As orchestras with the resources to be strong advocates for new music slip further and further into museum/mausoleum modes, their marketing departments dictating artistic policy and their box offices driving programming, smaller-budget operations are stepping up to fill the resulting voids in our cultural fabric. Thus the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra‘s Jones Auditorium premiere of Bill Robinson‘s Birthday Symphony (which title encompasses Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and the composer’s own) may prove to be, in retrospect, the region’s most significant nod in the direction of new contemporary fare this season. And in addition, the final movement of the work had been played just a month ago at Duke University by another community orchestra, the Durham Symphony. So things are definitely looking up for important new music – as rendered in Raleigh and in Durham, too, by the mainstays of our culture, our community orchestras.

And certainly, no orchestra in these parts other than the RSO is premiering this season a major work like this, one to which the ensemble devoted parts of two back-to-back concerts, including the entire first half of its latest “Rising Stars” program, that title referring to winners of its annual concerto competition, heard in the second half – winners which, come to think of it, no significantly larger orchestral ensemble (of “regional” or greater status) would bother to feature, probably out of fear of alienating prospective paying subscribers…. (The RSO concert the night before featured winners of Meredith College’s own concerto/aria competition alongside the Robinson score.)

The new work is important in its own right, too, despite a major caveat, that being the prohibition by the MLK Center of any use whatsoever of what it views as proprietary speeches and remarks by King. As Robinson notes, copyright on “I have a dream” doesn’t expire till 2038. Instead of using the words, Robinson has used rhythms – the rhythms of King’s speech patterns in the Birmingham speech “How Long? Not Long” of March 25, 1965, of the Memphis speech “I’ve been to the mountaintop” of April 3, 1968, and of the Washington speech “I have a dream” of August 28, 1963. Listeners familiar with those speeches will easily recognize the rhythms, the cadences, the pauses of the originals, either remembered or from the transcripts thereof that have eluded copyright control…. (The third movement, titled “Gate gate, paragate…” is, as the composer writes, “based on [a] Buddhist mantra” that, it seems to this listener, is totally in keeping with MLK’s theological and philosophical point of view.)

The composer’s notes, included in the RSO’s program, may be read here. Admirers of Robinson’s music may prepare themselves for future performances by reading these remarks – and surely there will be more, for this is indeed a major contribution to the orchestral literature.

In Raleigh, on the occasion of this second of two consecutive performances, the RSO was in exceptionally good form, its winds and brass resplendent, its strings rich, full, and admirably unified, its percussion (and especially its timpanist) spot-on in providing the heartbeats of life that permeate this symphony. Music director and conductor Jim Waddelow deserves credit not only for his innovative programming but also for the consistently admirable playing he encouraged from the members of this wonderful orchestra.

The music itself is readily accessible. If some of it suggests Copland or Hanson (who was in turn influenced by the Scandinavians) then the positive side of that coin is that the new symphony is solidly in the mainstream of our strongest (American) orchestral traditions. There’s mood and emotion appropriate to the varied subjects. There are melodies that linger in the mind when the music ends. And Robinson absolutely knows the ropes in terms of instrumentation and orchestration. With luck there will be more opportunities to hear this music, going forward. But for now, there are two immediate options. The Duke perrformance (by the DSO) is online here (in which the Robinson selection begins at 12:31). And the chamber edition of the symphony may be heard here. Check ’em out. You won’t be disappointed!

The second half began with a bracing reading of Rossini’s Semiramide Overture, one of that master’s more substantial orchestral essays and certainly one of his finest curtain-raisers. All the hallmarks of the composer are on brilliant display therein, and the RSO and Waddelow revealed the music proudly.

The concert ended with performances by this year’s two competition winners. Both are graduate students, and neither played piano or string instruments! First up was flutist Hyunsu Yoon, of UNCG, who played the first movement of Carl Nielsen’s far-too-rarely-heard Flute Concerto. The soloist exuded professionalism, poise, technical mastery, and interpretive excellence throughout his impressive performance (played from memory), admirably backed by the RSO and its ever-alert and watchful conductor. Then alto saxophonist Dylan Ward, a graduate of the UNCSA and member of the up-and-coming Trio Dionysus who is currently at Michigan State U. He played the substantial opening movement of Henri Tomasi’s Concerto, an engaging work that begins andante but soon blooms into a considerable tour-de-force for the soloist and the accompanying forces. Ward – also playing from memory – was brilliant in this music, interacting with keen enthusiasm with his orchestral compatriots. There was hearty applause for both young artists, either of whom would be a major adjunct to any symphonic lineup. Look for them downstream and then listen!

The RSO’s season continues with “Heroes and Villains” on May 1. For details, click here.