The NC Symphony has been in the news of late – it’s been hard to miss the hoopla surrounding new Music Director Grant Llewellyn, with all the double-page ads in the N&O, the banners on phone and light poles all over town, the commercials on non-commercial public radio, etc. In an era of bad economic times, and with the country at war, and with heavy competition from politicians and various Section 527 groups, the NCS has had to go the extra mile to get out the word. Half a million bucks for marketing helped. As the NCS’s CEO said a while back, it’s been “All Grant, all the time.”

But life goes on, and the NCS has managed to continue to do its usual stuff. On September 2, there was another free “Play with the Pros” concert at Regency Park, led by Assistant Conductor Kenneth Raskin, far and away the most mature – and artistically interesting – person to hold that title in recent memory. The freebie was not well attended – Thursdays are “off” nights, culturally – but the audience was quiet and respectful, and the playing, by NCS regulars, was polished and pleasing enough as the program unfolded. The bill of fare consisted of what the musicians’ flyer said was the “German edition” of the Overture to Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (the editor wasn’t credited, but it has more winds than the “original” version), the Ballet Music from Gounod’s Faust (long rumored to have been written by Delibes, but that’s another story…), Saint-Saëns’ “Danse macabre,” and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy. The music wasn’t unusual, but for a long, long time there was a severe shortage of French fare on the NCS’s programs, so those works were most welcome. Raskin uses his left hand more than many stick-wavers we could name but won’t, and even in the out-of-doors, and with some amplification, the sound was good.

After a short intermission, the “pros” were joined by 40 other players, including 21 strings (which, come to think of it, brought the NCS up to the strength it ought to have, all the time, and which Assad Meymandi – in memory of whose mother the NCS’s home hall is named – has said he hopes can be obtained permanently, in due course). These folks came from Cary, Raleigh, Morrisville, Chapel Hill, Wake Forest, Holly Springs, Apex, Durham, and – remarkably – Kernersville. The “big band” played the finale of Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony, the Farandole from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne (twice announced as by Saint-Saëns), and – as a planned “encore” – Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” There were proud mammas and papas (and grandparents) and spouses and friends in considerable abundance, and the performances earned – and received – enthusiastic responses.

These “Play with the Pros” concerts, funded by the Town of Cary’s Parks, Recreation & Cultural Resources Department, are excellent examples of outreach (with or without a capital “o”) that do much to enhance the reputation of the NCS among the tax-paying citizens whose largess helps keep it going.

As it happened, Llewellyn could have been heard on the same day by CVNCers who clicked on the link that was in our calendar then; an attractive program of music that would probably never pass muster by domestic orchestral marketing personnel – works by Joby Talbot (the premiere of “Sneaker Wave”), Weill, Alun Hoddinott (a concerto for euphonium), and Shostakovich (the Ninth Symphony) – was webcast in real time by the BBC. It featured vocalist Ruthie Henshall, euphonium soloist David Childs, and one of Llewellyn’s other orchestras – the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Then, on September 5, the 25th edition of “Pops in the Park” (some of which have been skipped, due to weather) took place as advertised, in the same Cary venue. The name stems from the very first one of these things having been given in Pullen Park…. The event was packed to the back walls and began late, as a result. Leadership was shared by William Henry Curry, recently named Resident Conductor of the NCS, and Raskin, and the people got more than their money’s worth, thanks to the inclusion of Bill Leslie and his Celtic Band, Lorica (whose members are Sherry Buchheit, violin, Linda Metz, flute, and Stephen Levitin, percussion), and Marty Suttle Thomas, piano and vocals (and arranger). (Leslie is one of WRAL’s news anchors, and WRAL sponsors – and telecasts excerpts from – “Pops in the Park” before passing the same edited tape along to WUNC-TV.) The event was hosted by weather guesser Greg Fishel, who plays the tuba from time to time (but who didn’t, on this occasion).

Curry got things underway with a stylish reading of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1 (with the “Land of Hope and Glory” theme) and then led an amazingly insightful and fresh performance of Dvorák’s “Carnival” Overture, thus contributing a salvo in the observations of the 100th anniversary of that composer’s death. Raskin managed to make two selections from Anderson’s “Irish” Suite sound convincing enough; these bracketed an arrangement of “Danny Boy” that was thoroughly sentimental. With the stage thus set, as it were, Leslie and his ensemble performed several numbers, two of which were arranged for the band and accompanying NCS members. “Grip Fast” was among these, and it can be heard in the form Leslie surely intended on his recently issued CD*, a winning tribute to his NC roots that is handsomely produced with all sorts of tastefully overlaid natural sounds.

For reasons that often elude this writer, “Pops in the Park” (and the July 4 concerts, too) almost invariably include Tchaikovsky’s “1812” Overture, with or without canons. This time the canons were fake, and Raskin did the podium honors – leading also the same “scheduled” encore played three days before, “Stars and Stripes.” Prior to the grand finale (and the fireworks), Curry directed a stunning performance of R.R. Bennett’s great Symphonic Picture of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess . Curry gave enough background on the opera to convey its essence to the crowd, and then he played it (or had the players play it) absolutely from the heart. I cannot remember a bad performance by Curry – he has been the NCS’s bright light, in the leadership department, since he landed here – but this must rank among his very finest efforts. It is therefore a mystery that the TV folks omitted it from the tape-delayed airing….. Of course it is a great American score, but that alone does not ensure a great performance – that takes commitment and insight and skill and the ability to convey all of those attributes to the players, and Curry delivered.

“Pops in the Park” – in whatever venue – is not the place to hear the NCS in full cry. These concerts have become picnics with background music, and despite heavy amplification, the music could not compete with chattering families and some screaming, hyperactive children.

The best place to experience the NCS is Meymandi Concert Hall, and that’s where the ensemble will turn up this week, for what some are calling the event of the season. The occasions – and there are several – center on Llewellyn’s much-ballyhooed debut as Music Director, the fifth since 1932. The names of the first two – Stringfield and Swalin – are hallowed. The third one, John Gosling, hasn’t been back since his unhappy departure. No. 4 came and stayed and stayed; it gives one pause to consider why he had no marketing blitzes like the one that’s welcomed No. 5.

Anyway, the N&O ran a think-piece on Llewellyn on Sunday, in its big arts preview section. Our colleague David Perkins, formerly of Raleigh but now living in Massachusetts, did the honors. Although some of his comments on Toscanini are demonstrably untrue, his overview of the roles of conductors is recommended for kids and corporate bigwigs who may be hearing the NCS for the first time this week. A more relevant article, centering on the fifteenth (and final) season of Neeme Järvi in Detroit and written by Detroit News critic Lawrence B. Johnson, appeared on Saturday. The conductor addresses the role of music directors, saying that the last one who merited the title – and who was “absolutely worth the money” – was Herbert von Karajan. Johnson writes that Järvi believes “the whole notion of a music director is overblown, almost mythic,” and quotes the Maestro at some length: “What does it mean, really? …It means prestige, self-importance and a lot of money….. I don’t know any conductor today who should be so powerful and receive so much money…. Now it isn’t logical. What makes sense is a team of conductors, whose temperaments complement each other and whose work could be coordinated by an artistic administrator.” (The article is available at [inactive 12/07].)

As we await the corporate preview on the 15th and concerts in Southern Pines and Raleigh on the next three days, we must remember that the news here is Llewellyn’s appointment. The orchestra has been in its new digs for three years. There have been no significant personnel changes since his predecessor was eased out with his golden parachute. The band will be augmented for Mahler’s First Symphony – thirteen more strings, we are hearing, and many extra winds and brass – but the head-count of the core group – the folks who constitute The North Carolina Symphony – is the same it’s been since the previous MD arrived here. Thus, if there’s a perceptible difference in the quality of the playing, it will stem from the new MD’s superior artistry and leadership abilities.

If the late Brother Dave Gardner were still around and still doing his “Hainted House” routine, one of the milestones (or millstones) of Southern culture, he might change the refrain to read “Is you gonna be here when Grant gets here?” That’s what we’ve been hearing all summer. We are now poised for the Third Coming of Llewellyn, following his two tryouts. Will he be the savior of the NCS or just another time-beater? Can he live up to the advance press? We’ll know in a while, but not by the end of the week, and maybe not by this time next year – his arrival won’t result in an instant cure because he’s not going to be here very much this season. Still, it’s time for some hints of greatness, so here’s hoping that the board’s choice – Llewellyn was the only viable alternative, given the final four – proves to have been astute. And here’s hoping, too, that the new MD’s first orders of business will be to quash the cult of personality that’s been built up around him and to restore the focus on music.

*Bill Leslie & other artists: Peaceful Journey : A Celebration of North Carolina . (DDD?; 54:25) Published by Capitol Broadcasting Co. To order, see [inactive 9/05]..

PS The NCS has hired Robert Schiller as its Chief Financial Officer. He replaces Bonnie Medinger, who is retiring, and the appointment is effective 9/30/04. Schiller comes to the NCS from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, where he was Manager of Budget and Finance. Like Llewellyn, he will have his work cut out for him.