The Raleigh Civic Symphony Orchestra, the “big” ensemble component of the Raleigh Civic Symphony Association, came back to in-person, live-audience life with a marvelous afternoon of new music and a substantial serving of great operatic fare in NCSU‘s Stewart Theatre on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. This orchestra and its smaller, chamber orchestra sister operate under the auspices of the NCSU Department of Music.

On more than one occasion, conductor and NCSU’s director of orchestral activities Peter Askim welcomed the large audience, saying how wonderful it was to be back, and emphasizing that there’s really nothing like live performances before people in an auditorium. Amen to that!

Askim, who also finds time to compose, arrange, orchestrate, and (occasionally) play bass, is unique among Triangle conductors in having two orchestras, this one and a chamber ensemble, the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra, that give concerts in parallel. This in turn gives him unique flexibility in programming and allows for some truly remarkable in-depth explorations. He can and does regularly take up some off-the-beaten-path repertoire, thus following in the footsteps of his esteemed predecessor, the late master of new orchestral music, Randy Foy. (The RCSO’s first concert this fall, also an in-person affair, was presented two weeks ago and, like the one discussed here, included a world premiere; click here for details.)

The program began with music from Bizet’s Carmen – not the usual suite (actually there are two suites), but instead seven very effective orchestral excerpts from the opera, delivered with appropriate drama, passion, and verve by the 70 or so players and led with dynamic incisiveness by Askim, who sometimes bounced à la Lenny [Bernstein] but who never managed to levitate. There was fine work from the woodwinds and brass, and the strings sounded rich and full in the (sometimes acoustically problematic) venue.

Valerie Coleman is known to area music lovers as a founding member of Imani Winds, whose fairly frequent concerts here have significantly enriched our musical lives. (Imani Winds will be back here soon – watch CVNC’s calendar for details.) Coleman composed a Kwanzaa quintet, “Umoja, Anthem of Unity,” a while back and orchestrated it for the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2019. It proved powerful and moving as played here, and its overt emotion fit the bill nicely, as our nation continues to be torn by conflict – a little unity would not hurt one tiny bit. As it was, the music had us dancing with hope, if not quite with joy.

(There’s a mention of the song in its woodwind incarnation, in which guise it was intended to celebrate the diversity of Imani Winds, in this review.)

The chief attraction of the program was the long-delayed (by COVID and more…) premiere of Tift Merritt‘s new vocal symphony, a four-movement work based on her songs and orchestrated by Askim. She likely needs little introduction, but for our readers it is worth stating that she’s one of us; she was born in Houston but grew up in Raleigh. And she’s done lots for the arts hereabouts, quite beyond her own fantastic artistry, which has taken her around the globe. This latest undertaking reminds one of Judy Collins’ work with conductor, composer, and arranger Joshua Rifkin (Wildflowers, In My Life, etc.) and seemed to be even more effective, thanks to the sonic splendor of the RCSO and the skill of Askim’s orchestrations.

The piece is titled The Other Side of the Hungry River, and its several components are titled “Hungry River” theme (see also this article), “Mother Nature Loves Her Wildest Children Best,” “On My Way,” and “Ground Is the Memory.” The first number is orchestral, serving as an overture of sorts. Merritt sang in the second and third, and played guitar and sang in the finale.

NCSU’s creativeState has a lot more information about the new work. Read its article here.

This is somber, serious fare, reflecting the lives of people too often overlooked by society. As a long-time denizen (since the early ’60s) of Dix Hill,* now becoming Raleigh’s major park but for years the nation’s first and most progressive mental institution, this music spoke directly and personally to me. Like Merritt and many other visitors over the years, I too have felt the “presence” of patients there, and of the staff – on the farm, at the old barn with its nearby pond, and in the flower workshops. Listeners will sense some of that and more in this music. The texts speak of trees and their branches, flowers, birds, and human memory. There’s some magic therein. Let’s hope we get to hear it again, for there’s depth in the words and the music that merits revisiting. The large audience came to hear Merritt and her large new work, but there was attentive listening throughout, as if everyone was on a journey of discovery. Three restrained cheers to all concerned!

*The director of buildings and grounds and his family, who lived in the Spring Hill House, were friends, and later I worked for DHHS on the hospital campus.