Summerfest 2001 ended on July 14 with a concert that was remarkable in many respects. For openers, it was classical from start to finish. True, some of the selections were short and many were what might be called "popular," but when one considers the tripe that passes for concert fare at far too many outdoor and pops events, the program itself was stunning and ground-breaking. For that, we have William Henry Curry, Associate Conductor of the NC Symphony and Artistic Director of the Summerfest series, to thank.
During Curry's tenure, we have seen Summerfest move from the lightest sort of ear-candy (Broadway and film medleys and the like) to some whole evenings of classical fare that would not be out of place on mainline winter seasons. Take Summerfest's grand finale, for example. The program began with the Turkish March from Beethoven's incidental music for "The Ruins of Athens" and ended with the granddaddy of all choral-orchestral works, the finale of that master's Symphony No. 9. In between came Weber's Euryanthe Overture, Hindemith's magnificent Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Weber, and excerpts from two of Wagner's most popular operas. A cynic might decry the latter as "bleeding chunks," wrested from the works in question - Lohengrin and Die Walküre (and a cynic wouldn't be wide of the mark insofar as the "Ride of the Valkyries" is concerned, inasmuch as it is an orchestral adaptation of a piece that originally included voices) - but the rest of the show was certainly nothing to sneer at, and the program fulfilled admirably the conductor's stated objective of providing a survey of great German music from 1824 to 1945 (Never mind that the March is dated 1811.)
The playing, often distinguished by expressive touches (in the strings, particularly) rarely heard nowadays, was consistently outstanding, and the sound, heard from several different places, ranged from so-so to excellent. We'll return to the latter in a moment. As for the performances themselves, well, this orchestra can sound like a great orchestra when the chemistry's just right, and it can pull off this little hat trick in such abysmal settings as decrepit high school auditoriums or even in the great outdoors. The March was crisp and clean and the Overture was a brilliant encapsulation of the music drama that it precedes in the theater (or, more commonly alas, on recordings).
Members of the Concert Singers of Cary were at long last again on hand for two choruses from Lohengrin, sung in English; these came off well enough, given the fact that the choir was amplified and there were not really enough microphones, causing some individual voices to be "spot-lit". The first Wagner cut, "Elsa's Procession to the Cathedral," began with a long orchestral introduction, handsomely realized and played with great skill that belied the fact that music by this still-controversial composer is rarely offered by our state-supported orchestra. A blazing reading of the Prelude to Act III led directly to the famous Bridal Chorus, one of the two best-known wedding tunes in all of music-dom. CSC Director Lawrence Speakman, a fine baritone who was present among the singers, had plenty of reason for looking pleased (and proud, too) when the concert was over.
One of Curry's many passions is Hindemith, and over the years he's given us some memorable performances of that master's profoundly beautiful and moving music. The Symphonic Metamorphosis is tantamount to a symphony, and its four parts, each strongly written and orchestrated, are, singly or collectively, among the 20th century's most important contributions to the literature. Curry introduced the work with some brief remarks and then led a performance that many must have found mesmerizing. It would have been enough had this been the last work on the program, but it was clear from comments before the concert and during intermission that the interest of many attendees centered on the finale of the Ninth, with soloists soprano Krista Wozniak (of National Opera fame), alto Mary Gayle Greene (now teaching in the western part of our state), tenor John Daniecki (whose performance of the roasted swan in Orff's "Carmina Burana" nearly stole Rodney Wynkoop's show a few seasons ago), and baritone Herbert Eckhoff. They were capably supported by the Concert Singers of Cary. The performance, sung auf Deutsch , was both inspired and inspiring for reasons that many present probably didn't fully comprehend. Curry must feel every bit as strongly about this work as he does about his Hindemith, for he made his professional debut (in Richmond) conducting it and-due to the illness of the scheduled director-without a rehearsal! We didn't have the pleasure of hearing that performance, but Curry's interpretation in Cary gave ample evidence of his profound artistic insights and his leadership skills, too. It served as yet another example of the fact that he has been and remains the single brightest light in the conducting department here during the past twenty years or so.
As the movers and shakers chart the replacement of NCS Artistic Director Gerhardt Zimmermann after the upcoming season, they should give all due consideration to Curry's eminent qualifications for the post--qualifications that include breathtaking artistic skills and program-planning abilities, too. He's served his time in the musical purgatory of the final Zimmermann years, and he richly deserves a shot at the number one job. Although Zimmermann will have a "presence" here till 2008 (thanks to the terms of his exit agreement), he's effectively through - he'll plan no more concerts, never mind whole seasons - and that means that until the next M.D. is appointed, any programs of interest that come our way may well bear Curry's imprint. What a refreshing prospect!
Acoustical Issues Still Unresolved
Returning briefly to the matter of the sound as experienced at the new Regency Park facility, one can only wonder how much damage was done to the site's specially-designed amplification system during the great July 4 flood. The trick at outdoor venues is to make the music sound as if it is actually coming from the platform. On this occasion, the speaker arrays (flanking the stage and mid-way through the lawn seating), combined with heavy hands at the controls, made for off-center sound that was, on the sidelines, painfully loud, much of the time. For the second half, we shifted to a spot near the techies' station, close to the center of the site, and we are pleased to report that things were altogether better there, although there was still little sense of "stereo" directionality. We certainly weren't overwhelmed by excessive volume during the Hindemith and the "Ode to Joy" (and it was a relief to escape the chatterboxes who had talked throughout the opening half, too).
Next year, we urge the music staff to get the sound engineers to check the results throughout the listening area and make all necessary adjustments to fix the problems that were all to apparent at the fifth and last concerts this season. The new pavilion at Regency's a gem, but like the Symphony's new winter home, Meymandi, it needs some tweaking.