Choral Music, Orchestral Music Review



Durham Symphony Orchestra: Feast or Famine?

April 6, 2003 - Durham, NC:


The last formal concert of the Durham Symphony Orchestra's 2002-3 season was presented on April 6 in the Carolina Theatre. The event featured the orchestra itself, of course, and an outstanding chorus, from NCCU. Maestro Alan Neilson conducted the portions of the program involving the orchestra.

Attendance seemed down, and that's too bad, for all kinds of reasons, and despite the fact that this ensemble does nearly everything right. The ensemble has rarely if ever sounded better. The program was comprehensive and detailed, with names of all the participating artists (more than all of them, indeed), excellent notes by Dorothy Kitchen, and adequate listings. Based on the ads and program credits, the DSO enjoys excellent community support. Its evening programs usually begin at 7:00 p.m. so young people can attend and get home at a respectable hour. As we've said repeatedly over the years, our community orchestras are vital components of our overall cultural fabric. Neilson has been plying these fertile fields for years, in both Durham and Raleigh. He is a reliable conductor, and he works very well with solo artists and other guests.

The program began with the national anthem, stirringly played. Again we noted the absence of our flag; surely the managers of our auditoria can afford these symbols of our country (and perhaps NC flags, too), during the war.... The first, fairly short, part of the program continued with the Schubert Overture known by the title "Rosamunde," although it was recycled verbatim from an earlier work. The work we know as the curtain-raiser for this set of incidental music (to a lost play by Helmina von Chézy) is in fact the Overture to Alfonso und Estrella , D.732, although another overture, to Die Zauberharfe , D.644, was initially published with the rest of the music.... (This is of course not the only bit of confusion in the catalogs of Schubert's works.*) The performance glowed from within and astonished this listener (and doubtless others, too) with the precision, accuracy and incisiveness of the playing. There was more of the same in the familiar Rimsky-Korsakov edition of Mussorgsky's "Night on the Bare Mountain," which is variously titled; the original version, with chorus, is in the opera, The Fair at Sorochinski , and because singers from NCCU were on hand, it seemed unfortunate in the extreme that the choral version wasn't presented on this occasion. 'Twas a famine, of sorts, within the context of a feast, however.... That said, the playing was again superior, and the piece was warmly received. The all-orchestral portion of the concert ended with part of the finale of Tchaikovsky's rarely-heard "Manfred" Symphony. It is a stunning piece of the kitchen-sink variety - the finale is loaded up with all manner of tricks, including a fugue - that merits the effort necessary to get to know it. That said, it's so problematical that even the dedicated apostle of fidelity to scores, Arturo Toscanini, never presented it without disfiguring cuts. The DSO's "excerpts," mostly from the last movement, took about 15 minutes to perform ("complete" recordings issued by Russian orchestras take 19-20 minutes for the last section), so we're guessing that there were some omitted repeats or other cuts, and there was only one of the two harps called for in the score (played by Emily Laurance). Still, it was a treat to hear bits of this splendid work, as an appetizer, of sorts; it is a welcome addition to the DSO's repertoire - and welcome, too, to our region, where it has been loudly ignored for as long as this critic has been plying his trade. But that said, there's feast within the context of the famine, for the NC Symphony is playing the entire work (and without any cuts, we've been told) in Chapel Hill and Raleigh, starting April 10!

After remarks by WTVD's John Clark, who touted the importance of the DSO in the overall scheme of things and commented, too, on the disappearance of cellist Janine Sutphen (see our current news file for more information), there was a longish intermission, following which the Touring Choir of NCCU occupied the boxes and part of the front of the hall to perform Mozart's Regina Coeli, K.276, and Randall Thompson's "The Last Words of David." As it happened, the choir used music for the Mozart, which may not be in its usual repertory; otherwise this outstanding ensemble sang everything from memory. We heard the choir several years ago, at a choral festival, and were dazzled by the ensemble's diction, technical skills, and sheer musicianship. It's not your typical college choir, which hereabouts (typically) has a surfeit of young female voices that too often verge into pipsqueak territory, too few tenors, and are deficient in the extreme in the low-end bass region. (Perhaps this describes more than just college - and high school - choirs?) Anyway, these Central folks are mature singers who project experience and professionalism in everything they undertake, with consistently impressive results. Balance with the orchestra was fine, and absent a slight coordination glitch, early on, things went swimmingly. After the Thompson, which many members of the audience, over a certain age, surely sang in their own school years (it was at one time ubiquitous), the orchestra escaped and the choir re-formed onstage for the rest of the program, which was divided, for reasons not entirely clear, into six additional groups, some consisting of single works only.

We couldn't count noses during the orchestral selections, but we'd done our customary thing before the concert began, and we were impressed that there were 65 instrumentalists listed (making the DSO the same size as most NC orchestras, professional or otherwise) and that the membership of the NCCU Touring Choir is 47. This is a large group for touring, especially in times of economic stress. Actually, when the choir assembled onstage, it was clear that the touring group is smaller - 28, in this case - so the larger number must constitute the University's total mixed chorus membership. No matter, musically or sonically: the well-matched and balanced singers often sounded like a choir of several times their apparent size.

The choir's director is Grover Wilson, Jr., whose credentials occupied a full page in the program insert. He is clearly a superior leader who builds fine programs, although in this case, with the orchestra's portion, there was feast (as opposed to famine) in terms of the concert's overall length.

The singers were radiant in the opening number, a medley of American tunes put together by Charles Gilchrist that gave prominence to "Lift Every Voice and Sing," recognized as the African-American national anthem. Lena McLin's "All the Earth Sing unto the Lord" led to two Russian numbers, the folksong "Yonder! Yonder!," sung in English in Samuel Gaines' arrangement (with "pine trees" replacing "birch trees" in the lyrics), and Lvovsky's "Hospodi Pomilui," given in Russian and breathtakingly, too. Three of Brahms' Lovesong (Liebeslieder) Waltzes, presented in English and a cappella, proved charming. Two groups of spirituals and sacred numbers followed - Rockin' Jerusalem, arranged by John Work, and two set by the late, great Moses Hogan (whose tragic death is noted in our news archives): "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me" and "I Can Tell the World." The NCCU Jubilee Singers, a quartet augmented by the director himself, rendered Climbin' up the Mountain, arranged by Verolga Nix, Hall Johnson's "Ain't Got Time to Die," and the traditional "Soon Ah Will Be Done." There was some truly "cool jazz" from Lawrence Lapin; "The Greens" gave the singers room to cut up as 'bones, saxes, and trumpets. The program ended with a lovely arrangement (by Roland Carter) of "Lift Every Voice," for which many in attendance were surely prepared to stand (although the director invited the audience to remain seated because the piece was presented in a "concert" version).

The soloists, along the way, were uniformly excellent, too; they were soprano Marylina Brown, tenor Isaac Chapman, and bass Richard Hodges. The pianist was Ramon Holloway, whose instrument was an electric keyboard (which may account for the large percentage of a cappella pieces, although the sound was not nearly as dreadful as we'd anticipated when first we saw the set-up). Occasional percussion (drum) accompaniment was provided by DeAngelo Robinson.

Will the feast or famine theme apply to the DSO, one of our most important community assets? The disappearance of cellist Janine Sutphen and apparent anxiety about safety in downtown Durham hurt the orchestra's earlier fund-raising event, and attendance at its concerts has been down, too. Three more events remain on the orchestra's current calendar - free outdoor concerts on April 27 in Hillsborough and on May 4 in Durham (donations will be gratefully accepted) and a BBQ fund-raiser on May 17. See our calendar or contact the orchestra at http://www.durhamsymphony.org/ for details.

[*And confusion isn't limited to others.... After a too-long delay, copies of the scores were secured; I was wrong in my attribution, above. The work known as the "Rosamunde" Overture today is in fact D.644, composed for Die Zauberharfe ; that said, however, the other overture, D.732 ( Alfonso und Estrella ), was apparently used at the premiere of the Rosamunde music(!). Brief citations and comprehensive notes are in Otto Deutsch's catalog, available in a reprint edition from Dover. (4/26/03)]