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A spectacular orchestral showpiece capped a rewarding evening of music by American, French, and Russian masters as the NC Symphony featured two of its own outstanding artists in its latest Raleigh Classical Series subscription concert. William Henry Curry, the orchestra's ever-reliable Resident Conductor, officiated. The venue was the state-supported orchestra's home base, Meymandi Concert Hall.
Things got underway with a rare reading of Roy Harris' splendid Symphony No. 7, completed in 1952. It's his so-called "Dance" Symphony, but there are few parallels to Beethoven's Seventh, sometimes referred to by the same nickname. In Harris' case, the single-movement work in three parts consists of a powerfully moving passacaglia with variations, still more variations and development, and then a quasi-recapitulation, capped by a dramatic, high-intensity coda. There are hints throughout the work of Harris' earlier, perhaps even stronger scores, including but not limited to that which is arguably his best, the Symphony No. 3.
Curry is clearly committed to great American music, and this score fills the bill; if one were setting out to build a great American orchestra, one might consider playing a good deal more music like this and a good deal less second or third-rate stuff from offshore. Anyway, the musicians dug into this at-times dark and forbidding score with levels of passion and intensity not always evident at these Raleigh concerts. There was particularly gratifying richness from the lower strings, and the clarity, definition, and precision of all the players, and the overall ensemble, consistently impressed. Phrasing was superb, too — this is especially important in a work with themes as long as some encountered here. There was solid but not overwhelming applause, but chances are good that more exposure to this score and others by Harris would significantly enhance response, and there are surely few conductors working today who admire his work as much as Curry.
The second work on the program was also in three sections, played without pause. 'Twas Saint-Saëns' charming Cello Concerto in A minor, and the soloist was the orchestra's Principal Cello, Bonnie Thron. Her playing was so good — so warm, so radiant, so technically polished, and interpretively so in keeping with the spirit of the work — that one wondered why we are so often given instead of our own fine artists visitors of — often — little or no greater merit. She used a wide range of dynamics and wonderful expression to convey the solo lines, and Curry helped ensure comparably good support from her colleagues. There was a big uproar when this was over, resulting in repeated recalls, dotted with several bouquets for Thron.
Following the intermission came a single work, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. It's often been recorded, and it's fairly well known among classical music enthusiasts, but in fact it's not often heard live anymore. This performance made up for the comparative lack of airings in recent decades, for it glowed from within as the fine players of the NCS did their various things. The chief soloist was Concertmaster Brian Reagin, whose recurring contributions were consistently strong, but he was hardly alone, as this is a veritable treasure trove of goodies for nearly every principal in the orchestra — all the woodwinds, all the brasses (including, especially, the low brasses), the harp, the percussionists, and not least, the (on this occasion) lightly-augmented strings. Curry led a dramatic performance that in most places permitted the music to speak with tremendous eloquence. The slow movement was, in a word, exquisite, and exquisitely molded throughout. The finale (titled "Festival at Baghdad — Shipwreck — The Sea") was taken at a refreshingly brisk pace that seemed to bother no one in the band, given the group's present high level of virtuosity. One could feel the sea surge as the ship rode the swells. In fact, sometimes one could almost smell the salt air and feel the ocean spray. There was, when Scheherazade wound down, another uproar. Yes, it was good. But why were there so many empty seats? Perhaps the turn-out will be better in New Bern, where this program will be repeated on March 2. See our Eastern calendar for details.