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.
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.
It's not our custom to review performances we post, but I will say a few words about this concert. Brahms's Third Symphony is notoriously difficult to perform successfully. I have heard great conductors fail in it. The Toscanini story is famous. None of his NBC Symphony performances quite gel, and there was always much discussion about why this particular symphony, which seemed so well-suited to his temperament evaded him, until his splendid performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra became generally available as a recording many years after his last visit to London at the very end of his career. The puzzlement about Nelsons' recent performance with the BSO is another case in point. Tonu Kalam has no such problem here. By adopting a gentle, lyrical approach to the work, Kalam achieves a performance that is musically and emotionally coherent—one of the finest I've heard.
The UNCSO was the 2012 first-place winner of The American Prize in Orchestral Performance—College/University Division for this performance under Music Director Tonu Kalam.