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That the North Carolina Symphony has played an immense role in the arts - all the arts - in our state since 1932 - yes, 80 years - is indisputable. Beyond orchestral music, the organization has enhanced and encouraged interest in the chamber arts, dance, opera, and musical theatre. Chamber music is of course a given, for in the early years half of this orchestral ensemble made up a so-called "little symphony," and still smaller subdivisions of players logically ensued. There's a good chance there would be no professional dance company in the Triangle region had not the NCS imported the (then) School of the Arts' Nutcracker and, in the wake of its successes, mounted other ballet programs years ago. And it's hard to imagine the growth of diverse opera companies in our region without the groundwork laid by the orchestra's semi-staged concert performances of major works. More recently, the NCS has been dabbling in musical theatre. Its efforts - in all these fields - are most welcome for, among other things, our state orchestra is ideally positioned to provide what is arguably the most important (and expensive) ingredient in all these disciplines: live music, and plenty of it, performed at high levels of professionalism by a sufficient quantity of instrumentalists to do justice to whatever scores are at hand.
This is particularly significant as more and more arts presenters opt to cut financial corners any way they can as the economy continues to teeter on the brink of recovery. Thus more often than not one encounters dance companies using recorded sound tracks, opera companies selecting works that require minimal instrumental accompaniment, and so-called Broadway shows using over-amplified chamber groups supplemented by synthesizers (or, worse yet, entire "virtual orchestras").
Bearing all that in mind, the NC Symphony's ongoing concert version of Meredith Willson's The Music Man (1957) is a really big deal for Raleigh and the Triangle - and for the counties of Lee and Johnston, too. On the stage is an orchestra the likes of which would make New York production companies drool - 28 or so strings, augmented winds, exceptional brass, spot-on percussion, and guest pianist Nancy Whelan - presided over by William Henry Curry, a conductor whose specialty is whatever he happens to be doing at any given moment. He clearly loves this score, which is one of the best and most polished in all of Broadway - and for good reasons, for its composer came by his skills and abilities honestly, working up through the ranks, as it were.*
But Curry and the pit band (done up in dinner jackets and white blouses, and seated behind the "action" at the lip of the Meymandi stage) were not the whole show. From Sanford came Peggy Taphorn (of Temple Theater fame) and (mostly from Sanford) an exceptionally well-matched and well-balanced cast of singing actors headed, radiantly, by Ken Griggs as Professor Harold Hill and Katherine Anderson as librarian Marian Paroo. The show has "love interests" at several levels, and youngsters Allison Podlogar (Amaryllis) and Neil Bullard (Winthrop) came close to stealing the show on several occasions. The cast included Larry Conklin (Mayor Shinn), Michael Jones (Marcellus Washburn), and Kathy Gelb (Mrs. Paroo - whose real-life hubby Gregg played saxophone in the orchestra), plus David Paul Adams, Marti Boger, Jessika Brust, Michelle Harkness, Katherine Hennenlotter, Israel Keefer, Michael Murray, Chris Slacke, and Jim Tarantino.
It's a fact that shows like this - even concert versions of shows like this - require two strong artistic leaders, and in this case it would be remiss to overlook the many apparent contributions of Taphorn to the overall success of the production, for such smooth coordination - of music and drama - doesn't just happen. With just a bunch of chairs, she made the front look really good. The dance numbers fit admirably into the limited space allotted to them, and her crew of thespians could hardly have been more polished - right down (or maybe up) to that snazzy if easily distracted (in theatrical terms) barbershop quartet!
The outstanding period costumes were by Lynda Clark. Thomas Mauney did the lighting. Travis Creed deserves kudos for his precise stage management (akin to a military operation). Eric Alexander Collins was responsible for the sound - the show's weak link, alas. The problem wasn't that the proceedings were amplified, which is basically inescapable nowadays in such undertakings. And the sound was not bad or (most of the time) excessive. But there was - as heard from the upper reaches of the hall - not much sense of directionality, so the voices seemed to come from everywhere, including the top of the auditorium, and from nowhere in particular, making it difficult, some of the time, to follow on the stage who was singing what. (Chances are that cutting the volume going to the big string of speakers suspended from the ceiling would help push the sound back down toward the stage.) Otherwise, the words in the wonderfully-choreographed production number that opens Act II were basically incomprehensible - a factor of some rare lapses in ensemble diction, perhaps, more than an issue involving the amplification.
The show conveys a heart-warming and familiar tale, of course, charmingly written and scored by a master; and its romance turns out to be far more important that its brashness. Curry coordinated the evening with the level of commitment often reserved for productions of, say, Wagner's Ring, and the positive results were everywhere apparent. At the end, the marching band from Clayton High School made a spectacular entrance from the hall, playing out its collective heart while criss-crossing the stage during the grand finale. It was, as noted above, a really big show. Here’s hoping there will be more such collaborations with other community groups in the NC Symphony's future.
Two performances remain - April 14 and 15. See the sidebar for details.
P.S. While the NCS has done a great deal in the arts, far exceeding reasonable expectations, there's still more it could be doing: imagine, if you will, concert performances of Wagner or Strauss operas, hosted by our orchestra. Now that would be really something! And Curry would be just the man for the job.
*Willson, a flutist who studied with George Barrère (for whose platinum flute Varèse was to write "Density 21.5"), played in Sousa's band and for Toscanini before taking up radio work and composing in all genres, including film. His quest for perfection inspired many - Music Man went through numerous re-writes before he was satisfied, and the raft of leftover material could have fleshed out several more shows. (Some of these pieces surely wound up in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Willson's next musical, which tells the tale of a Titanic survivor - how timely is that?) His memoirs include And there I stood with my Piccolo and But he doesn't know the Territory - the title of which will strike a responsive chord for fans of Music Man!