This past Sunday afternoon, the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra (RCCO) put on their annual fall concert in Stewart Theatre at North Carolina State University. The title of the program this year was Music of the Mountains. In the hour before the concert, the North Carolina-based bluegrass band GrassStreet filled the large space of the Talley Student Union lobby with lively bluegrass music. With their original pieces, clever bluegrass covers of songs, and animated personalities, GrassStreet did a fine job energizing the audience before the start of the concert. It is a rare thing in the world of classical music to have another ensemble perform before the actual concert, but the pre-concert music seemed to be appreciated by the waiting audience members. In addition to the warm-up band, seven conservationist groups had showcases set up outside Stewart Theatre with information about their conservation efforts. The groups ranged from NCSU’s Climate Reality Project to PineCone (the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music) to the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. Conservation was a prominent theme throughout the concert.
As people found seats and the members of the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra gathered on stage, the large screen behind the orchestra cycled through different pictures of nature taken by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. Once all members of the orchestra were seated and warmed up, Peter Askim, conductor of the Raleigh Civic Symphony and Chamber Orchestra, entered the stage and voiced his excitement that the RCCO would be featuring yet another world premiere on this concert program. He noted that RCCO had had a world premiere on every program for the past four years.
Before the aforementioned world premiere, the orchestra performed Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, a “familiar but difficult piece,” in the words of Peter Askim. Although Appalachian Spring is more challenging than the ensemble’s typical programming, the skill and passion with which RCCO played it made it seem as though the piece was not a struggle but rather a pure joy for the musicians to perform. The beginning of the piece was especially well done. The strings played the gentle opening with heartwarming tenderness, keeping the dynamics low and the tone rich. The woodwind section followed suit. The opening melody flowed seamlessly through the different sections of the orchestra, blossoming and fading away before transitioning to the more playful Allegro portion of the piece. The skills of the various soloists throughout the piece were also noteworthy. The first violinist played her solo in the opening portion beautifully, her tone and vibrato as crystal clear as spring water. In the seventh variation of Appalachian Spring, the melody line of the Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts” is incorporated into the piece. The clarinetist played the solo that begins this portion simply and sweetly. In their performance of Appalachian Spring, the RCCO was able successfully to portray each change in mood and scene, painting for the audience a vivid picture of the one-of-a-kind Appalachian Mountains.
Following intermission, the executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Association, Paul Schiminger, was invited to speak. Schiminger opened with a brief history of bluegrass, sharing how the genre was formed from a combination of country music, African American music, and folk music, making it “music of the people.” He concluded by thanking Raleigh for its enthusiastic partnership with the International Bluegrass Music Association. Schiminger’s brief talk reminded the audience how important it is for traditions like bluegrass music to be preserved for future generations.
That is exactly what Donald Reid Womack did by composing Blue Ridge Seasons: A Bluegrass Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. Womack specializes in intercultural music, often composing Western-style pieces for Japanese, Korean, and Chinese instruments. One might wonder why a composer with this specialty would choose to write a bluegrass piece. Womack explained in the panel following the performance that he considers bluegrass a “form of intercultural composition” in that bluegrass itself is a combination of different cultural styles. In Blue Ridge Seasons, Womack melds bluegrass with classical and rock and blues, with the goal of expressing his own personal voice.
Commissioned by Peter Askim, Blue Ridge Seasons is the first-ever bluegrass concerto to be written for viola, making RCCO’s performance of the piece an exceptionally exciting premiere. Ralph Farris was chosen to be the viola soloist; indeed, this piece was composed with Ralph Farris in mind, as Donald Womack later explained. A founding member of the innovative string quartet ETHEL, Ralph Farris is a graduate of The Juiliard School and was an original Broadway orchestra member of The Lion King. He is a creative and passionate player and proved to be the perfect person to premiere this groundbreaking concerto. Farris poured his energy into the music, sawing away at the fast eighth-note melodies and double stops that made up the majority of the first movement. It seemed at times, however, that no matter how energetically Farris played, that raw bluegrass sound was not quite captured. There was a smoothness and depth to the tone not characteristic of a typical “fiddle song,” which is what the first movement seemed to be imitating in terms of style. Perhaps it was due to the fact that a viola was used and not a violin. Perhaps it was an intentional variation, or perhaps not. The use of the viola certainly left the audience with something to think about. One thing that did detract from the generally ad-libbed, natural feel of the piece was that Farris did not play from memory but from an electronic device.
As for the concerto itself, Blue Ridge Seasons is a creative and ingenious composition, written in the form of a concerto with four movements: I. "Southern Solstice"; II. "Autumn Serenade"; III. "Shenandoah Snow"; and IV. "Blue Ridge Spring." "Shenandoah Snow," the slowest movement, featured a Celtic-sounding melody – simple, very little vibrato, occasional trills, and many harmonics. The other movements were livelier, each accurately depicting a different season. While “bluegrass” is not a misnomer by any means, Womack’s Asian and rock influences add interesting flavor. Womack employs typical bluegrass techniques (slides, pizzicato, eight-note patterns, and double stops) but adds his own style. For example, instead of using the conventional bluegrass slide up to a third, he uses slides up to the fifth; and instead of regular pizzicato, the cellos play snap pizzicato. Needless to say, this is a very different style than most orchestras are used to playing. Although bluegrass can sound simple and repetitive, it requires musicians to have exceptional rhythm, focus, and undying energy, all of which the members of the RCCO exhibited in their performance. It was truly a groundbreaking occasion, one that garnered a standing ovation from the audience.
Following the concert, there was a discussion panel made up of Donald Reid Womack. Ralph Farris, Paul Schiminger, Richard Emmet, the program director of the Blue Ridge Music Center, and Chris Canfield, executive director of the Conservation Trust for North Carolina. Maestro Askim facilitated the discussion, asking questions about the commissioned composition and the various groups’ conservation efforts and tying these topics together nicely. The panelists all emphasized one point in particular: conservation is not just about “saving the planet,” although protecting nature is important. Conservation is also about discovering and preserving cultural traditions, honoring them, and making them assessable to future generations, even if that means blending old traditions with newer ones as was done in this program. The Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra’s Music of the Mountains program was truly an example of conservation at its finest.