Getting a grip on 80 years of anything is a tall order, but NCSU did a good job of strutting its stuff – literally, in several cases – on the afternoon of October 23, when, in Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall, it marked the anniversary of the 1925 birth of music at the distinguished land-grant institution. It was quite a show, centering on what Music@NCState does now, with remarks from a host of dignitaries that shed light on how it got to where it is – and hints from some about where it might be going. The Grand Master of Wisdom concerning all this is LCOL Curtis R. Craver, USA, Ret., who was graduated from NC State in 1941, taught there for 45 years, and is the author of a most useful compilation published in 2001, on the occasion of the department’s 75th anniversary, in 2000. The History of Music at North Carolina State University touches all the essential bases and is bolstered by many fascinating contemporaneous articles and reports. One is tempted to crib from it, but those who care about this subject surely already know this book, and those who don’t can call the department (at 919/515-2981) to purchase a copy.

Think about it. Eighty years ago, none of the cultural organizations we so vociferously cheer now existed – there was no symphony, no regular chamber music series, no oratorio society, no art museum, no ballet, no nothing that we have that reflects our culture today. Mencken’s 1919 condemnation – he called the South “The Sahara of the Bozarts” – would seem to have rung true.

Music at NC State may still strike some readers as an anomaly, but the school has been a leader in the arts and culture for years. We learned at this birthday bash that State fielded the very first marching band at a football game in North Carolina. We’ve known for years that for 35 seasons or so it hosted the largest college/university-based concert series in the world. And when this writer landed here as a faculty brat in 1952, there was music – in the form of an orchestra – that involved college artists and townies – and that drew audiences from the community, too. Now, there’s not just one orchestra at NCSU – there are two. And there’s lots more as well – as we were reminded during the course of this exceptionally well-managed, tightly coordinated program.

Things got underway in festive style with a march-in and mini-recital by the NCSU Pipes and Drums, John Sprague, director, and Howard Sanford, Pipe Major. (Our aforementioned relocation here, from Pittsburgh, in 1952, when I was about to enter the 2nd grade, was somewhat traumatic, and not only because we were coming to Cow College – one major prob was that Carnegie Tech had a Kiltie Band, and NCS didn’t. This shortcoming was rectified – may the bagpipe gods be praised! – in 1968.)

It was impressive to see the Meymandi stage packed full of people – there were many more there than one usually sees in that venue. The stage arrangements themselves demonstrated the unusual care that was taken with purely logistical considerations: this show could have been a real nightmare, given the number of participating groups and ensembles, but it flowed almost seamlessly, thanks no doubt to superior coordination provided by seasoned members of the department, now headed by composer J. Mark Scearce.

Seated on stage when the pipers tooted their last were two ensembles, with a third up in the choir stalls. Faculty member Eleania Ward did the honors as MC, introducing groups and selections and the various speakers. Paul Garcia led the Wind Ensemble in a polished reading of music by Alfred Reed. Provost Larry Nielsen spoke of the role of music – past, present and future – at State. The Concert Choir, with former Director of Music Robert Petters filling in for Randal Meder, sang music by Jacob Handl and two spirituals, arranged by Moses Hogan, demonstrating in the process the excellence of the borrowed hall’s acoustics and the beautifully-blended chorus. Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Thomas Stafford recognized music department employees with 20 or more years of service – the names are listed at the end of this article.*

Gregg Gelb – whom we didn’t realize was teaching at NCSU – directed the Jazz Ensemble I (so presumably there’s at least one more) in music by Gershwin and Tito Puente. These sounded as slick as Gelb’s regular band does – a tribute to the excellence of the students and his tutelage, for sure.

Part two began with the New Horizons Choir, inherited from Eleania Ward by current director Ron Foreman. They sang from the choir loft, using an electronic piano that turned out to be more heavily amplified than the singers – this was one of the afternoon’s few miscalculations. The performances themselves were nonetheless riveting, and – like the other groups – the repertoire, which included a piece by Ondine Smith Moore, reflected sound scholarship.

Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs N. Alexander Miller III spoke of some of the great music that has graced our land, providing an ideal lead-in to a performance of the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco by the Concert Choir, which had silently filed into the loft as the New Horizons vocalists departed, accompanied by the Raleigh Civic Symphony, under Randolph Foy’s direction. The orchestra then played the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, which will form part of its next concert, on November 13 (see our calendar for details). The program might have ended then, but didn’t, of course, ’cause the Alma Mater hadn’t been sung yet. NCSU’s Grains of Time, the stellar a cappella vocal ensemble, was on hand to do the honors, prefaced by a series of winning tunes that have made their concerts highlights for in-the-know connoisseurs of singing. But even at this point there was more to come, for the University’s largest performing ensemble, the NCSU Marching Band – heirs of that long-ago football game ensemble’s members – then marched – ran – into the hall, filling the side aisles and exits – and literally blew the crowd onto its feet and out of Meymandi before continuing their gig on the front lawn while the audience enjoyed a generous spread of birthday pie… and other comestibles in the Swalin Lobby.

By my count – probably off a tad – there were around 450 people involved in this gala celebration. Much of the work was at very high artistic levels, but what really mattered was the breadth and depth of the offerings. The powers spoke of pioneers like P.W. “Daddy” Price, the first director of music (for whom Price Music Building is named), Christian Kutschinski, the second director, and other individuals, but we must bear in mind what Director Scearce reaffirmed during his closing comments – that it’s all been for NCSU’s students – students that, augmented in some cases by townies and a few young scholars from other area schools, still form the cores of the featured performing organizations (except the Pipes & Drums…). All these groups offer concerts several times a year. For a list of what’s coming up, see our series tab for NCSU. The motto of Music@NCState is “…more than meets the ear.” It’s up to all of us to hear it, support it, and enjoy its ongoing growth. Happy birthday – and here’s to many, many more.

*Awards went to the following for years of service indicated beside their names:
Curtis Craver, clarinet – 45 years
Betty Knott, secretary – 35
Soloana Ingram, housekeeping – 32
J. Perry Watson, director, 1960-91 – 31
Phyllis Vogel, piano – 30
Robert Petters, conductor & director, 1996-2004 – 29
Eleania Ward, soprano & choral director – 29
Ron Foreman, choral director (& Graphic Designer for University Theatre) – 28
John Sprague, director, Pipes & Drums – 28
Milton Bliss, composer & choral director – 26
Preston Hunter, housekeeping – 26
Marilyn Lynch, piano – 26
Bett Padgett, guitar – 25
Don Adcock, band director – 22
Jonathan Kramer, cellist & conductor – 20