The NC Symphony's summer series, Summerfest, continued Saturday night in Cary's Regency Park. On the podium was Assistant Conductor Joan Landry, leading some NCS players and a whole host of fill-ins — more, perhaps, than usual this time around. The platform was graced by two grand pianos, played in the second half by Mayron Tsong (of UNC) and Milton Laufer (of Peace); these estimable artists performed the substantial piano parts in Camille Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals, which Landry told the crowd is the best-known work of the French composer and teacher, although fans of Samson et Dalila (or at least its Bacchanale) and of the "Organ" Symphony might demur. The work was given with narration (poems) from a 2004 book by John Lithgow and graced with projected illustrations by Boris Kulikov. The narrator was Frank Stasio, of WUNC-FM (although representatives of WCPE were also on hand to help host the evening). Now the use of texts to knit together the score's 14 numbers is not uncommon — music-loving members of several generations since WWII will surely recall with fondness verses by Ogden Nash (especially as recorded by Noël Coward) that provided a good deal more amusement than Lithgow's and at least comparable enlightenment. In any event, the performance — further graced by some fine contributions from the orchestra, including a lovely cello solo by Elizabeth Beilman — was a fine one, with the narrative bits nicely enough integrated into the fabric of the music. (The music was not played in the order listed in the program, but the rearrangements were seamless, and chances are few people noticed the changes.)
The concert had begun with Brahms' Fifth Hungarian Dance; the short first half also included a rare work by Ernest Toch, the composer best known for his spoken choral work, the "Geographical Fugue." His "Circus Overture" is a noisy thing that in and of itself hints at why it (and perhaps his other orchestral music, too) is so little known, but it's a fact that the sound in the amphitheatre did it no great favors, for the balance was off, the winds were over-amplified, and the microphones were too close to the too-few upper strings, resulting in some fairly scrawny sound.
Smetana's "The Moldau," a once-popular favorite from the composer's evening-length My Country, was an attractive addition to the program, but the slow tempo worked to its disadvantage, the playing was not consistently up to par, and there were ongoing problems with over-amplification, particularly of the higher winds.
The first half of the concert ended with Dvorák's "Carnival Overture," in which the sound was altogether more solid and pleasing although balance problems persisted.
When, after the many drawings for prizes, the second half finally began, the sound seemed better, although granted this may have resulted from our gradually getting used to it. The Saint-Saëns was pleasing on several levels, and it elicited warm and sustained applause, and the concluding selections from Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite gave considerable satisfaction, too. This score used to be on every top-40 classical list, and it's easy to understand why; on this occasion, "On the Trail" (with violin solos by Dovid Friedlander) and "Cloudburst" provided the work's most "Western" number and it's stem-winder of a storm scene. The latter is so good and so effective it is hard to imagine what possessed the NCS to gussy it up with recordings of real storms — perhaps it was yet another example of contemporary programmers' unwillingness to let great music speak for itself. In any event, the audience seemed to eat it up, and egged on by Landry, "demanded" (and got) an encore in the form of Elgar's first "Pomp and Circumstance" March.
Summerfest concludes next Saturday, July 21, with "Christmas in July," with soloist Dovid Friedlander, violin, and Summerfest Artistic Director William Henry Curry leading music by Coleridge-Taylor, the NCS' own Terry Mizesko, Vivaldi, Kreisler, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Prokofiev, Bryan Kelley, and others, capped by a Christmas sing-along. Bring your own ice.
(Edited, corrected 7/22/07.)