10 May 2013

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Season Finale Concert by North State Chamber Orchestra (Music by Beethoven, Rossini, and Elgar)—Burlington, NC; 9 May 2013

North State Chamber Orchestra

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827): Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 (circa 1795 – 1797; premièred 1800); GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): ‘Una voce poco fa’ (Aria, Rosina) from Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1816); Sir EDWARD ELGAR (1857 – 1934): Salut d’Amour (1888)—Diana Yodzis, mezzo-soprano; North State Chamber Orchestra; William J. Kelley, conductor [St. Mark’s Church, Burlington, North Carolina; 9 May 2013]

Few areas of geographical and demographical dimensions similar to those of Alamance County—approximately 153,000 people inhabiting 435 square miles—enjoy a cultural treasure as precious as the North State Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble founded in 2012 which on 9 May ended its inaugural season with an exciting performance of music of Beethoven, Rossini, and Elgar.  Comprised of local teachers, advanced students, and talented community players, the Orchestra is supported solely by the generosity of audiences, and its mission of bringing great music to the Alamance County community at no charge fills a notable gap in the County, poised between the cultural hubs of the Triad to the west and the Triangle to the east.  The season-closing concert was dedicated to the memory of local journalist Mike Wilder, an uncompromising lover and supporter of the arts whose columns for Burlington’s Times News offered readers far more arts coverage than most periodicals of like size.  The concert, ending a season of new horizons for the fledgling ensemble, was a performance of which Mr. Wilder would have been proud and which he would have extolled as one of the finest artistic events in Alamance County in 2013.

The North State Chamber Orchestra was conducted by its founder, William J. Kelley, a twenty-one-year-old pianist, composer, and conductor who, in addition to his studies with Dr. John Salmon at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has amassed an impressive array of accomplishments despite his youth.  As a conductor, Mr. Kelley shows great promise, conducting this performance with rhythmic surety and a subtle but firm baton technique.  Though the primary focus of his university studies is piano performance, his gifts for conducting are obvious, and the ease with which he manages sectional cues and blending of tones brings to mind memories of exceptional pianists cum conductors such as Daniel Barenboim.  Mr. Kelley remains a very young artist with a lifetime of growth ahead of him, but his conducting of this performance suggested that his artistic maturity will be something truly remarkable.

Another young artist, also a product of the exceptional Music Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, launched the concert with a performance of Rosina’s aria from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, ‘Una voce poco fa.’  Mezzo-soprano Diana Yodzis displayed an ample voice with good command of the bravura technique required by Rossini’s complex fiorature, which Ms. Yodzis supplemented with some charming embellishments of her own invention.  The long-trilled ‘r’ on the last syllable of ‘guidar’ and the pin-prick ‘ma’—as effective in Ms. Yodzis’s performance as in the classic recording by Maria Callas—delighted the audience.  The orchestra occasionally covered Ms. Yodzis’s descents into her lowest register, the effects of which could have been minimized by slightly more sensitive playing by the ensemble, but her top notes rang out with body and freedom, reminding the audience—as did Teresa Berganza a generation ago—that a soprano’s top B and C are not unreachable territory for all mezzo-sopranos.  In fact, Ms. Yodzis’s timbre suggests that the voice may eventually—and, hopefully, very cautiously—develop into an instrument capable of selectively taking on soprano rôles.  ‘Una voce poco fa’ is hardly Mount Everest among the peaks of Rossini’s contralto arias, but it is a difficult piece for a young singer to fully inhabit.  Ms. Yodzis gave a charming, vocally astute performance that marked her as a singer to watch.

It was fantastic to have an opportunity to hear a performance of Sir Edward Elgar’s neglected (in the United States, at least) Salut d’Amour, composed in 1888—originally for violin and piano—as a gift for the future Lady Elgar.  Elgar’s intended title for the piece was Liebesgruss, a nod to his fiancée’s fluency in German, but the work’s first public performance in 1889 employed the arrangement for small orchestra played by the North State Chamber Orchestra and the French title, devised by Elgar’s publisher as a marketing ploy for French-speaking Europe.  Though decidedly lesser Elgar, the piece is as lovely as its title suggests, the main theme as elegantly wistful as any of its composer’s inventions.  Harmonically, Salut d’Amour is simple, but the modulations are achieved with Elgar’s accustomed skill.  The Orchestra played the piece handsomely, with a fine solo from concertmistress Molly Hines.

The most substantial work on the program was Beethoven’s First Symphony, his Opus 21 that is thought to have been composed over an extended period beginning as early as 1795 and first performed in Vienna in 1800.  The First Symphony introduced the young Beethoven to the Viennese musical establishment, and—significantly—the score was dedicated to Baron van Swieten, the Prefect of Austria’s Imperial Library and a noted—and notably old-fashioned—patron of music who supported Mozart and, treasuring the out-dated examples of Händel, commissioned Haydn to compose his oratorios Die Schöpfung and Die Jahreszeiten.  In his First Symphony, Beethoven asserted his unique voice, speaking with an individual accent in the language of his illustrious symphonic predecessors.  The influences of Haydn and Mozart are pronounced, but Salieri’s concerti are also lurking in the corners of Beethoven’s Symphony.  Even an early Beethoven Symphony is a daunting assignment for an orchestra of amateur players, but the North State Chamber Orchestra rose to the challenge engagingly.  Ironically, NSCO consists of a number of instrumentalists that is likely similar to that of the orchestra by which the First Symphony was premièred, so the sounds produced by NSCO may more closely resemble those that Beethoven expected to hear than those of a larger modern ensemble like the Wiener Philharmoniker.  It was in the Beethoven Symphony that Mr. Kelley conducted most compellingly, and the Orchestra responded with playing of vigor and power.  Violin tone was occasionally undernourished and slightly thin, but balances are difficult in an orchestra in which four first violins, three second violins, and three violas battle five ‘celli and a bass.  Arranging the orchestra in accordance with 19th-Century models, with the ‘celli at the center and the first and second violins in opposite positions relative to the conductor, would perhaps help the Orchestra to produce a more blended sound.  Nonetheless, all of the orchestral players gave of their best, not least in an enthralling account of Beethoven’s Third Movement, marked ‘Menuetto’ but a legitimate, rollicking Scherzo in all but name.  Mimicking Haydn, the Fourth Movement begins with a suspended dominant seventh chord, reminiscent of the ‘Recitative’ that launches choral finale of the Ninth Symphony.  After that auspicious beginning, the final movement unfolds as a pseudo-Rondo in full sonata form, developing thematic material borrowed from Haydn’s Symphony No. 88.  This music finds Beethoven both paying homage to his forbears and stretching the boundaries of Viennese Classicism, and the final movement drew from the NSCO players a pulse-quickening performance.

Music lovers and patrons of the arts are fortunate to enjoy in ensembles like the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Staatskapelle Dresden, and the Wiener Philharmoniker orchestras of exceptional abilities for memorable music-making.  Equally memorable, however, are the efforts of an ensemble like the North State Chamber Orchestra.  In many ways, it is a grass-roots ensemble like NSCO that most meaningfully breathes new life into the music of long-dead composers, expanding the reach of Classical Music by winning new audiences in small communities like Alamance County, North Carolina, far from the storied concert halls of London, New York, and Vienna.  The ambitious Season Finale concert of the North State Chamber Orchestra proved that small ensembles need not think small, so to speak.  Offering fine performances of music by Rossini, Elgar, and Beethoven, the NSCO brought its first season to a spirited close, honoring the memory of a friend of the Orchestra and revealing anew that great music shines brilliantly in a world dark with struggle, whether played by the hands of a respected professional in one of the world’s great orchestras or by a beloved teacher in an ensemble of her peers.


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