November has become one of the season’s busiest months, and at its mid-point came one of the year’s busiest weekends, thanks to overlapping stars of various ilks and persuasions, one of which appeared at Raleigh’s Sportpalast, where a large crowd of glitterati were said to have been on hand for The Big P[avarotti]. Downtown, pianist Vladimir Feltsman gave one of the finest recitals in recent memory before a large crowd of committed connoisseurs. Over in the Bull City, the Chamber Arts Society put on an event that was, like the two in Raleigh, extremely well attended. We didn’t get any reports about turnout for Randy Reed’s Nelson Music Room program, but chances are good that the Triangle’s guitar community was there in force, too. The weekend burst with other attractions as well, which must say something about culture in the Triangle….

On Friday, November 15, the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra competed with another event in Stewart Theatre as it presented an admirable program in the Ballroom of the NCSU Student Center. Music Director Randolph Foy was in top form, and his 29-member ensemble played as well as we have heard it. The evening was billed as “Classic with a Twist”; the twists were that the works in the first half, galante, obscure scores by J.C. Bach (“The Italian Bach,” in this case – later he was known as “The London Bach”) and Joseph Martin Kraus, were appropriately elegant and provided fine contrast, while the second half, which featured scores by Mozart and William Bolcom, was often downright amusing. The program itself was masterfully crafted: the first three works were composed, as Foy noted, within a 15-year span, and the last one, which could have “passed” for a classical piece but for some of the harmonies and juxtapositions, was penned 199 years after the opener.

Part of an Overture (to Temistocle) by J.S.B.’s most polished and prolific son proved bracing and was handsomely realized. So, too, was the much darker and more dramatic C Minor Symphony of Kraus, whose Germanic heritage clearly wasn’t lightened by European travels to the extent that J.C.B.’s was. Curiously, Kraus was for a time in the employ of Sweden’s Gustav III, known to opera fans as the subject of the assassination depicted by Verdi in Un Ballo in Maschera . We learned this tidbit from Foy’s outstanding program notes, which are consistently among the finest produced by any orchestra or ensemble in the Triangle.

These performances were on modern as opposed to period instruments, but the strings sounded appropriately lean, and the readings gave pleasure to the enthusiastic audience. Balance was good throughout, there were, throughout, some excellent contributions from the winds, in particular, and in the Kraus there was some truly breathtaking work from the various string sections.

Mozart’s “Musical Joke” is one of the treasures of the literature, so it is surprising that it doesn’t turn up very often in live performances. There’s a very tense recording by Guido Cantelli, whom some think may have missed the point that the work is, well, a joke. Foy’s group gave it scrupulous attention and the results were delightful, in a sort of perverse way – we’ve heard worse, on other occasions, from other ensembles, which were trying to play accurately…

The grand finale was Bolcom’s “Commedia for (almost) 18th-century orchestra” (1971). It’s a hodge-podge of take-offs and quotations and clichés that in its own way works as well as Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony and some of Berio’s quasi parodies. Few would mistake the results as having stemmed from the classical period, but it fit into the program’s overall context splendidly and, in the wake of the Duke-UNC Milestones 2002 series of contemporary music, it demonstrated conclusively that NCSU cannot be ruled out as a place to hear new (or fairly new) works. (Incidentally, Bolcom and his wife Joan Morris, the mezzo-soprano, will be in North Carolina this weekend for concerts in Greensboro and Brevard, and William Henry Curry will lead the NCS in the premiere of a new Bolcom score next spring. (See our calendar and series tabs for details.)

The RCSA’s big weekend ended on the afternoon of November 17 with a comparably fine concert by the Raleigh Civic Symphony Orchestra, also conducted by Foy. That program, presented in Stewart Theatre, competed with still more Triangle concerts (the Miró String Quartet, a repeat by the NCMC of Rachmaninov’s Vespers , and the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle) but nonetheless drew a substantial audience….

The concert got underway with a fairly briskly-paced reading of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, a wonderful work and one ideally suited to a nominal town-&-gown orchestra. This one happens to boast 52 strings and a total of 74 players, so it is large enough to do this music justice and then some, and the playing was remarkably fine, with radiant string sound and support for the fine wind and brass sections. When you’re talkin’ strings, section size matters. After all, strings transform a band into a symphony orchestra. And in this case, the fact that there were several extra stands in each string section made a huge difference in the overall effectiveness of the performance.

Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto is a marvelous work in which both the soloist and the orchestra have lots of opportunities to shine. On this occasion, the soloist was 12-year-old Vivian Cheng, one of the rising stars of our local music scene. CVNC reported on her performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 with this orchestra last fall, we’ve heard her in recitals, and we’ve periodically updated our readers on her awards and honors, in our news section. Next week, she will play the Beethoven again in Rocky Mount, with the Tar River Orchestra. Based on her playing in Raleigh, where the soloist earned a three-bouquet standing ovation, the Nash County concert will definitely be worth the drive. (See our calendar for details.)

Cheng looks like a little girl but plays like the seasoned professional artist she is rapidly becoming. Her work in the Beethoven was from start to finish superb, and it would have been astounding if we hadn’t heard her previously. The orchestra provided wonderful support, concurrently delivering some of its best work of the afternoon. In the first movement, Cheng played a cadenza based on Beethoven that was prepared for her by her distinguished teacher, John Ruggero. The second movement was played with great serenity and lots of poetry. It was surely one of the finest performances of the slow movement this critic has yet heard, anywhere. In the third movement, she flew out of the starting gate, but the orchestra met her step for step, shining on its own. Together the soloist and the RCSO delivered the goods and then some.

The finale was billed the Suite from Manuel de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat, but what we heard was more likely both suites prepared by the composer. The ballet is only about twice as long as the Introduction and two groups that were played, and it would be a fine thing if the RCSO were to perform the entire work sometime, for what was given on November 17 received a truly idiomatic performance, and this genuine Spanish score has been widely neglected by other orchestral programmers. (The ballet requires a soprano soloist and some chanting from the villagers that could probably be realized by the orchestral musicians.) All that said, the orchestral bits in the Suite contain the best music from the stage work, which was composed for Diaghilev and premiered by Ansermet (whose recordings of the complete score are among the greatest treasures of the Lp era).

The audience responded to this performance and the earlier ones on this program with great and well-deserved enthusiasm. The orchestras of the RCSA seem to get better every time we hear them, which is a tribute to the organization’s outstanding Music Director and the ensembles’ committed players, too. Even if the performances by the orchestras of the RCSA weren’t as good as they are, these concerts would nonetheless rank among the region’s greatest cultural bargains, for the prices are, in comparison with the going rate for other bands, ridiculously low. Adults get in for $8, and students are $5.