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The North Carolina Symphony's Summerfest Series, presented by UNC Rex HealthCare, has a way of gathering a crowd each and every year. As someone who has attended the opening concert of Summerfest for six years in a row, I can attest to the fact that there is something special about the event. Every year my family and I look forward to packing a picnic and heading to Koka Booth Amphitheatre to kick off the summer with a memorable performance by the NC Symphony. Long before this year's opening concert began, the lawn was packed with people, lawn chairs, and elaborate picnics. Those who arrived early could enjoy pre-concert festivities like Lowes Food's Picnic of the Week contest and the instrument zoo, where children are able to try out different musical instruments. The atmosphere prior to the concert was full of energy; everywhere, people were enjoying themselves and making memories.
The concert began when associate conductor Wesley Shultz jogged up to the podium and cued the opening pizzicato of Camille Saint-Saëns’ "Bacchanale" from Samson and Delilah, Op. 47. The audience did not hesitate in turning attention away from their picnics to the musicians on stage. Those who had attended a Summerfest concert in the past knew they were about to experience a thrilling performance, while those who were attending for the first time could tell from the oboe's mysterious opening line that the concert would be interesting. The "Bacchanale" is a dramatic piece that tells the Biblical story of Samson, a man with superhuman strength, and Delilah, the woman who misleads Samson into losing his strength. The orchestra brought to life the drama in the piece, putting energy into the crescendos, changing moods seamlessly, and capturing the exotic sound that makes the piece unique. It was clear that this opening number had captured the attention of the audience – cheers rang out across the field at the conclusion of the piece.
Although much more docile than the opening number, the next piece was likewise unique. Young harp player Morgan Short, winner of the North Carolina Symphony's Kathleen Price and Joseph M. Bryan Youth Concerto Competition, graced the stage to perform George Frideric Handel's Harp Concerto in B-flat Major, Op. 4, No. 6. It is not often that one has the opportunity to hear a harp concerto, especially one performed in the open air by so fine a harpist. As Short plucked the opening notes of Handel's concerto, it was as though a spell had been cast on the audience. Everyone froze, stunned by the uniquely beautiful sound of the instrument, which Short played with remarkable dexterity and sensitivity. Short's fingers never stumbled, despite the vast number of notes in the first movement and the complex cadenza featured in the second movement. In fact, she deserved a round of applause for the cadenza alone, which she played with such passion and understanding of the concerto that one could not help but watch with eyes wide in wonder. The ever-enthusiastic audience stood to applaud Short’s performance.
The next part of the concert is by far one of the most memorable parts of every Summerfest opening concert. For many years, the first concert in the series has been a Play with the Pros event, in which around 50 youth musicians are selected by raffle to perform alongside NC Symphony musicians for part of the concert. I remember being one of the young musicians selected to perform for Summerfest and how proud and inspired I felt to be performing with the group that I admired so greatly. Performing for Summerfest is a memory that I and countless other youth musicians hold dear. This year, the youth musicians joined the NCS for a performance of Georges Bizet's Suite No. 1 from Carmen (ed. Fritz Hoffmann). The talents of the NC Symphony and the guest musicians were evident in their lively performance. Music from Carmen is often heard, but this performance undobtedly earned a place in the memories of many.
Following a brief intermission, the mood of the evening shifted. The sky darkened in an instant and an unexpected breeze began to rustle the tops of the pine trees that stand beside the lawn. This change in weather perfectly set the stage for Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14. Earlier on the program, Shultz provided a brief and helpful summary of this programmatic piece. He explained that the symphony describes the passion the protagonist has for a woman and the turmoil he experiences upon realizing that his love is not returned. It is meant to take listeners on an emotional journey, and the NC Symphony did exactly that. I could feel the hopeful love and eagerness of the protagonist in "Dreams and Passions," visualize an ornate room full of dancers in "A Ball," and hear the nostalgia of the shepherd's call sounded in "Scenes in the Fields" in which, by the way, the English horn played gorgeously. The last two movements of the symphony, "March to the Scaffold" and "Witches' Sabbath," are perhaps the most distinct. In these movements, the protagonist poisons himself with opium and has nightmares about an execution, satanic rituals, and being damned to Hell. The orchestra painted a vivid picture of the beheading in "March to the Scaffold," the strings, brass, and woodwinds playing their parts with appropriately ferocious intensity. The final movement was thrilling from start to finish. The audience listened, transfixed as old melodies returned, now distorted, mixed, and blended into a funeral chant and other ritualistic sounding melodies. Later in the movement, a player climbed the stairs at the back of the stage to toll the bell announcing death's arrival. With the nightmarish sounds of "Witches''Sabbath" filling the night and the eerie wind stirring the tops of the pines, it was easy to be sucked into the horror of the music. The NC Symphony truly proved with this variety-packed program that they know all the tricks to immersing an audience.
Even with descriptions of the setting and program, it is impossible to truly capture in writing the spirit of Summerfest. Summerfest is more than just a concert series, and the opening night concert is more than just a concert. For many, Summerfest is a tradition and a cherished memory. And for many youth musicians and former youth musicians, myself included, the Play with the Pros concert is a milestone in a life of musical pursuits. If you are looking for a way to make good memories this summer, be sure to search CVNC's calendar for all Summerfest events.