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It has been said that one can tell people of culture by whether they associate the familiar melody of the William Tell Overture with the fourteenth century crossbow-wielding rebel or with the Lone Ranger. “Soundtracks Under the Stars,” the latest concert in the NC Symphony’s Summerfest series, led by Artistic Director William Henry Curry, somehow managed not only to reconcile but also to glory in both associations. The first half of the program consisted of classical music adapted for use in films. While music of the second half of the program was supposedly composed expressly as soundtracks, there were a few exceptions, most notably Charles Gounod's “Funeral March of a Marionette,” perhaps better known as the theme of Alfred Hitchcock’s television series.
After a brief delay due to the heat on the stage — during which, in a conversation with the NCS’ Scott Freck, Curry amused the audience with stories ranging from a musical project involving a tribute to the survivors of Katrina to his Chihuahua, Cupcake — the concert began with the famous theme from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey: the still-thrilling Fanfare from Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra,” Op. 30. Curry’s brisk conducting and boundless energy gave an irresistible and often breathless momentum to both this and the following piece, the fourth movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90 (“Italian”), featured in Breaking Away. Other soundtrack excerpts included the waltz known as “Wiener Blut,” Op. 354, by Johann Strauss II, featured in The Great Waltz, and “Tara: A Short Tone Poem for Orchestra” arranged from Max Steiner’s score for Gone with the Wind. “Wiener Blut,” a lovely, laughing serenade that stopped just short of sentimental was exactly what Curry termed it: “champagne music.” The waltz flirted with the listener with a sly sense of humor. “Tara,” on the other hand, nostalgic and filled with bittersweet longing, was performed with a hint of raw, underlying emotion.
The themes from animated films and television shows, from Fantasia to The Simpsons, that dominated the second half of the performance ushered in a lighter atmosphere. Maestro Curry announced the “Dance of the Hours” from Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda as “ ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh’ for Symphony Orchestra” based on Allen Sherman’s comic spoof. He also presented an uncannily good imitation of Elmer Fudd before launching into a hair-raising interpretation of Richard Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre, featured in both Apocalypse Now and Bugs Bunny cartoons. A suite of Henry Mancini hits arranged by Calvin Custer included “Baby Elephant Walk” from Hatari!, the Pink Panther theme, and Academy Award winning “Days of Wine and Roses.” Mancini’s “Moon River” began just as the stars were coming out; Dovid Friedlander’s subdued but poignant solo violin performance could not have been more touching. Enthusiasm reached its climax, however, with a suite of 1950s television show themes, “When TV Was Young,” by Robert Wendel. The tunes from Dragnet, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Honeymooners, The Lone Ranger (complete with Silver’s neigh — bravo!) and, of course, I Love Lucy, elicited shouts of laughter as the audience recognized their favorites. The NBC tag made a clever finishing touch for the set.
Of course, how could anyone possibly consider a program such as this without a substantial sampling of John Williams? The “patron saint” of soundtrack composers has written music for a wide range of films, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Schindler’s List. The theme from J.F.K. is a visionary, sweeping piece. The trumpet solo is strongly reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s use of perfect intervals; Paul Randall’s interpretation brought out the irrepressible optimism of the Kennedy era. The rousing syncopation and irresistibly heroic melodies in the “Superman March” could conceivably have brought the concert to a satisfying close, but Curry’s solemn “May the force be with you!” introduced the Star Wars theme, a triumph of an encore and a perfect ending.
What made this program remarkable was the emphasis on down to earth, funny connections and a hearty disregard for “good taste.” How many NC Symphony faithfuls would be proud to claim that their first exposure to Richard Wagner was Elmer Fudd’s sinister refrain of “Kill the wabbit”? Or that the overture from Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell involuntarily brings to mind the heroic call “Heigh ho, Silver!”? Instead of dismissing or ignoring these associations, Curry led the enthusiastic audience in a boisterous celebration of a few of the not-so-classy cultural connotations of classical music.
The next performance in the Summerfest series is Cirque de la Symphonie, a collaboration with guest aerial acrobats, gymnasts, dancers, and others, on June 27. For details, see our calendar.
*We are pleased to introduce Chelsea C. Stith to our readers. She is a rising junior at Meredith College, where she is a piano student of Kent Lyman. She is also our first student intern, helping launch a new partnership between the college's Department of Performing Arts and CVNC. Stay tuned for more information about this new program. - John W. Lambert, Executive Editor