It was Happy Birthday time at Jones Auditorium on the campus of Meredith College. There the proceedings celebrated the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra as it marked its thirtieth year of existence, and also its presence as a highly valued and honored cultural resource in the greater community.

Of the many who have contributed time and talent, three were singled out for awards. Ginny Zehr was recognized for her service as Executive Director from 1979 through 1998. Rachel Parnell was likewise honored in absentia for her years 1999 through 2002. Then of course there was the founder of the organization, Music Director and Conductor Alan Neilson. Much is rightly made of his early vision and his hard work over the past thirty years. The obvious affection showered upon him by the audience seemed especially fitting. Tina Morris-Anderson acted as Mistress of Ceremonies for these awards and for all the offerings throughout the evening.

All divisions of the Orchestra were heard from during the celebration. The Free Spirits Ensemble opened with a piece premiered some three weeks ago, just down the road in Holly Springs. The composer, Lanette Lind, accompanied clarinetist Jim Williams on “where colors play … and hoodoos dance.” Of that earlier performance the reviewer noted that the composer had visited “… Antelope Canyon where she was moved by the incredible colors and by the fantastic shapes (hoodoos) of the rock formations.” It would be difficult to improve on that. These two were joined by soprano Teresa Fernández, flutist Irene Burke, cellist Jane Salemson, violist Yang Xi and bassist Dan Zehr for excellent renditions of a couple of cabaret-style works by Astor Piazzolla.

Assistant Conductor Jim Waddelow led the full orchestra in Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, Op. 46. Neilson himself then came on to conduct Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” and the Farandole movement from L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2 of Bizet. The players here sounded bigger and better than they “should” have sounded, particularly in the Anitra’s dance movement from Grieg and in the Bizet piece.

When you hear the Raleigh Jazz Orchestra, you realize that the big band sound is here again. Led by RJO Music Director Neal Finn, these musicians sounded super cool. They featured numbers by Rodgers and Hart, Joe Zawinul, and Finn’s own work, “Farewell to Birdland,” in memory of the great Maynard Ferguson. Featured here were vocalist Susan Reeves and trumpeter Ramon Kenan, both artists eliciting pleasant memories of former big-band stalwarts. In these and later numbers, saxophonist Tim Smith and pianist Greg Brink were prominent to real advantage.

If you thought the RJO produced big sound, you should have heard the combined forces of the jazz group and the full RSO. Finn led these forces in two of his arrangements of pieces by J.J. Johnson and John Coltrane. The inclusion of the symphony players was somewhat ceremonial, though, their contribution being largely subsumed into the overall power of the jazz ensemble.

It was a meaningful evening that ran on to a point bordering on tedium. But, with the significance of the occasion, perhaps the protracted length can be largely forgiven. After all, it isn’t every year that you get to celebrate your thirtieth.