Orchestral Music Review



The American Dream: A Salute to the Music of the WPA

April 18, 2010 - Raleigh, NC:


For years, Americans have felt the effects of a deep recession. Some of us walk with a defeated attitude; others ignore any signs of danger and do nothing. Then there are the people who mix a spirit of optimism with a sheer determination to work hard and succeed, no matter the circumstances. These people are the spirit of our nation. The Raleigh Civic Symphony, led at North Carolina State University by music director Randolph Foy, celebrated the American spirit with an all-American program featuring works by early 20th century composers Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, and George Gershwin. The concert, which celebrated the 75th anniversary of the “original stimulus program,” the Works Progress Administration, featured pianist Olga Kleiankina, the newest addition to the music faculty and head of the piano department at North Carolina State University.

Her performance of Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue" was the highlight of the evening. The symphony started several minutes late because a line of listeners waiting to buy tickets still stood outside the doors. The turnout was ideal; the anticipation high. The Rhapsody was indeed a crowd-pleaser. Kleiankina, at first glance a petite person who looked like she could never harm a fly, understood how to get the sound out of the piano. During the loudest moments for the orchestra, she was determined to be heard above it all, and she succeeded.

Despite a somewhat shaky beginning on the orchestra’s part and perhaps an air of nervousness on the pianist’s part, the piano and orchestra settled into a nice ensemble, and the pacing of the piece was remarkably well done: Kleiankina possessed a fine sense of timing, rubato, and phrasing which fit the piece beautifully, and the orchestra followed suit with several catchy tuttis. The piece was visually pleasing, as well: although the musical tone of the piano could have at times been more refined, she followed through on every note and used her arms to complete sections of the piece in convincing and satisfying ways. After the strong ending — perhaps the most exciting moment in the entire concert, in which Kleiankina gave her all and ended triumphantly with the orchestra — she earned a standing ovation from many in the audience.

Another remarkable highlight of the evening was the performance of Piston’s ballet, The Incredible Flutist, which contained many dazzling, artistic notes performed by Sarah Busman, the principal flutist. The movements told the odd story of a circus featuring an outstanding flutist who has an eye for the most beautiful girl in town. After using his flute to put her into a trance — that leads to death — he raises her back to life and the circus leaves town… to the happy beat of a polka.

The movements linked together without pause, each one depicting a scene or mood in the ballet. The audience especially enjoyed the circus march, in which shouts, chatter, and laughter spontaneously broke out among the orchestra as the brass and percussion beat out a lively tune. One could completely visualize the circus entering town, a cheerful crowd clamoring behind it, and banners flying in the air. Near the end of the work, conductor Randolph Foy used the many silences to the best advantage, creating a profound suspense. The ballet ended after violin tremolos, a drum roll, and a percussive note ringing out above it all.

In addition to the two these two highlights, the orchestra played Copland’s "Outdoor Overture" and an essay, "American Creed" by Roy Harris. Dealing in "American Creed" with the main melodic material passed throughout the different sections of the orchestra, Foy did an excellent job achieving balance throughout the orchestra. The woodwinds, brass, and percussion added to the "Americana" feel of the overture, while the string section could have been less heavy, making the dotted rhythms more authentic instead of too much like triplets. The beginning and end of the piece were not entirely convincing, but as the orchestra moved into the piece, the ensemble and sense of timing grew more confidant.

One thing every piece accomplished was to sound American — each in a different way. Some, like "American Creed," convey an intense, building struggle that depicts our effforts to find and achieve the American Dream. Others are explosive celebrations of our heritage and uniqueness as a nation, such as the "Outdoor Overture" and "Rhapsody in Blue." They all reminded us to persevere and be proud of our American heritage.

*The author, a student at Meredith College, is one of CVNC's 2009-10 interns