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Sometimes you gotta wonder about programming in the Triangle, where we go for years-literally-without certain works and then have several readings of them in close proximity. We're not talking about war-horses, either. In the second half of the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra's last classical offering of the season, presented on May 18 in Meymandi Concert Hall, the Concert Singers of Cary, led by Lawrence Speakman, performed one of Mendelssohn's several psalm settings (no complaints there!), preceded by Vaughan Williams' "Serenade to Music" - yep, the same piece given the night before in Chapel Hill! Speakman selected the purely choral incarnation of the score, without soloists, and there were many differences in the two realizations of the piece. Meymandi's acoustics are generally good, and the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, headed by Concertmaster Tasi Matthews, played radiantly for Speakman. Balance within the orchestra, which was arrayed on the NC Symphony's risers, was outstanding, and the strings were prominent-but not excessively so-throughout. The winds and brasses were skillfully folded into the overall sonic mass, but solo bits-including some harp passages, performed once again by Emily Laurance-emerged with great clarity from the orchestral texture. The choir, some 75 singers strong, sang from the elevated seats above and behind the orchestra that were installed primarily for this purpose. There is a great distance from the podium to the choir stalls, but the words emerged fairly clearly and the balance with the orchestra was more than acceptable. There wasn't much impact, however, and at no point did this listener feel the sheer choral power that the CSC can and often does project in its customary churchly venues. It's probably a matter of volume-volume of the space itself-as much as anything. But that said, we persist in the belief that the hall needs a shell for smallish choirs (of, say, under 100 voices); and experience hearing other vocal ensembles in this room has shown that putting at least some of the singers on the floor, with the orchestra, helps immeasurably. Some fine-tuning of the hall might help, too-it is apparent that in the fifteen months since the new halls in the Big Mac were dedicated, the City has done nothing to enhance acoustics or, for that matter, patron amenities. The lobby lighting remains ridiculously harsh, and Meymandi is generally frigid, supporting the rumor that the wood that lines the walls requires extreme cold to prevent splitting or peeling(!).
There was in the program no text for the Vaughan Williams, presumably because it is in English. There were however program notes (not very well proofed or edited) for it and for Mendelssohn's gorgeous double-chorus setting of Psalm IIC, "Sing to the Lord a new song," Op. 91, given in its original German, a translation of which was provided. For reasons that continue to elude me after 25 years in this business (and atop many years before that as a singer), American choirs tend to do better with works in foreign languages, projecting their texts with greater care, precision and clarity than is generally devoted to English or American pieces. That was the case on this occasion, although there were in truth no serious problems with the Vaughan Williams. After the long a cappella introduction, Mendelssohn's orchestration pointed up the psalm text in some truly remarkable ways, and the score's stirring conclusion made a tremendous impression on the small audience, which rewarded the singers, orchestra and Speakman with enthusiastic applause.
The concert began with appearances by four winners of the RSO's recent concerto competition, sponsored by Benjamin Kilgore Gibbs (who was on hand at the end of the event to present plaques to the young musicians. Not all of 'em were as young as one might have guessed. The first performer was trombonist Micah Everett, the grand old man among the soloists-he's 22, and he's working toward his Master of Music degree in trombone performance at UNCG. After the orchestra's rendition of the National Anthem (credited to Key, although of course John Stafford Smith was responsible for the music), Everett played a movement from Launy Gröndahl's Trombone Concerto (1924). The work is obscure to most music lovers who aren't trombone specialists, so notes on it (and the other concerto selections) would have been helpful. The performance, led by RSO Artistic Director Alan Neilson, was polished and very nicely unified. Cellist Stephen Proctor, a 10th grader at Enloe High School, studies with Jonathan Kramer. He selected a movement from Saint-Saëns' First Cello Concerto (there are two, but the other one is almost never heard), and he played it reasonably well. There were some minor glitches from which he recovered quickly, and his tone was somewhat uneven (perhaps due to his instrument). Greater passion would have enhanced the reading, as perhaps would a somewhat brisker pace, but that might have jeopardized articulation. We will look forward to hearing this talented young person again in the future and suspect there will be opportunities to do so since he is this year's principal cello of the Triangle Youth Philharmonic and will surely continue to play here. Multi-talented pianist Andrew Yeargin, a student of Marie E. Willett, is into the oboe and organ, too, and also serves as East Wake High School's Blue Spirit Marching Band's drum major. He performed a movement from Howard Hanson's Piano Concerto, Op. 36 (1948), another work that languishes in obscurity (and that therefore merited at least a line or two of notes in the program). Based on the bit we heard, it is a fine score, one that might be a welcome replacement for Gershwin's piano-and-orchestra pieces (the Rhapsody and the Concerto in F) that enjoy oh, so much more exposure. Yeargin might welcome some other opportunities to play the work, too, for otherwise he will have made a big investment primarily for academic reasons, absent this single RSO concert. The grand finale of the first half was a dazzling reading of Weber's Konzertstück, J.282 (1821), by Myung Ko, a junior at Leesville High School who studies with Marilyn Brown and who, like Yeargin, is multi-talented-she is also a violinist in the TYP. Hers was the evening's most satisfying concerto selection, and not only because the work was given complete; no, she managed a reading of the score that was of extremely high quality, technically and interpretively, and she interacted beautifully with Neilson and the accompanying band.
The RSO's financial problems, reported in our last review, persist, and Maestro Neilson himself addressed them from the stage, just before intermission, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Contributions that will allow the orchestra to obtain a two-for-one match that will net a total of $30,000 are virtually in hand, and the second phase of the anonymous benefactor's offer involves another two-for-one deal, starting June 1, that has the potential to bring in $15,000 more. Beyond the total involved in these matching challenges, the orchestra is seeking contributions of an additional $36,000 to retire long-term obligations and to secure its future. The RSO is one of our City's most important cultural assets, for reasons articulated with some frequency in these and other a&e pages, over the years. For more information, or to make a contribution, see the letter from President Irene Burke in the program for May 18 or write to the RSO, Inc., at P.O. Box 25878, Raleigh, NC 27611-5878, or call 919/546-9755.