OK, I’ll confess. I think our orchestras are among the most important cultural attributes of our communities, large or small.* I’m talking community orchestras here. There are, mercifully, lots of ’em in North Carolina – groups of varying maturity and proficiency scattered here and there, from Wilmington to Brevard. Some – like the Chapel Hill Philharmonia – are all-volunteer groups, while others are healthy mixtures of students, adult amateurs, and pros, some moonlighting from musical day-jobs and others with comparable academic credentials who are pursing entirely different (that is to say, non-musical) careers. Some are based at colleges or universities or draw on artistic personnel of those institutions (although these cap-&-gown bands really merit consideration in a separate category of orchestras, apart from the community-based ones). And some of the community groups face identity, fundraising, and other challenges because they are co-located in towns with full-time orchestras.

There are double and triple whammies in the Triangle, where there are well-established groups in all the foregoing categories, and where the pecking order includes some overlay of social snobbery – or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the issue is one of (mis)perceptions of the quality, real or imagined, projected by the various groups.

Anyway, we’d be a much poorer community without our community orchestras, for all kinds of reasons, many of which were exemplified in the most recent concert given by the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble that has been in much more transition than anyone associated with it, formally or informally, could possibly have imagined this time last season. For openers, the group appointed a new Music Director – Jim Waddelow – on September 1, 2010. He’s a cellist (hooray!) and he’s got lots of promise and a good deal of experience, but he’s young, and there was some turnover in the ranks after he was tapped. Concurrently the orchestra and the college where Waddelow is based (not to mention the rest of us) were dealing with the effects of the recession, effects that were particularly hard on cultural organizations. And then the distinguished founding conductor of the RSO, Maestro Alan Neilson, succumbed to a quick-onset and intensely virulent illness. He was only 80 – young for a conductor, as conductors go. Many of us had figured he’d transition gracefully to Emeritus status and continue to enrich our musical lives, but it was not to be. The RSO thus had to deal with still more unanticipated change. And the pressure on Waddelow must have been immense.

The RSO’s season-ending concert, given in Jones Auditorium on May 1, included a suite of excerpts from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger – the Prelude to Act III, the introduction to that act’s Scene 5, and the finale – that Neilson had himself arranged and had planned to conduct. It proved to be a stirring, heartbreakingly beautiful memorial tribute to the Maestro, led with conviction and incisive skill and played with breathtaking commitment by the members of the RSO. Two pieces from Walton’s music for Henry V were every bit as appropriate for what turned out to be an extended tribute to the late leader. There are few more moving elegies than the “Death of Falstaff,” Purcell-like in its eloquence; and the selection called “Touch her soft lips and part” served as a little love-lyric of farewell. Here, too, the playing was exceptional – this is an orchestra that often sounds better than folks hearing it for the first time expect it to be. Neilson is in part responsible for that, but of course the musicians play for the sheer love of it, and that goes a long way, too.

The primary purpose of the evening was to showcase student winners of the orchestra’s annual concerto competition – the 19th, I believe (which means that the RSO was among the first orchestras in central NC to offer this invaluable service to students and the community).

First up was East Carolina University junior Caroline Cox, whom we’d heard earlier in the same piece – the first movement of the Sibelius’ Concerto – in Durham, where she also captured a prize with their community orchestra (reviewed by Ken Hoover at https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=1174). This young woman, already appearing with her teacher, Ara Gregorian, in professional settings (see our archives), seems even at this early stage to own this Sibelius concerto, making one long to hear her play the entire thing. The RSO gave her its all, too – making for a powerful musical experience.

There followed two young (10th grade) students of John Ruggero, the grand master of piano teachers (partly, as the insurance commercial says, “due to age”) in our midst. With all due respects to the other piano pedagogues here, Ruggero (who was a high-school classmate of this writer) seems to have found and nourished far more than his fair share of exceptional young talent. (Here’s hoping he never retires but just keeps on finding and grooming ’em!)

On this occasion, two hotshots picked the same piece, so we heard the first and last movements of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (the best known one of the five, perhaps because it was recorded by the composer, although it’s not necessarily the best). Starting out was Jonathan Chan, who dazzled with his technical precision and dexterity – and his musicianship, too. Waddelow could hardly have done a better job of synchronizing the accompaniment with the soloist – the conductor’s eyes were everywhere at once, if you can imagine that. The movement ends with one of those passages where if you get even a tad off at any point you’d better run from the stage, hiding your face (as I observed someone do, long ago, in different music, at UNC…). There was no premature departure this time, and the place went wild.

And then Henry Hsieh came on for the finale – which is comparable in its brilliance and its musical and technical demands. This was – like the opening movement – virtually flawless in its execution and every bit as breathtaking to experience. And again, the place went wild.

(I should mention that this concerto is a great virtuoso vehicle, played by many splendid artists, and there are more than a few recordings of it, among which are live and studio-made versions by the great Dimitri Mitropoulos, who both played and conducted it, at the same time – a trick not recommended to any of the participants in this RSO event!)

At the end, long-time benefactor and sponsor of these concerto competition concerts Benjamin K. Gibbs brought all three soloists to the platform for a few words of encouragement and the presentation of commemorative plaques. (A fourth winner of this competition cycle will be heard with the RSO in the fall.)

In sum, at what was probably the last musical tribute to Neilson, it’s safe to say that the late Maestro built a wonderful community resource of great value to Raleigh and its environs – and that it is in very good hands now, with Waddelow. Life goes on. Music helps make it worthwhile.

*I’m high on our choruses here, too, great and small, but few of them are “professional” in the context meant here – that is to say, paid – so they can be the subject of another dissertation sometime…. They’re important, too – and isn’t it annoying when some turkey of a critic calls singers “vocalists” and instrumentalists “musicians,” for heaven’s sakes – as if the singers aren’t as adept, technically, or as well-trained, as their non-vocal brethren!