The North Carolina Symphony served up a three night stand centered around Ives and Copland beginning Thursday October 7 in Chapel Hill and concluding in the stone confines of Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh. This program was originally scheduled to host the premiere of Robert Beaser's long-anticipated Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, but that and a chance to hear new MD Grant Llewellyn's podium work were denied. On Friday, Edwin Outwater, no slouch there, was up, and he delivered the goods in a straightforward, business-like way. It was a riveting night certainly, and we'll have more about that in a minute.
First, the business. The Classical Series concerts are presented by Progress Energy, late of all-night meteorology clinics, endless tree removal, relentless utility line repairs, imaginative flood recovery, a worn-out customer service department, and rare periods of rest. Remnants of two hurricanes found wide swaths of North Carolina during September challenging all utility vendors to step up and deliver in ways only imagined during unfriendly nightmares or while tumbling down a hill inside a large metal drum full of marbles. We thank them for all. Sponsors Moore & Van Allen and Lilly shared the bill.
This program began on time with the "Decoration Day" movement from what has become known as the Holidays Symphony , by Charles Ives (1874-1954). Without any other information we hear an uneasy composer battling the ghosts of patriotism and idealism in search of peace and calm, not for the self but for the world at large, the nation, and veterans of service. Ives, often regarded as a mercurial character of American legend, shows a deeply introspective side of his personality here. The jovial contradictions are still present but, when framed by somber remembrance tones, the sense of practical joker takes a slight veil.
Next came the exciting American guitarist Eliot Fisk, whose long association with composer Robert Beaser has produced memorable and ground-breaking new works for guitar. Alas the planned new Concerto was not ready, so in its place came the evergreen Concerto in D, Op. 99, of Italian Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968). We salute the programming Gods for passing by the relentless Rodrigo Concerto and instead giving us this romantic sonata-allegro work with heroic themes, brisk tempos, and an emotional and dreamy middle movement. The Mediterranean atmosphere was thick and welcome. Fisk brightens any program with personality alone, and this could be observed in his two encores. The orchestra members smiled and marveled with respect at Isaac Albeniz's "Asturias," Op. 47, followed by Julio Sagreras' "El Colibri" - the imitation of the flight of a humming bird. The artist's legendary technique and facility were much on form this night, as was his steady march toward legendary status among American musicians.
After intermission came a three-part set of Aaron Copland (1900-90) - El Salon Mexico , Quiet City , and four dances from Rodeo ("Buckaroo Holiday," "Corral Nocturne," "Saturday Night Waltz," and "Hoe Down"). Here I could not shake the uneasy feeling that Carlisle Floyd was lurking nearby with copies of Susannah for sale. The two composers have a knack for unearthing the salient characteristics of American culture and transforming them vividly via an aural mirror. Of course it was also hard to avoid recalling that beef commercial on TV. Sorry.
Symphony management has a promotional campaign touting "We're creating America's next great orchestra" while displaying an image of the conductor as savior, the dashing figure on our horizon who will make everything okay in spite of whatever hurricanes blow through our lives. The marketing shtick is easy to ignore, for we're accustomed to such claims in everything from soup to nuts. In the end, it's not so easy to throw out a claim and expect it to come true, and the huge banners featuring our hero simply look like a waste of money to me. You know, "where's the beef?" Sorry - couldn't resist that either.
Yet be advised: this is a wonderful orchestra playing in a first-rate facility in the shadow of the State capitol, and any claim suggesting "next" is simply outdated. This group plays as a unit, the members listen to each other, the sound is clean, alternating between lush and biting as needed, they have huge dynamic scope and tonal palette, and they are all paying attention as though actually sharing a common objective. At the end of one Copland piece, the final cadence is approached through the horns. You could hear these guys adjusting the intonation of each chord right down to the glorious final rich triad. The average listener may not have caught that, but it's evidence these are good musicians playing on purpose in a good place.
Outwater, assistant to Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco, has a resume bristling with all the correct, shiny things, and he cuts a good figure on stage. None of that really matters. His stick technique was brilliantly clear amid Copland's rapid changes of time signature. As a result, his need for cues is nearly non-existent. He's all business, and that lets this orchestra show exactly how good it really is. It is important to back up your claims, whether marketing goals or back-yard bragging. This orchestra is on a plane with the major sound of 20th-century ensembles and may well set new standards for the 21st century if they keep this momentum.
It was a good fall night in Raleigh - a memorable concert, wonderful musicians, and a promise kept.