The City of Raleigh has a lot going for it, orchestrally-speaking, for there are not one or two but three significant symphonic ensembles in the capital (not counting our stellar youth groups), and one of those offers not one but two commendably innovative orchestras. I refer to the Raleigh Civic Symphony Association (RCSA), based at NCSU, which fields a full orchestra and a related chamber orchestra, too. It may be worth noting that our local land-grant college has, almost since the beginning of time (or, for sure, in the immediate post-WWII period), given its students and the community instrumental instruction, orchestral leaders, facilities, and performing ensembles that have enriched musical life here – and that exemplify the very best meaning of the traditional town-and-gown approach to the performing arts. (The other groups to which I refer are the capital's official community orchestra, the Raleigh Symphony, established in 1979, and the state-supported NC Symphony, the venerable ensemble, founded in Chapel Hill in 1932 but based in the capital since the early '70s, which pursues a state-wide educational and performance mandate.)
The RCSA's performing groups are the Raleigh Civic Symphony and the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra, details of which are here (and which, not coincidentally, are open to the participation of community musicians, by periodic audition). The next concert by the former is slated for April 19 (for details of which, click here). The most recent offering of the latter was presented on a crisp Sunday afternoon in the comfortable and intimate confines of Titmus Theatre, in the nicely-renovated former Thompson gym building on the NCSU campus. The stage's bare back wall is a bit drab and stark, but the sound in the room is at once rich, full, clearly defined, and immediate.
The program consisted of two one-time piano works – the first half of Dvořák's Legends and (all of) Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, both originally for piano four hands – plus the second public performance of a new work by the RCSA's relatively new music director and conductor, Peter Askim, whose attentive leadership is infusing both of the organization's groups with new artistic life. The program focused on storytelling in various guises: legends, of course, fairy tales, and vivid imagery as painted in sound.
The Dvořák pieces, delightful in both their incarnations, are relatively short little essays that hint of the composer's more substantial tone poems and indeed some of his operatic themes. All of his much-loved musical hallmarks are there, delightfully showcased in the orchestral edition of the score, here played by the RCCO's 40+ instrumentalists. There's considerable variety in these little vignettes, which demand high levels of virtuosity; it's good to be able to report that the musicians came through for Askim, and after a slightly unsettled opening things improved considerably as the music wended its way to a rousing conclusion. (It was all good enough to make one wish they'd played the other five numbers!)
"Night," by Askim (b.1971), was next. The piece stemmed from his impressions of twilight and evening on a California mountaintop. It calls for a larger ensemble than the opening number, but the instruments are used discretely, in generally soft-spoken ways. This is highly effective fare, in which one hears and indeed feels the onset of night. It will be fun to experience this music again.
Askim, who debuted here last fall, brought with him to Raleigh a handsome CD of his own music that involves himself as a solo double-bassist and conductor, along with some well-known collaborators (Ransom Wilson, for one) and orchestras. Details of this and other CDs by Maestro Askim – and audio samples – are here.
The concert ended with Ravel's well-known fairy-tale suite. There are world-class recorded competitors, but this reading served as a reminder that nothing beats a live performance. As Askim explained, few if any others equalled Ravel in terms of orchestral mastery (Rimsky-Korsakov comes to mind as a possible rival), and Mother Goose offers a panoply of unending delights, one after another. The winds and brass and percussion and strings (and the celesta and harp, too) all get keen and often dangerously exposed workouts, and for the most part the players of the RCCO delivered the goods with skill and grace. Askim has a fine podium manner, devoid of histrionics: he clearly knows what he is seeking, musically, and how to obtain it from his players. The result was a performance that demonstrated in no uncertain terms how well he has taken hold here thus far this season. This in turn bodes well for the future.
The fine program notes (by the conductor) provided good roadmaps for the scores performed. What's not to like?
As noted, the big group plays on April 19. Be there!