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Orchestral Music Review

Summerfest I

June 4, 2005 - Cary, NC:

The weather gods cooperated with the NC Symphony and the folks at the Koka Booth Amphitheatre at Regency Park on the evening of June 4* — and with the large crowd that turned out to hear our state orchestra under the baton of Grant Llewellyn, its Music Director. The avian gods were less cooperative. And in the early stages of the program, some of the young people, lured by the geese and swans and ducks on the nearby lake, were a bit noisy — although by nightfall they were quiet.

The program was an all-UK affair, and it was more varied than many previous Summerfest events — there was a work by a living composer, and he was actually present. Given the somewhat gala nature of the occasion — our Welsh MD was leading one of his American orchestras al fresco for the first time in the Triangle — and given that the US and Britain are currently engaged in a war, one might have expected to hear the national anthems of the two countries, and America's would have fit the concert's programmatic mold (since the tune of the "Star-Spangled Banner" was lifted from an old English drinking song), but that was not to be. Instead, the concert began with William Walton's "Crown Imperial" March, one of several coronation pieces penned by the distinguished 20th-century composer who spent many of his last 40 or so years in Italy, as the Maestro reminded us.

One of the challenges of Summerfest is that the concerts are, well, outdoors — and heavily amplified. On this occasion, the sound, as heard from this writer's customary location on the east side of the lawn, was not good at the outset (although it seemed better as the ears readjusted — and in some of the quieter pieces). In the Walton, the bass was strongly enough defined albeit boomy, the top (the violins and upper winds) was brash, and the mid-range was weak to the point of deficient — this despite a profusion of mikes throughout the orchestra.

Next up was Vaughan Williams' serene tone poem The Lark Ascending, a bit of English pastoral music that featured NCS Concertmaster Brian Reagin as the soloist. He's been in the spotlight a good deal of late, having just completed a run of performances of Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1. On this occasion, the lark — a skylark, Llewellyn informed us, depicted by the solo violin – had to compete with our own twittering birds, in nearby trees, and with geese on the lake, who seemed not to care for the music (perhaps they are wanna-be critics?) or the nearby children. The amplified sound was better, perhaps because the work is lightly scored. The performance was lovely.

Four "Celtic Dances," Op. 60, by William Mathias (1934-92), brought the first half of the program to a close. These were apparently inspired by Welsh-based Celtic traditions that are not as well-known here as the Scottish and Irish branches, so there were places where one was hard-pressed to peg the music as either ethnic or nationalistic, although from time to time some familiar rhythms and patterns, common to the overall heritage, emerged, and the finale suggested (if you'll pardon the analogy) a Welshman in the midst of a not-inconsiderable bender. The last number is both loud and fast, and it brought many members of the audience to their feet. Collections of dances similarly inspired are not particularly rare (there's a big batch of them from Greece, by Nikos Skalkottas, revivals of which are long overdue), but at the same time they don't often turn up on regional concert programs, so these were most welcome in Cary, and the performances were excellent.

Following the intermission, Llewellyn turned to music by another of his countrymen, composer Gareth Glyn (b.1951), whose Microncerto, a mini-concerto for double bass and orchestra, received its North American premiere. The soloist was NCS Principal Bass Leonid Finkelshteyn who, due to a great paucity of repertoire, rarely gets a turn in the solo sun. The instrument is, let's say, somewhat ungainly, and it takes a great master to get it to sing — and in tune. Finkelshteyn did well enough, and there were only a few places where the intonation was off, so overall the performance must be counted a success. The reading was enhanced somewhat by the Regency Park video system, which involves TV cameras in various places (several are behind the orchestra) and a mixer, with projections on screens forward of the stage. Thus one could see Finkelshteyn physically set up and then realize some of the most remarkable sounds he evoked — high harmonics that soared into the cello range. The music is a bit of a hodgepodge of styles, shifting abruptly from melancholy tunes in the vein of 19th or 20th-century British mainstream fare to jazz and then back again. It, too, has a whirlwind finale, and — like other pieces on the program — it was warmly received.

The last scheduled work was Britten's Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, a.k.a. A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, given, the press release revealed, "with new narration written by Grant himself." This is a piece that — if the narration is used (and it need not be) — requires a speaker who can face the audience and render his (or her) comments as the music unfolds, so having Llewellyn both talk and conduct was not a success. For openers, he was not well-enough amplified, and it was disconcerting that he never managed to turn toward or otherwise engage the audience, since he was busy tending the band. The videos helped immensely, and for the most part the cameras managed to focus on the correct sections and players, but the performance would have been altogether more enjoyable — and informative and (if you will) educational — with a dedicated speaker — or by dispensing altogether with the text and using instead supertitles for the video shots (which could also have identified the principal players' instruments and, perhaps, their names).

Speaking of the principals (and other players), it may be good to remind prospective listeners that the Summerfest orchestra is not the full NC Symphony; since many of its regulars go elsewhere for the summer, there are lots of subs for these concerts. That doesn't mean the performances are not likely to be up to par, but — in addition to the fact that the sound is far from perfect in outdoor settings — it is a reminder that the best place to hear the NCS is in its regular (indoor) home, Meymandi Concert Hall. This didn't seem to interfere in any way with the enthusiasm of the Cary audience, however, and they were rewarded with a lovely encore — Delius' "La Calinda," from Koanga. It was perhaps the evening's finest performance. Bravo!

Summerfest continues through July 23. For the schedule and more information, click here.

*The weather wasn't so kind on June 1, when the annual Play with the Pros concert — set to involve some 38 regional artists performing alongside regular members of the NCS — was misted-out after several delays during which hope for the event remained high among the small number of people who assembled on the lawn and in the "high-rent" district that is the covered portion of the amphitheatre. Perhaps this event — one of the NCS's most significant educational activities, sponsored by the Town of Cary Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department — can and will be rescheduled.

Corrected 6/8/05.