On the 65th anniversary of D-Day, William Henry Curry, Artistic Director of the NC Symphony’s Summerfest series, served up an all-American program that surely warmed the hearts of the not-inconsiderable crowd on one of the most beautiful evenings thus far in June, for sure. The guest artists were the celebrated Red Clay Ramblers, whose number – six – exceeded by one the artists shown in the photo in the program. That they’ve worked with the NCS before was obvious, for the rapport was solid and the interaction, delightful to see and hear. The Ramblers did several numbers on their own, but for the most part this was a joint undertaking – a rarity, really, in forced marriages such as this: generally, where non-classical folks team up with big bands, the band plays the first half and the guests do the second, and rarely do the two meet, and never mind collaborate.
Here, thanks to the wonderful theater conductor and arranger McRae Hardy, whose work in these parts has long elicited praise, the Ramblers and the NCS were able to do four big numbers – “Far North” (said to be a Norwegian tune)’ “Cotton-Eyed Joe” (which doesn’t carry much of a storyline, but which featured the snazziest triangle playing in recent memory, and during which the strings of the NCS put on a thoroughly commendable show of down-to-earth fiddlin’); a brilliant arrangement of the Spike Jones classic, “Pal-Ya-Chee” (a send-up of grand opera that dates from a time when opera was far more widely esteemed than it seems to be now); and an extended version of “The Old North State,” cast as a ramble by virtue of its lengthy introduction and coda.(The audience was invited to sing along with this, but few did – clearly, our citizens don’t learn the state song any more – although attendees of the recent RTOOT concert found the words in that program and thus could have had a leg up – in a manner of speaking – on the S’fest folks.)
On their own, the guest artists rambled through several songs, starting with one in tribute to those involved in D-Day (and all vets) (“I was workin’ in tobacco down in Johnston County… / Gonna hit a home run for Churchill and Roosevelt”) – a light, superficially jaunty number, related by a farm-boy-turned-pilot who grew up damned quick, as so many of that generation did. An Old Testament gospel song (!) about brother Ezekiel brought some pantomime from the Ramblers themselves. In the second half, there was an old Homer & Jethro ditty that could perhaps have caused some sort of international incident, if the wrong folks had heard it – the words of “Tara the Flower of the Nile” center on a pyramid builder having his honey snaked by the pharaoh, resulting in the singer creeping into the crypt to cry…. (It’s on YouTube; see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4GW1kLf0ZCU.)
It wasn’t all Ramblers, however. Curry and his own fine band got things underway right on time with Copland’s “Outdoor Overture” and a superb selection (“Celebration”) from the NCS’s own Terry Mizesko’s Highland Suite that ideally set the tone – literally and figuratively – for what was to come. The second half brought more Copland – “Hoedown,” from Rodeo – and Robert Russell Bennett’s fine suite from the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Oklahoma! The concert formally ended with Calvin Custer’s excellent compilation of great old American patriotic tunes, American Frontier.
That bit of Americana wasn’t enough to quell the crowd’s enthusiastic demands for more from the Ramblers, so they happily and generously obliged with “It’ ain’t Right” and a far more upbeat combination of “Fire in the Mountain” and “Sugar in the Gourd.” There was virtuosity aplenty from the guests, and the hosts were in tolerable form as well, so a good time was had by all.
The amplified sound was rock-solid and nicely balanced, although there seemed to be more of it – sometimes verging on too much – at intervals during the concert. Presumably the balance was at least partly the responsibility of NCS Assistant Conductor Joan Landry – it always seems better when there’s a musician to advise the sound techies.
Maestro Curry kept up generally relevant and sometimes amusing banter between the numbers, including one extended soliloquy about conductors’ mug shots on the sides of symphony trucks. That Llewellyn guy better look out, lest someone paint a moustache on his picture.
We go to orchestral concerts for many reasons, but pure entertainment often falls far down on the list, which generally begins – for critics, anyway – with such things as edification, enlightenment, inspiration, and the like. Programs like this remind us of how much pure pleasure and fun can come from evenings devoted to mostly familiar fare when the playing is at consistently high levels, as was the case here.
The orchestra plays for the Bolshoi Ballet in Chapel Hill next weekend, so Michael Feinstein will be on his own in Cary for a tribute to Frank Sinatra. Then on June 20, Curry and the NCS return for “Soundtracks under the Stars.” See our Triangle calendar for details. (And incidentally, please note that we’ve lined in every event we know about, statewide, till Labor Day, to allow for savvy getaway planning that avoids missing important programs. Check us out!)