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It was one of the most colorful orchestral concerts presented in the Koka Booth Amphitheatre in recent memory, and the large forces assembled for the occasion sounded absolutely wonderful, too. Indeed, the impact of the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, in both parts of the program, and of the Concert Singers of Cary, in the second half, made those who've heard lots of programs in this often-acoustically-problematic venue sit up and take notice, for this time around the band sounded like a real orchestra (which is not invariably the case when the venue's regular tenant is ensconced), and choir, too, came across as the rock-solid, splendidly prepared ensemble it generally is when heard indoors. The keys to this are surely held by the many participating artists and their leaders — Alan Neilson, Music Director of the orchestra, and Lawrence Speakman, Artistic Director of the CSC — but also by the evening's superior sound engineer, Dave Emory, who used a familiar-looking microphone setup but who managed to avoid highlighting individual instruments or stands while at the same time sidestepping distortion, imbalance, etc. In other words, for the first time in a long time, the sound that reached the audience resembled the sound of an expertly-prepared orchestra in a fine hall. (If Emory's not Summerfest's regular sound guy, maybe he ought to be....)
The superior sound would have been sufficient to make this an exceptional evening, but the program was pretty spectacular, too. Maestro Neilson began with the Czardas from Delibes' Coppelia, the only non-Russian work heard this time around. Given the long-term political tension between the Hungarians and the Russians, it probably wasn't a good pick, but the composer was French, and the French and the Russians tend to be artistic soul-mates, provided no one reminds them of Napoleon. Anyway, it was both brilliant and short, and it led to the "Polovtsian Dances" from Borodin's Prince Igor, even more brilliant in many respects than the Delibes snippet. It was written with solo and choral parts, and the latter are often mustered for concert readings, but for better or worse that wasn't the case this time. (It's said to be a killer for the singers, and they had other fish to fry, after the intermission.) The first half ended with the Berceuse and General Dance from Stravinsky's Firebird, yet another intensely colorful and by no means easy score that benefited from the RSO's polished playing and Neilson's reliable leadership.
Part two was devoted to a complete performance of Prokofiev's music for the great Eisenstein film Alexander Nevsky, variously transliterated but here spelled in the customary (American) manner. The music is among this composer's most stirring and moving, and much of the drama and emotion emerged in this superb performance led by Speakman. The orchestral playing was exceptional in most respects, the choral work was spot-on in terms of attacks and blend (although the men and women were not in quartets), and the visiting soloist, mezzo-soprano Diane Thornton, of Davidson College, could have inspired a stone to weep, so profoundly poignant was her lament for the dead in Part VI. (This was a concert performance, but as this section began, she walked slowly to the center of the stage, surveying the field of battle, sang, and then slowly left, manifestly downcast....) There's a bit of an uplift in the victory chorus that concludes the piece, but chances are good that all who experienced this performance will recall the buildup to the battle, the savage fight, and Thornton's solo as the highlights of a truly exceptional evening under increasingly threatening skies in Cary. Bravo to all participants!