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On paper, the NC Symphony's new "Symphony Serenade" series looks a bit like the product of a committee composed of marketing and finance people with a dash of artistic input for seasoning. The three-concert mini-series, which officially begins October 28 at 3:00 p.m. in Meymandi Concert Hall, might have been hatched by marketing folks eager to come up with a tight package that would appeal to folks not already hooked on the sound of the State band in its new venue. The three programs cover a lot of ground but stick to known entities--known entities that some of its prospective customers might find as comfortable as a pair of well-worn shoes. There are no new works to sour the palette. The first concert features a distinguished fiddler who just happens to be the orchestra's Concertmaster - Brian Reagin is the guy who bravely filled in on very short notice when that Perlman fellow couldn't get here after the attacks on America - in "The Four Seasons," by Vivaldi. The second one, planned for February 10, features the estimable Choral Society of Durham in an all-Mozart program. The third has another outstanding solo artist, Leonid Finkelshteyn, who in real life is the NCS' Principal Double Bassist. That May 19 program is a bit of a mixed bag, but it begins with Handel and ends with Haydn, so there's much to admire about its configuration.
Experienced music lovers will doubtless sense that small performing ensembles will be used for these programs, which is where the aforementioned finance people come into the picture. Small concerts are less expensive than large ones, all things considered. And as it happens, the personnel required for the first of these events is about half of the standard NCS, so some will be in Raleigh and others will have been on the road, giving educational programs.
This may sound like a brilliant new innovation, but in fact there is little new under the sun, and the history of the NCS is marked by many such concerts, performed by what used to be called the Little Symphony, of which there were often two, sometimes playing in different places at the same time. One musician quipped that he and his colleagues have spent 20 or more years trying to get away from this sort of thing, just to have a new crowd of suits in the front office bring the idea back as if it were the greatest thing since the invention of sliced bread.
So one could be cynical about all this, but if one were, one would be dead wrong, because these may wind up being some of the best concerts of the season. Indeed, this old cynic was amazed at the quality of the playing, the commitment of all concerned, the skill of the leadership, and the overall success of a Carolina Theatre presentation of the first "Symphony Serenade" program, heard on October 25. William Henry Curry conducted, so excellence was basically preordained--more than the orchestra's other stick-wavers, his leadership facilitates the musicians' playing, and when they are allowed to make music more or less on their own, supported by deft guidance and encouragement from the podium, the results are often bracing.
The concert began with one of Beethoven's overtures for Leonore, the opera that we now know as Fidelio. There is one called the "Fidelio" Overture and there are three more called "Leonore" with various numbers. Curry and the NCS offered No. 1, which has long been a personal favorite. Rebekah Binford served as Concertmistress, but a large percentage of the orchestra's principals were on hand, and with the exception of a single premature entry from the winds, the performance, which was dramatic and astutely paced, was superb. There was more of the same in Mozart's Symphony No. 39, although here, too, there were some minor problems, this time in upper string ensemble. As in the Beethoven, these several lapses passed basically unnoticed by some patrons, and overall the reading must rank among this orchestra's finest Mozart performances in memory. Curry facilitated something that is not routinely encountered from professional bands--he elicited playing that breathed and exuded expression and emotion. It might have made the trip to Durham worthwhile, all by itself, but then came the Vivaldi!
Reagin is a wonderful fiddler, and he gave a truly wonderful account of the familiar "Four Seasons," which is--as some in attendance apparently discovered for the first time--a set of four little three-movement violin concerti. It's too bad that the sonnets that are in the score weren't read before each section; there was plenty of time, for this was a relatively short program, and hearing them would doubtless have helped enhance understanding and appreciation of the Red Priest's mastery. Still, Reagin's performances conveyed the spirit, mood and meaning of each component part splendidly, and he was throughout splendidly accompanied by some of the NCS' finest string players - and further supported by continuo players Bonnie Thron, cello, and Elaine Funaro, harpsichord (and by, among many others, the grand work of Principal Violist Hugh Partridge). The score has been heard in so many incarnations that it is for more than a few jaded critics a complete turnoff, but this performance was in truth so good that it was like hearing the music for the first time. It wasn't a HIP (historically-informed performance) evening, of course; instead, this was a modern instruments version, albeit with greatly reduced forces. One could actually hear the harpsichord most of the time. And one could also hear Reagin, for never - no, not once - did the supporting players swamp him. It was, in sum, quite an evening, so here's a tip from an old carper - in this case, those marketing gurus are right, so beat feet to Meymandi on Sunday, where patrons will surely find an even more secure reading (particularly if the Durham gig is viewed as a dress rehearsal!) and where the sound will be far better than that experienced in the Carolina Theatre.