The April 21 concert of the Raleigh Civic Symphony in Stewart Theatre entitled “Heroes” featured three works representing men who were looked up to or revered by others, two in a politico-religious context. In introductory comments prior to the second work, director Randolph Foy said that he almost placed a question mark after the title he chose as the thematic link for the evening because two of the three individuals were often consumed with self-doubt.

The program opened appropriately with Beethoven’s Overture to King Stephen  Op. 117 (1811), the opening movement of his incidental music for the play by August von Kotzebue performed on the occasion of the birthday of Hapsburg Emperor Franz. Stephen was the founder, when crowned on Christmas day in the year 1000 AD, and ultimately patron saint, of the nation of Hungary. Playing was crisp and bright with a good balance between the strings and the rest of the musicians.

Next up was Shostakovich’s Hamlet, Op. 116 (1964), seven fragments taken from the score he composed for Gregoriy Kozintsev’s film version of Shakespeare’s play. The work is expectedly rather dark overall, with some moments of lyricism in a couple of the movements. The “Introduction” was taut. The “Ball at the Palace” prominently features the strings, once a somewhat weak section for this group, but they brought it off just fine. “The Ghost,” also featuring strings and brass, evoked an appropriately eerie and foreboding atmosphere. “In the Garden” again features primarily strings with flute; “Arrival and Scene of the Players” relies heavily on the tambourine and other percussion instruments for its mood. “The Poisoning” and “Duel and Death of Hamlet” were dramatically rendered.

After intermission, cellist and former director of the RCS Jonathan Kramer joined the orchestra for Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo [Solomon] (1916). He displayed a tattered score, telling the audience that it was his third, the others having worn out; yet this was his first public performance of the piece that he has turned and returned to on his own for over 30 years. In his lengthy but interesting and informative introductory comments, Kramer said that Bloch gives virtually “no guidance for the interpretation” of his piece, which is essentially “a symphonic movement, or a tone poem for orchestra with cello obbligato.” Does the cello represent Solomon or is the music merely abstract? Kramer concluded that he felt it to be more “an invocation of Solomon, of the spirit of wisdom, and a work that mines the cello for its expressive potential.” He thanked the members of the orchestra for their efforts, and both proceeded to play the work very finely and expressively. The audience rose to its feet at its conclusion. We can thank Kramer for sharing with us the fruits of all those years of practice and reflection on this ultimately very dark work about which Bloch himself later wrote: “Even the darkest of my works ends with hope. This work alone concludes in a complete negation. But the subject demanded it.”

As always with these performances, the printed program contained excellent notes by Foy about the composers and the works, including quotes from composers and critics. There were also related texts (two passages from Ecclesiastes related to Schelomo, for example), photographs, print and web references for further information, and names of related musical compositions, as well as a bio of the guest artist (though not his own!) and complete list of personnel.

Foy seems to have made quite a mark on this orchestra. He obviously inspires both dedicated and accurate playing. Each section had its moment to shine and all did so without any glaring misfires. If I had to single out one section as especially good, I guess I’d choose the percussionists who had quite a workout, particularly in the Shostakovich. But the woodwinds and brass were also impressive. Solo moments by all instrumentalists were competently managed throughout. Like the Borromeo Quartet, the RCS just gets better and better every time I hear it. Of course, next year the personnel will be at least somewhat different.

The size of the audience was larger than has often been the case for NCSU Music Department presentations. Perhaps word is finally getting out about Foy’s creative programming and the good performances by the players and they are finally attracting listeners in greater numbers. The next performance is by the Chamber Orchestra April 28 at 3:00 p.m. See our Calendar for further details and come hear it.