The programming was a bit out of the ordinary at the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra's latest classical concert, presented on March 2 in Jones Auditorium. The main thrust of the evening was apparently intended to be a series of performances of concerto movements by students selected during the RSO's annual concerto competition, a marvelous program, now emulated by many other regional performing arts organizations, that has been in place for twelve years, thanks in large measure to the ongoing beneficence of longtime RSO patron Benjamin Kilgore Gibbs, who was on hand to present plaques to the young artists. The second half, however, featured a quartet of soloists and the Concert Singers of Cary's Symphonic Choir (or part of it) in the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. As a result, the program offered much in a most unusual configuration involving a gargantuan cast of performers.
The concert began with a rousing performance of the National Anthem, which was accorded all due respect in that it was not applauded. It was however impossible not to note the absence of the star-spangled banner itself, which is not on display in the auditorium.
The first half was devoted to the student musicians. Kevin Crotty, a junior at UNC, where he studies with James Ketch, performed the first and third movements of Tommaso Albinoni's Trumpet Concerto. It was a busy week for the young artist, whose technique and musicianship and poise will surely carry him far. Five days earlier, he played part of another work in Chapel Hill, in another concerto competition concert! There was, again, much to admire, in the Hummel: Crotty, who hails from Raleigh, was his customary brilliant self, and the orchestra provided spot-on support, never overwhelming him. Granted, it's somewhat difficult to overwhelm a solo trumpet player at the lip of a stage, so perhaps we should simply say that the balance was outstanding, even in Crotty's most restrained passages (and there were some of those).
Clarinetist Benjamin Mitchell, a student of Daniel McKelway, at the NCSA, played Weber's attractive Concertino, Op. 26, a work that turns up fairly often on concerto competition concerts but that is loudly ignored elsewhere. That's a pity, for it is a marvelous work, and Mitchell played it very well.
Durham pianist Andrew Tyson, a sophomore at Durham Academy and a student of Chapel Hillian Mary E. Turner, did a fine job with the first two movements of Mendelssohn's Concerto No. 2, a score that is, like the Weber, joyously rhapsodic. Like Crotty, Tyson is making the rounds - he was to have played again on March 4, with the Durham Symphony Orchestra, and his work in Raleigh made us sorry that the latter program wasn't on CVNC 's reviewing schedule....
Last (but hardly least) came pianist Fallon Blaser, an Enloe HS sophomore and student of Ruth Hafley, whose other musical interest is the violin. She played the first movement of Saint-Saëns' Second Concerto, turning in a performance that, like the others, drew considerable applause. It was perhaps not in her best interest that, prompted by colleague William Thomas Walker's recent review of a concert in Winston-Salem involving Pascal Rogé, this critic had spent part of the preceding weekend revisiting recordings of this Saint-Saëns concerto, in performances by both Rogé and Rubinstein. It should come as no surprise that these masters spun out longer and more ethereal melodic lines and managed dynamics somewhat more discretely than Blaser, whose reading - heard in isolation - would in all likelihood have roused greater enthusiasm in this listener. (I hasten to say that this "work-up" was unintentional: if all presenters would share with CVNC their complete programs in advance, for our calendar, chances are our critics would not make the same sort of blunder I did on this occasion!)
After a long intermission, about 100 members of the Concert Singers of Cary's big choir took the stage, along with soloists Patricia Donnelly Philipps, whose name will surely be recognized by CVNC ers, thanks to her many area performances; Diane Thornton, currently teaching at Davidson College; William McCulloch, of the Vocal Arts Ensemble; and David Mellnik, currently Minister of Music at Cary's Greenwood Forest Baptist Church. The basso got the solo portion of the "Ode to Joy" off to a resounding start, and McCulloch was more than adequate, after a somewhat rough-sounding start. The alto role in this piece is one of music's most thankless chores, with virtually no solo exposure; Philipps nailed the score's most notoriously hazardous high note, and the rest of her work had a great deal going for it, too. The chorus, scrupulously prepared by Lawrence Speakman, was outstanding, as this ensemble tends to be. The German diction was good, although some of that surely reflects the work's great popularity and the frequency of performances of it, even here - RSO Founding Conductor and Music Director Alan Neilson has done it so often that he was able to lead it from memory, and there were surely many people in attendance, on the stage and in the hall, who have sung or played in it. Overall, this was a reading of some brusqueness, often lacking serenity and grace but never failing to please in the more animated sections, of which there are more in the finale than earlier in the long work. Still, it would have pleased more, and stirred more souls, if greater attention had been paid to the music's inward qualities, as opposed to its outward ones.
We are richly blessed to have not one but three more-or-less full-sized adult orchestras in Raleigh - what other city of comparable size can boast this? The one that lives in that fancy new hall downtown seems to get most of the press and the lion's share of the highbrow audience, too, but the other two - the RSO and the RCSO - are worth checking out, and the price of admission for these two is considerably lower, too.