When a commander of any reasonable rank arrives on the scene, honors and ceremonies usually ensue, so it was appropriate for the Raleigh Civic Symphony to render homage, if that’s the word, to J. Mark Scearce, recently appointed Director of Music at NCSU, by playing one of his most vibrant compositions — Urban Primitive — as the first work on its opening concert of the 2004-5 season, given in Stewart Theatre on November 14. Randolph Foy conducted the orchestra, whose personnel now number 74 (47 strings); under his leadership, this ensemble has made quite remarkable progress, technically and in terms of programming, too.

Urban Primitive was hatched at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in late 1995 and completed in Hawaii, where the composer was teaching at the time. It was premiered by the Honolulu Symphony. It has, as Scearce suggested during brief remarks, taken on a life of its own, and the RCS’s performance was the fourth time it has been programmed in NC. As it happens, Foy was responsible for two of those readings — on this occasion and earlier this year, with the orchestra of the Governor’s School for the Arts. (The other performances involved the Western Piedmont Symphony and the NC Symphony.) It is a splashy, vibrant, exciting piece, that often suggests exhilarating scores by composers like Lou Harrison and Colin McPhee, but it speaks with its own unique and distinctive voice. (One of the most remarkable things about Scearce is that no two of his pieces sound alike.) The RCS’s set-up for the Scearce work was especially dramatic, too. The orchestra tuned and then Foy came onto the stage, stepped onto the platform with barely a nod to the crowd, and gave a downbeat, eliciting the opening of Urban Primitive. The music continued for a few moments, setting the stage, as it were, for Foy’s introduction of the composer and his remarks. But even before we got into the hall, there was an air of expectation and excitement, for not since the heyday of the Friends of the College have we seen such a line for tickets for a classical concert at what faculty brats of a certain age still call “Cow College.” It was really something!

The performance was polished and very much alive, and the playing demonstrated the security of the orchestra’s sections and Foy’s outstanding leadership skills. Balance was excellent, attacks and releases were crisp, and the whole thing was given with unusual incisiveness — and these qualities of execution carried over to the other works on the program.

The rest of the first half was devoted to Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, recently played by the NCS; such close-aboard programming overlaps may present challenges to the second batch of performers but offer wonderful opportunities for listeners. The RCS’s soloist was Audrey Low, 15, a student of John Ruggero, who has been on a roll of late, given the number of his pianists who have been heard (and reviewed) in the Triangle. She gave a wonderful performance, receiving strong support from the orchestra. Foy was constantly alert, tailoring the accompaniment to the soloist; there were some minor coordination glitches, but nothing that came close to stopping the show. Like many of Ruggero’s students, Low is a fine musician and a secure technician, so the performance, which brought out the work’s inherent lyricism but also sported plenty of power where needed, gave great pleasure.

The concert ended with Dvorák’s Symphony No. 6, in D. It’s not that master’s most popular work, but is it without doubt one of his most charming. In a sense, it’s sort of your grandparents’ kind of symphony — a bit old-fashioned, with nothing to ruffle feathers or pleats. It is, in a word, congenial, and the performance brought out the work’s many heart-warming qualities without lapsing into overt sentimentality. There were a few lapses in string ensemble, and there was a bit of uncertainty here and there, when the strings were divided, but overall there was warmth from the front of the band and some pretty spectacular playing from the winds and brasses.

The RCS, under Foy, has become, increasingly, an orchestra to be reckoned with, so it should come as no surprise that it drew a good crowd and that that crowd was demonstrative in its praise during and after the concert. It may be worth noting, here, as Foy did at the concert, that the audience contained a high percentage of young people. At the risk of stating the obvious, Low is a young soloist, and many of the members of the orchestra are young, too. Still, perhaps Foy is finding the key to the problem of aging audiences with varied programs that include new music, fresh performances, outstanding program notes, and the like….

(For a think-piece by J. Mark Scearce, see our feature archives.)