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The June 15 Summerfest concert, presented by the NC Symphony under Jeffrey W. Pollock's leadership in Cary's Regency Park, marked a milestone of sorts and an escape, also of sorts, from the millstone that the orchestra has borne almost from the beginning of its appearances in the generally splendid new facility. The millstone is the sound system; the milestone is that it finally worked well, in turn allowing the orchestra to sound reasonably realistic. The pre-concert hosts were seriously over-amplified, but the program itself was more than acceptably transmitted to the large, generally quiet crowd that assembled for a mostly all-American, mostly 20th-century program. There are still some minor problems, but they relate primarily to "spot-lighting" of individual instruments or sections. In several places, the woodwinds were unduly prominent; we'll concede that the cause could just as easily have been the players themselves, as opposed to anything done (or left undone) by the sound techies. And in one of the Copland numbers, John Henry's 12-pound "hammer" (the one he supposedly died holding) took on undue prominence. But conductor Pollock's mike was sensibly set and the guest narrator's was remarkably free of problems, and the NCS came across like an orchestra, with even its rich bass notes reaching the audience (and at roughly the same time as the rest of the sound spectrum). That the microphone array could still stand some fine-tuning was apparent here and there - in the opening numbers of both halves, actually - but, in those instances, the problems we heard most likely stemmed from faulty ensemble.... We wandered around a bit during one number, to assess the sound system, and found it consistently good from near the lip of the stage all the way back to the covered seating. Alongside that section, there was little impact or immediacy. We couldn't tell if there was any boosting of the sound under the canopy, but our sense of the situation is that, as is often the case, elsewhere, the most expensive seats are not necessarily the best seats.... All of which is a long way of saying that based on this concert, the artistic leadership of Summerfest (headed by Maestro William Henry Curry), the Symphony's staff, the event managers of Regency Park, and the Town of Cary, working together, have, at last, broken the code. Here's hoping that all the settings were etched onto the dials of the equipment so the results can be replicated again next time!
As noted, the show was basically all-American, and even the first work, Britten's Overture to Paul Bunyan, was written and premiered here, in 1941. This is unusual fare that isn't in the NCS' regular concert repertoire, and some of its exposed upper-string passages needed a bit more polishing, but it was well worth hearing, both on its own and in the overall context of the program, which was "American Legends and Heroes." A longish (for a pops concert) but admirably-realized selection from MacDowell's Indian Suite (1896) paid tribute to the important but now little-heard American composer of "To a Wild Rose." Copland was represented by the aforementioned "John Henry" (1940, for chamber orchestra), two excerpts from Billy the Kid , and, in the second half, Lincoln Portrait . John Williams got equal billing, with an overture (The Cowboys), the well-known "Olympic Fanfare," and "Summon the Heroes." He didn't stand up too well against the competition, however. Williams' music is nicely enough written and draws upon a rich and immediately appealing orchestral palette, but increasingly we find the scores almost interchangeable, thinking that any given one could be plugged into any other film (or pops program slot) and the effect would be pretty much the same.
The second half of the show began with tributes to three great American musical "heroes" of, indeed, legendary proportions - Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," played in Gunther Schuller's orchestration, and medleys of music by (or, more properly, associated with) the other two artists, prepared by Ted Ricketts and Ralph Hermann, respectively, conveyed the tunes if not much authenticity: these are Hollywoodized treatments that some might characterize as ear candy. Still, the band dug into them and the results seemed to please the crowd. So, too, did the second half's major work, Copland's Lincoln Portrait ,which was quite handsomely narrated by Franklin Freeman, Special Assistant to Governor Easley. His resonant voice projected nicely and with considerably clarity, and the orchestral introduction and accompaniments were expertly managed by Pollock. For reasons that may have much to do with 9/11 and the war that now engages all of us to varying degrees, this was an emotional high point of the evening - one that was matched but not surpassed by an unscheduled performance, sandwiched between Williams' "Olympic" piece and "Summon the Heroes," of Carmen Dragon's orchestration of Lowell Mason's great American hymn, "Bethany" ("Nearer, my God, to Thee") (1856). The concert ended at 9:30 p.m., so it was indeed a generous offering to a grateful audience that enjoyed, at last, the kind of sonic experience that we have long anticipated in the Symphony's summer home. See our calendar for remaining performances in the Summerfest series - performances that, if the sound system works as well as it did on June 15, should be well worth hearing.
For the record, the orchestra that plays for Summerfest is the NCS, more or less, but several principals are away, and some other gaps are being filled by players who are not regular NCS artists. Rebekah Binford served as Concertmaster on June 15.
Apropos "Nearer, my God, to Thee," which according to legend was the last music played as the Titanic slipped beneath the waves, readers may wish to see the website of Bernard S. Greenberg, found while checking the date of the hymn. It contains all you ever thought you might want to know about Lowell Mason's composition and other settings of Sarah F. Adams' 1841 poem, notes on "Eternal Father, strong to save," and much, much more. See http://www.beanpaste.com/bsg/nearer.html [inactive 12/03].