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So that’s what that expression meant! The website for the Raleigh Civic Symphony Orchestra promoted the upcoming program by listing the second symphonies of both Beethoven and Canadian/American composer Colin McPhee. Placed underneath the listing was the qualifier, “Performed with interlocking movements.”
And that’s exactly what conductor Randolph Foy and the Chamber Orchestra delivered in the ballroom of Stewart Theater at N.C. State University. Marbled throughout the four movements of the Beethoven opus 36 were the three movements of McPhee’s Symphony No. 2, the “Pastorale.” What had initially struck one as a bit bizarre proved to be not only rather pleasing, but also even somewhat didactic (especially appropriate considering the presence of so many students). And being yanked back and forth a century and a half between movements was not so jarring as one might have feared. The hearer was propelled smartly along during each Beethoven movement, only to be set down abruptly but benignly during the McPhee segments.
One music writer has called Beethoven’s Second Symphony (1802) the “Janus” symphony. It takes a brief look back at the 18th century, then plunges into the 19th with never another backward glance. From the downbeat of the opening adagio/allegro movement it was clear that Beethoven was deliberately departing from the likes of Papa Haydn. The verve of the players here suggested that Foy was able to elicit the maximum from his forces (as anyone can attest who was privileged to hear his fine student orchestra and his creative programming this past summer at the Governor’s School in Winston Salem).
The program notes pointed out that the McPhee Second Symphony (1957) “embodies an understated, subtle and sublime beauty.” That assertion was justified even in the quite well named opening molto misterioso, where the piano and percussion came on strong. Attendees of a certain age might well have been reminded of a much earlier work whose spirit could have served as inspiration for this piece. “Symphony on a French Mountain Air,” by Vincent d’Indy, is of a highly pastoral nature where the piano often has the leading role, but never takes over completely. Such seemed to be the case here as the piano of Tom Koch was prominent at various points. The horns were featured to good effect, particularly in the McPhee Elegy movement (Bill McHenry’s horn solo) and in the Beethoven Scherzo.
The gorgeous (if still distressingly dry) Sunday afternoon wound down with the tuneful energico movement of the Pastorale, reliving the “mysterious” beginning. It then ended allegro molto with Beethoven’s devilish fourth movement. The audience was well served by this unlikely program, and — who can say — might have even learned something.