Knit together all the clichés about pleasant summer evenings: cool breezes, families together, picnic in the park, sweet music wafting on the air, etc. and you have a Summerfest Concert at the Koka Booth Amphitheatre. The North Carolina Symphony under the balletic baton of Maestro William Henry Curry provided the sweet music. It was the music of Pyotr Ilytch Tchaikovsky, composer of perhaps more classical “hits” than any other. His music is always dramatic, powerful and decked out with unforgettable tunes you can hum or whistle on the way home.

Kicking things off was a rousing performance of the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin. In this piece Tchaikovsky brought the full power of the symphony orchestra to the opera in a vigorous dance that still wows audiences today. The well-amplified sound at the Booth amphitheater brought this glorious music to the audience up close while they enjoyed the dinner they bought on the way or cheese and fruit brought from home.

Curry introduced selections from Swan Lake as a memento of his conducting career; he chose it to be on the program of his first outing on the podium at the age of 15. Here it was again, now a well-worn old friend – of his as well as the audience’s – full of wit, charm, insatiable melody and energy enough to keep the children happy and the adults swaying or tapping a toe.

Intermission at Koka Booth is a time to stroll around the grounds, greeting old friends or chatting with new acquaintances. You might pick up an ice cream, pastry, or soda to enhance the evening further. Then back to your blanket or camping chair for the second half of the concert as the sun fades to the west and artificial lighting takes over almost imperceptibly.

The waltz or rather Polacca from Sleeping Beauty, the second of Tchaikovsky’s three ballets, is as lively and familiar as the opening selection on the concert earlier in the evening. The North Carolina Symphony under Curry’s command provided a steady, world class reading of Tchaikovsky’s rapturous music. We take for granted this treasure but should not forget how critically important is our individual support of this (and other arts and art-related organizations – such as CVNC) to the quality of life in the Triangle.

As familiar as most of us are with the popular Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, this is the first time it has been performed at this venue. The guest artist, Conrad Tao, was introduced as one who first began picking out tunes on the piano before he was two and now at the age of sixteen is already winning awards as a promising pianist and composer. It was recently announced that Tao is one of two 2012 recipients of the prestigious Gilmore Young Artist Award. In the arts as well as in athletics, we life in an age of phenomenal youth. Their musculature and energy stand at-the-ready and they have the advantage of the teaching and training of all the greats who have gone before them. We reap the rewards.

Tao’s performance was filled with fire and passion. His technical skills were matched by a knowing interpretation. The rapturous, romantic first movement was met by a burst of applause from an audience expressing their appreciation of excellence. The second movement with its enticing lullaby and Russian dance was controlled and sensitive. The rousing romantic third movement was powerful with a driving sense of urgency toward the end. The symphony as concerto partner was superbly supportive. Again, the audience enthusiastically expressed its approval.

For an encore, Tao chose Franz Liszt’s rambunctious Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6. This piece is as tough a challenge for the piano as it is for the pianist. The keyboard action must be as fast and smooth as possible to handle the last theme with its rapid repetition of the same note. Both piano and pianist acquitted themselves well. I heard trills of amazing speed and skill. I heard passages where Liszt demanded and Tao delivered heavy chords that made the piano roar. The encore was really quite breath-taking. Overall it was a most excellent evening out.