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The final concert (July 24) of the 2004 NC Symphony Summerfest series at Cary's Regency Park turned out to be a very different evening than planned. The sound system at the newly named Koka Booth Amphitheatre catastrophically malfunctioned before the concert, leaving the orchestra to play without amplification.
The amphitheatre holds around 7,000 people (on this particular Saturday night, the overflow crowd certainly was pushing that number) so musical events there must be electronically enhanced through strategically placed speakers. This has never been an ideal situation, although it is less a problem for pop-oriented programs on the series. For purely classical concerts, however, the orchestra can sound flat, tinny and underpowered. Works full of brass and percussion come off best, those with emphasis on strings and woodwinds take the biggest hit. People who attend the orchestra's concerts only at this facility have little idea how the orchestra actually sounds in a concert hall.
I often have wondered how the orchestra would sound without any amplification in the amphitheatre, so I was happy to have the chance, even though the orchestra's administrators certainly were not. The results were enlightening, if ultimately no more satisfying the usual operation.
The orchestra sounded distant (because they were to most of the audience - I was about halfway back in the center) but more natural, fuller, warmer. The strings did not carry well but could be heard en masse better than I expected. An individual flute or oboe came across distinctly and even the harp's soft tinkle was clear. Passages with heavy brass and percussion sounded nearly normal. No doubt the wood and glass of the stage shell gave a certain acoustical boost.
Within these different but still problematic circumstances, conductor William Henry Curry and his players bravely went on with the program. Before the first number, Curry turned to the audience and quipped, "Welcome to the North Carolina Symphony unplugged and au naturel!"
Bernstein's always-delightful Overture to Candide did not have quite enough bubble and bounce, nor did the Ives' Variations on "America" have quite the requisite raucous edge, although the delicacy of the latter's gigue and the precision of the Spanish dance were indications of Curry's usual attention to detail.
The first half concluded with two short works for piano, with soloist Michael Lewin. Even though the full sound system was out, several stage mikes were still operative, which were placed at the piano to help project Lewin's performance.
In Gottschalk's toe-tapping Grande Tarantelle, Lewin quickly established his mastery of crystal-clear articulation and confident precision. Curry's tempos seemed too measured at first but reached the appropriate abandon in the energetic climax. Things finally came right with Gershwin's lesser known but equally engaging Second Rhapsody. Curry had the opening sections crispy upbeat and brought a real sensuousness to the bluesy main melody. Lewin supplied peppy percussiveness to Gershwin's evocation of New York City streets and an appealing pulse to the blues portion. It all had a wonderful swing and syncopation.
After intermission, the orchestra played three selections from the ballet Sylvia by Delibes. Curry made the ballet's ceremonial opening passages suitably grand and the procession of Bacchus full of overt pomp. The work's most famous number, the "Pizzicati," was delicate and gossamer, although the roar of the crickets and cicadas nearly drowned out the lightly plucked strings.
The program ended with Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (1919 version), a work that is an orchestral showpiece in the concert hall. Here, unfortunately, most of the composer's subtle colors and spooky effects went for naught. During the quiet opening section, it looked as though Curry was practicing his baton technique on an empty stage, virtually no sound making it past the podium. The same held true for many other quiet passages, with only the biggest passages, full of brass and percussion, having a real effect. It was a shame, because Curry obviously knows how to shape this wonderful work.
It was the Stravinsky alone that convinced me of the necessity for amplification here, despite the disadvantages it brings. Still unresolved is the larger question of presenting classical pieces in a venue that does the symphony no favors in touting the glories of a symphony orchestra.