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The warm season is nearly upon us, and many events are competing for that brief period of time in North Carolina between the uncertainties of spring weather and the hot, humid, inhuman conditions of a southern summer. The North Carolina Symphony (NCS) played their last concerts of the regular 2004-5 series in a program that was subtitled "Spring is in the Air." This was a triple-header weekend and was one of the few where the NCS performed back-to-back-to-back concerts in Chapel Hill, Durham, and then their home base in Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh. I attended the Friday night show at the Carolina Theater in Durham.
There is a definite psychological difference in seeing and hearing this orchestra in these different venues, although it is hard to articulate what those differences are. Meymandi is formal and the best sounding by far, and the knowledge that that beautiful hall was built for this great orchestra makes for a very special evening. After four years, thankfully, the NCS has played its last program in the Chapel Hill Bible Church. I hope I haven't spoken too soon since construction delays are always possible, but starting in Fall 2005, the NCS will move to the newly-renovated Memorial Hall on the UNC Chapel Hill campus for its Chapel Hill series.
The Carolina Theater has its own character, and its small stage brings the players close to the audience, giving performances there a more informal feel. Since there are no risers on the stage I usually head straight for the front of the balcony where you can see everyone bowing and blowing and where the sound is quite good.
Nothing evokes spring as well as one of the deservedly best loved compositions of the 20th century – the Suite from Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. This is a work that became one of the first really big orchestral "hits" by an American composer. Much has been written about it, and there are many standard clichés about this wonderful creation, but nothing lessens its impact, no matter how many times you have heard or played it. The transparency and delicacy – and those open "American" intervals that are so often written about – are deceptively hard to bring across. The NCS – and especially the woodwinds – played in an exuberant, natural, and carefree manner that suggested a kind of effortless innocence without any hint of the technical difficulties behind it. The angular rhythms were given particular punch by the strings, and the brass had a strong, unified sound with precise attacks. NCS Resident Conductor William Henry Curry was on the podium, and I mean this in the best sense when I say that you hardly realized that he was there. He leads without demanding that he be the main force behind the expression. This resulted in a beautifully expressive performance of a passionate, sensuous masterpiece.
While there is no actual Spring season connection to Max Bruch's first Violin Concerto, you might say that this work "sprung" him to fame and respect. This work – and his ravishing and just-as-popular "Scottish Fantasy" for violin and orchestra – placed Bruch firmly in the pantheon of the greatest composers for the violin. The soloist for this G Minor Concerto was NCS Concertmaster Brian Reagin. Although we get to hear this superb artist in snippets of violin solos as parts of orchestral works from within the section, it is an eye- and ear-opening experience to hear him as the focal point of a work. He had a music stand with the score at the front of the stage, but he hardly seemed use it at all. Reagin eschews the flamboyance and theatricality of many soloists and plays with an almost-military erectness and posture, but there is an enormous amount of passion and sensitivity behind that stoic façade. This work brilliantly combines beautifully sweeping melodies with an extremely high level of virtuosity, and they co-exist with stunning grace and power. Reagin tossed off the technical hurdles with almost casual shrugs and delivered as good a performance as I have heard – live or recorded.
Robert Schumann devoted his early compositional career almost exclusively to works for solo piano. At the time of his marriage to Clara Wieck, in 1840, Schumann took the giant step to the largest device for composers - the symphony. This was to be one of the last, truly happy (and sane) periods of his life, and this First ("Spring") Symphony portrays his optimism and love for his talented wife. The NCS and Maestro Curry mustered all the Romantic grandeur of this work, which runs the gamut of beautiful, delicate melodies to bombastic eruptions. Despite all the thousands of miles of traveling throughout the state and constant acclimation to different venues, our NCS continues to play every concert as if some people were hearing the music for the first time. The first full year under new Music Director Grant Llewellyn held up under the weight of the unprecedented hype. We have a lot to look forward to next season.
Note: During the Raleigh presentation of this program, on May 22, the NCS gave the 2005 Maxine Swalin Outstanding Music Educator Award to Cary resident Hugh Partridge. The official announcement reminds us that the award is given to music teachers who serve the community as role models in music education, instill a love for music in children, and inspire students to reach appropriately high musical standards. The release continues, "Hugh Partridge, long-time North Carolina Symphony Principal Viola, has had a major influence on the musical life of North Carolina for nearly thirty years. Through his role as Artistic Director of the Philharmonic Association, his leadership as a founding member of the Martin Luther King Celebration Youth Concerts and as a founding board member of the Community Music School, his work in founding, directing and leading area youth orchestras since 1984, and his two decades of involvement with the Wake County Public Schools, Partridge has inspired thousands of students in the Triangle area."
Partridge's remarks at the presentation concurrently encapsulated his service and paid tribute to the great lady whose name the award bears. Maxine Swalin (who recently celebrated her 102nd birthday) established – with her late husband, NCS MD Benjamin Swalin – the children's concert division of the NCS in 1945. The honoree's words are reproduced below, with his consent:
"This award is a celebration – a celebration of the vision, dedication and leadership of Maxine Swalin. In 1939, Maxine’s husband, Dr. Benjamin Swalin, became Artistic Director of the North Carolina Symphony. Together they nurtured the North Carolina Symphony to become a major symphony orchestra. But more importantly, they created an educational symphonic program that has become a model throughout the United States.
"We are all grateful that through the Symphony’s educational mission, thousands of young people across our State get to hear this orchestra play great classical music every year.
"I am grateful for the privilege of being a member of this magnificent orchestra for the past 30 years. I am grateful for the opportunities I have been given to work with young musicians of our community.... They are the future of great classical music.
"I would like to thank my colleagues in the orchestra for their support and encouragement, the dedicated school music teachers for their tireless work, [and] the parents of our young musicians. And I am most grateful for all the truly gifted and talented young musicians who love to play great classical music. This award also celebrates them."
(Note by JWL 5/28/05)