A gala fundraiser is not the place to expect a banquet of music of great depth. Most music lovers I know avoid them like the plague. The Arts are deserving of whatever support we can afford to give them without these frills that feed class envy and the false image that they are only the playthings of the upper classes. Gala programs tend toward musical finger food to set off a big dessert or centerpiece. The September 13 Opening Night Gala for the North Carolina Symphony in Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh was intended as just such an event. All of the works programmed would normally have been chosen as pre-intermission fare before the playing of the evening's big masterpiece. The centerpiece of this gala was to have been violinist Itzhak Perlman who has done nearly half a dozen such benefit concerts in the Triangle and Triad over the past two decades.
The appalling events of the morning of September 11 in New York City and the Nation's Capitol and the ensuing, unprecedented nationwide grounding of all air travel prevented Perlman from appearing. He was stuck in Detroit where he was appearing in his new occupation as a guest conductor. More than a few grumbles about having paid so much for tickets were overheard, but the tragic events and realities justified his absence. By consensus of half a dozen people who were at the concert, including a player, the attendance was about 50%. Some have criticized the Symphony for not canceling the concert. At the same time, in New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was urging his City, including its cultural centers, to return to normalcy as soon as possible to light a candle against the forces of darkness.
On this occasion there was nothing at all routine in the singing of the National Anthem that opened the concert. In memory of the fallen, Gerhardt Zimmermann directed the Symphony in the playing of "Nimrod" from Sir Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations . It was an apt gesture followed by a long period of profound silence.
The new wooden risers were in place and seemed to help with brass-versus-string balance. From Orchestra Row W, the strings were only briefly covered twice. The new hall allows a much richer variety of quiet playing to register fully.
The opening Overture to Semiramide by Gioacchino Rossini was a little lacking in forward thrust. The slower pace allowed the exposure of a wealth of inner detail. The four French horns were almost too rustic in their hymn-like passage. Their dialog with the bassoons was delightful. Jimmy Gilmore's fine clarinet playing earned the conductor's recognition.
The audience got a performance of considerably more substance than they might have gotten from an exhausted jet-setting virtuoso or, if you prefer, from a hit and run star. Concertmaster Brian Reagin turned in a well-considered performance that lacked nothing in violin fireworks as was shown by the exactness of all those exposed high notes. Orchestra balance was excellent and phrasing was eloquent. The musical lines were respected, not pulled about as we have heard from at least one emotive virtuosa. Reagin's tone was firm and warm and the first movement cadenza was brilliant.
The double basses and the triangle were among the few instruments that didn't get prominent solos in the last two showpieces on the program. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's sassy and swaggering Capriccio espagnole, Op. 34, was given a passionate reading. Gilmore brought an unanticipated, klezmer-like quality to his dazzling clarinet playing at one point. Among other members of the woodwind family, Principal Flute Anne Whaley Laney and, in the prime oboe chair, Michael Schultz (Principal English Horn) were also much in evidence. Concertmaster Reagin was masterly in his five prominent solo episodes. Percussion was crisp. The slow song of the horns set against the warm cushion of the low strings was memorable. Principal Cellist Bonnie Thron had a fine brief solo. The extended harp arpeggios of Anita Burroughs-Price were telling. There was a rich variety of pizzicatos and fine articulation within and between the string choirs.
A full rich string sound dominated the playing of Franz Liszt's Second Rhapsody in C Minor, most apt to be found as a soundtrack. The cellos and double basses sounded especially deep. Gilmore's brilliant clarinet was again much in evidence.