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Several remarkable things took place on the afternoon of January 11, in Meymandi Concert Hall, and none of them involved the auditorium's usual tenant, the NC Symphony. That's good, 'cause the NCS is not noted for innovation, and it was a combination of very special programming and two very special groups of artists that helped make the occasion one of this season's most memorable events. It's too bad that attendance was down, as it often seems to be when either of the participating ensembles is on hand. There was, as readers of CVNC surely know, a lot going on, on the 11th. And it was cold - so cold that it was really good being a critic, instead of a brass player, 'cause our pucker, kept far from frigid brass mouthpieces, stayed warm in the toasty hall....
The occasion was the first joint concert, ever, by two of our region's most estimable performing groups, the 45-member North Carolina Wind Orchestra and the 40-member Triangle Brass Band. If on paper that looks like a whole lot of noisemakers - brasses and winds and percussion - in one confined space, remember, please, the splendor of Meymandi's acoustics. Yes, the musicians filled the room with sound, and then some, but never was it too much of a good thing. The impact of the low brass and the bass drum and timpani was positive, vibrant, immediate, and noticeable, even when the pitches dropped to the point where they were more felt than heard.
The lynchpin for the occasion was Michael Votta, Jr., the distinguished conductor and scholar who has done more than most other people, living or dead, to advance here, in the Triangle, the cause of the music he espouses so brilliantly. He's the music director of both groups, so it was perhaps only a matter of time before he drew them together for a monster concert. The place looked great - the stage was fuller than it usually is, when the regular tenants hold forth in Meymandi - and the sound was wonderful. That's due in part to Votta's leadership, but it helps that the players are all professionally trained and many - but not all - are in fact professional musicians and teachers. It helps, too, that the ranks of these two groups are filled with people who simply love to play, and this love - remember that it's the root word of amateur - shines in almost everything the groups, together or individually, undertake. Given the excellence of the players and their high levels of motivation, the poor drawing power of their concerts remains a mystery to me and surely to the two bands' admin and marketing people.... Anyway, this concert was recorded, so folks who happened to have missed it will have a chance to hear the results, which were, in a word, spectacular.
The program, dubbed "A 'Grande' Concert," began with a grand reading of Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks," played by modern-day instruments that parallel those Handel would have recognized. The rich sonority of the Ouverture set the stage admirably. In the winds-dominated Bourée, the elegant Siciliano, named "La Paix," which featured mostly low brass and winds, and the joyous "Celebration" ("La Réjouissance"), which the program annotator described as "exuberant," the massed band moved from strength to strength. The concluding menuets, paced more deliberately than many orchestral conductors take them, served as stirring caps to this familiar but nonetheless welcome concert opener.
There followed a rarely heard work by Florent Schmitt, whose music, in general, is rarely heard. "Dionysiaques," Op. 62, is for band, but it's not your father's band or even your grandfather's. The band for which it was written had instruments with strange names that now appear only in music history books - or in rosters of HIP (historically-informed performance) groups. Thus there were no Sarussophones, piccolo clarinets, or saxhorns, as far as I could tell, and we were apparently shortchanged a bit in the percussion department. No matter. The Romans called the god of wine Bacchus, and the Greeks, Dionysus. There are many bacchanales in music; the best-known may be Saint-Saëns', in Samson et Dalila, and a personal favorite is by Ibert. Schmitt's is among the best and most riotous (which, in this case, should not be confused with righteous). The piece owes much to Schmitt's somewhat better-known ballet, La tragédie de Salomé, and is clearly indebted to both Strauss and Stravinsky, to whom it was dedicated. It lasts only about ten minutes, but there's a ton of suggestiveness packed into it, and the combined groups delivered the goods handsomely and, at times, provocatively. As it happens, the last time the work was performed hereabouts was in Chapel Hill, in December 1998, when Votta led combined UNC bands in a comparably festive if perhaps somewhat less polished reading.
That UNC concert also marked the last time Berlioz's "Grand and Triumphant Funeral Symphony" (or, if you prefer, the Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale), Op. 15, was given locally. Like the Schmitt (as the poorly proofread but otherwise entertaining and informative notes by Votta explained), Berlioz's symphony underwent several metamorphoses over the years till it became his most popular composition, in his lifetime.... In 1998, it was presented with the chorus that was tacked onto it three years after the "original" version was completed. In Raleigh, attendees were treated to the first, voice-less incarnation. Michael Kris, a veteran of many Meymandi concerts with the NC Symphony in recent years, encored the big second-movement trombone solo he'd played at UNC, again projecting its distinctive emotional content, enveloped in virtually flawless technique. Its theme came from Act III of the abandoned opera, Les Francs-juges . Absent Harold in Italy , this central section of the Symphony is the closest thing to a concerto written by Berlioz, and it was a delight to hear it again, live. The opening and closing movements are stirring statements, intended for a, well, grand and triumphant funeral, or more properly for the ceremonial relocation of what Berlioz called "the relics of the glorious victims" of the 1830 Revolution that were re-interred, in 1840, in a monument on the Place de la Bastille. The players gave the work their all, and Votta led an inspiring performance, somewhat more briskly paced than may be heard on several commercial recordings. The beautifully controlled and balanced performance, which took place 200 years and a month to the day after Berlioz's birth, transcended the notion of a mere "concert" by miles and miles. It was in some respects enough to have raised the dead, and it's in the running for our annual "best of" compilation, for sure.