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The North Carolina Symphony played a "Stars and Stripes" concert celebrating July 4th to a nearly sold-out crowd at Kenan Auditorium. It was led by guest conductor Sarah Ioannides, who is the music director of the Spartanburg Symphony in South Carolina. The eclectic program included a list of Americans, plus music by composers from Mexico, Italy, and Russia, all conducted by a woman who was born in Australia and raised in England.
Following the obligatory "Star-Spangled Banner" (itself a mix, with words by an American set to a British tune), the concert kicked off with "Summon the Heroes" by the film composer John Williams. This was the piece played at the opening of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Its bright trumpet fanfares and broad sweeping sound are appropriate for a grand beginning. Then Ms. Ioannides took the microphone. With her almost breathless excitement, she was an engaging MC who helped bring the audience into the festivities. She introduced the next number, a medley of Duke Ellington tunes. This bow to a jazz great, and to a wellspring of American music, was an excellent, less conventional piece for the program. The opening was reminiscent of the movie-type sounds heard in the Williams, but then jazz harmonies started to take over and the big band sound emerged. The trombonist stood for a brief solo, the strings imitated the syncopations of a sax section, and humorously, the orchestra players snapped their fingers in rhythm. While the translation to the orchestra of the big band sound and improvisatory flair cannot be fully idiomatic, the group brought off the piece with a fair amount of panache.
"Somewhere over the Rainbow" was next. Its nostalgia was highlighted by well-drawn wind solos and string lines. Then followed a song by the Mexican composer Augustín Lara, "Granada." This was also a nostalgic paean, to the city in Spain. It was sung by the tenor Adam Ulrich. His voice seemed light and appealing, but rather inappropriately, he was miked; in fact he was over-miked, so that the sound quality was compromised and he overbalanced the orchestra. The same was true in the following Verdi aria, "La donna è mobile." The Spanish tune could have been rather more flamboyant and the aria could have had more swagger, but there was still a decent amount of longing and gusto and a strong ending on the aria's high B.
The final work before intermission was the most substantive: the last movement of the 4th symphony by Tchaikovsky. The movement is of course not meant to stand alone, but it did give the listener an opportunity to hear orchestra and conductor in a concerted segment. The performance was well-built and rhythmically tight, with a strong accumulation to the return of the first movement material. It made for a climactic and high-spirited ending to the first half. And the connection to America? As the conductor explained at some length, Tchaikovksy conducted the 1891 opening concert at now world-famous Carnegie Hall, and was greeted rapturously in this country – the only time he ever visited.
The second half became more casual. The first and third items were by Leroy Anderson, perhaps best-known as the composer of "Sleigh Ride." The two tunes heard here were "Belle of the Ball" and "Bugler's Holiday." The first was a simple, appealing song, and the second was an agile, upbeat show for the orchestra's trumpets, who executed it in light, fleet fashion. In between was a medley from The Sound of Music. Here the audience was invited to sing along and was drawn in by the conductor's eagerness. The fourth piece in the half was the "Semper Fidelis" march by Sousa, in which the audience enthusiastically clapped with the orchestra. A nice moment in the performance was the sudden change in the snare drum, which drew back after a brief solo to allow the brass to emerge.
The following Armed Forces Salute was a medley of five U.S. military tunes. Members and former members of the services were asked to stand when their tune was played. It seemed as though half the audience had served the country at one time or another. This number, with flag-waving, clapping, and cheers, was something of a patriotic climax to the program. "Amazing Grace" followed, for a very different quintessential American musical expression. It was nicely arranged for orchestra, with a delicate opening duet, some full string sections, and a bit of attractive counterpoint. The grandiose ending was not as successful, overdone for a simple heartfelt hymn of repentance.
Mr. Ulrich rejoined the orchestra for the last two programmed numbers, "American Anthem," and "This is the Moment," from the Broadway musical Jekyll and Hyde. The first was simply and overtly patriotic and the second a rather sentimental musical theatre piece. The miking had evidently been reduced, giving a better sound quality to the voice. Mr. Ulrich seemed at home in this populist material, bringing unaffected expression to both.
As if to acknowledge that the final program item didn't really serve as an ending, the orchestra played two encores. The first was "God Bless America," one of America's most famous patriotic tunes, composed by the Russian-Jewish immigrant Irving Berlin. Finally, for a triumphant send-off, came Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." These last two numbers embodied as well as anything, the polyglot American national character celebrated in the concert.