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It's upon us, whether or not we're ready. With the NC Symphony's post-Thanksgiving holiday pops series, the music folks caught up with the malls and then some. This year, the Symphony's Raleigh run encompassed four presentations of an unusually interesting program that featured an outstanding young soprano, Emily Amber Newton, whose previous work with the NCS included a special program last year for big donors. She's a member of the second class of the Fletcher Opera Institute, based at the NC School of the Arts, and her name will be familiar to our readers: she participated in the WSSO's recent performances of Haydn's Creation , appeared in a Fletcher Opera Fellows runout to Weymouth, took a small role in Piedmont Opera's Rigoletto, and last season served in one of the casts for Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda. All were reviewed by CVNC. For the NCS' holiday concert, she sang a fussy, brass-and-percussion-heavy arrangement (by an uncredited hand) of "Joy to the World" and highly effective adaptations (by Carmen Dragon) of the Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria" and Adam's "Oh Holy Night." These bracketed the obligatory sing-along, which this season used Lee Norris' second such compilation; text sheets (apparently not ready in time for the 11/29 concert) were provided for the November 30 (evening) audience, and conductor William Henry Curry was diplomatic in his praise of the audience's work, although the "choir" was fairly consistently behind the orchestra.... Since we have begun our discussion of this third of the NCS' four readings of this program in the middle of the second half, it may be worth noting that the show ended with the spotlight on the NCS itself; Arthur Harris' "Christmas: A Medley of Well-Known Carols" was handsomely played by the mostly-NCS ensemble (augmented by some distinguished local players and former NCS members). The band was string-poor - there were only 38 of 'em on stage for this concert - but Curry paid special attention to balance and the sound in the still-new venue was excellent, as heard from several different places during the course of the evening. There aren't often encores at NCS concerts, but on this occasion, there was an extended version of "Winter Wonderland" that harkened back to the big band sounds that made the opening half such a special treat.
Curry is a master programmer, always ready with something new. This evening's "new" work, given at the start of the second half, was one of the oldest in the repertoire - Giovanni Gabrieli's Canzon XVI, example of a great antiphonal piece from the late 16th century, was played in a version for modern orchestra by Jeff Tyzik, whose name will be familiar to regular pops attendees. The three somewhat separate ensembles consisted of two small brass choirs in the rear corners of the stage and the rest of the NCS in the center, forward. Never mind that this part of the show was short on historical accuracy or style - the directional effects worked well enough (although it would have been more effective had the small brass groups been in the upper choir loft), and the crowd responded warmly.
But for historical authenticity, the first half took the cake. Things got underway with Dragon's version of "Oh Tannenbaum," the roots (no pun intended...) of which extend to the 15th century. This is one of the best of Dragon's superb arrangements, and the NCS played it radiantly. Curry then explained the game-plan for the rest of the first half, which featured the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra, a group that despite its name is an historically-informed ensemble with a vengeance, for it plays the best big-band literature in ways that the best big bands of the past surely played it when it was all the rage. Like some of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, which often underwent huge changes between creation and New York performances, the charts for some of the works the NCJRO plays are less than splendid, but the reconstructions used by the ensemble are as accurate as musicologists (yes!) can make them. The performances of the jazz version of the Nutcracker Suite played in Raleigh, credited to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (but thought to be mostly the latter's work) have become, for the NCJRO, something of a cash cow, akin to annual outings of the ballet itself by virtually every dance company in captivity. (As it happens, the Carolina Ballet's version of Nutcracker was going on in another part of the BTI Center as the NCS played in Meymandi....)
For the Nutcracker selections, the NCJRO was positioned on the conductor's right, and after some brief remarks, the parade of bits (hits!) from the ballet began with a glowing reading of the Miniature Overture as Tchaikovsky wrote it, played with remarkable skill and verve. Curry is an experienced man of the theatre, and his knowledge showed throughout the NCS' portions of this extended segment of the program. The NCJRO responded with what was billed as an Entr'acte, in the Ellington-Strayhorn version, with which performance it became apparent that we were in for a battle of the bands for real - and that there was not likely to be a clear winner of the contest! The Sugar Plum Fairy's Dance featured clean celesta work from Assistant Librarian(!) Janice McLaughlin and contrasted admirably with the jazz version, dubbed "Sugar Rum Cherry," in which the NCJRO folks began to cut loose. The "Danse Chinoise" contrasted well with "Chinoiserie," featuring hot licks from the band's leader, James Ketch (Chair of the Music Department of UNC), Gregg Gelb, and the entire rhythm section (which included John Hanks, who - like Ketch and trombonist Michael Kris - is at home in both classical and jazz settings). The Marche/"Peanut Butter Brigade" brought forth still more exceptional playing from both ensembles, and the grand finale - the "Dance of the Floreadores"/"Waltz of the Flowers" (with Tchaikovsky's orchestral version getting the last word) brought the set to a glowing conclusion. This is music at which it is easy for jaded critics (and experienced music lovers in general) to sneer, but when it is played as well as the NCS plays it, under Curry's leadership, and when it is brought to life with the infectious zest consistently displayed by the NCJRO's all-stars, it can be like hearing the music for the very first time. This was certainly the case in Meymandi Concert Hall on the evening of November 30. The audience members seemed to appreciate not only the performances but also the opportunity this bit of exceptional programming offered them, and their response led to an encore from the NCJRO, kicked off amusingly by Curry, who said he'd always wanted to direct a swing band and then beat a pattern before beating a retreat to savor the visitors in Shorty Rogers' "Snowball," based on the "Waltz of the Snowflakes," from Nutcracker (but somewhat less recognizable than the Ellington-Strayhorn adaptations).
For reasons that elude comprehension, the names of the NCJRO's players were not included in the program or the program inserts, so for the record they are listed here, alphabetically, by section:
Woodwind Section : Jeffrey Bair, alto (Greenville), William Fritz, baritone (Wake Forest), Gregg Gelb, tenor & clarinet (Sanford), David Reid, alto (Clemmons), & Wally West, tenor (Greensboro);
Trombone Section : George Broussard (Greenville), Caren Enloe (Fuquay-Varina), & Michael Kris, bass trombone (Wake Forest);
Trumpet Section : Jerry Bowers (Raleigh), James Ketch (Durham), Jay Lineberry (Greensboro), & Benjy Springs (Greensboro); &
Rhythm Section : Don Gladstone, bass (Cary), John Hanks, drums & percussion (Durham), & Ed Paolantonio, piano (Durham).
There's another NCS holiday pops, with a different, all-orchestral program, in Durham, on December 5, and the NCJRO's own holiday concert is scheduled for December 8, in Hill Hall. The NCJRO will do Nutcracker again then (with some portions omitted in Raleigh, but without the NCS, of course) and once more, on December 15, at 3:00 p.m., in Southern Shores, on the Outer Banks. It would be worth a trip to the coast to hear it. See our calendar or the NCJRO's website (at http://www.ncjro.org/ ) for details.