The Raleigh Civic Symphony Association‘s two orchestras, a chamber group and a full-fledged one, have long offered some of the region’s most imaginative concerts, thanks in part to strong leadership by conductors with great passion for new music. These ensembles exemplify the best of the traditional town and gown approach to music-making, too, drawing on superior players within the host institution, in this instance North Carolina State University, and from the greater community – not that there aren’t many other performance opportunities hereabouts for orchestral musicians. But these groups have considerable advantages in being based at a major academic institution, advantages that encompass ready access to rehearsal and performance spaces, faculty and staff anchored in the school, and funding resources not readily available to most other orchestras. Add to all that the sense of pride exuded by NCSU in science, engineering, and agriculture, and it would appear that the RCSA’s outfits are in a very good place, indeed.

This was on display in the attractive hall that is Stewart Theatre on the last Sunday afternoon before Thanksgiving. Some may have felt it too pretty to be cooped up with classical music but the RCSO drew a substantial crowd for an altogether admirable program of works based on Shakespeare, the 400th anniversary of whose death we mark this year.

First up was the Prelude to William Walton’s Richard III, music written for the 1955 film with Laurence Olivier. As with Philip Glass, there’s considerable perception that Walton’s best music was for films, and this is a distinguished example of why that is so. The orchestra, under the direction of Peter Aksim, made a thoroughly favorable impression in this score, projecting music that is at once modern and evocative of what might have been King Richard’s era. Let’s pay this a high complement and say it’s a shame we didn’t get to hear more of Walton’s music!

There followed two short excerpts from music by Edward Elgar, taken from his substantial symphonic essay – it’s basically a tone poem à la Liszt or Strauss – that portrays Falstaff. (IMSLP has published the score.) The composer considered it among his best works but it lingers in the shadow of the “Enigma” Variations – our loss, one could say, based on the two clips played here, clips that, like Walton’s piece, evoke “period” with keen skill and sensibility. Again, it would have been a treat to hear more, much more, of this music, particularly as rendered by this orchestra.

The orchestra has pledged a premiere on every program, something akin to a chicken in every pot, I guess. This was fulfilled with a new version, a reincarnation, as it were, of an older, much smaller piece by Fredonia-based composer Rob Deemer. Verona Dances began life in 2009 as incidental music for a production of Romeo and Juliet, scored for an unusual chamber ensemble of saxophones, dulcimer, and drum. Its reconstruction for full orchestra necessitated a complete reexamination, according to its author. The revamped results were on admirable display as a series of attractive dances, each skillfully wrought, unfolded before our ears, to the considerable delight of the attentive audience. There were immediate discussions about recordings, although alas there were no microphones in evidence.

It would be nice to hear more music by Deemer, too.

Part two was devoted to a suite from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, certainly one of the very best reimaginings of the play ever created and arguably the finest full-evening dance score in captivity – yes, including Tchaikovsky’s. It’s dance, but it conveys all one needs to know about the story. Still, it’s not unheard of to line in portions of the play, to set the stage, as it were, and the better to place the music in context. That was done here, using suggestions from English Department scholar Christopher Crosbie, the man who has done so much to stoke interest in the Bard in our region in recent years.

Providing the readings were Lynda Clark and the inimitable Ira David Wood III, mainstay of Theatre in the Park, who was actually filling in for his indisposed son, IDW IV. These mature thespians projected some of the characters more effectively than others, but few can have found fault in their renditions. The music might have been enough, for there’s not much else out there that’s more effective, and had it been given by itself there might have been time for lots more of it. That said, the pairing up of words and music made for a special occasion, and the response from the grateful crowd was both enthusiastic and sustained. Yes, there were some minor issues, here and there, in solo work and ensemble precision, as well, but chances are these bits would have all been fine, had there been a repeat – or maybe the issues would have been elsewhere, for such is the magic of live performances – and the mystery, too!

Well done!

Note: There was a preconcert lecture by Crosbie that wasn’t nearly well enough advertised; we wish we’d known about it in time to attend. And there were some nature scenes projected over the stage before the concert began. These were attributed to Crosbie but were in fact left over from the RCCO concert earlier in the month, the Shakespearean illustrations having apparently gone missing.