Choral Music, Orchestral Music Review Print

NC Symphony Gala Evening

March 26, 2004 - Raleigh, NC:

The first of two highly anticipated concerts, presented in Meymandi Concert Hall on the evenings of March 26-27, drew a less-than-full house for three major firsts - former NC Symphony Associate Conductor Jeffrey Pollock's classical subscription series "debut" (you gotta wonder what the front office was thinking when he was here full time...), the NC premiere of WFU-based composer Dan Locklair's first Symphony, and what was surely the first performance in our state (if not in the southeast) of Berlioz' Messe Solenelle , an early work loaded with hints of the greatness that was to come later on from the pen of the great French master. The program bracketed the tuneful and accessible American score with two Gallic works, one of which is immensely popular, thanks in part to Disney, Mickey Mouse, and Fantasia .

The concert opened with Dukas' "Sorcerer's Apprentice," known to millions of non-classical people from the 1940 film for which Stokowski led the Philadelphia Orchestra. From seats entirely too close to the stage, Pollock's performance, while deftly cued, seemed surprisingly earth-bound; individual members of the string sections stood out in bold relief, and there were some major problems with balance. The absence of several principals and the presence of an unusually high number of fill-in players may have contributed to problems with the ensemble. Still, Dukas' little tone poem turns up rarely nowadays, chances are above average that most members of the audience had never heard it played live, and the familiar score allowed listeners to reorient themselves to the hall and their seats before the big item on the first half..

Dan Locklair has been on a roll of late. His "Salem Sonata" figured in the rededication of the 1799/1800 Tannenberg organ at Old Salem on the evening of March 19 (see CVNC 's feature for full details), and he was of course on hand for the first NC performances of his "Symphony of Seasons," commissioned by a consortium of orchestras*. His pre-concert lecture shed light on the new work, which is based on the poetry of James Thomson (1700-48) and dedicated to his spouse, Paula (who was, alas, under the weather on March 26). The four movements address the seasons, starting with "Autumn," and each evokes powerful moods, inspired by the poetry and realized with levels of skill and understanding we have come to expect from our native son (b. Charlotte, 1949), whose major contributions to the literature, to date, have included choral music, works for organ and harpsichord, chamber pieces, and shorter scores for orchestra, many of which have been recorded. The first movement begins with what the composer described as "a distinctly American fanfare" and incorporates the first of several well-known tunes that grace the score, in this instance "Nun danket." The use of older music in new scores is something of an American tradition, dating back long before Ives, to William Billings, and the technique works exceptionally well in the "Symphony of Seasons." "Autumn" is as colorful as the trees in our mountains in that season, and it ends with a stem-winder and a big bang. "Winter," the second movement, features an attractive chaconne, incorporates a wind machine (electronic, in Raleigh), and often suggests the bleakness of Vaughan Williams' "Sinfonia Antarctica" (which began life as a film score), but there are unmistakable signs of life in Locklair's.... It seems, on first hearing, the spiritual core of the piece, and it is so effective that one can imagine it being excerpted for concerts devoted to shorter works. "Spring" evokes the flowering of nature and is enhanced by changing rhythms, which were deftly managed by the orchestra. The finale, "Summer," is a riot of orchestral color, typical of the season it depicts, in which the themes that have come before are admirably recalled and woven together. Locklair incorporates "Sumer is icumen in" and a drawn-out quotation from "In the Good Old Summertime" as the movement unfolds, but the Symphony ends quietly and reflectively. The program notes divulge additional compositional details including twelve variations (for the months) in the "Winter" chaconne and a waltz that forms the basis of the third movement. In his pre-concert talk, Locklair urged the audience to listen with an open mind, but there is nothing off-putting in the score, which is immediately accessible, consistently attractive, and loaded with charming melodies and long lines that are part and parcel of the composer's kit, given his experience with vocal music and the organ. There are many attractive solo bits, including a passage for viola played beautifully by David Marschall. The 32-minute performance was warmly received, and the composer was called to the stage to acknowledge the applause. It may be worth emphasizing that this was the work's second round of performances, and that second performances of "new" music are often very difficult to arrange; this is an advantage of consortium commissioning.

If memory serves, this is one of the more substantial "new" works played by the NCS, whose reputation as a cradle for contemporary music is, in my view, seriously overrated, given that most of the modern scores it played in the Zimmermann era were short. It's high time for our state-supported orchestra to be supporting native-born living composers and others who are based in our state.

The second half of the program, heard from a different location in the hall (where the sound was better blended throughout) featured soprano Lora Fabio, tenor Robert Bracey, bass Jonathan Deutsch, the NC Master Chorale, and the NCS under the baton of NCMC Music Director Alfred E. Sturgis in the Messe Solenelle . People who mistook it for the better-known Requiem may have been disappointed at the outset, but there are some similarities, since the music in the long-lost early score - Berlioz thought he'd destroyed all of it but one movement, and it was not rediscovered until 1991 - contains many tunes used in later works - in Benvenuto Cellini , the "Roman Carnival" Overture, the Symphonie fantastique , the Te Deum , and, yes, the Requiem . The 140 or so singers, deployed in the hall's choir stalls, sang with enthusiasm and spirit, and the balance and blend was consistently good. As in the Requiem , the tenor soloist has only one moment in the sun; Bracey made the most of it, and his was the performance's strongest single vocal contribution. Deutsch is described in the program bio as "the senior member of the United States Army Chorus, Washington, DC," and his wooly voice often sounded like it. Soprano Fabio, like the other soloists, spent a lot of time looking down at her score, and as a result her voice failed to carry much beyond the massed orchestra. Sturgis led with enthusiasm - it is a wonderful work, full of delights, and it is quite a coup that he got to direct these performances - but he seemed to spend more time tending the soloists and the choir than the orchestra, and there were more than a few places where the strings were engulfed and the brass dominated excessively, despite the fact that the band was smaller than the composer must have intended. Indeed, the score requires two harps instead of one, and four trumpets (vice two**) are specified for the revised version of "Resurrexit" that was given in lieu of the first draft*** - and never mind the missing instruments for which Berlioz wrote minor but nonetheless significant parts. Perhaps things are tight, budget-wise, but works like the Messe Solenelle are done so rarely that they merit doing right when they are trotted out.

Listeners who wish to experience the Mass again should obtain the Philips CD, which has all the requisite instruments and contains both versions of "Resurrexit."

For the record, Enloe High School senior Julie Russell, a double bass student of the NCS' Craig Brown, and pianist Elizabeth Hass, wrapped up the pre-concert events on the 26th, playing several short works. By the time she started, noise from patrons waiting in the lobby made listening difficult, but the fact that the NCS continues to support young artists in this way is commendable.

*The Louisville Orchestra premiered Locklair's Symphony in October 2002 and took it to the Terre Haute New Music Festival the following month. In addition to the NCS, the other orchestra in the consortium is the Salisbury Symphony, which will play it next season. The composer advises that portions of the score, if not the entire work, will also be played in Europe.

**Updated 4/4/04: NCS Principal Trumpet Paul Randall advised via email on 4/3/04 that my statement concerning trumpets is incorrect and that "The edition we used had only 2 trumpet parts." I will attempt to resolve the apparent discrepancy between the composer's intentions and this performance and update this note soon. JWL

***And updated, perhaps for the last time..., on 4/11/04: Randall's email led to considerably more research than anticipated; I regret the delay in posting this final report. For the record, critics (for CVNC , at least) are expected to report inaccuracies in performances, but it is not normally their responsibility to determine why there are discrepancies between what presenting organizations announce - or imply - they are offering the public and what is actually put forward. The performance under discussion points out some problems the staff of the NC Symphony and perhaps Bärenreiter, the publisher of the New Berlioz Edition and the performance materials used, may wish to examine. The published program for the concert listed, in the second half, Berlioz's Messe Solennelle . Program notes by Scott Warfield recounted the story of the composer's apparent destruction of the work, with the exception of a single section, the "Resurrexit," which (Warfield writes) "was performed separately a year later" (that is to say, a year after the 1825 premiere of the complete Messe ). It is a given that the composer revised and expanded the "Resurrexit," enlarging the instrumentation, adding several lines of new text, and reassigning the original baritone solo to part of the choir. Provided with the program was a text/translation leaflet, lifted from the booklet issued with the world premiere recording of the score. Philips' notes include, as a supplement , the text of the updated version of "Resurrexit," which was carried forward in the leaflet distributed by the NCS; this led to my erroneous assumption that the revised "Resurrexit" was given. (For the record, the uncredited reproduction of these notes [© Philips] introduced at least one typographical error, but there is no doubt concerning the source....) At [inactive 10/04], Bärenreiter lists the instrumentation for the orchestral score of the complete Messe , with the original version of "Resurrexit," as including two trumpets (plus, as noted in the review, several other instruments that were missing in action at the NCS' concert); the instrumentation given online omits specific mention of the harp or harps (but in a different section of its site, Bärenreiter lists, "2 Trumpet [sic], ... Serpent, Ophicleide, ... [and] Harp [singular]"). Also at its website, the publisher lists the instrumentation of the revised version (the inclusion of the text of which in the NCS' handout suggested that it was to be played...), as including four trumpets (vice two ...) plus ophicléide and serpent, again omitting any specific mention of harps. A representative of Bärenreiter graciously provided a page from a scholarly article by Hugh Macdonald, editor of the score, dealing with the instrumentation; the article notes that the score (of the Messe , with the first version of "Resurrexit") involves two trumpets and, among other things, "at least two low brass instruments" (which are taken to be the aforementioned serpent and a buccin or an ophicléide) and "a part for an unspecified number of harps." This may seem confusing but is not irreconcilable. Nonetheless, the publisher is clearly confused, too, since Bärenreiter's piano-vocal score of the Messe , with the original version of "Resurrexit," lists the instrumentation as including "Trompettes I- IV " (emphasis added) plus, among other things, "Serpent, Buccin (ou Ophicléide), ... [and] Harpes" (given in the plural...). I think it says something that no representative of the NCS' artistic staff has commented on the review and that the only correspondence CVNC received on this matter was from a trumpet player who did not participate in the performance. During a series of exchanges on this subject, Randall wrote, "I really don't care what version you thought we played, or what it said in the program notes. The fact is there were only 2 trumpet PARTS." So that's where we are. Here's hoping that the next time this early Berlioz work is done here, it will receive the attention it deserves, all 'round - that the materials issued to the public will accurately reflect the score(s) being played, that the orchestra will invest what it takes to bring the music to performance in keeping with the composer's intention(s), and that the work will be led by someone who takes the time required to reconcile the still-conflicting parts. JWL

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And a final comment, posted 4/26/04:

A note from Dr. Hugh Macdonald, editor of the New Berlioz Edition , allows us to put the matter of the instrumentation of the Messe solenelle to rest. Here, from his email, is the lineup, with his annotations:

"Piccolo (may be omitted), 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, Serpent, Buccin (or ophicleide), Timpani, Cymbals, Tamtam, Harps (may be omitted), Strings.

"The harp part for the Messe is for 'Harps' in the plural, although it is clear from the manuscript that the part can be omitted.

"It is clear that Berlioz needed both a serpent and an ophicleide even though they don't play at the same time. Originally the ophicleide part was assigned to a buccin. It would be perfectly legitimate to use only one of these instruments in modern performance, I would say."

As previously indicated, part of my (Lambert's) confusion concerning the requirements stemmed from the fact that the text of the revised version of "Resurrexit" was included in the handout provided at the NCS' concert(s). Dr. Macdonald has also confirmed the instrumentation for the revised version of the "Resurrexit," which I provide here for record purposes: "2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, ophicleide, serpent, Timpani, Strings."

It is now apparent that the list of instruments given in Bärnreiter's edition of the piano-vocal score of the Messe solenelle erroneously includes four trumpets vice two . JWL