The last of the NC Symphony's Sunday Serenade concerts - literally the last, because next year the run of three nominally small events (which often involve fairly substantial forces) will be called the Matinee Masterworks Series - was presented on the afternoon of May 18, in Meymandi Concert Hall. The program was attractive in many respects, for it offered a rarely-heard quasi masterwork (or perhaps it would be best to call it a hybrid score by a composer now recognized as a master), a relatively new work, and a time-honored favorite. The concert featured two stellar solo artists whose affiliation with the orchestra has helped enhance its artistic prowess - Concertmaster Brian Reagin and Assistant Concertmaster Rebekah Binford. It may be worth noting here that the devotion of these players to regular orchestral work may be the only thing that has kept them from being household names beyond the Tar Heel State, for they are superb musicians in every respect. The concert was conducted by William Henry Curry, a leader whose mastery of music, great and not so great, is evident in everything he does. The informally-attired orchestra was in top form despite the absence of several principals - and the consequential presence of some apparently bright-eyed younger players. The orchestra was also pared down somewhat, in keeping with the requirements of the music on the program. There were, for example, only 29 strings. Lest readers who recall those occasional observations by CVNC ers that the NCS is, basically, string-poor, we hasten to note that, this time, there were plenty of instrumentalists, and they played brilliantly from start to finish. That's good, because the N&O broke some most unwelcome news earlier in the day - the NCS has a substantial deficit that is expected to grow larger, so hat-passing beyond the norm has begun and cost-saving measures are being imposed. The plus side of this, if there is one..., is that there's lots of repertoire that admirably suits an orchestra of, say, 65 regular players, and within that vast repertoire is lots of stuff that we've heard here rarely, or not at all. That concerts given by fewer players cost the presenter less than larger events should be readily apparent.
The program began with a great rarity by Schumann, the so-called Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Op. 52. The title gives it away, in no uncertain terms, and the genesis of the piece is admirably described in a program note by Kenneth C. Viant. Curry led a performance that brought out the score's many jewel-like qualities and (presumably) obscured its purported problems, of which there surely are some - otherwise it would turn up more often in concerts. It may be worth noting that this is hardly the first novelty Curry has led here - his recent performances of Tchaikovsky's Manfred come immediately to mind. Even if he weren't such a wonderful conductor, his innovative programming would be worth a great deal. Put his talent together with his imagination and he comes out on top of the stick-waving heap nearly every time, for our money.
The second work, which received its first US performance in Southern Pines on May 15, was by the NCS' resident composer, Nathaniel Stookey. The piece, "Double," is an attractive work in two movements, written for a father-son violin team in the UK and premiered there under the composer's direction in 1999. Stookey spoke briefly before the performance. The soloists were the aforementioned Reagin-Binford duo. The work is scored for the two soloists and strings alone. The first movement is somewhat animated; it involved a bit of unison playing by the soloists before they began to engage in dialogue and some attractive duets, variously accompanied by their string colleagues. The second movement is a truly gorgeous elegiac essay that begins at a glacial pace but gradually - very gradually - picks up steam and energy. It allowed for some of the most impressive soft playing we have yet heard from the NCS strings, and it made a powerful and often moving impression. Stookey, the soloists, and the orchestra - and Curry, too - were warmly applauded by the fairly small crowd. And the work itself, unlike "Big Bang" and the recent "Last Gasp" (formally titled "Out of the Everywhere"), would seem to have a shot at still more performances. It is far and away the most impressive music by Stookey that we have heard here.
After an unusually long intermission (or maybe it just seemed that way, due to the frigid temperature of the hall), Education Director Suzanne Rousso introduced Maxine Swalin, "Mother of the NC Symphony" (whose 100th birthday celebration is reported elsewhere in this issue), in whose honor is named a new Outstanding Educator Award, which was presented to Dr. Malvin Artley , whose career has been long enough to have earned him several pensions if he had chosen, say, civil service or the military instead of a life in the arts. Nominator Sarah Womack, part of whose letter was reproduced in a flyer distributed at the concert, began studying violin with Artley in 1955 and noted that "it turned into a life-altering experience" that must surely have been shared by many of his other students, over the years, too.
The program ended with a performance of Mozart's Symphony in G Minor. For reasons that elude us, the NCS has not played nearly enough Mozart, and the Mozart it has played across the past 20 years or so has often left a good bit to be desired. Despite my admiration for Curry, then, I sank deeply into my chair, hoping the performance would not be too bad - and that it would be over quickly. For openers, he took the repeats.... We listened with amazement as the piece unfolded, for it was radiantly realized and often seemed as fresh as it did when we had first encountered it, years ago. This was spectacular Mozart playing by an obviously well-drilled ensemble, led by a person who knows and loves the score. The fact that this smallish program had been taken all over - to Southern Pines, to Durham, and to Wilmington before the concert under review - must count for something, too, but a report from a colleague who heard the Sandhills performance on the previous Thursday glowed, too. The strings were awesome, the winds were flawlessly meshed, the balances were superb - one would be hard-pressed to ask for more, anywhere on the face of this planet.
After the formal program, there was yet another rarity - Curry announced a "spontaneous" encore. The Overture to Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro brought back to the stage a few players who had sat out the G Minor Symphony for more brilliant music-making. The bottom line is that when things click for this orchestra, it doesn't need big-name, high-priced imports. It is good to be reminded of this as the deficit yawns. It is curious, too, that two music directors ago, the NCS tanked, economically. Now another one has departed - and the band is again in some difficulty. Maybe we'd all be better off if we'd keep the assets we already have, rather than continue the ongoing "star search." If the goal is "a quantum leap in artistic excellence," perhaps the folks to make it happen are already here.
Since the matinee concert saluted a distinguished music educator, it was a happy quirk of scheduling that led to a concert at Peace College on the evening of May 18 where the winners of the NC Symphony's 2002 Youth Concerto Competition performed. The "Next Generation Recital" brought brilliant closure to a weekend that had begun with a parade of talent in Fletcher Opera Theater the previous Friday night (reviewed elsewhere in this issue). At Peace, the program consisted of five works, four of which came from the 20th century, and the playing was exceptional all 'round.
Clarinetist Brandon Yarns, of Brevard High School, studies with David Kirby (of Brevard College); he played part of a Weber concerto and Stravinsky's daunting Three Pieces (which require clarinets in A and B-Flat), making child's play of the latter's difficulties. He'd surely have captured first place, instead of second, in the senior division, but for the competition he received from the person who served as the evening's clean-up hitter.... He was accompanied by Janice McLaughlin.
Elizabeth Lee gave an impressive albeit somewhat aggressive reading of Debussy's Sonata for violin and piano, accompanied by Josh Waldron, a fellow student at the NCSA (who was as impressive as the violinist). She studies with Kevin Lawrence and was the first place winner in the junior division.
Saxophonist Andrew Hall, whose teachers include Susan Eisenson, Roberta Melton, Dan Davis, and Timothy McAllister, played Ibert's charming Concertino da camera. He took second place in the junior division and was accompanied at Peace by Meredith's Frank Pittman.
And Gal Nyska, a freshman at Rice who plays a cello by Frank Ravatin (who made the Miró Quartet's matched set of instruments), offered Hindemith's Sonata for violoncello solo, Op. 25/3. The winner of the first place in the senior division was also the featured soloist in the NC Symphony's recent donors concert (April 25; not reviewed because it was not a "public" event). At the Shepherd School of Music (where the NCSA's Robert Yekovich is to become Dean this summer), Nyska's teacher is Norman Fisher, but the artistic fingerprints of his local mentors, Leonid Zilper and Bonnie Thron, of the NCS, are evident in his playing, which capped a superb evening of high-quality music making from some rising stars. If what we heard on this occasion represents the future of music, then music will be in good hands.
Note: An announcement of the winners of the current year's Youth Concerto Competition is in our news section; these musicians will appear in a "Next Generation" program a year hence.