The Anne Arundel Community College Community Orchestra, a musical organization in just its second year, is a welcome addition to the local arts scene.
Founded by Janice Macaulay, a conductor, composer and AACC professor, the Community Orchestra is an aggregation of about 50 spirited amateur and semiprofessional players who do their earnest best to bring great music to life.
Macaulay doesn't monkey around. Sunday's Pascal Center concert celebrated Beethoven's 220th birthday with performances of his overture to "The Creatures of Prometheus" and the famous Fifth Symphony. It understates the case considerably to say they are both difficult to play.
Georg Philipp Telemann's Viola Concerto and a portion of Vaughan Williams' Suite for Viola and Orchestra rounded out the program.
The soloist was James Dunham, violist of the Cleveland String Quartet, one of the world's finest chamber ensembles. Dunham is related to this orchestra on his mother's side; Charlotte Dunham sits in the viola section of the ensemble.
Dunham's playing was surely the artistic highlight of the concert. He is a gifted player whose post in the Cleveland Quartet and professorship at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., testify to his rich, warm sound and sensitive music-making.
He let the full-voiced solo lines emerge with a rich vibrato, avoiding the astringent "original instrument" Baroque sound so fashionable today. It was gloriously played.
The orchestra valiantly followed his lead. At times the soloist had to pull it along, but the players accompanied with brio and polished elegance most of the way.
The viola clearly had a powerful appeal for Ralph Vaughan Williams, who wrote so gorgeously for the instrument. Sunday's performance of the Suite for Viola and Small Orchestra was beautifully played by the soloist, who clearly relished the opportunity to produce the expansive, chocolatey sound called for by the conductor.
Beethoven's Fifth is as difficult as it is famous. Yes, there were letdowns in concentration and the bottom fell out once or twice, but I enjoyed the Community Orchestra's account a great deal. This was a reading that certainly had its moments. The dramatic lines were well drawn and many details were admirably brought out.
What the strings lacked in finesse, they made up for in enthusiasm, although one first fiddler displayed a nagging tendency to jump the gun all concert long. The orchestra seems short of cellos but, on the whole, the string section seemed in good shape. There's a lot of potential there.
Only in the "Prometheus Overture" of Beethoven did the music seem to overwhelm the players. Perhaps the shorter opening work didn't get the rehearsal time accorded the symphony and the Telemann concerto.
Director Macaulay has some interesting decisions to make about future repertoire.
Does one build an orchestra by programming wonderful music that might require less virtuosity, or does one stretch the orchestra's talents and resources to tackle the ultimate challenge?
The AACC took the latter route on Sunday and I'm glad I was there to hear it. After all, what better birthday present for Beethoven than the knowledge that, more than 200 years after his birth, there remain enthusiastic players striving mightily to do honor to his artistic intentions?