It's been a tough year for the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra and for other arts organizations. The timing of the September 11 attacks couldn't have been worse for groups whose success or failure hinges on subscription sales. The RSO wound up postponing its season opener, a big-ticket affair involving Marilyn Horne. This was to have helped launch the 24-year-old community orchestra's relocation to Meymandi Concert Hall, where there are many more seats to fill--never mind much higher costs--than there were in its old home, Meredith College's Jones Auditorium. The RSO's first family concert was moderately successful in terms of revenue, but attendance and receipts fell off at later offerings. Since this orchestra (unlike, say, the NC Symphony) doesn't have a large endowment cushion, things went downhill fairly quickly. The RSO is hardly alone. The NCS is also hurting, due to a slow-down in contributions and cuts over at the Department of Cultural Resources--cuts that, given the State's ongoing budget crisis, are likely to become more severe before things start to improve.
In any event, the RSO has managed to continue to present concerts, and that's good.
This is one of our community's great artistic treasures. It provides an opportunity for highly talented musicians, many of whom concurrently hold other jobs, to play some outstanding literature, much of which is not duplicated by other performing groups hereabouts. The RSO's members may not routinely exude the confidence and polish of top-flight full-time orchestras, but it's always clear that they play for the sheer love of the music, and their passion and commitment shines through in everything they do.
For its penultimate classical offering of the season, the RSO shifted back to its old home, Jones Auditorium, and presented a rock-solid program that consisted of Mozart's Overture to Die Zauberflöte , Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 (which replaced the previously-announced Brahms Fourth), and Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2. The concert was given under the baton of the RSO's founding Music Director and Conductor, Alan Neilson, who has been enhancing the cultural welfare of our region ever since he came here as Principal Flute of the NCS. His current duties involve leadership of both the RSO and the Durham Symphony.
The guest soloist was pianist Navah Perlman, who has a number of good things going for her. For openers, she is the daughter of Itzhak Perlman, who has become something of an icon in the music business, thanks to his skills as a fiddler and also because of his extra-musical activities on behalf of persons with disabilities everywhere. Navah Perlman is also a marvelous pianist, which quality may eventually carry even more weight than her surname. That she is also beautiful and at ease on the concert platform and was, in Raleigh, absolutely prepared for her concerto are additional plusses.
But first things first. The program began with Mozart's familiar Overture, and the orchestra gave a fine account of the piece. The RSO's ability to play Mozart, in which even the smallest faults are often magnified due to the music's transparency, has improved significantly over time. This was a polished, dramatic reading, and the audience responded warmly to it. That warmth may have been a reflection of the so-so air conditioning in the hall itself. Meredith has a problem, and cooling in Jones is its name. The AC was on, but it wasn't very effective, and the musicians must have been very uncomfortable. It didn't show in their playing, however.
The Beethoven was also very special. It's a favorite symphony for this critic, perhaps because it is not heard nearly as often as the odd-numbered ones. The sound of the strings, the first two rows of which were placed forward of the proscenium arch, was wonderful, thanks in part to the work being done by Concertmaster Tasi Matthews, a real find for the RSO. The winds and brasses were excellent, too, and it was gratifying to note, at the end, that Maestro Neilson recognized both clarinetist Jim Williams and bassoonist Susan Cummings.
Chopin's concerti get little respect but hearing the Second as well played as it was on this occasion can still be a positive musical experience. The soloist, who played a piano of Estonian manufacture, proved dazzling where necessary and lyrical elsewhere. The piano part stood out prominently, as it should when things are clicking but as it doesn't routinely do. The accompaniments were generally outstanding, although the orchestral introduction began somewhat tentatively.
It was a bit unusual to hear the concerto last on the program. Conventional wisdom would have placed it in the first half, after the overture, and indeed the program notes, by our colleagues, Joe and Elizabeth Kahn, had the concerto ahead of the symphony. The Beethoven was so polished and so satisfying that it might well have served as the grand finale, casting light on the RSO and its leader, who have given much to our musical life here.
Just before the intermission, RSO President Irene Burke, who is also one of its flutists, spoke briefly about the orchestra's financial plight. An anonymous benefactor has offered up to $20,000 on a two-for-one basis, so if $10K can be raised from other sources, the orchestra will receive a total of $30K. The offer is good until June 1, and the RSO is well on its way toward securing the entire match. This money will shore up the current season. The orchestra is concurrently seeking additional contributions to clear outstanding long-term obligations. The amount being sought for this purpose--approximately $36K more-will help ensure the orchestra's survival.
Many arts groups are hurting, and few are obtaining the support they merit. It's the economy again, which has battered many traditional sources of support - arts councils and commissions and various foundations. It would be a great tragedy if the RSO were to become yet another casualty of September 11 and the ensuing economic downturn. The musicians donated their services to make this latest concert possible. We urge those who have enjoyed the RSO's programs over the years and other concerned citizens to step forward. Tax-deductible donations may be sent to the RSO, Inc., at P.O. Box 25878, Raleigh, NC 27611-5878.