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Orchestral Music Feature

The Sounds of Summerfest - Two Concerts in July

July 8, 2006 - Cary, NC:

The NC Symphony and the Town of Cary joined forces to present... The Fourth of July. Some folks think that there's no better fireworks display hereabouts, and by default, Cary's Regency Park is the place to be. By 6:30 p.m. or so, the place was packed, with pyrotechnics watchers lining the lake in anticipation of the spectacle, still nearly three hours away. Clearly, these citizens weren't there for the bands, small or big, of which the NCS was the chief draw.

The annual Summerfest Independence Day freebie was on this occasion conducted by Carolyn Kuan, the orchestra's outgoing Assistant Conductor, whose engagement by the Seattle Symphony was announced recently; this holiday gig was thus her swansong here. We were keen to hear her before she leaves; she's a fireball (no pun intended), and she's moving up quickly, unlike some prior holders of this third-tier title. The program was sort of what one might have expected, with one singularly notable omission. There was the National Anthem, with colors paraded by boy scouts. There was Richard Hayman's potpourri of service anthems, with recognition of veterans – there seem to be fewer and fewer of them each year. There was music from Star Wars, which might play a role in our national defense if the neo-cons have their way. A pops hoedown with no particular national or patriotic import was so loud it sounded like a runaway locomotive. Morton Gould's "American Salute," based on "When Johnny comes marching home," impressed. So, too, did Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," narrated with breathtaking power and insight by Summerfest Artistic Director William Henry Curry. He had the texts before him, but he clearly knew the words by heart, and I can't summon to mind a performance of this stirring call to remembrance and action that moved me so deeply.

The second half began with John Williams' "Olympic Fanfare" but also encompassed some important music - the finale of Dvorák's "New World" Symphony (written here, in the U.S.), a truncated version of Gershwin's "American in Paris" and, when all was said and done, three fine Sousa marches: El Capitan, the "Liberty Bell," and "Stars and Stripes Forever" – the cue for the fireworks to begin.

Please note the absence of that perennial chestnut, Tchaikovsky's "1812" Overture. What a relief it was to miss that old hymn and all that battle music, cooked up by a composer from Mother Russia. We can make more than enough holiday noise with American tunes, thank you - and on this occasion, we did!

Kuan was clearly very musical, very involved in the music, and very much atop the stick-waving department, and she kept her remarks commendably to the point and brief, too, but she was pretty much undone by the sound system, which was, by and large, the sorriest yet heard at Summerfest. It's clear there was some effort to pipe the music to the crowds lining the shores of the lake and the parking lots, too, so the entire program was seriously over-amplified. Speakers cut in and out even during the preliminary opening remarks, there was annoying hum from time to time, and feedback was occasionally as deafening as the music itself, in its loudest dynamic ranges. You'd think the techies would have figured out how to do this stuff by now. And if the overblown sound weren't enough, the music seemed to be little more than background noise for many in attendance - this immense crowd was the most talkative and restless audience observed at one of these concerts in many a moon. (There were, for reasons not altogether clear, two large TV screens, but they were of little use till late in the program, when it got dark enough to make them worth seeing.)

It's a shame that this was the first and last coverage of Kuan in CVNC or - to my knowledge - in any newspaper in the Triangle. Perhaps she'll be asked back at some point. And here's hoping that the NCS permits her replacement, Joan Landry (who comes to us from the Honolulu Symphony), at least one classical engagement in the Triangle during her tenure.

Things were as different as night and day at the Summerfest concert of July 8, titled "Fright Night" by Artistic Director William Henry Curry; it featured – in contrast to July 4's basically all-American program – a lineup that was, with one exception, all French. The guest artist was baritone Jason McKinney, an NCSA-trained singer of exceptional talent and ability. He has a glorious voice that he uses with keen intelligence and insight, his diction is close to flawless, and he exudes stage presence and charm like seasoned vocalists twice his age. In brief, he has lots going for him, and it's a sure thing that we'll be hearing more of him - much more - in years to come.

The sound was better, by far, than on July 4, too. It was still a mite top-heavy, with insufficient registration on the low end of the sonic spectrum - the bass drum and the timpani, for example, never made sufficient impact - and with a shade too much spotlighting of the strings, which often resembled a bunch of individual instruments as opposed to whole sections. But it was better by miles and miles than earlier in the week, for sure. There were no TV screens. And the "regular," smaller crowd of Summerfest loyalists were back, listening attentively and quietly as the program unfolded. They were not disappointed.

The concert began with the famous "Rakoczy" (Hungarian) March and the "Song of the Flea," from Berlioz's Damnation of Faust. The March separates sheep from goats in the conducting department, and Curry once again demonstrated his superior skills - this maestro has to be among our very finest conductors, and we are richly blessed to have him living and working here. And the song was wonderful, too, particularly since McKinney treated the audience to a bilingual version, in French and then in English!

Rossini's Overture to The Siege of Corinth counts as French since it was done up for Paris; it's a reworking of an earlier, Italian score, and it filled the program's "fright" requirements because, as the Maestro reminded us, "War is hell." The curtain raiser is one of the master's most dramatic scores, but it's still loaded with Rossinian effects involving contrasts and dynamic shading. The performance of this Overture had, literally, everything, and it was (at the risk of going completely over the top) easily the finest performance of anything this writer has heard at Summerfest. If Curry and the band had stopped then and gone home, it would have been enough.

But the show went on with McKinney singing, devilishly well and a bit freely, the "Calf of Gold" aria, and Curry introducing and leading two dances from the Faust ballet, by Gounod. (It's hard to imagine that playing excerpts from this opera got a teacher in trouble not too long ago....)

Offenbach's Orpheus in Hades Overture brought the first half to a rousing close. It was great fun, and it's just as well that Curry couldn't (or didn't) kick up his heels too much in the finale.

Shades of Alfred Hitchcock revisited launched part two as Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette" received a glowing reading, led by Curry in a Dracula cape. This fit nicely enough with the evening's only non-French piece, the Witches' Ballet from Puccini's first opera, Le Villi (1884). It sounds sort of Frenchified, as if the composer had been under the thrall of Gounod's music.... Stage Manager Travis Cheek then paid a brief visit on-stage, clad as The Grim Reaper, who was in a jovial mood, may the spirits be praised!

Mercifully, McKinney wasn't through - he came back for a stunning rendition of Schubert's "Erlkönig," as served up by Berlioz (making it French, sort of...). This orchestration is the most dramatic version of the song, and the baritone differentiated the three parts (child, father, and Erl-King) extremely well. Berlioz's treatment of the original piano part brings the score to awesomely vivid life.

Excerpts from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition as orchestrated by Ravel (French...) brought the concert to a glowing conclusion. Curry ensured a fine reading, and there was lots of stellar work from the orchestra, including (in this number) Paul Randall, trumpet, and David Lewis, tuba. (Many other superior players, including violinist Dovid Friedlander, cellist Bonnie Thron, clarinetist Jimmy Gilmore, and harpist Anita Burroughs-Price, took solo turns in other parts of the concert.)

At the end, there were many standees, many cheers and yells and whistles of approval as Curry and the NCS ended "Fright Night" on an altogether positive note. A good time was apparently had by all. Maybe the key to success with the sound at Summerfest rests with the person on the podium, after all. Curry delivered, and charmingly, too; and it was splendid, even if he failed to scare much of anything out of anyone!

This series ends July 15 with the "Lord of the Rings" Symphony. It was announced that the concert will begin at 8:30 p.m. - a time not yet published in any calendar we've seen, including our own....