William Henry Curry, the Music Director of Summerfest, makes a fine Santa, and he played one, sort of, during the last of the NC Symphony's Regency Park concerts, presented on Saturday evening. The crowd was substantial and, alas, noisier and more restless (at least in our neighborhood) than the previous week. (One wonders why folks who want to enjoy discussion-filled picnics with friends don't have them in their own backyards, where they wouldn't have to raise their voices when the music gets too loud — 'cause there wouldn't be any live music....)
The theme was "Christmas in July," and the bill of fare included many of the usual chestnuts, but along the way there were some rare and unusual treats. For openers, there was Samuel Taylor-Coleridge's spunky "Christmas Overture" with its richly-orchestrated treatments of "Good King Wenceslas" and "Hark the Herald Tribune Sings" (to borrow Tom Lehrer's re-titled send-up of the tune); it came with all the requisite bells and chimes, too, and was warmly received on this purported cold winter night. One of the evening's highlights (the other was music from the end of Act I of Nutcracker) was a short set of Chanukah (and other) dances, based on traditional Jewish melodies, done up by the NCS' own composer, arranger, and bass trombonist, Terry Mizesko. This lively and exciting music was played with gusto by his colleagues and led with keen insight by Curry, whose Pittsburgh roots guarantee close familiarity with those aforementioned traditions and customs, too. Heard to good advantage along the way was violinist Eric McCracken, who was filling in as concertmaster for this Summerfest finale (bringing to mind, again, that the ranks of regular NCS players are thin during the summer season: to hear our state-supported orchestra with all its regular personnel, readers might wish to consider attending a concert at "home," in Meymandi Concert Hall).
Associate Concertmaster Dovid Friedlander (another Pittsburgher) soloed in Vivaldi's "Winter," from The Four Seasons. He's a hotshot young player with abundant technical skills and copious musicianship as well, and he and his colleagues delivered this music handsomely. The sound here (and elsewhere on this occasion) was better than last time, perhaps due to some repositioning of the microphones: the balance was better, individual instruments weren't spot-lit (to their disadvantage), and no sections stood out overpoweringly. The second movement of "Winter" is a personal favorite from the entire set of four concerti, and the performance we heard in Cary was just lovely. Incidentally, Curry introduced it well, reading from translations of the sonnets that precede the music in the published score; his happy, down-to-earth comments enhanced the overall concert experience for the audience and, at times, produced some chuckles, too. Friedlander's "encore" was a fine reading of Kreisler's "Tambourin chinois," again well introduced by Curry.
The first half then ended with the finale of Tchaikovsky's "Winter Dreams" Symphony, a most attractive and unusual choice that made perfect sense in this context. Curry is such a masterful conductor he was able to convey this selection's mixed and contrasting moods brilliantly, making one think that a festival devoted to Tchaikovsky wouldn't be a bad idea at all (despite predictable ravings from the critical confraternity...; I can hear them now...).
While the orchestral sound was as good as I've heard it at Summerfest, something must be done about the over-amplified intermission (and pre-concert) announcements, which are often painfully loud, and never mind the speaker's often-rampant long-windedness....
Part two began with short selections by Mozart ("Sleigh Ride") and Prokofiev ("Troika"), followed by those aforementioned excerpts from the end of Act I of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. The musicians — even the fill-in ones — can probably play these pieces in their sleep, and Curry has led the score numerous times (including performances with the New York City Ballet); everyone worked together in Cary to bring the music to vivid life, and in particular the last two excerpts ("In the Pine Forest" and "Waltz of the Snowflakes") worked their customary magic. In their wake came two parts of Bryan Kelley's Improvisations on Christmas Carols that were attractive enough to make one want to hear the entire set. There was a short sing-along of holiday tunes that elicited little participation from the crowd (Curry charitably told the audience it was "o.k.," but in truth it was pretty sad...). A bag of holiday goodies was then delivered to the Maestro, who good-naturedly went through the set-up, showing an illuminated baton, tossing a Regency Lake biting frog into the crowd (animal lovers note that it was plastic), donning a Santa hat, and proclaiming the band "the world's greatest orchestra" before wishing everyone "Merry Christmas" and expressing a New Year's wish for "Peace on Earth" — which drew a large round of applause. He then conducted "Winter Wonderland" before donning a reindeer head-dress(!), bantering a bit more, and wrapping up the evening — and the summer series — with Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," Yea, verily, a good time was had by all. Ho, ho, ho!
Note: Maestro Curry is the recipient of one of this year's Indie Arts Awards, presented annually by The Independent Weekly to exceptional individuals and organizations in the Triangle. See http://www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A156914 for details.