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Orchestral Music Review Print

New Beginnings? The NC Symphony's First Classical Concert of the Season

September 21, 2001 - Raleigh, nC:

Past experience has shown that the NC Symphony's first concerts each season, given when the players are fresh from their summer break, can be superb musical events. Thus it came as no great surprise that the first Raleigh Classical Series concert of the orchestra's 69th season, presented in the orchestra's new hall on September 21, achieved levels of artistic excellence that have, alas, been infrequent during Music Director Gerhardt Zimmermann's long tenure. He began his 20th anniversary year with a program planned months or perhaps years ago, so it clearly bore no connection to our current war hysteria, but it was nonetheless a singularly appropriate lineup.

The program included the world premiere of XL, the latest orchestral composition by J. Mark Scearce, an artist whose contributions to contemporary literature have long enriched the lives of music lovers in North Carolina and elsewhere. He shifted his base of operations to the University of Southern Maine at the start of the present semester. Before a recent stint in Texas, he served a three-year tour as one of Meet the Composer's residents, in Hickory. He was based in Catawba County after a period in Hawaii, during which time the NCS played another of his orchestral works, Urban Primitive. Before that mid-Pacific period, he was Composer in Residence at NC State University and served as a faculty member at St. Augustine's College, Shaw University and Fayetteville State. It was good to welcome him back to North Carolina, for which he has created many of his most important scores, including his second opera, Kitty Hawk. That work, written for the National Opera Company, was not conducted by the NOC's long-time Artistic Director, Don Wilder, but XL is dedicated to him.

Work--including the making of music and art, which fuel our culture and civilization - goes on despite our recent tragedies and the uncertainty that grips us in their wake. Scearce addressed this dichotomy in a recent interview, taped by WUNC radio but not yet scheduled for broadcast. He took up the theme of the response of artists to times like these during his pre-concert remarks on September 21, noting that "we must take care of our souls." His words came directly from the heart, as does his music.

It was appropriate, too, that the Clarendon Wind Quintet, from Enloe High School, performed briefly after the composer had ended his remarks; its members are flutist Sara Wolfgram, oboist Becca Gurganious, clarinetist Ayan Chatterjee, bassoonist Imani Mosley, and hornist Andrew Stephenson. Life goes on. The fact that the young players were stepped on by noise from elsewhere in the lobby points out the fact that the management of the Big MAC--Memorial Auditorium Complex--still has a great deal to do. Among other things, ushers should not admit latecomers during performances or parade up and down the balcony aisles while concerts are in progress. Our audiences, too, must do better. Coughs register every bit as well as previously unheard pianissimi so the hackers must muffle themselves.

That the concert went on as scheduled is noteworthy, but of course the music must continue. NCS President and CEO David Chambless Worters addressed this fact in opening remarks, during which he noted the donation slips in the programs and the tables, set up in the lobby, where contributions to the American Red Cross were taken.

The second performance of this opening classical pair was telecast live and statewide by WUNC-TV, and the Friday concert, for which the hall was not full, was in effect the dress rehearsal for that event, so Charlie Gaddy was on hand to practice his intro, not carried to the live audience. He didn't practice enough: he stated that the telecast, on the 22nd, was of the premiere of XL and that the Brahms Concerto was composed in 1778. 

The actual premiere - and each new work enjoys only one - took place at the previous evening's concert. Before it, Zimmermann led the National Anthem, which inspired singing and elicited-wrongly-applause. ('Tain't proper to clap after it, Fellow Citizens.) Scearce's XL is short, compact and loaded with kaleidoscopic delights. Its constantly shifting rhythms are tricky, and at the Friday morning open rehearsal, the conductor was still struggling with them. He seemed to get the piece right at the concert. It bubbles and seethes with energy and is richly colored and brilliantly scored. It raised the roof, as Scearce had told his pre-concert audience it would do. It's a good piece to celebrate a new hall, a new beginning, and a period of renewed growth for our orchestra, our community and our nation. No two works by Scearce sound alike, and this one resembles nothing he has created previously. The title, which was not the first it was given, reflects the composer's expectation that our orchestra will continue to excel. It also happens to have been his age, in Roman numerals, at the time it was completed and--he says--his shirt size. It seems to evoke the best of all the great American composers who have preceded him without ever once quoting any recognizable bits. One might say it is a summation, a distillation of all that come before it, but that would undercut its importance. Like the program itself, the work was committed to paper long before September 11, but it suited the present mood. Here's hoping it won't meet the fate of many other fine scores. Instead of winding up on the library shelf, gathering dust, this piece needs to be heard, again and again.

It's time for a change. A new era has dawned in our nation, and with it must surely come a renaissance of appreciation of the finer things in life that touch the cores of our beings. Perhaps XL can be among the first "contemporary" works to be embraced by our revitalized society. The art we seek to serve cannot survive without new works. Scearce is among our leading creators. We must cherish and encourage and support his endeavors and those of other composers. With luck, we may someday have Scearce return to North Carolina, which state he says he loves above all others. It's this writer's view that we need him as much as he needs us--now, more than ever.

Violinist Gil Shaham was on hand for Brahms' Violin Concerto. His was an intensely poetic, free and lyrical interpretation, solidly based in extraordinary technique and mastery of his instrument. The orchestral accompaniment was fine, although from time to time the balances favored the band at the soloist's expense. The hall's new risers have arrived and been installed. We persist in our belief that they produce a certain layering or stratification of the sound, and in this instance the woodwinds were, in our view, inordinately prominent. The new seating arrangement, with the violas where the cellos used to be, does nothing to correct the traditional treble-on-the-left, bass-on-the-right sonic image--for many classical scores (of which there were none on this program), dividing the violins left and right would make a huge difference. It is clear that the tuning of the hall may take years, not to mention some fresh ears. When the balance was off in the Brahms, it helped that the woodwind players were often as secure as the guest fiddler. The slow movement was remarkable, particularly in light of too many concerts involving shop-worn visitors, and given the Music Director's customary lack of sensitivity to soloists.

The grand finale was Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, a war horse in more ways than one. It was the composer's public response to criticism from Stalin and other members of that regime. When it was written, Hitler was in power in Germany, and while it's not a war symphony, it has strong martial overtones. It ends with a brilliant, uplifting finale that may be seen as depicting the triumph of good over evil. It is more successful than, say, Shostakovich's sprawling "Leningrad" Symphony, and only the Tenth and the Eleventh Symphonies approach it in power and ultimate majesty. Although it has been done here in the recent past by others-performances by the Triangle Youth Philharmonic and one of our fine community orchestras linger in the mind-it was a good piece for the moment, and the reinforced NCS did it proud. The subs and additional players clearly made a difference. Beyond their contributions to the sound of our orchestra, they included people of color, which the core ensemble doesn't (except for Asians). As we have noted on previous occasions, the official configuration of the NC Symphony is not yet representative of the diverse public that it exists to serve.

Zimmermann led the entire work - all four movements - without opening his score. This is the first time in 20 years that we have observed such a feat on such an extended basis on his part. He seemed to know the music, and his involvement in it, his fairly continuous use of his left hand during it, and the results he obtained were impressive. Had he at crucial points earlier in his tenure seen fit to prepare major works so thoroughly, we might feel differently about his pending departure.

In closing, it may be worth noting that, at the same hour as this NCS event, the Carolina Ballet was performing Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet elsewhere in our bustling arts center. They promoted their run as "performed by members of the North Carolina Symphony" but this gives one pause because the 64-member orchestra is the same size it was when the incumbent Music Director arrived here, which means that it isn't big enough to be in two places at once.