Sunday afternoon at NCSU’s Stewart Theatre saw an interesting program by the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra with the centennial of our National Park system as a unifying theme. Peter Askim led the forces, which varied considerably in size from one piece to another (with the larger pieces, it really was a full orchestra). The ensemble has been developing in a good direction over the last few years, and it showed in this performance. Any serious follower of Classical music, and patron of the arts, should support and attend its concerts, especially given the string of premiere performances.

The first of the four works on the program was Felix Mendelssohn’s relatively obscure Overture to The Fair Melusine from 1834. This is based on the story of Melusina who practiced sorcery against her father and then was condemned by her mother to become a mermaid every Saturday. (Not exactly sure of the connection to the National Parks, but it does imply getting outside.) After a gentle soft opening, the action started in, at which point the enthusiastic director’s baton took flight, missing the orchestra and audience and ending up on the floor several feet away. Askim didn’t miss a beat, as they say, and the performance was expressive and effective.

Next came the well-known “Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un faune” by Claude Debussy. This symphonic poem from 1894 was a seminal work in music history, and requires skill in the woodwinds and brass, especially the principal flute and horns. The orchestra handled the challenges of solo exposed passages and delicate balance quite well.

This was followed by Virgil Thomson’s Suite from The Plow That Broke the Plains. This was adapted from music written for the 1936 documentary film about the dust bowl environmental disaster. A projection of clips from the film augmented the action, as did narration by Bill Leslie, well-known in these parts from his broadcasts on WRAL and many musical activities as performer and composer. Thomson made every effort to produce a score that sounded American, and it manages to do so in a sincere manner. The effect of the film at the time was striking, and helped to change the abusive agricultural practices that destroyed hundreds of millions of acres and millions of farmer’s lives. We can look forward to more of this kind of thing with climate change and other global and local assaults on nature that are not as simple to address as in the 1930’s.

After a curiously over-long intermission, the concert concluded with a world premiere performance of Jeff Peterson‘s Malama ‘Aina: Concerto for Slack Key Guitar and Orchestra, featuring the composer as soloist. Peterson is quite an accomplished musician, well-known for his specialty, the slack-key guitar. This is a Hawai’ian tradition, stemming from Mexican cowboys in the late 19th century who came to the islands to deal with wild cattle overrunning the landscape. Instead of the customary tuning used in classical guitar, which is roughly equally convenient (or inconvenient) in a range of keys, some of the strings are tuned down to suit one specific key. There were two tunings used in this work; one was for the first and third movements, and the other was for the middle movement. To make this practical, Peterson had two guitars and swapped as needed. The constraints of this system result in music that has limited harmonic scope, which can wear on the ear used to more adventurous modulations. It was welcome that there was the variety of key center afforded by two guitars. The general flavor of the music was reminiscent of the guitar concertos of Rodrigo, which are extremely popular with their fetching and memorable melodies, as well as simple harmonic structure. This concerto did not have the striking melodies one could whistle while heading home, but it did have the kind of tonality that audiences find very comfortable, and was skillfully orchestrated. It was possible to hear the guitar over the orchestra, with the assistance of a couple of microphones, and without directly amplifying the guitars with pickups. The three movements were each named after a Hawai’ian volcano. At the conclusion, the audience gave an immediate standing ovation.

All in all, an enjoyable evening.