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Harp the Herald Angel 

Back in August, when I wrote my CLog requiem for the Charlotte Philharmonic Orchestra, I stirred up some unintended tumult when I compared the Phil's clueless board of directors with the hubristic crew that sank Charlotte Rep. The phone began ringing at David L. Cook's office, subscribers wanting to know how and why Charlotte Civic Orchestra's board had scuttled their beloved band.

Soon Cook, the president of Civic's board, was on the phone with me, politely dressing me down for my gaffe. Apparently, Charlotte Civic began life as the Charlotte Repertory Orchestra in 1986, and more than a couple loyalists still called their chosen symphony the Rep -- despite the name change, which dates back at least six years. Imagine my embarrassment. Folks that far behind the times are using my pontifications as a primary news source!

I eagerly offered to make amends by reviewing an upcoming concert as quickly as my schedule allowed. I hadn't reviewed Civic since the early days of Alexander Kordzaia's tenure. In the years since, Kordzaia had become nearly as frustrated as I was with the PR ineptitude of the organization. But Cook wanted to turn the page and hold me to my offer. So despite the perilous proximity to Christmas, I presented myself for penance last Thursday night's concert at Unitarian Church of Charlotte, out on N. Sharon Amity.

What I saw and heard at the Light and Shade concert bore little resemblance to the outfit I remember at Dana Auditorium during the Stephen Plate era. The Unitarian chapel is certainly cheerier than the bland Queens University auditorium, its pews more comfortable and welcoming than First United Methodist, where Civic camped during the ensuing Kordzaia years. But I might be exaggerating if I told you that the space is more than a tenth the size of Civic's previous two homes.

A hall needs to be fairly spacious for the sound of an orchestra to fully bloom. Neither the sterile acoustic at Dana nor the swampy echoes at First United can be looked back upon with nostalgia, but the cramped chapel upstairs at Unitarian certainly vies with its predecessors for orchestral wretchedness.

Of course, we're no longer talking about the same orchestra. Membership hasn't been literally decimated, but substantial shrinkage was evident when I had hoped that refugees from the defunct Philharmonic would have swelled the Civic's ranks and augmented their musicianship.

Institutional amnesia seems to have set in. Back in the Dana days, Civic -- or was it Rep? -- intermissions were a time for the musicians to mingle with the audience and initiate younger listeners into the mysteries of the various instruments. Not surprisingly, with the intermission custom abolished and concerts moved from Sunday afternoons to a midweek evening, kids were a negligible audience component.

Repertoire hasn't been dumbed down at all, but I don't expect that I'll be renewing my ancient plea for Charlotte Symphony to emulate Civic's adventurous programming in the near future. The current conductor, Geoffrey Whitehead, chose wisely when he picked Mozart's Flute and Harp Concerto to open, not so much when proceeded to the challenge of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony.

A smaller group is actually desirable in the Mozart, and virtuoso soloists timesharing with each other and the ensemble helped obscure the weaknesses within the orchestra. That didn't happen immediately, and the patchy work of the violins in opening allegro, followed by the scratchy violas in the hostile acoustic, didn't make a very charming first impression.

It was surprising, in fact, to hear how much smoother and more musical Sam Stowe sounded, playing his opening solo close to the middle of the chapel. Civic's principal flutist since 1987, Stowe didn't lavish all of the ornamentation on the melody line that you'll hear in the best reference recordings of the piece, but his tone remained rich and full, a luscious asset when we moved along to the middle movement's singing andantino.

Sixteen-year-old Hannah Blalock, Civic's principal harpist, was a more breathtaking surprise, with artistry on her instrument as advanced as her technique. Clarity, bold projection, and the ability to blend into the musical concept were hallmarks of Blalock's crystalline performance, heralding a career that will bear watching. The abrasiveness of the string accompaniment behind her in the andantino actually made for an interesting contrast.

The strings were at their best in the closing rondeau, dispatching the allegro tempo without apparent strain and phrasing quite nicely. Still, a few more minutes spent on tuning and articulation would be time well-invested for Whitehead.

Reinforcements filed to the far wall during intermission, fortifying the French horn section, adding a full array of brass and percussion for the Pathetique. This also seemed to be a better place to play from than the no-man's land where the strings were deployed. Reese Manceaux consistently sparkled from the back row in the first clarinet chair, especially when he recapped the big tune in the opening adagio. Trombones led by principal Tim Lowe had their chance to excel in the familiar march of the third movement allegro.

Closer to the front, yet still behind the strings, Stephanie Hood took over for Stowe at first flute, acquitting herself well in the solo section of the opening movement and with her section mates in the finale. Bassoons sounded rather well with the double basses at the very start -- and with the flutes launching the finale. Here even the violins played with unexpected sweetness after roughing up the big tune early in the piece, and at the somber end, the cellos had their finest moment.

Yet it would have been far more pleasant to hear the Tchaikovsky in a larger hall, especially when the brass massed together for the first time. They were tight, together, and in tune, obviously enjoying themselves as they overpowered our eardrums.

Old-time Civic fans may be more comfortable with the Spring Performance, offered together with Carolina Pro Musica, and returning the company to its Sunday afternoon roots on March 1. But you'll have to follow the musicians out to Belmont Abbey College, where the program of Bach, Handel, and Telemann will begin at 2 p.m.

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