Families and couples, friends and neighbors spread across the lawn at the Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary, hoping that the threat of rain would hold off and the Summerfest concert by the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra would top off their Saturday evening of anticipated outdoor summertime pleasures. Their picnic baskets of home-cooked or deli pickups were unpacked and spread on blankets or camping tables. The NCS led by guest conductor, Gemma New, brought musical gems by American composers of great renown.
In the middle of the first half of the program, a very brief shower saw forty umbrellas open as though on cue. But before more could open, the rain stopped and that was that. The air was a little cooler, the music was fine, and it was a most satisfying evening.
New is a native of New Zealand and earned her bachelor's degree (with Honors) in violin performance from the University of Canterbury. Her master's degree in orchestral conducting is from the Peabody Institute. A former Dudamel Conducting Fellow with the LA Philharmonic, she has received a number of awards and appointments in both Europe and North America.
The opening selection on the program was Leonard Bernstein's rambunctious Overture to Candide. New's physically active approach to conducting gave her clear command in guiding the orchestra through tricky rhythmic transitions and tempo changes as well as the sudden changes from busy tangled rhythms to lyrical charm.
The orchestra continued with more Bernstein: three dance episodes from On the Town ("The Great Lover," "Lonely Town," and "Times Square"). Each of these express the strong jazz influence on Bernstein's compositional efforts in this period. This music has many tricky twists and turns and New impressed with her ability to guide the orchestra through them. What's more is the North Carolina Symphony's accomplished technical skill and ability to be responsive to all the varieties of musical styles and eras, as well as the variety of conducting approaches of a number of diverse guest conductors each season.
As a composer, Samuel Barber was always more interested in the expressiveness of music, rather than with experimenting with new sounds or new approaches to composing. His Violin Concerto, Op. 14 composed in 1939 is a prime example of Barber's style and approach to composition. The first movement is built around one of the most passionately lyrical themes imaginable.
The second movement is an Andante of somber strength, not so much of a tearful or morose sadness as an acceptance of an inescapable tragedy. The third movement is marked Presto in moto perpetuo and takes off like a hive of wasps pursuing the disturber of the hive. Taiwanese-American violinist Paul Huang was the masterful and sensitive soloist thrilling the Koka Booth crowd this night. From his rapturous first movement through the painfully beautiful second movement to the outrageously gymnastic third movement, his performance was an exciting ride for all.
After intermission, the NCS returned to the stage with New on the podium and launched into John Williams' "Olympic Fanfare and Theme." This is one of those iconic musical themes that seem to flow from Williams' pen like water from an artesian spring. Like so many of his movie scores, the music seems to have been there for all time and could not have been any other way.
The featured work of the evening was Aaron Copland's Suite from Appalachian Spring (1945 orchestration). Whether the music was lively and active or calmly contemplative, it was always infused with a gentle promise of seed and harvest, of the simplicity of the old shaker hymn provided to Copland. There was an awesome sense of serenity that settled over the crowd; even the rambunctious 8-year-olds. The orchestra and the conductor seemed on the same wave link and all seemed to be blended with effortless purity. It did seem to me a special rendition that comes around every so often when we least expect it.
The evening was topped off with another of John Williams iconic themes: The Cowboys Overture. It woke us from our reverie and returned us to the reality of exiting the amphitheater, the parking lot, the jostling crowds and the un-parking maneuvers which are a part of the world we live in.
Still, for a block of time, we were in a different world; the world in which music can work its magic over us and change us. Surely we could not help but bring some of the serenity and joy of that world with us along the way.