The Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, whose existence in the shadows of Wake County’s several other large ensembles (the NC Symphony, the two orchestras of the Raleigh Civic Symphony Association, the three orchestras of the Philharmonic Association, etc.) has long given it name-recognition fits, among other things, has had an especially hard time in the combined wakes of 9/11/01 and the economic downturn, and it was further hurt by unexpectedly high operating costs (and poor ticket sales) during the 2001-2 season, when it sought to shift its base of operations from Meredith’s Jones Auditorium to Meymandi Concert Hall. In retrospect, Fletcher Opera Theatre might have been a better BTI venue, but that is now water over the dam. A management shift, a major fund-raising effort, and cost-saving efforts that resulted in fewer guest soloists and somewhat less ambitious programming have led the RSO this season to offer two classical concerts, three pairs of Sunday afternoon family events, a trio of chamber concerts, and several off-series programs, the last of which will involve the Concert Singers of Cary in a performance of Brahms’ German Requiem. The RSO’s financial situation has improved considerably, thanks to all the steps it has taken under the leadership of flutist and Executive Director Irene Burke, and things must be somewhat better, because on the occasion of its first full-orchestra offering of the season, there were no pleas for support from the stage. Based on all this evidence, it would appear that the RSO will continue to play an important role in the musical life of Raleigh and Wake County.

The RSO is hardly alone in calling a two-concert lineup a “series.” As Jeff Rossman noted in a review elsewhere in these pages, the Durham Symphony is doing the same thing this year, and the Greensboro Opera Company’s current season consists of a single production. Things are clearly tough everywhere.

The RSO’s classical series began with a concert in the Enloe High School Auditorium on November 10. Turnout was poor. This may have been due to the holiday weekend or the new venue (people are used to attending RSO concerts on the other side of town) or perhaps the plethora of other events during the same time frame. The acoustics in the Enloe hall are excellent, although there was some persistent hiss from the amplification system used for the narrator. The orchestra seemed somewhat larger than usual: 68 players were listed in the roster, although not all of them were on the stage. Thus the RSO is fielding a “team” that makes it comparable in size to the NC Symphony.

The program was more extensive than had been advertised, and the additions were most welcome. After the national anthem, WCPE Program Director Dick Storck read an English translation, based on Goethe, that linked five excerpts from Beethoven’s Incidental Music for Egmont, Op. 84. The RSO has a long history of successful performances of Beethoven, and this was one of its best undertakings to date. The Overture is so familiar as to fall into the “war-horse” category, but it was here omitted. From the nine other numbers in the score, Music Director and Conductor Alan Neilson selected five: the first three Entr’actes (Nos. 2, 3 and 5), the brief “Melodrama” (No. 8), and the “Siegssymphonie” (“Victory Symphony”) (No. 9). (Omitted were two songs, Entr’acte IV, and Clärchen’s Death.) The music is splendid and rarely heard, and the performances were outstanding. Since the “Victory Symphony” consists of the same music that serves as the conclusion of the well-known Overture, this 16-minute segment ended with a series of flourishes. Special praise is due tympanist Candi Pahl for her numerous contributions and the entire trumpet section. In light of this performance, a reading of the complete incidental music by this orchestra, with the texts printed in the program (so the music would not be interrupted), would at some point be most welcome.

Storck’s narration was quite good, although he sounded much more comfortable than he looked. He returned to the stage for the concert’s second offering, Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” which received a comparably good performance that clearly meant a lot to the audience, given the context of the weekend (the concert was on Veterans Day Eve) and the war tension that seems to grip our country. Indeed, the program, titled “Visions,” included music that celebrated democracy, freedom and hope, and in the “Portrait,” the words of our great wartime president cannot have been lost on the audience.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol is one of the great showpieces of the orchestral repertoire, and the RSO did it handsomely, too. The horns were a bit unruly here (and elsewhere), but the orchestra’s strengths – its lower strings, in particular, and its woodwinds were consistently outstanding. Concertmaster Tasi Matthews was among the several fine soloists. The performance reflected scrupulous attention to balance and dynamics. There have been readings that conveyed greater intensity and incisiveness, but this one worked well.

The program ended with a glowing reading of Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony. The Dresden Amen, used by Wagner in Parsifal , and Martin Luther’s Ein’ feste Burg are featured prominently in this score, which seemed to suit the present configuration and abilities of the RSO quite well. The playing was a bit uneven, and the upper strings did not always speak with complete unanimity, but Neilson led the work with obvious interest and attentiveness, and the crowd responded with great enthusiasm.

Reviewing community orchestras is tricky, as several CVNC ers have from time to time observed. Does one hold a community orchestra to the same technical and/or interpretive standards that are applied to “professional” groups? And, indeed, must “professional” groups be treated differently – can one compare, say, the NCS with the Berlin Philharmonic? Clearly not. Perhaps the best way to approach the dilemma – and it is one that our writers must often address – is to assume a certainly level of technical expertise in whatever group is being reviewed, to comment when the expectations are not met, and then to deal with the commitment of the players and their overall success in putting across the music. One thing that has been clear to this writer for years is that the community (and youth) groups have an advantage, most of the time, over many of the “professional” bands in one respect, for sure, and that is that the players are making their music for the sheer love of it. This almost invariably shows in the resulting performances, whether they are by town-and-gown groups like the NCSU-based orchestras or the work of the three outstanding youth orchestras led by Hugh Partridge and others or, in this instance, the RSO.

Last but hardly least, it is worth mentioning again the important role all these groups play in the overall scheme of things. Most fine players don’t emerge from conservatories and music schools to obtain immediate employment in professional bands. Our several county-based groups play key roles by providing performance and ongoing educational opportunities for instrumentalists of varying ages and skill levels in our community. Their programs enrich the lives of the music lovers who attend and support them. And in the case of the RSO, there need be no real stretching of critical yardsticks when it comes to measuring the results.