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It appears to be a well-hidden fact that North Carolina State University offers no diploma for the music major at this time, but the school harbors, nonetheless, a fine music department made up exclusively of students pursuing other objectives. This seeming anomaly — especially when paired against the fine music department talents on display elsewhere locally — might make one expect less than revelatory results. This, as witnessed in Stewart Theatre on November 19, could not be further from the truth.
First off, the department of music at N.C. State is in the capable hands of composer J. Mark Scearce but also has on its roster such well-practiced hands as those of Randolph Foy, who conducted this Sunday afternoon concert program, the third in the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra series called “North Carolina Connections.” Foy, in addition to possessing experience in musical “sleuthing” galore, is that rarity among musicians — an artist who knows the repertoire inside and out (and then some), and one who can also speak to an audience without putting them off.
It was logical, I thought, to begin the program with music of 18th-century Moravian Salem, North Carolina. Along with the English settlements on our state’s coastline, Salem — soon to be incorporated with nearby Winston as one all-inclusive township — and its history represent North Carolina from its inception. Now familiar as Old Salem, the area began life in 1766, its people hard-working churchgoers who often sang through the hymn tunes of one Johann Fredrich Peter.
All but forgotten today by anyone outside the present-day Moravian community, Peter is credited with having penned the earliest chamber music composed in America. His quintets, anthems, and sacred music, as Foy explained, were mostly written in North Carolina in the 1780s, these last used in actual church services to illuminate Biblical texts. The NC State Concert Choir — ably directed by Dr. Alfred Sturgis — sang strongly in four of these anthems. But, in the final analysis, despite the polished performances, a little of this proved enough, Peter’s music coming across a bit like the work of Haydn on an uninspired day.
Fortunately, the program picked up from here, as Foy continued with a world premiere by former NCSU student Ted Gellar. The “connection” in Gellar's work, titled “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” is the verbiage of Harriet Jacobs, who toiled on a plantation in Edenton during the War between the States. Whether or not these texts were pure and unadulterated is difficult to ascertain, but I was struck, as the composer must also have been, by the majesty of the words as they played off one another.
Jacobs — if, indeed, she managed to set down everything as presented — had a gift for summoning up strength through prose, all the more awe-inspiring insofar as she would, following period tradition, have been denied an education. The narrator, Kathryn Williams, dignified in bearing, read Jacobs’ musings on slavery — that “pit of abominations,” that "cage of obscene birds" — with tremendous authority. It was a shame that, although mic'd, Williams was forced to approach shouting as the orchestra rushed her three or four times.
This is perhaps something that Gellar will re-examine now that the pressure of the premiere is behind him. His musical language is concise and bold, particularly when asking the orchestra to call out at full blast against the moral outrage of slavery. The flute, percussion, and a mournful saxophone (heard from repeatedly in the cleverly-constructed third movement “Interlude”) all made statements that led up to a shattering climax. My only reservation is that the music seemed mostly secondary to the textual material binding it together, as is often the case with American voice poems. Copland had the same trouble with his, and Gellar, all of 22 years at this writing, will, I’m sure, with time find his way through that particular maze.
Following intermission, the Asian-influenced “Pastorales” by Lou Harrison, written in Asheville between 1949-51, came and went, making little impression on me, though the orchestra was, by now, completely settled-in.
To conclude the program, the department’s chair, composer Scearce, seated in the audience, introduced and then heard a performance of his 2003 ballet score “Ouroboros.” Scearce’s title refers to the familiar image of a coiled snake with its tail in its mouth—representing the eternal cycle of life— and the entire suite evoked images of serpents, from the Garden of Eden to the charmers of the East and finally ending with Appalachian snake-handlers, hence the work’s inclusion on this program. It tied a neat ribbon around the entire program, actually, as the Moravian churchgoers opening the show gave way here, in Scearce’s musical world, to the Pentecostal Christians of North Carolina.
Mayan fertility symbols beckoned at the beginning, while the ending of “Ouroboros” featured a cacophonic wailing of instrumental sound representing, as Scearce explained in his address, the absurdity of religious fervor. As Scearce becomes older and more experienced, his music takes on a warmth, ably displayed in his second movement, “Beguiled,” linking the snake in Eden to the evil in all mankind.
The instrumentation, from conga drums to a wily oboe figure to harmonica, sustained interest throughout the work’s three movements. It was, he said, the first time he had heard this music without dancers, which he continued to imagine in his mind’s eye as the performance continued. Even without the stage picture, the music represented the work of a highly creative individual who will, no doubt, continue to shower positives on the music program at N.C. State — with or without a music major in the offing.