It was hot and hazy – reminiscent of time spent in (or, more properly, on) the South China Sea a while back, when "haze gray all the way" was the Navy's slogan. But here, in Cary, on July 23, if you sat very still, it was not too bad. And at a concert – even an al fresco one, on a warm night – sitting very still isn't such a bad idea. Those who moved around – or who just moved, period – musicians on the stage, kids in the crowd – did less well than sedate, perhaps sedated old-fogy listeners, wise to NC's summer doldrums. The occasion was the grand finale of Summerfest, the NC Symphony's annual outdoor run in Regency Park. NCS Resident Conductor William Henry Curry, the series' Artistic Director, had some help this summer, from Music Director Grant Llewellyn and from now-departed Assistant Conductor Kenneth Raskin. But as we've noted previously, Curry's fingerprints are all over these concerts, and that's good, 'cause for the most part, they have been, well, programs that resembled, more or less, pops evenings of old, when the music was light classical fare. That was certainly the case this time, and the large crowd – surprisingly large, given the lack of a big-name headliner – seemed perfectly content to savor some very fine music, for the most part quite handsomely realized. Alas, it wasn't (as a child once said) purr-fect – no, the bête noire of Summerfest isn't the occasional lapse in ensemble or premature (or late) entry, but rather the sound system, which has been even more variable than our oft'-wretched weather of late. This go-round, the sound ranged from thin and shrill to the point of uncomfortable harshness to boomy and poorly defined. Sometimes there was a mid-range, other times there was a top and a bottom and almost no in-between. And the 'CPE announcer, with a hand-held microphone, was the worst – the amplified sound from one person was of higher volume than the entire orchestra. For the record, the sound guy this year wasn't the same as last year. They need to try someone else next summer. The code has yet to be broken....
The program's theme was "A Night in Vienna," but it wasn't what New Year's Eve fans might have expected. Yes, there was a bit of Strauss (as in the Strauss Family) – but there was a bit of Richard Strauss, too, and some Schubert and some Mozart and a wonderful soloist from the ranks of the orchestra – and some humdinger albeit smaller solos from her colleagues as well. Schubert's Marche Militaire (arr. Leopold Damrosch – ah, now there's a name from the distant past!) served as a lively curtain-raiser, evoking thoughts of souped-up classics in the era of Mengelberg. The Overture to Beethoven's Prometheus, an extraordinary ballet that is almost never heard (in full or even in fragments) nowadays, was splendidly played, as were the wonderful waltzes from Act III of (R.) Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. Violinist Jacqueline Saed, done up in a formal gown (betcha she was miserable...), played the first movement of Mozart's Fifth Violin Concerto, displaying awesome musicianship and technique through the electronic patina that boosted her sound to equal that of all her assembled colleagues on stage – and that sliced with razor-sharpness through haze and what little breeze there was. Brahms' "Academic Festival" Overture, with its gay finale of student (drinking) songs, brought the first half – a very civilized and cultured first half, please note – to a rousing conclusion. Curry kept up the usual Summerfest banter, briefly commenting on the music in informed but not too serious ways. The audience responded with warmth and enthusiasm – although a cynic might observe that there's a chance that they got up, mostly, because they'd been sitting for a while. Hey, it worked for King George at Messiah, so why not in Cary?
Part two was lighter, some might say, but it may be worth noting that the performances were given every bit as much attention and care as the more "serious" works in the first half – and, as a result, the "light" bits were, if anything, even more impressive. Curry knows this material – scores that a lot of MD's think are beneath their station to mess with, so if they get done, the associates and assistants do 'em. It was therefore a treat to hear Suppé's Light Cavalry Overture – and the "Blue Danube Waltz," of J. Strauss II, and Josef Strauss' "Feuerfest" – played so idiomatically and with such evident affection. Curry's not Viennese, and there were no dispensers of Schlag (sweetened whipped cream) in sight, but in these selections, we were indeed transported. And the icing on the torte, as it were, was the re-appearance of Saed, for two of Kreisler's most famous little chestnuts, "Liebesleid" and "Liebesfreud" (which are often, if not invariably, paired). The Overture to Fledermaus, by J. Strauss II, brought the formal part of the show to a close, but there was more: with a nod to the Weather-Gods (and perhaps a wink at weather-guesser Fishel), the Maestro shook his fist at the heavens with the great and noisy Polka schnell, "Thunder and Lightning" ("Unter Donner und Blitz"), Op. 324, by JS II. Here's hoping there's not payback next time!
There's one more shot at the NCS in this venue this summer – Pops in the Park, on 9/4. Click here for details [link inactive 9/08]. But if you've never heard this bunch in the NCS' home hall, hie thee there sometime and check it out.