Conductor William Henry Curry led the North Carolina Symphony in his final classical concert of the 2003 Summerfest season on July 5th in Cary's Regency Park Ampitheatre. Contrary to several earlier in the season, this one had dry skies and a cooling breeze. Despite the holiday weekend, there was a near-capacity crowd.
The program title, "Celebrations, Vacations and Festivals," was a catch-all for a grouping of short, light works and two more substantial ones. First up were two circus-themed pieces. Czech bandmaster Julius Fucik's "Entrance of the Gladiators" is familiar to all as quintessential big-top music, cleverly enhanced here with live crowd and midway noises from the players themselves. Ernst Toch's 1954 "Circus Overture" has a lot of dissonance disguised as animal noises (lions, elephants, etc.) and clowns' antics, raucously portrayed by the brass and percussion. Curry dispatched both works efficiently as warm-ups for both players and audience.
Continuing with the familiar, Grieg's "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen" benefited from Curry's subtle dynamics and a nicely balanced return of the catchy theme. But it was here, with the reliance on the upper strings to carry that theme, that the (apparently) unavoidable thinning of the string tone from the miking made its first of many dreaded appearances. The rest of the orchestra seems to come through the speakers relatively unaffected, but the high strings never really sound right. Knowing this orchestra in its Meymandi Hall environment makes it difficult to enjoy classical selections through the Amphitheatre's sound system.
Next came the final section of the recently commissioned William Bolcom piece, Inventing Flight . This third part, meant to suggest the first flight by Orville and Wilbur Wright, cleverly uses ragtime and march elements to set the period and employs dissonant mechanical rhythms to suggest the aircraft. With this second hearing, I still find the music too slight and fleeting to make much of an impact, its subject matter not withstanding. Curry nonetheless led a jaunty reading, as he did at the work's premiere.
Back on familiar ground, Curry took a lightly lilting approach to Johann Strauss, Jr.'s "Roses from the South," again paying admirable attention to dynamics while not overdoing the "whipped cream" aspects. Yet there seemed an overall lack of verve, as if this were (and it probably was) the umpteenth time the orchestra had played this pops favorite.
Only in the last selection on the first half did Curry and players finally offer a focused, energetic performance. Victor Herbert was a masterful composer and orchestrator. His little known "Festival March" would seem more appropriate for New Year's, with its incorporation of "Auld Lang Syne," but the melody is presented in a celebratory, upbeat fashion, not a melancholy one, making it fit for any holiday. The vivacious opening theme is later reworked into the familiar song, showing off Herbert's confident talent.. Curry had the piece tightly under control , the brass making an especially good showing. The audience rewarded the performance with a more vigorous response than for any of the previous pieces.
With the twilight arrived the evening's second half, decidedly more rewarding and well-played, the orchestra projected a warmth and precision missing in the first half. It began with another Herbert bonbon, "Royal Sec," a delightful romp with sounds of clinking glasses and popping corks. Curry's fizzy tempo was perfect, again making a case for a New Year's item at a summer event.
The final two pieces were familiar concert items but Curry looked at each with a refreshing "back-to-basics" approach. He resisted making Respighi's Fountains of Rome a virtuoso show piece, concentrating on the details of the atmosphere with which the composer astutely shapes each section. While all the shimmer and glint was there when called for, Curry also took the time to make the quieter passages work, courageously sustaining them at minimal levels. The rapt audience proved that good music, well played, can reach everyone.
In a rare programming decision, Curry conducted the well-worn 1812 Overture without fireworks or military arsenal. He treated the piece respectfully, giving the hymn-like sections hushed reverence and the folk tunes earthy warmth. The bombastic sections were not crude or rushed but played in their proper perspective. Since we have all been trained, Pavlov-like, to expect extra diversions at the work's finale, it at first seemed disappointingly tame. But soon one concentrated on the purely orchestral, hearing the piece anew. It was only the string sound that prevented this from being a truly singular performance.
Curry is to be congratulated for revisiting the familiar and finding appropriate "new" works for these summer concerts. From the audience's reaction to this one, he should be encouraged to rely less on light, insubstantial pieces and offer more works of consequence, familiar or not.