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Between the holiday season and New Year celebrations, the North Carolina Symphony has had a full dance card leading into the new decade. With a four-day, three-city tour of their upcoming offering "The Planets," featuring musical themes for each planet, they show no signs of losing steam. The 2019-2020 season also saw the NCS host a variety of performers, including big-ticket names like Leslie Odom Jr. and Cirque de Noel. In their most recent collaboration, the North Carolina Symphony joined with Platypus Theatre of Canada to produce their young people's concert, "Happy Feet to a Latin Beat: Presto, Mambo." Despite the name, this show had nothing to do with a tap-dancing penguin. Platypus co-founder and playwright Peter Duschenes took the stage alongside the enthusiastic character Max, played by Danielle Desormeaux, to explore the rhythms and sounds of a variety of symphonic compositions from the Americas, expertly executed by the NCS under the baton of associate conductor, Wesley Schulz.
The North Carolina Symphony's focus on education shines in their young people's concerts with the enrichment provided by pre-show activities. Young audience members of Saturday's production could attend the "instrument zoo" where they could explore authentic instruments, hear them played, and even take a turn playing on their own! Aspiring visual artists had the opportunity to create an arts and crafts mask that became a prop during the performance. Alongside all of the bonus activities before the main event, Saturday's 1pm performance offered a special treat for families with children of all abilities with a sensory-friendly presentation of Presto, Mambo. The earlier performance included sensory toys like streamers and bubbles, a quiet space for overwhelmed audience members, a half-lit auditorium (instead of completely darkened), an American Sign Language translator, and a smaller crowd in the sold-out house filled to only about 75% capacity. The North Carolina Symphony website even provided a social story for attending the symphony to assist with preparing for a new experience. Every attention to detail created better opportunities for a variety of audience members to enjoy a fun symphony experience.
The experience continued and elevated on the other side of the lobby doors once the performance began. NCS began with a set of energetic Venezuelan dances, the second of which introduced Platypus' cast of two, who would guide the audience through the rest of the performances. Playwright Duschenes served as the sort of narrator for various pieces, while Desormeaux's Max clowned for the audience and asked questions on our behalf. After the brief trip to South America, NCS traveled to North America and explored the difference between the rhythms of the two continents. With the help of audience volunteers, an excerpt from John Philip Sousa's "Liberty March" demonstrated the driving rhythm of a march while Marc Bélanger's Potpourri Lavalois showcased melodies from Quebec. An Argentinian tango by Astor Piazzolla featured a lovely solo from the concertmaster, Brian Reagin, while a trip back to Canada with Alain Trudel's Drum Magic featured a fun percussive introduction from the cellos.
With the magic of the drums, Max was transported to an unknown land where he encountered his new guide, Mambo, a friendly dog, puppeteered by Duschenes. Max and Mambo explored Central American music traditions surrounding Dia de los Muertos and encountered a spooky witch, also puppeteered by Duschenes, during an excerpt from La Bruja. The audience really got up and grooved during the aptly timed Danzas Cubanas before Max magically returned to the concert hall during the rogue European composition of the afternoon – "Gabriel's Oboe" from the 1986 film The Mission. After just shy of an hour packed full of excerpts from 13 compositions, Max, Peter, Mambo, and NCS closed things out with a rousing "Mambo" from West Side Story.
If you missed this exceptional Young People's concert with the North Carolina Symphony, be sure to catch their next offering. In the meantime, their dedication to education ensures there will be plenty for audiences of all ages to enjoy as the North Carolina Symphony finishes out the 2019-2020 season.