Sometimes we are fortunate enough to experience an event where the stars align and all facets of the performance seem to magically coalesce into a perfect evening. Such was the case with North Carolina Symphony's concert at the Town of Cary's Koka Booth Amphitheatre. As the NCS website proclaimed, this was a "musical toast to Mother Nature" and Mom reciprocated with absolutely beautiful weather: relatively low humidity, few bugs, warm breezes and a stunning sunset.
As anyone who has attended an outdoor concert of any musical genre, you know that the music ends up being just one ingredient of the whole experience. For classical music without walls, audiophiles love to slam the acoustic deficiencies as compared to "regular" concerts, but that is missing the point of music under the stars. Surprisingly, I have found that audiences are at least as quiet and attentive as when they are in red velvet seats – perhaps owing to the food and drink ingested.
The orchestra was under the direction of William Henry Curry, Resident Conductor, who expertly led us through a wonderfully programmed evening that was a perfect mixture of light and serious, familiar and more unknown, and everything in-between.
The evening began with what is arguably the most well-known piece of music that most people don't know where it's from: the opening fanfare of Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra. You could just see the flashbulbs of recognition going off: "Oh, that's the song from that 2001 movie." It was played with great precision and power.
The more "Pops" and encore-like selections included the charming "Wild Bears" from Sir Edward Elgar's second of his Wand of Youth suites, assembled nearly forty years after writing tunes for plays his family put on as a child. Leroy Anderson, a prolific composer of "light classics" best known for "Sleigh Ride" was also featured with the cleverly orchestrated "The Waltzing Cat." Rimsky-Korsakov's barnburner "Flight of the Bumblebee" showed off the prodigious chops of the orchestra, although they did not beat the actual certified world record of violinist David Garrett's 1 minute 6 second feat!
The tone turned more serious and even ominous with excerpts from Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, a programmatic masterpiece of the sea and a seaside community. This led into some selections from a somewhat maligned and misunderstood work: Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite. The section "on the trail" is probably the most played and we heard it again portraying the clip-clop of mules going down the trail.
The toast to Mother Nature travelled from outer space to cats, monumental geographic formations and oceans, but the best was saved for last: Ottorino Respighi's brilliant The Pines of Rome. This four-movement symphonic poem, written in 1924, depicts pine trees in and around Rome at different times of the day. Respighi's unique orchestration style jumps out at you, sparkling and shimmering, and the North Carolina Symphony gave a virtuosic reading of this unique work. The Gabrieli-like antiphony of the brass doesn't work quite as well outdoors as it would with walls, but that was about the only sacrifice endured in an evening of great music, a peaceful ambience, and Mother Nature's gracious cooperation.
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