It’s been a bit of a long haul but the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra* is back at last – after an absence of 20 months, our valiant community orchestra has returned to make music before a live audience, offering important scores by Richard Strauss (1864-1959) and Beethoven (1770-1827) and new (or newer) works by local composer Craig Hanemann, Stacy Garrop (b.1969), and Oklahoman Jerod Impichchaachaaha {Chickasaw for “His High Corncrib”) Tate (b.1968) in Meredith College‘s venerable Jones Auditorium. Life is good.

Getting there was kind of like a track meet – sign up for #CampusClear and report your health status for the day, go through campus security, sign an affirmation upon entry to the auditorium (none of this took very long, but don’t wait till the last minute or you’ll be late!), mask up, and maintain distance, facilitated by ushers and markings on the seats. This is good, promoting a sense of reassurance in these troubling times. And was it worth it? Yes, you bet!

The “standard works” were reasonably substantial – Strauss’ Horn Concerto No. 1, Op. 11, is an early composition (1882-3) that reflects the composer’s father’s powerful musical influence but in which the son nonetheless does some showing off; Franz (1822-1905) was a virtuoso horn player who found it “too much for him.” Now it’s considered one of the greatest 19th century horn pieces, but it’s rarely heard in concert, so this performance was exceptionally special – and never mind that the soloist, the RSO’s very own principal, is a spectacular player. Carrese Virnig (a member of the 208th Army Reserve Band) is a native Tar Heel who studied at UNC, Penn State, and UNCG; beyond that, she can PLAY! The concerto is a wonderful, vibrant, heart-warming piece with a truly serene slow movement, here radiantly navigated on this so very treacherous instrument and magnificently supported by Virnig’s RSO colleagues under the firm leadership of conductor and music director Jim Waddelow. Incidentally, it exists in two versions – this one and one with piano (in which the solo part is the same) – both by Strauss himself. (Here’s a link to a classic performance by the late Dennis Brain, accompanied by a score that one may follow – and note that in no way does this cast any shade on Virnig’s technical or artistic accomplishments.)

The concluding work was Beethoven’s Eighth, but there was a commendable bit of program building before we got there – this music director has a great talent for assembling attractive concerts. The evening had begun with the long-delayed world premiere of Hanemann’s “The Grand,” a bright, festive, carnival-like opener that might well have celebrated the ongoing state fair, too. It has a persistent, ostinato-like beat on which its numerous, sometimes recurring flourishes hang very nicely, and it’s handsomely orchestrated, so it produces a fine overall effect. It’s fairly light, so the brashness of Broadway pit bands came to mind. There’s some attractive sinuosity, too, and the players gave it their all. At the end, there was enthusiastic applause for the composer. Let us pay this new piece the highest compliment: let’s hear it again, and soon!

Immediately after the Strauss came Stacy Garrop’s “Lo Yisa Goy” (2007), originally an elaborated choral setting of a traditional Jewish song of peace that the composer rescored for strings during the pandemic. The revision features a viola solo, played on this occasion by Ken Rogerson, and the piece was performed in memory of violist Norton Dickman. This is a powerful addition to the repertory of such compositions, one that evokes sadness tangibly while speaking timelessly in both old and new musical languages, concurrently. It often suggested the great lament of Purcell and thus was, in sum, a strong tribute to our departed friend, a mainstay of local symphonic music whom we lost much too soon.

Following that was another piece that took a while to get to Raleigh: Tate’s “Chokfi: Sarcasm” (2008), for strings and percussion. (Waddelow has Oklahoma roots.) The composer’s notes reveal that it’s about a rabbit, a joker in Native American lore, surely akin to the coyote who plays a leading role in Sweet Land, the opera that received the 2021 Music Critics Association’s Best New Opera Award. Tate’s piece merits similar recognition, and his music, based on this reading, deserves much more exposure. One thought of that rascally character Till, in Strauss’ tone poem, but here the protagonist escapes unscathed to comment sarcastically another day. Three cheers for percussion soloists Andrew Munger and Victoria Nelson and for the rest of their enthusiastic and energetic instrumental colleagues!

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93 (1812) seems anachronistic, since it is quite unlike the preceding “Dance” Symphony or the ensuing “Choral” one. It is, in many respects, a militaristic piece, reflecting perhaps the year of its composition. This is part of the RSO’s DNA, for the orchestra has a long history of compelling performances of these works, including a memorable complete cycle not too many years ago. The playing was bracing, accurate, splendidly paced, and – for this listener, at least – exhilarating. Bravo tutti.

And please – let’s hear the other Strauss horn concerto – soon!

The RSO’s next full concert will be in March – stay tuned for details. And remember: Buy Local! Support live music in your community, music made by family and friends!

*The ensemble consisted of 56 players, as listed in the program; Waddelow knows the hall, and with the strings forward of the arch, the sound bloomed into the auditorium, proving totally satisfactory throughout.