Among the North Carolina Symphony's many sub-series of their very busy performing schedule is something they call "Friday Favorites." A few times a year (and six times, next season) they present a concert at noon on a Friday in Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh. As I sat there waiting for the program to begin, I had a very pleasant and nostalgic feeling, as if I were cutting out of school on a bright, beautiful day to go see the Mets play at Shea Stadium (when they still had day games!) or to go to the movies. After all, you weren't supposed to be doing something that you enjoyed right in the middle of a school/workday. So, it was not surprising that the overwhelming majority of the small audience was not concerned with either school or work – including this writer. These concerts are slightly abbreviated in that they omit one of the works that will be played in the "regular" programs during the upcoming weekend and there is no intermission. For this one, the only work omitted was Ralph Vaughan Williams' lovely The Lark Ascending. Considering that that piece is only about twenty minutes and you got the entire orchestra with music director Grant Llewellyn conducting, plus the wonderful works played, and you have a wonderfully, intimate, lunchtime musical oasis.
So who was that distinguished looking gentleman who walked out with Maestro Llewellyn at the start of the concert? That would be Terry Mizesko, not only a 43-year veteran of the NCS as its bass trombonist but also a formidable and well-respected composer who is riding a huge wave of popularity for the composition featured on this occasion. Sketches from Pinehurst was commissioned to honor the Village of Pinehurst and its founder, James Walker Tufts. Llewellyn is not just an innocent baton-waving bystander in this endeavor, as he played a critical part in formulating the concept of the piece and the plans to premiere it at the 2005 U.S. Open golf tournament in Pinehurst. As Mizesko explained in his introduction, this work is both specific to Pinehurst and general to feelings of loss of family and friends. Sketches has, according to Llewellyn, become the most requested work of the orchestra and sections of this five movement work have settled in on the regular playlist of WCPE-FM radio.
The appeal of this composition is, in large part, based on its "American" sound and feeling of nostalgia, wistfulness, and home. There is no getting around the fact that it is very reminiscent of the Appalachian Spring style of Aaron Copland, and there is no attempt to hide that. In fact the program notes come right out and say that "Mizesko's work is cinematic and melodic in style, reminiscent of the 'American' sound of Aaron Copland and often drawn from traditional and folk sources." I'm not sure the golf-related programmatic aspects, as related by the composer, really work in the "Rumble On the Back Nine" movement except for the fact that they were pre-positioned in your head. Mizesko is especially effective in those heart-tugging cinematic moments that we all have experienced. He does that several times and reuses some themes but all is forgiven as he expertly manipulates our emotions. The orchestra played with great passion as if they were giving the proverbial but mathematically impossible 110% for their colleague.
From the verdant green of Carolina golf courses we then traveled to the dark and ominous Bohemian woods of Antonín Dvořák's homeland. The numbering of the Czech master's symphonies is even murkier than most of that period, and what is now known as his Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70, actually the second to be published in his lifetime, was known as his "second" symphony for generations. In any case, this is one of his symphonic masterpieces albeit relentlessly dark, despondent, and deeply dismal. Most symphonies written in a minor key still manage to straddle at least some moments of major thirds and upbeat moments, but Dvořák seems to eschew any show of perkiness until a final major chord – and that then reverts back a half step. Nothing especially tragic was going on in Dvořák's life at that time, so it would not appear that this "means" anything.
Llewellyn counts this work as his favorite Dvořák symphony and one of the greatest of the Romantic era. He recounted a funny story about how as an early teen he was the 18th of 18 cellists in a youth orchestra in Wales where they played this work dozens of times. When it came time to conduct this symphony, he said he first had to exorcise the excellent cello part ingrained in his head and fingers. So, kiddingly, he said, he now just has to ignore the cellos!
The NCS has added quite a few new members and youth appears to be taking over. I'm not necessarily blaming that, but there was a pronounced rise in rhythmic inconsistency between the sections that I had not noticed in previous years. The admittedly treacherous start of the Scherzo movement was unusually shaky with several different tempos fighting to reach a consensus with no one looking to the conductor for the beat. Other than that, the orchestra played this dark but accessible work with mature and passionate immersion, not only in their individual parts, but their relationship to the whole.
Well, it's now just 1:15 p.m. Back to work everyone!
An expanded version of this program will be presented in Southern Pines on 3/22. For details, see the sidebar.