It would be easy to get the impression that all the important orchestral work hereabouts takes place in Meymandi Concert Hall, and indeed many music lovers talk about "the symphony" (or perhaps "The Symphony") as if there's only one, far as the eye can see... or ear can hear.... That this is emphatically not the case was demonstrated once again on the afternoon of October 2, when the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra – one of two performing ensembles fielded by the Raleigh Civic Symphony Association – presented a remarkable concert in the ballroom of the student center at NCSU. This venue is problematical, but the 38 or so players were on a low platform at one end of the room, and the improvement, visually and aurally, was pronounced.
Music Director Randolph Foy is a fine conductor, teacher, and scholar, and his programs are almost always bracing. That he bolsters his "message" with to-the-point remarks and fine printed notes is a plus. This time, the subject was symphonies, and the selections included Beethoven's First and Honegger's Fourth. Now before you drift off, thinking there's no way a local chamber orchestra can "say" anything about Beethoven that has not already been stated many times over, please recall that this early work picks up the torch from Haydn and Mozart, and less is sometimes more, even in Beethoven, at this stage. Foy illustrated the Master's compositional process by having his instrumentalists play several bits and pieces from sketchbooks or whatever, thus casting new light on an old favorite that – as Foy noted – was probably receiving its first hearing by some in attendance. With this background, then, the performance was, in a word, riveting. This was fresh, new stuff that emerged, and never mind the few rough spots – again, think what it may have been like at the premiere! And even for old hands, there were lots of special moments, many of which stemmed from stellar timpanist Candy Pahl's work with hard sticks, the net effect of which was to give the work far greater power and bite than is usually the case. It's a fact that no two performances of anything are ever alike – not back-to-back readings of concerts given in pairs, and certainly not singleton readings, separated by time. Yep, it was good. Very good.
After a short intermission, Foy and the RCCO took up the Symphony No. 4, in A, of Arthur Honegger. This had the potential to be a dark work, and it is, in a manner of speaking. It was penned in Switzerland in 1946, in the wake of WWII, and in a time of considerable privation. It's called "Deliciae basilienses" ("The Delights of Basel"), and it's accessible on many levels. One can enjoy its quite marvelous sound painting – it strikes this listener as a finely-woven tapestry, first depicting the city at dawn and then later in the day. One can joy in the economy of its lines and tone colors. Or one can register amazement at the complexity of its architecture, culminating in the composer's remarkable entwining of five different motifs, in the coda. Once again, the playing gave immense pleasure, despite some minor – truly minor – problems. This chamber orchestra plays from strength, so its five string sections, say, seemed equally adept. The horns and brass – stationed on the left rear corner of the platform – were at once present and deftly blended into the sonic fabric. The woodwinds were strong and audible. And the work itself is arguably one of Honegger's best, if not the best known (which would of course be his famous "train" piece, "Pacific 231"). So like the Beethoven, this too was good – and music lovers remain in the debt of Foy and the Raleigh Civic Symphony Association – one of our "other" orchestral presenters! – for their astute programming and their ongoing enrichment of our cultural lives.
The RCSA's "big" orchestra plays next, on November 13. Click here for details.