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The NC Symphony's Raleigh classical series ended on May 12-13 with a big Mahler bash, but it was Brahms and three short 20th-century works that served to cap the orchestra's Durham, Chapel Hill, and Matinee Masterworks series. The program, heard Sunday, May 21, in Raleigh's Meymandi Concert Hall, served as a reminder of why it's so important to expend the energy, time, and resources it takes to keep large symphonic ensembles afloat. There's nothing like live music of almost any kind, of course, and live orchestral music played with both dedication and skill is something else again. That's what a smallish crowd heard on this occasion, during the last of these Matinee Masterworks programs, which next season will shift to Fridays at 11:30 a.m. (and get a good deal shorter, too).
Resident Conductor William Henry Curry offered a program that was almost certainly hammered out with the support and encouragement of Music Director Grant Llewellyn, given the afternoon's British components. The concert got underway with Ralph Vaughan Williams' Overture to Aristophanes' The Wasps (1909), written for a production of the classic comedy at Cambridge. That it sounds a good deal like other English pastoral music didn't seem to bother the crowd in the least. The performance was crisp and precise, the balance, superb, and the score's many subtleties were expertly revealed throughout. From the balcony, looking down, one thought of peering into crystal-clear pools, so transparent was the playing.
Vaughan Williams spent his time at home, but Frederick Delius, one of Britain's greatest miniaturists, preferred France. He wrote some large works along with his famous little tone pictures; of his operas, A Village Romeo and Juliet has enjoyed the greatest success, and not only thanks to Sir Thomas Beecham. It was however Beecham who, for the English premiere in 1910, asked Delius for a bit of music to cover a set change. The exquisite "Walk to the Paradise Garden" resulted, and it's now far and away the best known part of the work.** Curry and the NCS played it radiantly, often eliciting a sort of inner glow. The woodwinds were in top form, balance was again basically ideal, and the reading was breathtakingly beautiful.
Principal Trombone John Ilika, who joined the orchestra in 2001, filling a vacancy created when Jim Miller moved to Los Angeles, was featured next. Ilika is an outstanding player, and he brought Henri Tomasi's Trombone Concerto to vivid life, handsomely supported by his colleagues. The concerto has a bit of this and that in it – jazz, mostly, but also hints of folk music, making a nice tie-back to the concert's opening work, in particular. The first movement overstays its welcome a bit, but there was much to admire throughout the concerto. Again, there was some exceptional work from the woodwinds – have you noticed that you can hear them most of the time again, under the Llewellyn-Curry regime?* – and the strings sounded magnificent. Ilika received enthusiastic applause and was recalled several times for bows.
After the intermission, Grace Ann Chirico, Chair of the NC Symphony League's Education Committee, presented this year's Maxine Swalin Outstanding Music Educator Award to Dorothy Kitchen of Durham. The recipient has been a strong force in music education for many, many years – for details, see the NCS's April news release – and she's received many awards and honors, but she seemed particularly touched by this recognition, and after Director of Education Suzanne Rousso handed Kitchen the award, the honoree thanked the orchestra and Maxine Swalin (who earlier this month celebrated her 103rd birthday) and her many students and their parents, colleagues, friends, and family for recognizing the value of teaching and playing music, which so enriches us all. Christopher Kitchen then presented a rose to his proud grandmother.
The concert resumed with Brahms' Symphony No. 3 in F, Op. 90. It's surprising that we don't hear Brahms' orchestral works more than we do, for their instrumental demands are moderate – a huge, Straussian band is not needed for successful performances. Curry spoke briefly, detailing some of the enigmatic work's background. Many specialists consider it the hardest of the four symphonies to bring off successfully – it gave even Arturo Toscanini fits before he approved a commercial recording. But there certainly weren't any major problems with the performance heard Sunday afternoon. The balance was virtually ideal, the strings were always "there" and audible, the lower strings were rich beyond their physical numbers (eight each violas and cellos and five double basses), and the winds and brass were radiant. It was a terrific way to end the concert, the season, and the career of long-time Principal Viola Hugh Partridge, for whom this was the farewell to Meymandi Concert Hall.
Yep, we're richly blessed to have this orchestra here – as it moves into its 75th year, it's certainly worth every penny!
The crowd clearly knew that something special was in the air, and after recalling the Maestro and applauding the stellar soloists and their colleagues several times, the orchestra sent the patrons away with a rousing performance of Brahms' First Hungarian Dance. It and the Third Symphony were in fact so good as to inspire hope for a full-fledged Brahms festival at some point in the not-too-distant future.
And lest we wallow in too much sadness as the season ends, remember that Summerfest, the NCS' al fresco series, begins June 3 in Cary. For program information, click here.
*Edited/updated 5/26/06: One reason one can hear the woodwinds (and the strings) somewhat more clearly of late is that the brasses have been better balanced with the rest of the orchestra. In some respects, that's a weak argument, but in the case of the Brahms, there's a reason for it – one that's prompted more than a few inquiries to this writer, most of which were posed, basically, as "What's the story about those trumpets – the ones with those Chivas Regal bags as mutes?" Well, I'm grateful to members of the NCS for telling me that they're known as German trumpets, because that's where they originated, although the ones used here are actually Austrian. They are rotary-valve trumpets (as opposed to the familiar piston-valve instruments more often used in America), and they have the advantage of diffuse and mellow sound with (as one advisor wrote) "a far less aggressive attack." (These valves may be familiar to readers as the valves that are in French horns.) The matched pair used in the Brahms dates from the era of Richard Hoffert's administration, and they are apparently used often in NCS performances of Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven and Brahms. These are the instruments used by the Vienna Philharmonic, among others. There's an illustration in the New Grove article on trumpets. jwl
**Edited/corrected 5/28/06: You'd think one could write a review and move on, but something about the story of Beecham asking Delius for music to cover a scene change in A Village Romeo and Juliet, recounted in the NCS' program notes (by Richard E. Rodda), rang false. I'd heard the tale for years, albeit with somewhat less detail, even though the chronology doesn't really fit. Turns out that it's absolutely untrue – the opera was composed in 1900-01, premiered in Germany in 1907, and presented in London by Beecham in 1910, but the score was complete before the composer and the conductor met. None of this diminishes in the least the importance of the superb little tone poem, "The Walk to the Paradise Garden," which is among Delius' most inspired works. I'm grateful that CVNC is an online publication in which it's easy to add corrections like this one. jwl