The Raleigh Civic Symphony Association‘s flagship orchestra, the Raleigh Civic Symphony, presented its fall concert in NCSU’s Stewart Theatre on a bright, crisp Sunday afternoon, just two weeks after the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra’s first offering of the current season (reviewed here). These presentations are important in many respects. For openers, our civic and community orchestras form the backbones of our musical lives across our state and nation, for the programs are often innovative and sometimes inspired. The players live and teach in their communities and tend to participate in many other aspects of their home cities’ culture, offering, say, chamber music and accompaniments for other civic groups (such as choruses and musical theatre) on the side. In locations that boast regional or still larger orchestral presences, these smaller performing entities can easily function somewhat on the margins, but that in no way diminishes their importance in the overall scheme of things. In almost every instance one can imagine, these organizations merit support and artistic attention, too – and not least because the programs they offer tend not to be driven by some of the “advanced” marketing efforts that have turned many of our nation’s leading symphonic ensembles into orchestral mausoleums.

Take this latest RCSO program, for example. On the menu were four works by American composers, grouped under the title “Rhapsody in (Red, White &) Blue.” Two of the four were composed in the present century. One was brand new, receiving its very first performance anywhere – and in the presence of its composer. The other two represented distinguished works of our greatest American creators. There was, in addition, a distinguished solo guest artist of international caliber who happens to be teaching at a nearby university. And the whole thing was deftly curated, prepared, and led by a highly gifted conductor who boasts some altogether admirable composing chops of his own. Finally, the concert drew a substantial (and increasingly enthusiastic) audience on a pre-Thanksgiving afternoon when there were more competing programs in the area than one could (as the saying goes) shake a stick at.

First up was “An Outdoor Overture” (1938) by Aaron Copland (whose visit to this very campus some years back remains one of our region’s cultural highlights of all time). The overture was written for performance indoors (at NYC’s High School of Music and Art), but it conveys the composer’s enduring sense of American spaciousness that speaks of our great Western expansion across time. The piece is heard fairly often, and it is good to be able to report that the RCSO’s rendition was altogether admirable. There was rock-solid work from the brass and the winds, handsomely cushioned on nicely managed and invariably precise string sound, and conductor Peter Askim made sure all of the work’s many felicitous delights emerged clearly in the hall.

There followed Gershwin’s always popular “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924), this time featuring UNC-based piano soloist Clara Yang. Her performance was a thing of wondrous lyric beauty, often somewhat more relaxed and reflective than usual but, that said, never deficient in any way in terms of dynamics and overall pizzazz. The piano was positioned as close to the lip of the stage well as one could possibly get it, in order (surely) to enhance its presence; alas, there was from time to time a bit too much orchestra, resulting in some inaudibility of the keyboard part here and there. That didn’t seem to reduce the appreciation of the audience in the least, and at the end, the performance received considerable acclaim from the audience.

The afternoon’s premiere – first performances of new works being a regular feature of all these concerts since Askim’s arrival in Raleigh – was of “Actions Speak…,” the very first orchestral composition by Jessica Meyer (b.1974). This bears the imprint of a master, well versed in musical art and thoroughly in tune (no pun intended) with symphonic literature, thanks no doubt to her many other smaller-scale pieces. The hook here is “actions speak louder than words” as seen from a contemporary technical standpoint, via a Google search, and specifically addressing perceived/actual impressions. The music is tonal and accessible, richly varied in terms of mood, skillfully set to utilize the broad palette of color and textural possibilities offered by a contemporary orchestra. The score’s several sections flow logically from one to the next, and toward the end the piece builds to an impressive – and impressively managed – climax before diminishing to a calm and reflective close that, to these ears, seemed somewhat inconclusive (which means that the very end was the only part of the piece that might merit a second thought on the composer’s part). Let’s hope Askim and Company find an opportunity to revisit this admirable music in the near future.

The grand finale was “Rainbow Body” (2000) by Christopher Theofanidis (b.1967). This handsome, consistently engaging score has enjoyed several performances here in NC, in Winston-Salem, Asheville, and the Triangle. The piece loosely merges concepts of Tibetan Buddhism with a chant of Hildegard of Bingen in a manner that to some NC listeners may suggest hints of old hymn tunes from Southern Harmony, which was of course based on much, much older musical material. The RSCO gave a very fine realization of this important score, playing from strength to strength that consistently reflected Askim’s excellence as an orchestral builder and a conductor, too. (For much more about the score itself I urge readers to see Peter Perret’s informed discussion from his 2009 review of a performance in Winston-Salem.)

As Askim noted during his opening remarks, all of the selections exuded “a sense of optimism” – despite, one might add, the comparative darkness of some of the years that gave rise to their creation.

To return to the opening theme, folks who limit their orchestral intake to big-name bands would do well to explore some of the notable offerings by our civic and community orchestras here, there, and everywhere!