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The self-identified Really Terrible Orchestra of the Triangle bravely attempted "Celebrating American Music" at the Cary Arts Center on Tuesday evening. After having demolished centuries' worth of European repertoire, the orchestra targeted Aaron Copland, John Philip Sousa, Rogers and Hammerstein, Paul Whear, Morton Gould, Clare Grundman, and Irving Berlin. Fortunately, there were complimentary earplugs and a distracting crossword puzzle distributed at the door to entertain the audience while RTOOT played around on stage. Naturally, the microphone wasn't working at the start of the concert, and even the announcer couldn't stand being there; he faked a heart attack to get out of his job, leaving the audience to stew for a few moments until a replacement arrived.
Seriously, though, this is a group of fun-loving, close-knit musicians whose mission is to bring Classical music to all audiences in an enjoyable and light-hearted way. Sometimes the humor is a little cringe worthy, but this is the perfect concert for music enthusiasts who dread sitting still for a somber, 2-hour symphony concert. While not always hitting their mark technically, RTOOT always delivers spirited performances that leave audiences very much entertained.
To set the scene, all the musicians were decked out in red, white, and blue, with sparkles and lights all over their clothes, instruments, and music stands. Similarly, announcer and emcee Michael Bacigalupo sported various costumes and props to give context (and garishly lampoon) the pieces, which began with Aaron Copland's "An Outdoor Overture." While this piece was tonally too ambitious for the group of amateur players, their commitment to Copland's rich orchestration was strong. Director Bob Petters, also known as "the man standing up front threatening everyone with a stick," played the straight man to Bacigalupo, delivering clean interpretations of the works and going along with the jokes in good spirits.
The next two pieces were still tonally a little shaky, but much more successful. Whear's 2007 "Blue Ridge Legend" featured some beautiful moments featuring the woodwinds before the fun fiddle tune set in – and so began the obligatory off-kilter audience clapping and some (planted?) two-step dancers in the aisles. Continuing the fun, Bacigalupo introduced Whitney's arrangement of An American in Paris by George Gershwin (the blissfully abridged suite version), which was jazzy, cute, and chirpy: perhaps the perfect group to show off the passion this group has for good music.
Following a much-needed intermission, RTOOT started up again, seemingly with more steam than before. The concertmaster almost forgot to get them tuned up a second time, until other members of the orchestra loudly whispered at him, after which point most of them just sang their interpretation of the tuning A (which was funny, but didn't do them any favors with intonation later). Gould's "American Salute" had a very strong start, except for an underwhelming moment in the trumpet and horn sections. The unusual arrangement, which was based on and often quoted phrases from "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," had some more delightful discordant sections in the woodwinds, which the group was certainly not afraid to exploit!
Cellist Regan Chuhran emerged to guest conduct Grundman's "Second American Folk Rhapsody," which was refreshingly simple, if obnoxiously cute in sections. Similarly, "A Salute to Rodgers and Hammerstein" was full of recognizable and charming melodies. Some of the more powerful moments fell flat, but the trumpets had a great chance to redeem themselves in their feature.
After the audience was given a brief lesson and instructions by concertmaster Steven Wiggins, we were invited to sing along to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" and wave tiny American flags that were quickly distributed by intrepid ushers. It was actually some of the best audience participation I've ever heard, with strong singing bolstered by the full sound of the orchestra, but mostly the cellos and trombones, who were just amazing all night. Finally, RTOOT ended the night with John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," which wasn't even terrible. Special acknowledgement from one piccolo player to another: Michele Chambers did a great job on the iconic solo and got to do a victorious fist-pump at the end of the song. You go, girl.
The Really Terrible Orchestra of the Triangle has an almost cult-like following made up of an amazing amalgam of biker church members, veteran musicians, family members, and former orchestra members, and seeing one of their concerts is like being invited to a party. The humor is not for everyone, but it's a pleasure to hear musicians playing for fun and not taking themselves too seriously. Bacigalupo reminded us of the essence of the group when he explained, "We believe everyone should be able to play music...even if they really can't!"