The music that has always appealed to me the most is big, epic fare with saturated harmonies, dramatic heroic themes, and deep philosophies, like Wagner’s operas and Mahler’s symphonies. You can imagine my delight when I realized the RTOOT concert at Jones Auditorium on the Meredith College campus was to climax with a Summertime Ballgame Singalong arr. W. Sands Hobgood.* More about that later.

RTOOT (The Really Terrible Orchestra Of the Triangle) is made up of a growing number of professionals, homemakers, and students of all ages, races, and genders who want to play music in an orchestral ensemble but do not quite qualify for established orchestras that have ambitious expectations. One of the first violinists appeared to be playing a Suzuki violin and had to put his feet on his violin case because they did not reach the floor. There are some outstanding musicians in the group but they do not play the instruments they were trained to play. The main requirements are a desire to play in an ensemble and not playing too well. RTOOT was organized by W. Sands Hobgood and some likeminded thinkers and is inspired by the RTO (Really Terrible Orchestra) of Edinburgh, Scotland.

If you can’t get to a RTOOT concert it is worthwhile to have a friend or neighbor or coworker who is going to bring you a concert program. It is crammed full of useful things like coloring book pages, puzzles, an episode from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, some illustrations and notes about the music they are trying to play, the history of RTOOT, and other stuff like that.

After an almost inspiring performance of the official North Carolina state song (“The Old North State”), the program began in earnest with a lilting performance of An der schönen blauen Donau” (“On the beautiful Blue Danube”) by Johann Strauss, Jr., that reminded me that the last time I saw the Danube near Regensberg, in Germany, it was more brown with silt and industrial waste than blue. A highlight of the piece was the stunning cadenza by the principal violinist Graham Thaxton (who is not the concert master — that is clarinetist Shirley Baerman). His technical skill took the audience on a wild ride all over the place (including Appalachia) before the final chorus.

Assistant Conductor (a rarity in community orchestras) Michael Lyle took the podium to conduct the next selection, which was a suite from Handel’s Watery Music, I think. They only had to stop twice: once at the beginning because the music librarian had apparently put the wrong parts on several players’ stands, and the second time because a pretty bad flub got several players off beat. But these things will happen and can be forgiven – up to a point. Otherwise, the piece was recognizable to those who had heard it before.

The stage crew then removed the podium and replaced it with a piano and a piano bench. Maestro Hobgood performed and conducted the second movement, marked “Adagio,” from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 23 in A. I suppose the orchestra was pretty well warmed up by now, and they did retune to the piano, and the Mozart had some honestly quite exquisite moments. It is hard to hurt Mozart even with a really terrible orchestra.

After intermission, during which the crayola girl replenished crayons and sold souvenir t-shirts, the orchestra was joined by guest artists Libor Zak and Istvan Kenda,** duo violinists who appeared at this concert with impeccable credentials. They tackled the Bach Double Violin Concerto, S.1043.*** Now, we have heard Bach played on all kinds of synthesizers, sung by jazz groups, whistled, kazoo’d, and almost any other way imaginable, and Bach never sounds really terrible. Tonight was no exception! Zak’s and Kenda’s fiddles sang and danced (Bach always dances) through the Double Concerto with vigor and sensitivity and it was good. So was RTOOT.

For the next piece on the program, Tchaikovsky’s “March Slave,” the orchestra was beefed up with extra percussion, brass, and a didgeridoo; this set maestro Hobgood back on his heals for a moment, but he bravely recovered and started the majestic work over. All went well, and it was a stunning performance. The orchestra swells to a mighty crescendo launching into a stirring march. I have never realized before how much Tchaikovsky was influenced by John Phillip Sousa!

The grand finale of the concert was Summertime Ballgame Singalong. I referred earlier to my attraction to Wagnerian opera. One of the reasons is at a performance of Götterdämmerung they NEVER ask you to sing along! With the artistic assistance of soprano Florence Peacock and tenor Philip van Lidth de Jeude, Hobgood’s medley of “Summertime,” theme from “A Summer Place,” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” went swimmingly well. I sang along the best I could at a tritone making it very interesting to me and annoying to my neighbors.

Since RTOOT knows one other piece, they played it for an encore. Rather in bad taste for this time of year and especially for those who did not make it, they played “The Graduation March,” better known to most of us as Elgar’s Pompous and Circumstantial March No. 1.”

It was a delightful and fun-filled evening, leaving me with a sense of lightness and contentment. There were some terribly funny moments, and there was no real disrespect for the music or the musicians. The balance was just right. Do take advantage of any opportunity you can to hear this up-and-going-nowhere group. Their next gig is Saturday, May 30, 11:00 AM at the Western Wake County Farmers Market. 

*The “My Strow” began the concert with a full beard that made him look somewhat like the town drunk in a penguin suit. He lost the beard at intermission. The suit remained.

**Aka Graham Thaxton & David Binany.

***The “S” stands for Schmieder, Wolfgang (1901-1990), a music librarian who did the research and developed the system for cataloguing Bach’s works published in Bach-Werke-Vereichnis [Leipzig 1950; 3rd ed., 1961; 4th ed., 1966]. We use the S because it is shorter than BWV….