When the Raleigh Civic Symphony launched into the opening bars of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, you knew that Earth Day 2009 was bound to be near at hand. Conductor Randolph Foy led the orchestra in the first movement of this “Pastorale” masterpiece in Stewart Theatre on the NC State University campus.
Formally marked “Allegro ma non troppo,” this movement is subtitled “Awakening of Cheerful Feelings upon Arriving in the Country.” The bucolic and peaceful images induced made for an ideal introduction to a program named “Earth Matters I,” celebrating nature and the environment. (“Earth Matters II” is scheduled for one week later featuring the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra.)
The fourth and fifth movements, originally programmed, were deleted in favor of Dvorák’s “Silent Woods” (or “Forest Calm”), arranged by the composer himself for cello and orchestra. The soloist here with the masterly touch was David Oh, principal cellist of the orchestra. This tuneful piece proved to be largely a cello solo featuring orchestral backup, yet with occasional flute prominence.
The “acquired taste” number on this ecological afternoon was provided courtesy of the Hungarian composer, György Ligeti (1923-2006). As Foy pointed out in his helpful commentary, that composer’s Atmosphères (1961) contained no melodies, no chords, and no beats. (He certainly spoke truthfully.) In an approach called micro-polyphony, each instrument was supposed to follow its own exclusive line. That phenomenon could be verified aurally and visually, as one was able to observe the asynchronism of the bowing in the string sections. There are not enough p’s to describe one of the pianissimo passages. The work ended with an expanse of several seconds that “sounded” like total silence.
The popular contemporary composer Jennifer Higdon has written City Scape, from which the orchestra has extracted “river sings a song to trees” (2002). The composer’s notes reveal that the river here refers to Atlanta’s Peachtree Creek, in one of whose tributaries she played as a child. The orchestration was ornate and luxuriant, befitting “the intense and gorgeous greens that connect neighborhoods and businesses.” The piece was marked by a couple of heavy crescendos that might well have depicted flood stage, a dreaded condition well known to those who live alongside that normally tranquil stream.
The players did their finest work in the closing Debussy piece, Printemps (Springtime): Suite Symphonique. The “Très modèrè” (Debussy and other French composers apparently did not care for the more universal “moderato.”) movement was especially flowing and well realized, with an amazingly rich sound. If this performance could be said to lack some of the polish of the world’s leading orchestras, at least it formed an eminently respectable and earth-friendly substitute.