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After having chickened out of attending the rain-soaked Summerfest program last week, we finally made it to the North Carolina Symphony (NCS) salute to Gershwin. We had been warned that there were problems with the sound system and wanted to see if it was on the road to recovery. Unfortunately, The Amphitheater at Regency Park will need a Henry Higgins-type acoustician to analyze and reform it and it's pretty much impossible to write a meaningful review of the concert because we never heard the real NCS.
Initially seated at a table in the high rent district under protective cover, we wondered at the anemic sound from normally animated Associate Conductor Bill Curry. The first half of the program, consisting of the overture to O Kay, Curry's orchestral transcription of the Piano Prelude No.2, a medley from Girl Crazy and the complete An American in Paris was analogous to listening through the wrong end of a telescope. So, for the second half, a partial concert version of Porgy and Bess with baritone Leonard Rowe and soprano Marsha Thompson, we joined the crowd on the lawn about half way to the stage. There we encountered a whole new set of issues.
No longer sounding without energy, the orchestra now sounded synthetic. Moreover, the sound came from way up in the rafters, making for a Karaoke effect. The two dozen mikes strategically placed within the orchestra predictably picked up the nearest player, rather than a section, as intended. Moreover, some instruments amplify better than others, the winds generally sounding truer than the strings. And the higher the frequency, the more distorted the sound. This acoustic quirk left Rowe unscathed but severely injured Thompson.
It wasn't all her fault. In this opera, Gershwin is second only to Beethoven in his disregard for the limitations of the human voice, especially sopranos, although Beethoven at least had an excuse. The tessitura for all the female roles in Porgy and Bess is unnaturally high, forcing the singer to stay at the top of her range throughout entire arias, and "Summertime" is the worst of the lot. Put it all through a less than perfect amplification system and you've got trouble. A passage in "My Man's Gone Now" for Bess and solo violin was nothing short of painful, an "in your face" clash as concertmaster Brian Reagin's violin, sounding as if he were playing in the shower, virtually invaded Thompson's frequency space.
The evening's winner was Rowe. For some reason, his warm baritone and superb acting transcended the mechanical interference and distortion. Since there were only two singers to cover all the roles, Rowe had to shift between the saintly Porgy, the sardonic bully Crowne and the sleaze-ball villain Sportin' Life. His ability to adapt his voice to the distinct personalities of the three characters was masterful. His diction was so good that he was able to accurately convey the South Carolina black dialect. Rowe, a native son and graduate of the NC School of the Arts and the National Opera Company (now the Fletcher Opera Institute) is no stranger to Triangle audiences. Over the years, it has been exciting to be able to hear the progress of this talented young singer.
So now that we've dissed the sound system in the NCS's summer home, does that mean you should avoid these concerts? Definitely not. The new Amphitheater at Regency Park is both beautiful and fun. Whole families were there with picnic dinners, giving young children the chance to hear a real symphony orchestra and squirm at the same time. The concerts are essentially pops programs and it's the total ambience and experience that counts. And, by the way, unless you have a good reason for wanting a table and weather protection, save your money and sit on the grass. For acoustical perfection, go hear the Symphony in Meymandi.