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UNC Symphony Orchestra prepares for end-of-semester concert

UNC professor Tõnu Kalam has served as the music director and conductor of the UNC Symphony Orchestra since 1988.

Photo Courtesy of Tõnu Kalam.
UNC professor Tõnu Kalam has served as the music director and conductor of the UNC Symphony Orchestra since 1988. Photo Courtesy of Tõnu Kalam.

The UNC Symphony Orchestra will be hosting their second concert of the 2023-24 season at Memorial Hall with two contrasting pieces — one a classical staple and the other a new, engaging piece from a UNC professor.

For a small fee, guests can come watch the harmonic sounds of the ensemble and their performance of two pieces: Stephen Anderson's "Concerto for Puerto Rico" with UNC wind/brass/percussion head Juan Álamo, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67.

The orchestra's first performance of the season was Oct. 25. Both the symphony orchestra's conductor, Tonu Kalam, and the student musicians prepared new pieces with a quick turnaround.

Stephen Anderson, the composer of "Concerto for Puerto Rico," is a UNC professor and the director of the Jazz Studies program He said that the piece has moments of war as well as moments of peace, and is a conglomeration of sounds and techniques from Puerto Rican music and culture.

Kalam described it as a contemporary classical piece, with a skillful solo on the marimba and elements such as bird calls and cultural musical motifs from Puerto Rico. Anderson said the piece includes inspiration from elements like coquí frogs that sing at night in Puerto Rico.

The symphony orchestra intended to perform Anderson's concerto in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted rehearsals. Now, audiences will be able to listen at the local premiere.

As well as being the conductor, Kalam also works as the UNC music director. He picks out all the music for concerts, auditions students who are interested in performing and orders the music, he said. 

After choosing the pieces for this upcoming performance, Kalam is most looking forward to displaying two contrasting styles. 

“The brand new piece for percussion and orchestra — very modern, very rhythmic, very driving,” he said. “And then one of those standards, the old warhorses with Beethoven No. 5, which is also very rhythmically driving, but with a completely different context.”

Kalam said the famous symphony and its iconic opening notes demand more precision and stronger rhythmic drive from the players. 

Marion Rambler, a first-year student and member of the symphony orchestra, has been playing the cello for 14 years. She said the commitment and the strength of the orchestra is a big step up from any of her high school experiences. 

Along with two rehearsals a week for the entire ensemble and the personal commitment required of each member in their own time, the cellists meet every Tuesday and work on the concert pieces in various parts. 

“When you reach this level you're kind of expected to come in, just be ready to play, so a lot of the work happens behind the scenes and it will happen within our own practicing,” Rambler said.

The Oct. 25 performance was on a Wednesday, and Kalam said the musicians began preparing at the very next rehearsal on Monday for the Dec. 6 concert.

“They've risen to the occasion and come around very quickly to seeing 'Okay, this is different and we've got to focus on different elements of music-making in the repertoire on this concert,'” he said.

At the show in October, several UNC students showed out to support the performance and their friends in the symphony. A first-year student, Rebecca Cory, said the experience was so far beyond any high school band performances she’d seen before.

“As soon as they started, I was just blown away,” Cory said.

Kalam recommends coming to the concert, which begins at 7:30 p.m., with curiosity for the excitement of a new piece and the anticipation for the excellence of a classic one. 

@dthlifestyle |

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