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Orchestral Music Review

Third Time's a Charm - Weather Gods Smile on Pops in the Park

September 2, 2001 - Raleigh, NC:

A friend said that if the NC Symphony got to do its Pops in the Park concert on September 2, it would be a "freaking miracle." As it turned out, the orchestra did, and it was. The weather gods cooperated (or perhaps Greg Fishel deserves the credit), and the event, which kicked off United Way's annual campaign and which nominally launched the concert season in the Triangle, took place exactly as advertised. There were some new and different features this time. For openers, the venue wasn't the traditional one; due to construction on the west side of Meredith's main entryway, the customary concert site was used for parking, and the orchestra's tent, which prompted memories of the orchestra's old digs in Cary, before their new summer home was completed there earlier this year, was positioned just east of that main entrance. Flanking the stage were two tower-of-power platforms, each containing sixteen speakers; others were scattered throughout the listening area. The sound was, for the most part, pretty good, although it was still better during the first of two telecasts of the concert, aired by event sponsor WRAL-TV on the evening of September 3. Outdoor concerts with heavy amplification don't convey very good impressions of symphonic music, but under the circumstances, this one was ok. Some noise from a large generator positioned near the tent interfered only marginally. Several of the speaker and/or camera platforms were draped with black cloth, creating obstructions for viewers. Otherwise, there were few logistical problems.

These programs are important for our community and for the orchestra itself. One of the announcers said that 30,000 people were present, which means it was, for the NCS, in its hometown, the year's largest audience, by far. It would take seventeen sold-out concerts in Meymandi Hall to come up with the number of people who attended this program - and never mind those who saw or will see it on TV. In addition, many people who take in PiP are not regular concert-goers. The NCS is supported by funds provided by the Department of Cultural Resources, so this is truly the people's orchestra in our neck of the woods, and these annual events therefore allow those who help fund the band to hear it without further cash outlay.

Channel 5's David Crabtree served as M.C. He asked attendees to silence cell phones and pagers but neglected to ask for other forms of restraint during the performances. The crowd was noisy and fairly restless, a problem because several of the selections were subtle. Some folks near us took the opportunity to read the newspaper and comment loudly on it throughout most of the concert. We must do better.

There were no vocal soloists, choirs, or dancers this time, but all three of the Symphony's conductors were on hand for a program of popular favorites by serious composers and arrangers, and there wasn't a peep from Broadway or films. That alone was refreshing. Assistant Conductor Jeffrey Pollock got things underway with a flat-out sluggish reading of the "Rakoczy March" from Berlioz's Damnation of Faust and a much more potent performance of the Overture to Verdi's la Forza del Destino originally composed for St. Petersburg) a suite of excerpts from Hershey Kay's ballet Cakewalk (based on the music of Gottschalk) was substantially cut, perhaps due to broadcast time considerations, but Pollock, whose local debut as an opera conductor occurred last season, is a remarkably fine theatre person.

Associate Conductor William Henry Curry was entrusted with the Overture to The Gypsy Baron and the "Thunder and Lightning Polka," both by J. Strauss, II. Since the orchestra's Music Director, Gerhardt Zimmermann, has made much of Strauss during his long tenure here, it was somewhat surprising to hear these pieces led by another conductor. Like Pollock, Curry knows the worlds of opera and ballet intimately, and his idiomatic interpretations of the Strauss pieces, and of a fairly substantial Suite of excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, were among the evening's most successful performances. The orchestra, apparently rested after its short summer break, was in top form, as is often the case, early in the season, before the strain of all those educational concerts starts to take its toll. There was in these works and elsewhere lots of evidence that supported the widely held view that this orchestra is an outstanding one that is poised for the next step toward greatness.

To borrow a sports analogy recently employed by the N&O's music, opera and dance person, Zimmermann served as the evening's cleanup hitter, setting the stage for the obligatory fireworks display with Tchaikovsky's "1812" Overture and PiP's concert's traditional finale, Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." The conductor looked glum as he went through the umpteenth reading of pieces his artists could probably play in their sleep. It was by and large yet another beat-time-and-turn-pages kind of thing, although at the start of the Sousa march Zimmermann stepped down from the podium and thus wasn't impeded by the physical score during its short course.

We remain perplexed by our national fascination with the czarist potboiler, which seems to be trotted out for almost every American holiday. With the Forza Overture and the all-Tchaikovsky second half of this program, we had three pieces with ties to Old Russia, supplemented by a fragment of an American ballet and an inescapable march that, with the "1812," served background music for the pyrotechnics. This sort of programming makes one wonder what's going on in the minds of the planners. Why not American fare for our American labor holiday, the Fourth of July and similar national occasions?

Although no one mentioned it, the concert was NCS President & CEO David Chambless Worters' first Pops in the Park because, due to weather, it hasn't been presented since he landed here. It was also Pollock's Pops in the Park debut, and the occasion marked Zimmermann's last appearance at these things as Music Director. He'll retain that title next year, but in the 2002-03 season, he'll conduct here for only four weeks, leaving the rest of the time for auditions of candidates to replace him. Among the changes that will bring are surely some shifts in programming for our state-supported orchestra and, let us all hope, improved artistic standards. It's high time. Yep, things are definitely looking up. We're ready. Let the season begin!

Those who missed the concert may see and hear an hour of it on Channel 4 at 8:00 p.m. Sunday, September 9. The condensation, shorn of comments by the conductors and missing the second Sleeping Beauty except and the Gottschalk-Kay fragment (which means that there is NO American music on the telecast except for the encore!), indeed sounds better than the real McCoy did, but then this is a made-for-TV thing, isn't it?