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Summerfest Artistic Director William Henry Curry is passionate about music, and when the NC Symphony isn't joined by a guest artist, he makes it a point to make wise use of his time. This was the case on July 6, when a moderately-sized crowd enjoyed the Symphony all by itself at its summer home in Cary's Regency Park. The program, which had undergone some changes since it was first announced, began with Neilsen's saucy "Oriental March," from Aladdin, a welcome rarity for this ensemble that sparked hope that the orchestra will oneday perform more of this marvelous music.
Two excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty continued the evening's fairy tale theme and were most welcome, too, for Curry is a wonderful conductor of ballet scores. The finale of Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, a number entitled "The Magic Garden," came next, and the orchestra sounded splendid in this music, too little heard during regular seasons. Three excerpts from the "hot off the presses" score John Williams created for the new Harry Potter flick replaced Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and brought the short first half to a bubbly close. As previously noted, Williams' all-purpose music could fit almost any film he has scored, but these bits were nominally related to the evening's theme and were, like the rest of the program, handsomely realized. It's curious, though, that the NCS, which is said to be strapped for cash, invested in obtaining this music but cannot afford to rent certain more important scores for its regular classical concerts....
The second half was devoted to a complete performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, one of the masterworks of the standard repertoire and one often used as a display piece for CDs and live performances by virtuoso bands. On this occasion, the NCS sounded like the great orchestra it can be when everything clicks. The primary soloist was Acting Concertmaster Rebekah Binford, and her playing was consistently excellent. She was capably supported by Principal Harp Anita Burroughs-Price and a flock of outstanding woodwind, brass and string players, and Curry, as is his norm, poured his heart and soul into the reading. The encore was Glière's "Russian Sailor's Dance."
The program was preceded by a suggestion from the masters of ceremonies that the attendees keep their voices down during the performances, and for the most part the patrons did so, but the Lout Family, of Boorsville, presumably a Cary suburb, paid little heed to the request as they guzzled wine and chatted throughout most of the performance. The patriarch dozed off during the middle movements of the Rimsky-Korsakov, but the matriarch decided to pack up the picnic remains during the finale, prompting another round of unnecessary intrusion on nearby listeners. One wonders why they bothered to attend.
The sound was generally good, although the masters of ceremonies were terribly over-amplified, as has been the case throughout the series. Mercifully, the Maestro didn't shout during his informative comments, and the work of the instrumentalists was by and large convincingly transmitted to the audience. On this occasion, even the solos seemed to emerge from the orchestral fabric as reasonably natural extensions of the massed sound. Part of the reason for this may have been the salutary influence of Tonu Kalam, who served as the evening's "cover conductor," engaged to stand by for Curry in the event of some mishap, and who thus sat with the sound technician, monitoring the amplification. Under normal circumstances this would not merit comment, but Kalam, who is Music Director of the UNC Symphony Orchestra, is a fine conductor in his own right, one more than capable of leading the NCS in any program its leadership may devise. With three stick-wavers on the Symphony's roster, one might wonder why an outsider was required, but as it happens, the orchestra's own Music Director now serves in name only, and its assistant conductor was apparently out of town - which may be the norm for next season, too, when Jeffrey W. Pollock will be living in Hamilton, Ontario. As a result, Kalam's opportunities actually to lead the NCS may increase, downstream. This is good for him and for us.
The Summerfest series ends on July 13 with a visit from Chuck Mangione. See our calendar for details.