BARRE — The Vermont Philharmonic, the state’s oldest community orchestra, opened its 60th season over the weekend, celebrating its music director’s 20th year and introducing two promising young opera stars. Sunday’s concert at the Barre Opera House (repeating Saturday’s at St. Johnsbury Academy’s Fuller Hall) proved a rewarding operatic and symphonic experience.
Since 2007, the Philharmonic has been presenting winners of the competition at the Bel Canto Institute in Florence, Italy, and this year is no exception. Korean mezzo-soprano Hyunji Kim, currently at the Manhattan School of Music, and Chinese tenor Yang Xu, studying at the Royal Danish Conservatory, each proved their mettle in popular bel canto opera arias.
Kim proved particularly effective in “La preghiera” from Bellini’s “Norma,” where she employed her dark warm and sometimes luscious voice with deep expressiveness. Xu was also warm and expressive, even charismatic, with his light tenor in the famous “Una furtive lagrima” from Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore.”
The Philharmonic proved a particularly sensitive accompanist in no small part because Lou Kosma, its longtime conductor and music director, spent 36 years as a bass player with the Metropolitan Opera. The 70-piece ensemble not only never covered the singers, it still delivered a full beautiful orchestral sound as well.
Still, the orchestra proved its mettle in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, called “Italian” — and it certainly felt full of Italian sun. Over the years, Kosma has built an unexpectedly worthy symphonic ensemble with these volunteer players.
In some ways this difficult Romantic symphony was a stretch for the orchestra, as evidenced by some scrappy unison passages in the violins. Still, Kosma chose some pretty unforgiving tempos — and the entire orchestra delivered.
Most impressive was the sound. New were the rich and colorful woodwind sounds delivered precisely and with flair. The string and brass were rich and warm for an overall powerful effect. The Philharmonic has benefited from the addition of two topnotch professionals, violinist Letitia Quante as concertmaster and Laurel Ann Maurer as principal flutist.
The concert was pretty much summed up with the finale of Mendelssohn’s fourth. Marked Presto, it took off with passion and excitement.