“In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn / A stately pleasure dome decree…” So rendered poet Mimi Herman in beginning Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Kahn, in Stewart Theatre on the NCSU campus. This skillful recitation served to introduce conductor Randolph Foy and the Raleigh Civic Symphony Orchestra as they presented “The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Kahn” by the American composer Charles Griffes (1884-1920). The program was entitled “Poetry Connections 1,” music in which the composer had been inspired by pre-existing poetry.

During this program, no insipid and washed-out minimalism in orchestration was suffered to intrude. On a brisk afternoon, “frost-nipt” (George Herbert) by a chilly wind, the arrangements came not on little cat feet, but were more like Carl Sandburg’s Chicago, broad-shouldered and brawling. The aforementioned opener by Griffes, with its spectral and mystic character, could even have been influenced by Berlioz and movements from his Symphonie fantastique. The players never sounded better. In fact, it is quite probable that they have never before seemed as polished and crisp. Whatever tack Foy has taken with these musicians evidently has paid off.

Once you made it past the shock of tenor voice rather than soprano, it was possible to pronounce this version of Samuel Barber’s (1910-1981) “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” a thorough success. Commissioned by the American soprano, Eleanor Steber, a couple of generations ago, it incorporates touching text from a coming-of-age prose poem by James Agee. Featured was mellow tenor Wade Henderson in a near flawless execution that could make one temporarily forget great sopranos like Leontine Price or Dawn Upshaw. The beginning and ending of this important piece seems somewhat derivative from Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. But never mind. It is a masterpiece when measured by either text or music.

If desperate enough to come across as being au courant, one can probably ascribe “significance” to just about any locution, however trite. Such an ignoble emotion seems to have seized American composer John Corigliano (b. 1938) when he came up with Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan. In his introductory remarks, Foy posed the hypothetical question, “Is it poetry?” Perhaps. But to be as kind as practical, much of it would be hard to distinguish from drivel. Editing out some of this material would have proved favorable to singer and hearer alike.

But what of the really good parts of this Corigliano presentation? First, mezzo Karyn Friedman’s was a truly class act. Given the tremendous demands of this protracted piece, she soldiered on without any evident signs of weariness. Her celebrated vocal artistry and musicianship were on exceptional display. The orchestration of these movements was a wonder and a joy to hear. Players and conductor showed no trepidation in the face of its apparent complexities. A brilliant standalone concert piece could be created from these seven movements.

The “1” in the title of this program suggests that a “2” is on the way. And indeed that is the case. Come Sunday afternoon, November 14, Brian Reagin and Nathan Leaf will join these same players and soloists for “Poetry Connections 2,” featuring composers J. Mark Scearse, William Walton, and (again) Charles Griffes. Music @ NC State and the Raleigh Civic Symphony Association honor the Triangle area by ” …Celebrating Words Through Music” and by presenting this pair of programs, as enjoyable as they are educational. See our calendar for more information.