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Orchestral Music Review Print

French Chestnuts at Summerfest

June 21, 2003 - Cary, NC:

The June 21 concert on the NC Symphony's Summerfest Series entitled "Vive La France" was planned and conducted by Assistant Conductor Jeffrey Pollock. It featured chestnuts of the French Repertoire, but by no means were all of them lightweight fare.

The performance opened not with an overture but with a march: Emmanuel Chabrier's "Marche joyeuse," which was followed by the same composer's most famous work, "España." The tempo seemed a bit sluggish in the former, and it did not seem to have enough body to satisfy out of doors, but the latter was better realized and had all the flair one has come to expect. Next up was Carmen Dragon's arrangement of the children's song, more popular in French Canada than in France itself these days: "Allouette," alas misspelled in the program, a short but charming orchestration, in a theme-and-variations style. This was followed by Gabriel Fauré's stately "Pavane," which was delicately played, particularly well rendered, and sounded better out-of-doors than might have been expected, almost better than in the ballroom for which one imagines it might have been destined. Curiously, it was the most effective piece of the first half, which concluded with the Suite from the ballet Les Patineurs , arranged by Constant Lambert using music from two operas by Giacomo Meyerbeer - Le Prophète and L'Étoile du Nord - whose quieter movements came across better than the louder, more boisterous ones, and which overall seemed rather flat, although it was satisfactorily played.

After intermission, we heard the famous "Barcarolle" from Jacques Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann , actually a duet aria in the opera, as Pollock pointed out. It was nicely played, but seemed a bit distant. This was followed by Jean-Joseph Mouret's "Rondeau de fanfare" of Masterpiece Theater fame, which seemed a bit too brassy and shrill to this listener's ears. The balance of the program was devoted to three movements (nos. 1, 4, & 5) of Hector Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique , which were impressively played, making me wish that the entire work had been programmed. Indeed, the audience, which heretofore had seemed determined not to let the music interfere with its conversations and other activities like eating and snuggling, and yes, even telephoning, was at last quiet and attentive, as if caught up and engrossed in the drama of the work as portrayed by the music.

Pollock gave excellent oral program notes - there were none in the printed program booklet, which merely lists the works for all of the concerts in the series - before each of the works presented except for the Mouret, which he followed with a quiz question concerning how the work became so recognizable. He welcomed the audience at the outset in French with a good if not quite native accent, and he gave the significant information about each composer and work. His introduction to the Berlioz was especially good. He began by saying that it was undoubtedly the "most daring first symphony ever written," mentioning that this is the bicentennial year of the composer's birth. He told of Berlioz's obsession with the actress Harriet Smithson and the musical idée fixe theme that represents her and the historical significance of this then new concept. He had it played and led demonstrations of several measures of other significant moments in the work. He described the première performance and quoted from the program that was given to the audience in attendance. It was all in all fairly lengthy. Nonetheless, in view of the observed behavior of this audience, it seemed to this reviewer proof positive that, when done right, as Pollock did admirably in this case, you can get uninitiated listeners, as these appeared to be to a large extent, to understand, appreciate and enjoy music that they would otherwise shun and claim to find too difficult or uninteresting.

The audience applauded generously and rose to its feet at the conclusion of the Berlioz, and Pollock rewarded it with Offenbach's "Can-Can," to whose rhythm many of the listeners clapped along.

This was this reviewer's first experience with the Regency Park Amphitheatre and its sound system, and I have to say it is a very mixed bag. It seems fairly unobtrusive in the quieter works, movements, or moments, but when any volume is involved, it distorts to varying degrees. The brasses sound shrill, as do the strings in the upper registers, and the percussion appears to be coming from the bottom of a barrel. It is the woodwinds that seem to be the least affected. Often, the music is just too bright and "artificial." Orchestral music simply sounds better in an orchestral hall; it doesn't come across well outdoors, and this amplification does more distorting than enhancing.