive musical crucible. Old friend Tonu Kalam, who leads the UNC Orchestra, and new wife Karyn Ostrom, who plays violin in it, pulled out all the stops for my visit. In the course of several days, I took in Kalam’s orchestra at rehearsal and concert, witnessed a conducting class, attended a student chamber recital and heard the China Philharmonic perform a new concerto written for UNC pianist Clara Yang. I came away impressed, as I always do at UNC, rejuvenated by the high level of musical interest and talent at play on campus.
Tonu Kalam’s UNC Orchestra is substantially comprised of musicians not majoring in music, ad hoc in numbers, and seldom able to rehearse in Memorial Hall. This season the group sported only five bass players. But the orchestra’s accomplishments are all the more astonishing for the obstacles it overcomes. Nonetheless, it was a somewhat terrifying experience to attend Kalam’s final run-through for the Britten Four Sea Interludes and find myself cringing in the merciless rehearsal hall acoustic at his strings struggling to bring off Britten’s Dawn.
Kalam—unperturbed and proceeding with scientific dispatch—reassured me that student orchestras always outperform expectation—and so it ultimately was. When the moment arrived in concert, they were floaty and fresh as could be. Wobbly brass in the Berlioz seemed to come together at the last minute, too. And all the kinetic moments so important in both composers flashed up with genuine excitement.
I had worried earlier, too, at a clangorous sounding rehearsal piano in Grieg’s Concerto, played with seeming metallic violence by Thomas Otten—and very slowly. Otten is professor in charge of the UNC piano program, but I did wonder at first whether his approach would work. He later commented that the rehearsal led him to modify his rubato and adopt more usual tempi. The resulting performance was beautiful, indeed. A different piano softened Otten’s attacks, and the interpretation emerged romantic and satisfying. Not least was the good orchestral sound of Memorial Hall when half empty—the unfortunate curse of student concerts, however well received—but a blessing for the listener. Two days later, with a full house, the China Philharmonic would not sound as good in the house.
The China Philharmonic arrived in Chapel Hill for its first visit with a new concerto. Chen Yi is a Chinese composer now living and teaching in the USA. Her Four Spirits for piano and orchestra was written for UNC’s Clara Yang, who is herself now something of a celebrity in China. So there was quite an atmosphere of celebration in the hall. Yang is a remarkable virtuoso and a sensitive performer. The latter quality, as it happened, wasn’t too important. She blew away the audience with Yi’s concerto. Or did it run her over?! Both were excitedly received.
Four Spirits represents four sacred animals of Chinese legend via folksong and a sort of neo-Bartokian spikyness. It’s really a symphony with piano obligato. There’s a certain amount of light and eerie dark, song versus drama in it—but on the whole the music comes at the listener full-tilt in march tempo on an aggressive tear. The piano is mostly a blur throughout. The piece is whirling-dervish kinetic—and to prove the point—slams the listener repeatedly with two sets of timpani. It’s fun. But the decibels are what you remember.
Hearing the China Philharmonic perform Shostakovich’s familiar Fifth Symphony after intermission was something of a lesson in orchestra development. If you begin for comparison’s sake with a group like Kalam’s UNC student orchestra at one extreme—making good music through an occasional struggle with the notes—and end up with the Vienna Philharmonic and its priceless house-owned instruments at the other end of the spectrum—delivering seemingly effortless beauty—you have quite a range.
On that continuum, I feel, the China Philharmonic still has lots of room for improvement. Some of this is economic. China’s prosperity is recent, and Western art music was disparaged for many decades, so new, inexpensive string instruments onstage probably represent inevitable compromise. Perhaps for this reason, the China Philharmonic has a nondescript string tone. This doesn’t particularly matter in Shostakovich—not a sensual composer. But of course, precision does matter. Things were OK in that regard, but only just. Long Yu is obviously an accomplished conductor, somewhat on the tight and kinetic side, but enjoyably dramatic to watch. Given the circumstances of a foreign tour and a new piece, he acquitted himself well.
But Yu did seem to miss ultimate irony in the symphony’s conclusion—taking the coda Rossini-fast—like Bernstein in his famous 1959 recording. Perhaps Yu was not aware of the composer’s subsequent metronome correction—ensuring that the movement ends more slowly—hollow and mocking—rather than happy and energizing.
Those were the musical highlights of my quick UNC musical tour this time. I also attended a student chamber recital of varying, but genuine, accomplishment. And I was both chastened as a layman and amused to attend one of Tonu Kalam’s conducting classes. Art may be illusion. But this is the illusion of the illusion! Conducting students have to pretend….as if conducting itself weren’t hard enough.
It’s eye-opening to watch a frightened student limply beat 5/8 in a room full of ten people sitting with their instruments—and having to pretend/cue the cellist as a timpanist, the girl with the clarinet as the first violins—and so forth. Conducting is definitely the world’s most complicated form of traffic-direction. Few laymen realize that, out in the audience. Even Guy Lombardo did more than wave his arms. And I could see from the dutiful majority in Kalam’s class that achieving balletic leadership while doing fractions in your head is not a natural talent for many!
But hats off for those who try. Serious music is alive and well on campus, it would seem. Student orchestras play more beautifully than ever before—almost mysterious how that happens. And it’s satisfying to see the great Northern European tradition of concert music alive and well in Asia. Every twenty years or so, of course, there is a panicky convulsion in classical music circles. Cassandras appear. “The symphony is dying,” one is told. Audiences are dying. Not so. You only have to look in the eyes of the young experiencing music at places like UNC to know the symphony will never die. Pop music is a greeting card. But a symphony is a novel. And good novels never die.