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Choral Music, Orchestral Music Review Print

Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, According to the NCS...

April 8, 2005 - Raleigh, NC:

The NC Symphony presented Principal Cellist Bonnie Thron, mezzo-soprano Sally Burgess, the NC Master Chorale, and Resident Conductor William Henry Curry in an outstanding concert Friday, April 8, in Meymandi Concert Hall.

Before the concert began, Dr. Assad Meymandi joined such luminaries as Maya Angelou, Billy Graham, Fred Chappell, and William Friday as a recipient of the governor's highest award – The Order of the Long Leaf Pine. This prestigious honor was given in recognition of his service, dedication, and generosity to the people of North Carolina. The award enjoins the recipient...

To enjoy fully all rights granted to members of this exalted order, among which is the special privilege to propose the following North Carolina toast in select company anywhere in the free world:

Here's to the land
Of the Long Leaf pines,
The summer land
Where the sun doth shine,
Where the weak grow strong
And the strong grow great,
Here's to "down home,"
the old North State!

It was a warm and happy moment, enhanced by the recipient's gracious praise of his adoptive state and warmed by the enthusiastic applause of the audience in the hall he made possible, which honors the memory of his mother.

The concert began with one of the three Suites of Ancient Airs and Dances from the pen of Ottorino Respighi. Back when we bought separate components (speakers, amplifiers, pre-amplifiers, equalizers, turntables, tone arms, cartridges, diamond needles and all that stuff) and called our system "hi-fi," Antal Dorati's Mercury Living Presence recording of this music was a standard test of equipment. If you could produce full, rich sound without Lp hiss or turntable rumble or clicks, if you could hear the detail in delicate soft passages without distortion in the loud ones, you had yourself quite a system. The score is a moderately romanticized setting of music from the Italian baroque. It maintains the charm, the intimate feel and, in places, the rollicking good fun of the originals. It is the kind of music the NCS is extraordinarily good at, though I think this one could have used one more short rehearsal. Perhaps the ensemble was a little more polished on Saturday night.

The anticipated world-premiere of Curry's The Garden District for Cello and Orchestra as published in the concert program many months ago was not heard. Alas the work is not yet ready for performance. The art of composition is accompanied by arduous work transcribing the manuscript, including the detail of notes, interpretive markings, orchestration, and much, much more. It is greatly to be hoped that we will yet have the happy opportunity to hear this music by our Resident Conductor.

We did have the joy of hearing Thron's convincing cello in two short works by Dvorák, both played from her repertoire of music committed to memory. First was the mystical and meditative "Silent Woods" for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68, No. 5, and then the more familiar Rondo for Cello and Orchestra in G minor, Op. 94, was given. (The "New World" Symphony is Op. 95.) The Rondo is characterized by the kind of lilting tunes so familiar to us in the symphonies and other orchestral works of the Czech master. It is always a joy to hear Thron's broad tone – sweet in the upper register, warm and embracing in the lower – and her musicality, charming joy from a score – and to experience the delightful added bonus of her beguiling smile at the end.

As the intermission drew to a close, the NC Master Chorale, prepared by Al Sturgis, filled the choir loft behind and to the sides of the orchestra. Curry brought down his baton and we were off with Alexander Nevsky in an epoch of Russian history depicted vividly by Sergei Prokofiev's music even without the images Sergei Eisenstein put on film*. What a marvelous sound filled the hall in the second section – "Song about Alexander Nevsky" – when the men of the chorus raised their voices with and above the orchestra in that unforgettable melody! If anyone left this concert without humming, whistling, or da-da-da-ing it somewhere on the way home, I would be surprised. Each movement seemed to be more exciting than the previous one. The call to "Arise, Ye Russian People" (Part IV) was stirring and invigorating, and "The Battle on the Ice" (Part V) reached climax after climax. But then, but then..., before Nevsky's victorious entry into Pskov, there was "The Field of the Dead" (Part VI) to be taken into account. Soloist Burgess, in a stunning iridescent rose gown with a small green camisole, drifted on stage as the soft sad chords introduced us to the meaning of war that heroes never forget – horror and death and loss. She was the perfect warriors' angel, embracing each with her glance, her vow of fealty not to the handsome man but to the brave man; her voice gathered up all within the sound of it into a comforting catharsis. Then, as the music reiterated the pathos, she drifted off stage, still searching, still gathering the fallen to her bosom. It was an awesome moment that left the cheeks of more than a few unexpectedly damp. Then there was the triumphant finale and the concert was over. The applause honored the artists, and we took our tired bodies home, knowing that we had been somewhere special on this night in Meymandi Concert Hall.

*Curiously, the Raleigh performances came in the same week as two in the Triad, given by the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra – click here for a review of one of those concerts.

[Edited/corrected 4/13/05]