Could Amati, Guarneri or Stradivari ever have envisioned the kind of sounds that Zachary de Pue or Nicolas Kendall bring out of their violins? Not likely, but the sounds pleased a huge audience at Koka Booth Amphitheatre on a delightful summer evening, as the North Carolina Symphony closed out its portion of the amphitheater's 2011 season. De Pue and Kendall, along with bassist Ranaan Meyer, make up the trio Time For Three, who blend classical, jazz and "down home" musical styles into an eclectic — and often electric — mix. These three put out quite a variety of sounds: much of the violin playing called for double-stop and pizzicato techniques, and the bass playing consisted of straight bowing, double stops, strummed and plucked passages.
One could easily dismiss the young men as mere "fiddlers," despite their training at Curtis Institute and experience with the Philadelphia Orchestra, but even the brashest of notes coming from the instruments (bass included) reflected advanced skill levels. The trio offered a serious reading of the opening of Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D minor before easing into a faster, jazzier sound, and they had quite a lot of fun with Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5 without losing focus of the main themes. Although tossing in a few bars from the Fiddler on the Roof solo violin line and a few bars from "Hava Nagila" (did both de Pue and Kendall play the same violin briefly on this section?) might have brought a frown to the music purist's face, one imagines that Bach would have been at least a wee bit amused by the additional musical material the trio brought to the concerto movement.
Meyer's arrangement of "Shenandoah" opened the Time For Three set with a violin duet but also included a section in which his bass was played in a high register, sounding almost like a cello. The trio played their own arrangement of Leroy Anderson's "Fiddle Faddle" that included nice pizzicato passages from the violins and sturdy plucked strings on the bass, along with some rhythmic finger drumming.
The trio closed the concert with a suite of four songs that explored the wide range of their playing styles and musical skills. Called American Suite No. 2, the piece opens with a slower, more melancholy section, "Wyoming 307," that blended into a high-octane "Forget About It," with a distinctive bluegrass feel. Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" achieved a level of high emotional intensity, built on a theme played at first in the bass and then carried by a violin duet. The suite closed with the ever-popular "Orange Blossom Special," which started with an uncharacteristically jazzy plucked bass and then featured near-continuous double-stopped violin playing by both de Pue and Kendall. De Pue tossed in a little bit of "I've Been Working on the Railroad" for good measure.
For an encore, the trio played English singer Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek," a surprisingly mellow choice for an encore but one that was hauntingly beautiful, with much more nuance than most of the other music. This piece was perhaps the best blend of trio and orchestra, and the North Carolina Symphony provided soft and subtle support throughout.
The orchestra, under Summerfest artistic director William Henry Curry, opened the evening with "Savannah River Holiday," written nearly 60 years ago by Ron Nelson. This piece did not necessarily evoke a lazy Southern river so much as a lively summer holiday, although the middle section did take a slower, more dramatic turn based on high strings and low brass. Some nice wind solos highlighted this piece. The splashy (no pun intended) closing had more of a New York feel than a Southern feel.
The orchestra also had its own selections to open the second half — Kabalevsky's "Galop," from The Comedians, Op. 26, and the "Polovtsian Dances" from Borodin's Prince Igor. The former conjures up Saturday morning cartoons, of course, while the latter has such glorious melodies from the world's best known chemist-composer. The dances begin with the melody that later became "Stranger in Paradise" in Kismet and include faster, whirling music requiring precise winds and brass and prominent percussion. If the orchestra has not played this indoors with full chorus recently, it would be a good addition to regular season programming.
The orchestra provided good accompaniment for Time For Three on several pieces, especially "Wyoming 307," "Hallelujah" and "Hide and Seek," and even on some of the more raucous music, such as "Foxdown."
With an outdoor concert, of course, the sound either drifts into the outdoor air, losing some immediacy and depth or, if amplified, comes to the audience in a more one-dimensional way. The latter prevailed, which meant that the trio could be heard loud and clear for the entire set. But it also gave the bass, for instance, the sound of a slight head cold, with less reverberation than one might hear from an indoor concert stage. Nonetheless, this was a fine way to end the symphony's series at the amphitheater, and the fireworks that followed the performance matched the fireworks that came from the concert stage.
Note: There are lots of Time For Three cuts in YouTube. For openers, start with http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFbRYWCHHkI and then see the playlist to the right.