Associate Conductor Michelle Di Russo leads the North Carolina Symphony in a performance of classical favorites at Northside High School Auditorium in Jacksonville, North Carolina

JACKSONVILLE, NC – The North Carolina Symphony is one of the cultural jewels of our state. Now nearly 100 years old, the ensemble presents over 300 events a year taking place in all 100 North Carolina counties. These performances embrace full-scale formal concerts, with major works of composers such as Beethoven and Mahler among many others, and sometimes featuring international soloists, community events in many smaller locations, and educational programs, the latter bringing symphonic music to the rising generation all over the state. Along with the scope and reach of the orchestra’s contribution comes the high quality of their concerts. This writer has reviewed many of the group’s performances and they are typically superb. By bringing the highest calibre music-making to our state, the orchestra makes a huge contribution to our cultural life.

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North Carolina Symphony Jacksonville Chapter Board with Associate Conductor Michelle Di Russo after the concert. L to R is Board Member Meredith Best, Board Secretary Lyndsay Russell, Board President Earl Taylor, Board Member Gloria Goodwin, Associate Conductor Michelle Di Russo, Board Member Michelle Baker, Pam Taylor, and Board Member Marta Oyan.

This concert took place in Jacksonville, a town of about 70,000 on the New River that has been the seat of Onslow County in eastern North Carolina since 1755. Until WWII it was a farming community. Shortly after the start of the war, a marine base, Camp Lejeune, was established there. The base became a substantial and important military facility in North Carolina and Jacksonville itself developed into a regional shopping center.

As such, this concert was a good example of the many community events given by the orchestra. The locale was the auditorium of Northside High School, a good-sized general-use space. The program was a typical summer performance, consisting of a good number of shorter pieces and generally maintaining an upbeat character. It was conducted by Michelle Di Russo. A native of Argentina, she is associate conductor of the orchestra; among other aspects of her activities, Di Russo conducts the orchestra’s statewide music education concerts.

This program was enjoyable. A bit over an hour in length with no intermission, it included nine pieces, each preceded by engaging comments from Di Russo. The first piece was the overture to The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), the last opera by Mozart. This masterful, ever-popular overture received an appropriately sparkling rendition, despite some inexactitudes.

The second work was the Symphony No. 1 in G, Op. 11 by Joseph Bologne, also well-known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799). The Chevalier has been the object of much attention of late, as the first composer of color to establish a substantial European reputation. His music is being played a good deal now. A film drama-biography of his life, Chevalier, was released in 2022. Known not only as a composer, he conducted important ensembles in Paris and was a highly-regarded violinist. Equally to his skills as a musician, he was renowned as a champion swordsman and defeated the leading masters of his time. If even that wasn’t enough, he also commanded a legion defending France against Austria in the early 1790s, following the Revolution.

Among the numerous works of this remarkable figure are two symphonies and eight symphonie-concertantes. At the time the chevalier was a leading exponent of the latter genre. Today it is best-known through the K. 364 of Mozart, who wrote a piece by this title after spending time in Paris and getting to know the Chevalier personally.

The symphony in G is light and tuneful, in the standard three-movement fast-slow-fast design of the time. If all the repeats are not taken, it lasts under ten minutes. The first movement is energetic. The performance could have benefitted from more dynamic rhythms and articulations. The exposed single-note accompaniment in the second theme was well executed, with good phrasing. The second movement was graceful and pleasing. The finale is dance-like. Even with the lightness, here too, more energy in the rhythm would have added propulsion and excitement.

The orchestra seemed to warm to the following work, the effervescent overture to Die Fledermaus, the evergreen Viennese operetta by Johann Strauss, Jr. The opening was sharp and there were appealingly expressive solos. In total though, it was rather too straight. This music needs more flexibility of tempo, rubato and, quintessentially Viennese, more of the characteristic rhythmic lilt in the waltz sections. It can also accelerate to more of a headlong tempo at the end, though this performance did work up some froth, to good audience response.

The following piece was a cute, even endearing rendition of “Tea for Two,” the beloved tune by Vincent Youmans, here arranged delightfully and with some interesting twists of sound, by Shostakovich who, after all, did have a sense of humor. The high-spirited Tritsch-Tratsch Polka brought back Johann Strauss, Jr. Here the rhythms are entirely regular, and it is of unadulterated high spirits. It was delightful and the ending was real fun.

Manuel de Falla was next with his “Spanish Dance No. 1” from La Vida Breve. Perhaps more than any other composer, de Falla captures the sounds and colors of his native Spain in the orchestra. There are moods of wistfulness, liveliness, and what sounded altogether like a stomping dance. The performance was very successful.

Two quintessential Americans came next: Charles Ives and George Gershwin. Ives’ organ piece Variations on America was arranged for orchestra by the well-known American composer William Schuman. There was an interesting array of colors adorning the familiar tune, and a rather sedately dissonant variation which perhaps didn’t warrant the broad warning about it given in the commentary. Ives as usual had his own take on a familiar tune that would have been well-known to American audiences. Gershwin’s Strike up the Band had a similar effect, here via the composer’s characteristic jazzy language. The piece features dynamic rhythms and is jubilant. The orchestra brought this out very well.

The ending piece was different than might have been expected, given the generally lighter character of the program. This was the Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez, a Mexican composer trained in Mexico, California, and Paris. Márquez has become especially well-known for the piece heard here, which, like others of his works, incorporates styles of his native country. It is a rich, multi-section work with moods ranging from expressive and flowing, even sentimental, to vigorous. The trumpet had a prominent solo. Maestra Di Russo’s beat became especially reactive and responsive here; one had the impression that she identifies with this music. It was a satisfying ending.

The audience was appreciative. The hall was unfortunately barely over half full; one hopes that our top-class orchestra, offering free performances, will draw full audiences everywhere. Those who were there were treated to a varied and attractive program, well-designed for the pleasures of summer. Many thanks to the North Carolina Symphony for their rich contribution to the cultural life of our state.