A slight rain and threats of thunderstorms did not dispel this NC Symphony‘s Summerfest concert at the outdoor Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary. Titled “Superheroes Save Summerfest” (an interesting program choice when tied to the regular season finale in May, “A Hero’s Life”), the program consisted of score selections from superhero films and stories old and new. Guest conductor Stuart Chafetz led the NCS from the podium; Chafetz is the Principal Pops Conductor for the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and thus was a great choice to conduct and emcee this concert. His easy, humorous demeanor and meaningful introductions to some pieces combined with clear but energetic conducting supported the NCS well. As for the musicians themselves, it is worth mentioning that the concert went on during what was about 100% humidity, and the tuning never strayed. Thankfully, the light rain cleared up by the end of the first half, even resulting in a double rainbow stretching over Symphony Lake ­­during Rossini’s classic finale from the Overture to William Tell.

The program lineup was engaging because it combined classic composers of heroic stories like Rossini, Wagner, and Korngold with more contemporary composers of today’s blockbuster superhero movies. Of this latter category, the industry’s greats (Elfman, Williams, Zimmer) were featured alongside slightly newer composers such as Michael Giacchino and Alan Silvestri. Naturally, the program kicked off with John Williams’ energetic “Summon the Heroes” (written for the 1996 Summer Olympics), which was fitting as superheroes in costume continued to walk about the amphitheatre and engage the many children enjoying the concert. It makes sense that the brass section would lead the way melodically, and the orchestra’s brass took on this responsibility with aplomb. A little later, during Powell’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” the program’s first tender moment appeared, when the strings varied the texture with a passionate legato theme. Korngold’s “Robin Hood and His Merry Men” composed for the 1938 movie The Adventures of Robin Hood was more comical, with sneaky pizzicato and capricious motives in the strings. The programs’ first half concluded with a striking piano spotlight introducing the theme of Titanic composer James Horner’s “To the Rescue” from the 1991 movie Rocketeer.

Most lovers of classical music could easily recall the theme of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre, but NCS’s performance of this classic, led with Chafetz’s gesture, really brought out the fascinating textures Wagner wrote underneath the melody. Whistling, swirling strings came together with brass and woodwinds, giving an almost waltz feel to the triple meter. Elfman’s sorrowful theme from Batman and spooky mood of Spider-Man were followed by music from The Incredibles by Giacchino, whom Chafetz described as “the next John Williams.” This selection was one of the most fun on the program – the performance was jazzy and memorable.

The concert closed with two interpretations of the classic hero, Superman. Williams’ soaring, poignant “Love Theme” from the original 1978 Superman with Christopher Reeves preceded Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel Suite (from the 2013 film starring Henry Cavill), which was suspenseful yet inspiring. The concert was truly bookended by John Williams as the NCS performed music from the beloved Star Wars films for a much applauded encore.