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It's raining, the Ides of March has passed, and I'm on a budget. What better way to chase away the blues than music inspired by, and for the dance. On this occasion, my partner and I heard the Raleigh Civic Symphony, an orchestra that unites college students, local amateurs and professionals under the direction of their fine young conductor, Dr. Peter Askim. The spring program, entitled Dance, Dance . . . Revolution included works by Glass, Janáček, Sibelius, Strauss, and Stravinsky. The concert took place in the State Ballroom on the campus of NC State University.
The orchestra opened the concert with Igor Stravinsky's wonderful Suite No. 1 for Small Orchestra (1917-25). In his remarks, Askim referred to the set of four dances as "charming;" and he writes in the program notes, the four pieces are "miniature masterpieces." They are, indeed, beautiful works of art, with all the musical details of The Rite of Spring, splendid examples of Stravinsky's style and technique. Askim's conducting was concise and the players responded, turning on a dime with crisp rhythms, clean articulation, and staying well in tune throughout.
The score with the most meat was Leoš Janáček's Lachian Dances. Divided into six dances, the set begins with an overture-like feel, reflecting Janáček's propensity for the opera. The musicians faced off successfully with quick meter and tempo changes, spirited passagework and stylistic contrasts. They captured Janáček's romantic spirit, especially the woodwinds (in "Dymák" and "Starodávny 2"), but I was disappointed that the acoustics did not favor the violins (in "Starodávny 1"). Overall, the performance was splendid!
Akhnaten is the third of a trilogy of "portrait operas" by Philip Glass (b.1937). Completed in 1984, Akhnaten is scored without violins, a decision made for practical reasons – the opera pit was simply too small. Glass considered this serendipity; that is, the orchestral color is richly deep with emphasis on the lower strings. "Dance" calls for a challenging viola part, with lots of rapid string crossings. Like all of Glass' minimalist scores, musicians dare not 'zone out' for a moment; a missed note can potentially cascade into a disaster. The orchestra played with strong focus while maintaining the spirit of the piece; a very impressive reading.
The ensemble also played Jean Sibelius' lovely "Valse Triste" (1913), and they closed with a rousing performance of Johann Strauss, Jr.'s beloved "Kaiser-Walzer," Op. 437 ("Emperor Waltz"), which featured lovely solo work by principal cellist Mellisa Gaddy and from the wind players.
This was truly an occasion for celebration. Peter Askim and his band of science and engineering students exemplify the mission and vision of the Music Department. It takes discipline to bring together this beautiful music, and they played it with great joy. Congratulations to all and a warm welcome to Dr. Askim.