Recently, NC State University hosted the Nile Project, a week-long series of music, lectures, and workshops with musicians from the Nile region. In the same spirit, the Raleigh Civic Symphony put together a program with the theme of rivers and water. Outside Stewart Theatre, there were several tables and displays describing various water reclamation projects and some very interesting research and development going on here at NCSU and statewide to protect wetlands, reduce runoff from pavement, recycle waste water, and protect ground water.
There is a large body of compositions with water as a theme; many composers have ventured there (Beethoven, Debussy, Handel, Wagner, Mendelssohn, Britten, and Vaughan Williams among them). Narrowing the theme down to freshwater helps a bit, and on this program we were limited to rivers and a lake.
First up was "The Moldau" by Bedřich Smetana, the very familiar first movement of Má Vlast (My Homeland). This work was composed just as Smetana was losing his hearing in 1874. "Moldau" is German for the Vltava river, which starts in the Bohemian forest, runs north through Prague, and then joins the Elbe. The music starts with a depiction of the quiet and tranquil beginnings at the headwaters, and traces the gradual growth of the river past a country wedding and then some rapids. Patriotic music marks the passage through Prague, and then a large climax with a diminuendo ending portrays the river merging with the Elbe. This performance was impressive, with the challenging flute parts well done. As many composers have done, Smetana relies on arpeggios in the strings to give the impression of waves, and this puts the onus on the second violins and violas, while the lucky first violins have much easier duty (and the attention) with the tune. This was a very credible performance of an old chestnut.
The next piece was "The Housatonic at Stockbridge" by Charles Ives. This is a very brief work with much that we have come to expect from Ives, with impressions of hymn singing and various indications of Americana blended together with harmony and rhythm quite progressive for its time.
The third work was a curious piece by Josef Strauss, the Amazonen-Quadrille. This is a collection of very short dances orchestrated in what is now a dated style, but which was popular at the time; most of the music had the tune doubled by piccolo and first violins. This effect wore on the ears after a short time, but taken as a period artifact, it's OK. I wouldn't want to do that elsewhere, or elsewhen! The piccolo was expertly handled, and the piece came off quite well. It was not particularly practical to expect to hear anything in the music which would suggest the Amazon, South America, or really water at all; in this case the thematic connection was only evident from the title and the program. But that is very often true with music, so we won't belabor the point. This was very much Viennese popular music of the time, sold with an exotic title. It could have as easily been called "In the Court of the Manchu Emperor."
After intermission, we were treated to "Lake Tyrrell in Innisfree" by Rufus Reid (born 1944). Reid has had a fifty-year career in jazz with considerable success and has recently taken to orchestral composition. This describes the Innisfree Garden in Millbrook, NY, a remarkable stroll garden constructed by architect Lester Collins next to Lake Tyrrell. I was somewhat surprised that this music did not seem particularly influenced by jazz or jazz oriented, as jazz is his area of expertise. "Lake Tyrrell" is a promising effort in orchestral composition, and it is commendable that the RCS took this on. There are some signs of inexperience in the score, but this is hardly a fault as Reid clearly has technical competence and knows what instruments can do. He does need to work on counterpoint, and most specifically the sonority of the brass section. It was ambitious to write for a large orchestra, with two harps, piano, three percussionists plus timpani, and full brass and wind sections.
The final piece, once again for large orchestra, was Mississippi Suite by Ferde Grofé, one of those composers focused on commercial appeal and pleasing the audience of the time (1925). There was much to remind the listener of the Grand Canyon Suite, another river-themed programmatic work written six years later, which has had greater success. The suite has four sections: "Father of the Waters," "Huckleberry Finn," "Old Creole Days," and "Mardi Gras." There is a certain cornball quality to the mix, but that's appropriate, don't you think? This was a rather fun romp and an enjoyable end to the afternoon's concert.