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On Thursday night, February 16, at the Carolina Theater in Durham, the North Carolina Symphony give the nearly full house an opportunity to hear some unusual and perhaps unfamiliar music but ending with a favorite roof-raiser. William Henry Curry was at the helm, and saxophonist Branford Marsalis was the guest soloist. It was a large orchestra, including piano, a considerable complement of percussion, and a sizable brass ensemble. There were no artificial sound deflectors to take up space, and the sound bounced off the bare brick wall at the back of the stage. It was a full-throated sound especially focused in the third row of the first loge, where I was seated.
The program opened with Hector Berlioz's Opus 23 Benvenuto Cellini Overture. The 16th-century quintessential Italian renaissance artist and adventurer held great fascination for Berlioz. The opera based on his escapades was never successful, but the Overture was popular from its first performance, as was the "Roman Carnival" Overture, a concert work put together using other themes from the opera. The opera's overture is rousing, romantic, and adventurous. Fanfares from the brass give way to lively passages followed by a slow and reverent reference, and then a romantic theme leads back to a section of driven rhythmic vitality and a full-voiced conclusion. Berlioz, as always, provides flashes of brilliant orchestral coloration with the excesses he was so fond of. The brass was not in the least bit shy in playing what was asked of them.
My first acquaintance with the music of Swiss-born Arthur Honegger was his oratorio King David which I heard when I was still in high school. I latched onto some of the unique and original sounds included in his output and one of my very old Lps is a recording of the Symphony No. 3 "Symphonie Liturgic." Honegger was a devout Catholic all his life, and many of his compositions are infused with his piety and love of God. This Symphony, the third of five, was premiered in Zurich under Charles Munch in 1946; it embodies an attempt to deal with some of what Honegger and the world had just gone through. It is frankly programmatic, taking three of the high points of the Catholic Mass for the Dead as titles for the three movements. The opening "Dies Irae" portrays a humanity that seems to have been reduced to the condition of passive victims. The middle movement, "De profundis clamavi," is, in the composer's words, "a meditation that is already a prayer." Out of the depths of the human soul a cry of distress changes into a prayer of hope and deliverance. The final movement, "Dona nobis pacem," is almost like a revolt – a demand for peace and justice. At times it echoes some of the strident phrases of Shostakovitch's post-war symphonies. The epilogue is a brief but broad adagio in which a quiet peaceful theme is passed from flute to solo cello to solo violin and finally soars to the piccolo, bringing a sense of restoration of hope and life. The orchestra seemed a little unfamiliar with this music at first but got well into it by the middle of the first movement. I expect further performances will be more secure.
The second half of the program featured the saxophonist of the musically gifted and treasured Marsalis family – Branford. The Scaramouche Suite is a playful and spirited product of Darius Milhaud, inspired by his first encounter with jazz during a visit to America in 1922. Even though Marsalis missed a couple of complex whole-step sequences in the first movement, few noticed. The familiar third movement of the piece, titled "Brazileira: Mouvement de Samba," was bouncy, vivacious, and hard to get out of your mind. (The Grammy Award winning jazz saxophonist has recorded "Scaramouche" with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.)
John Williams' "Escapades" was arranged from the score written for the Leonard DiCaprio/Tom Hanks film Catch Me If You Can. The film and the score capture some of the now-nostalgic 1960s and the progressive jazz that was all the rage at the time. We were treated to some phenomenal vibraphone playing by Principal Percussionist Richard Motylinski and some fine amplified solo double bass work by Bruce Ridge, along with the mellow, technically superb, and swinging saxophone of Marsalis. What were most impressive were his control and his oneness with his instrument, and the audience vigorously let him know their appreciation.
The program closed with an audience-pleaser – Ravel's "Bolero." Though at first denigrated, "Bolero" became so popular that Ravel came almost to despise it, somewhat like Rachmaninov came to be displeased with his C-sharp minor Prelude, because it seemed that was all his audiences wanted to hear. "Bolero" is actually a cleverly constructed sustained crescendo based on a repeated theme with changing orchestration and color as it grows in intensity. It is based on the Spanish Bolero, was written as a ballet, and is not to be confused with the Latin American Bolero, which is a dance of a different nature.
The orchestra was mostly sharp – not in pitch(!) but in presentation. William Henry Curry was, as usual, solidly in control, molding the music into a pleasant presentation. It was an interesting and varied program that provided many satisfactions.