When the temperatures are still pushing into the 100s by 8:30 in the evening, it is difficult to imagine leaving your home, much less journeying to hear an outdoor symphonic concert. The heat did not deter North Carolina Symphony devotees, however, for the June 30 performance of Romeo and Juliet, featuring compositions inspired by the great romances of William Shakespeare. While the numbers did not quite match the crowd for last week’s “Totally Awesome 80s” program, which felt like a crowd at a Jimmy Buffett concert, the sizeable audience filled the lawn on Saturday evening to hear well known works from Mendelssohn, Dvořák, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, and even Leonard Bernstein, all inspired by relationships in Shakespeare’s great and tragic romances. Under the artistic direction of William Henry Curry, Resident Conductor for the North Carolina Symphony, the musicians collaborated for the evening with local professional actors and actresses, directed by Kathryn Hunter-Williams, to enact the text of some of the great plays that inspired the music.

The performance, delayed for an hour in an attempt to avoid the heat of the day, sacrificed an intermission and Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but suffered little from the omission. Maestro Curry and the musicians presented with welcoming fervor as if they were comfortably indoors at their home stage in Meymandi Hall in Raleigh, North Carolina. After the warm, robust opening of Mendelssohn’s famous Wedding March from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, actors Katja Hill and Jon Mozes introduced one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic love stories with the handkerchief scene from Othello followed by Antonín Dvořák’s inspired piece exploring love, passion, and jealousy in his Othello Overture Op. 89. The soft melodic introduction of violins conveyed the innocence and devotion of Desdemona before moving into stronger bass tones with the voice of Othello. As passion fuels fury, Iago emerges in sinister sounds from the strings combining the voices of the three characters until the piece concludes paralleling the violent conclusion of Shakespeare’s drama.

Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to West Side Story captured the audience with the lively theme personifying the dispute between the Sharks and the Jets, the modernized version of Capulets and Montagues, before swelling into one of musical theatres loveliest ballads, Bernstein’s well known “Tonight.”* David McClutchey, Jon Mozes, and Estes Tarver continued the excitement with Act I, Scene I of Romeo and Juliet with a fully realized sword fight between Benvolio, Tybalt, and Romeo right on stage with the orchestra followed by the musical realization of the familial controversy with Sergei Prokofiev’s The Montagues and The Capulets from Romeo and Juliet. The evening concluded with Shakespeare’s most famous lovers’ dialogue on a balcony at Juliet’s home and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, marked by the well known theme inspired by the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. The piece transitioned from brooding to hysteria as the lovers collide in a four-day romance that ends in a double suicide. The rapid, almost cacophonous, string movements captured the chaos of the love affair, yet quickly dissolved into the intimate melody of the balcony scene, and resumed with renewed vigor as the tragedy unfolds. The piece is broken by a stark silence at the lovers’ deaths before moving into a mournful funeral march as the Capulets and the Montagues realize the cost of their senseless feuding.

Even after the sun set and the heat continued to lie like a blanket on the Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary, the North Carolina Symphony responded to the standing ovation of the audience with a brief encore of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.” The march, title inspired by Othello’s comment on the “pomp and circumstance of war,” made for a grand exeunt from the evening’s commendable performance. With familiar music from great composers inspired by a great author and performed by North Carolina’s great symphony, not even a heat wave could diminish the evening.

The North Carolina Symphony celebrates our independence at several concerts this week. See our website for info on concerts in Fayetteville, Wilmington, Garner and Cary.

*Edited/corrected 7/3 – with thanks to a sharp-eared reader and friend of  CVNC.