Critics fairly quickly learn the [unwritten] rules for reviewing local groups. One of them is: If the performance is lousy, talk about the music. Another: If the music is lousy, talk about the venue. And the Golden Rule: If everything is lousy, talk about something else altogether – like what you had for dinner or your most recent spat with your spouse.
The Really Terrible Orchestra of the Triangle, known affectionately (in some circles) as RTOOT, played its spring show (which is how it was put on the cover of the combo program/coloring book) in the acoustically boomy, overly resonant, un-air-conditioned confines of Hill Hall, on the UNC Chapel Hill campus. (The campus was otherwise deserted, so parking was, for as change, a snap.)
As the late William S. Newman, distinguished scholar of the sonata in general and Beethoven in particular, suggested more than once, there are certain things that should not be done in temples of music. RTOOT may be one of them.
The concert began with a performance of “Hark the Sound,” led by a singer* whose name was – perhaps to protect his professional reputation – omitted from the program. “Hark the Sound” was omitted from the program, too, but the Carolina blue booklet cover and, of course, the venue itself might have led some in attendance to expect that this number would be given in lieu of the National Anthem. In any event, the sing-along was conducted by My Strow W. Sands Hobgood, who looked unusually dapper on this warm spring evening, done up in a Carolina blue seersucker suit.
He then handed the baton to Michael Lyle, whose usual place in life is among the double basses, for a “performance” of the Overture to The Ruins of Athens, said to have been by Beethoven. Now as was noted, Greece is in some financial difficulty nowadays, and there have been riots in the streets, and in any event, there are lots of old things in Athens, so “ruins” may have been more apt than the program planners could possibly have imagined. Further to underscore the importance of this magical work, there were three columns at the front of the hall, and during the Overture, Hobgood, wearing a crown, contemplated them with keen attention – until he was taken under assault by a gang of marauding Turks (which we should probably call “turkeys” now, given our collective compulsion for political correctness…). At the end, as if to accentuate the orchestral flourishes, the columns came down, crushing Samson and the Philistines (oops – sorry – wrong story).
There followed the Overture to Zampa, by Hérold. Did you know that Zampa was a pirate? Those who attended this concert do, now. There were eye-patches for members of the audience to wear and pictures of parrots on poles, attached to various instruments, and a Jolly Roger back among the renegade brass players. This is one of music’s noisier curtain-raisers, and it lived up to its reputation in this reading, led (as was the rest of the evening) by Hobgood.
J. Strauss II’s “Voices of Spring” was deficient in many respects, not least of which was the absence of RTOOT’s Really Terrible Soprano, whose bird-like flutterings would surely have helped mask the orchestral sound. Rarely have the famous waltz’s rhythmic accents seemed so pronounced – it was as if the dancers were wearing boots clad in lead. The end of this piece was greeted with wildly enthusiastic applause, for it marked the end of the first half and the introduction, as it were, to the intermission. People ran from the hall, some holding their ears in ways that suggested the wonderful Hoffnung cartoon of Nipper, the dog of His Master’s Voice fame, cowering before the talking machine with his paws over his head.
Unfortunately, the second half proceeded exactly as advertised.
There was this thing for strings alone by Per Brant, a composer no one who reads this account is likely ever to have encountered except, perhaps, during the graveyard shift at all-classical-all-the-time radio stations. It was really terrible – truly awful, to tell the truth – but since the winds and brass and percussion weren’t playing, they went on strike and marched around with picket signs, protesting unfair working conditions. It’s a good thing that the campus was mostly dead and that the security folks were conspicuously absent because this is a right to work state where unions – even musicians’ unions – have no real clout – and where labor protests are sometimes curtailed by the authorities….
Mercifully, the recalcitrants simpered and whimpered and went back to work for the grand finale, which was an amusing work of reasonably serious import. ‘Twas Don Gillis’ Symphony No. 5-1/2, the “Symphony for Fun,” a score played by the NBC Symphony under Toscanini’s baton and then, in 1951, in Hill Hall, by the UNCSO, Earl Slocum, conductor. (Gillis, who was born in Missouri, had deep roots in Texas, and who died in South Carolinia, was the long-time producer of the NBC Symphony broadcasts and telecasts.)
Remarkably, it was a little too good, as if RTOOT has rehearsed a bit too much. There were places during the 20-minute reading that – hard to believe but true – gave genuine musical pleasure, and at the end the applause seemed to stem not merely from relief that the concert was over but also from satisfaction resulting from (some of) the playing. Yikes! The RTOOT should have a retreat to talk about this alarming turn of events before their next regional appearance.
*RTOOT”s vocalist was Philip van Lidth de Jeude.