It's not exactly like extracting blood from turnips, but even the most casual observers of our cultural scene must agree that the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra gets more bang for its proverbial... than just about any other arts organization of its size in the capital. In fact, just about everything about the RSO – its admin, its front-of-house staffing, its printed programs, its website – speaks of its economical operation – everything, that is, except the consistent excellence of its concerts, now under the leadership of Music Director and Conductor Jim Waddelow, and its routine generosity of opening its ranks to very young players and giving front-of-stage opportunities to aspiring young concert soloists.
In two back-to-back concerts in Jones Auditorium, the RSO hosted four Meredith music students and then four high-school and college students from the greater community. The Meredith ladies – soprano Sarah Moore ('14, a student of Ellen Williams), flutist (and CVNC intern) Andrea McKerlie ('13, a student of Pam Nelson), soprano Rose Turchi ('14, a second Williams student), and pianist Katherine Barton ('14, a student of Margaret Evans) – were winners of the college's annual concerto/aria competition. It's a benefit of the close, long-term relationship of the RSO and Meredith (where the RSO's conductor is on the faculty) that this annual free concert occurs there. Moore sang a charming ditty from The Pirates of Penzance with accuracy, skill, and feeling. Later on, Turchi projected "Vanilla Ice Cream" (from Jerry Bock's She Loves Me) with impressive verve. Flutist McKerlie delivered Chaminade's delicate Concertino with appropriate insight and restraint, making her rounded sound come "from nowhere," as a French music specialist once explained. The first movement of Robert Schumann's Concerto found Barton in exceptional form; she, too, played with real flair for the music, and the cadenza was spot-on.
The accompaniments were consistently excellent, and Waddelow, like his predecessor, the late Alan Neilson, took evident care to make sure the guest artists were appropriately showcased.
The concert began with the Overture to Verdi's I Vespri Siciliani (or, if you prefer, Les vêpres siciliennes – the music is of course the same in either language) and included as a filler between the two nominal halves two lovely and evocative Swedish folk melodies done up by Johan Svendsen.*
The next night, the orchestra and its leader were back again for the RSO's annual "Rising Stars" program, sponsored for a score of years by Benjamin K. Gibbs of Raleigh, whose generosity is driven by his desire that young artists have the opportunity to perform with a real orchestra.
No string players made it to the final four this time – there were instead clarinetist Samuel Sparrow (a junior at North Raleigh Christian Academy who studies with Jimmy Gilmore) and three pianists – Loreanne Oh (of East Chapel Hill High, a student of Randall Love), Emily Russ (a junior at UNC, where she works with Clara Yang), and Suzanne Crabtree (a senior at the Hill and a student of Thomas Otten).
Sparrow lit up the sky with the Polacca movement** of Weber's Clarinet Concerto No. 2. This is heart-warming music and it was very good to hear it again. The pianists undertook big works in chronological order of composition – the first movement of Beethoven's "Emperor," the first of Rachmaninoff's First, and the first of Prokofiev's Third. I'd be hard-pressed to say which gave the greatest pleasure as all were well realized, musically and technically, but of course the projected brilliance increased (appropriately) as the three works unfolded. At the end there was a big uproar that was not, one thinks, exclusively for Crabtree – that Duke-based teacher (Love) and the two from UNC (Yang and Otten) are doing some amazing work with some remarkable talent.
Along the way the RSO encored the Verdi and the Svendsen bits, playing them with even more fervor and precision than the night before. The orchestral work throughout the concerto excerpts was excellent, too.
The RSO remains a first-rate accompanying orchestra, for which a very special set of listening and playing skills are required.
Mr. Gibbs made presentations to the young soloists at the close of the concert. He deserves a prize for himself sometime, for all he's done to encourage young artists in Raleigh!
Note: The judges for Meredith's contest were Tasi Matthews, Emi Nakajima, and Sharon Szymanski. For the RSO's competition, they were Tasi Matthews, Sophia Pavlenko-Chandley, and Jim Waddelow.
*2/28/12 - Note: I failed to mention that the first of these concerts was a Meredith College production in which the RSO performed under contract; the second concert was part of the orchestra's regular subscription series.
**Thanks to our CVNC colleague Chelsea Stith for identifying this section in her program notes.