By any measure, it was a scorcher. At the Raleigh-Durham Airport, the measure showed 100 degrees. In Cary's Regency Park, with little breeze, things improved somewhat when the sun's rays no longer fell directly on the crowd. But the management of the NC Symphony was over a barrel — the barrel of heat, contracts, and performance. So the show was delayed. To fill the void, General Manager (and VP for Artistic Operations) Scott Freck interviewed series Music Director William Henry Curry, revealing facts of the distinguished Resident Conductor's life in music that even his most rabid fans didn't know, including a long-ago, fleeting relationship with a clarinet and the role of Antal Dorati in our Maestro's first big conducting break.*
Truth to tell, it was hot, even for folks who weren't "under the lights" or waving their arms or whatever. The substantial crowd — not a record-setter, but larger than one might have anticipated, under the circumstances — waited patiently as orchestra reps monitored a digital thermometer on the lip of the platform. By 8:15 p.m., the figurative green lamp was lit for the program, billed as "Feel the Beat."
The all-American first half began with Gershwin's "Cuban Overture," a piece drenched in the rhythm (beat, if you will) of the Island, in happy, pre-Castro days. Curry had stated that the players "own" it, and indeed the sound they produced seemed idiomatic and "right," and the sound staff did ok with it too, by and large. (The microphone placement was typically close, but only the woodwinds and percussion seemed to be unduly highlighted.)
Two excerpts from Copland's The Tender Land followed. The music evokes America (or Americana), as was the composer's wont, and the orchestra played it incisively, although the absence of a chorus for "The Promise of Living," the mini-suite's second and concluding part, made one wish the selection had been held till July 5, when the Concert Singers of Cary will be on hand for a tribute to "The Greatest Generation." (Few current NCS musicians or audience members are likely to recall that Copland himself conducted the NC Symphony in this music during a February 1976 visit to the Triangle.)
Curry is a superb program-maker, and this concert brilliantly demonstrated that skill. The evening's Cuban opener was balanced in the second half by a rip-snorting reading of the second movement of Gottschalk's Symphony No. 1 ("A Night in the Tropics"), premiered in Havana. And a baroque theme of the second part of the program found fulfillment in two over-the-top orchestrations of music by Handel — "Where'er you walk," from Act II, Scene 3, of Semele, set by Leroy Anderson(!) as "Song of Jupiter," and Hamilton Harty's 1920 version of the Hornpipe, from Water Music. (Queen Victoria had been dead for nearly a score of years, but this "cast-of-thousands" orchestration truly marked the end of "her" era in Britain, musically speaking!)
But the evening centered on the guest artist, the distinguished Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who made her Summerfest debut with generous offerings of music by Joseph Schwantner, Vivaldi, and Ravel. She's among the very few truly world-class artists who have been presented during the NCS's summer seasons; perhaps her engagement signals a shift from superannuated pop stars to far more compelling classical artists. Here's hoping!
She began with the first and last movements of Schwantner's Percussion Concerto, a work she's played in full with the NCS (and several other Tar Heel orchestras). Fans of the great artist, whom Curry and others have likened in importance to Heifetz, Casals, Dennis Brain, Andrés Segovia, and such, might have wished for something else not previously performed here — Christopher Rouse's Der gerettete Alberich, perhaps, or Michael Daugherty's slightly more recent UFO — but even without its reflective slow movement, the Schwantner provided a superb introduction to Glennie's immense technical and interpretive skills, and on this occasion the orchestra gave her outstanding support, marred only slightly by too much amplification of one of the orchestral percussion instruments.
She returned in the second half for her own transcription for vibraphone of the Piccolo Concerto in C, Op. 44/1, by the "Red Priest" (Vivaldi); this was the evening's greatest prize, in part because she was up front and barefoot (so she can feel the music) at the lip of the stage, and in part because the combination of virtuosity with subtlety and restraint made this one of the most breath-taking music encounters with this artist to date. What Milton Cross said, long, long ago, of soprano Birgit Nilsson, applied here: we were richly blessed with this performance, by this artist, on this occasion. (For still more information about this remarkable artist and person, see two special essays at her website: http://www.evelyn.co.uk/live/hearing_essay.htm and http://www.evelyn.co.uk/live/disability_essay.htm.)
But it wasn't Glennie's last gasp, by any means. She plays a mean snare drum, and for the concert's finale, she was joined by eight high school drummers, all of 'em lined up, in front of the band, for a souped-up rendition of Ravel's "Bolero." It probably wouldn't have won any accolades from the composer, who viewed a rendition of this score by the world's then-leading conductor (Toscanini) with disdain, but it was a sure-fire crowd pleaser, a sizzling-hot sonic spectacular that brought a memorable evening to a memorable conclusion.
In alphabetical order, the assisting artists (and their affiliations) were Brandon Fernandez (Sanderson High School), Jake Gardner (Ravenscroft), Nick Havit (South Granville), Guarav Judge (Cary Academy), Kyle May (Green Hope), Matt Morrow (Ravenscroft), Harrison Wicker (Cary Academy), and Matt Williams (Cary Academy).
The orchestra may wish to consider emergency alternatives in the event of future adverse weather challenges. On this occasion, it might have made sense to shift the concert to Meymandi Concert Hall. The crowd would most likely have fit nicely; several thousand folks, beyond the musicians themselves, would have been a good deal more comfortable; and some of those folks would as a result have had an opportunity to hear our state orchestra, un-amplified, in its acoustically-pleasing permanent home.
Meanwhile, Summerfest continues for the next six Saturdays. For details, click here [inactive 8/10].
P.S. If you want to hear NCS Artistic Director Grant Llewellyn conduct this summer, you'll have to skip Cary and travel to Brevard, NC, or Round Top, TX....
*The management of the Richmond Symphony, faced with the 11th-hour indisposition of its MD, called Dorati in the middle of the night to see if he'd sub for Beethoven's Ninth. Dorati asked if the orchestra had an assistant conductor. Yes, but..., they told him. He then hung up on 'em — and Curry, the assistant, led it!