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A refreshingly fine all-American program, given in Meymandi Concert Hall as part of the NC Symphony’s “Friday Favorites” mini-series, brought NC soprano Shana Blake Hill to the capital for a magnificent orchestral song cycle led by its composer, Resident Conductor William Henry Curry. The concert, a slightly shortened version of a program presented the previous evening in Chapel Hill that was taken to Southern Pines the following day and that will also be performed in New Bern and Wilmington, consisted entirely of 20th- and 21st-century works by distinguished Americans – Aaron Copland (1900-90), Leonard Bernstein (1918-90), Terry Mizesko (b.1946), and William Henry Curry (b.1954). (Music by John Williams (b.1936) figured in the out-of-town concerts.)
The “Friday Favorites” series concerts offer around 75 minutes of music, presented somewhat informally. On this occasion, the conductor offered extensive program notes on his own music and informative remarks from the podium that significantly enhanced the pleasure of hearing the orchestra play. The playing was energetic, polished, and incisive, making one think that the musicians may have felt their lives depended on this work. In a very real sense, they do – and these folks have recently given still more concessions, in the form of pay cuts over the next two seasons, to help ensure that the orchestra comes out of the recession in solid financial shape. The News and Observer's headline for the news item about the changes in the contract stated, "Slash in pay allows symphony to play on." In fact, there was never any danger that the orchestra would cease operations, but the instrumentalists' sacrifices will certainly help the bottom line as the organization moves toward closing its budget gap and dealing with its deficit.
Concerts like the one given on this occasion can only help the cause, too. Bernstein’s Candide Overture is one of the gems of our time and one of its composer’s most buoyant scores. It’s also the one perhaps most closely linked to Bernstein the conductor – it’s the number “his” US orchestra, the NY Philharmonic, chose to perform without a conductor in the days following his death in 1990. The NCS gave it a suitably vibrant reading that was warmly received by the substantial audience.
The Curry song cycle, Holiday Songs, consists of three heart-warming numbers. The first, “Karamu,” premiered last fall, represents Kwanzaa, the second, “Snow Is Falling Here” (1999), Christmas, and the finale, “Mardi Gras 2006,” premiered in Chapel Hill on May 13, the famous New Orleans carnival in the year following Hurricane Katrina. The soloist, whose concerts in Durham when she was just starting out linger in the memory as events of exceptional merit, sounded as wonderful as she looked in these pieces. She was amplified, but her diction and projection are so good the boost may hardly have been needed. She has a special way with words, so the narrative bits were flawlessly delivered, and she has a special ability to put across texts even high in her range, so everything about these songs was clear and comprehensible. The composer has wrapped the words – his words, incidentally – in music that rejoices and celebrates these three seasons in richly American ways that suggest, from time to time, the broad sweep of Copland, the incisiveness of Bernstein, and the sometimes riotous admixtures of influences so brilliantly forged by Charles Ives (whose “Unanswered Question” had, for a time, been intended for performance in this series of concerts). The powerful and moving works in Holiday Songs at times came close to bringing tears to the eyes, and they were all enthusiastically received. Here’s hoping for their eventual publication in the NCS’s ongoing series of CDs.
There followed “Appalachian Lament,” from Terry Mizesko’s Highland Suite, a radiant folk-based number for horn and strings, here featuring virtually flawless playing by soloist Brian Blanchard with rich string embellishment and enhancement. Every orchestra needs a resident composer and in the absence of a formally-named one, Mizesko has long filled this role here. His arrangements have bolstered many a concert, and his original works have in more recent years begun to attract national attention. Called forward to share in the applause at the end of his “Lament,” he gave his colleagues and the conductor (I can’t believe I’m actually writing this hackneyed phrase…) two thumbs up.
The concert ended with three selections from Copland’s Rodeo. It never ceases to amaze me that a guy from Brooklyn was able to write the best cowboy music ever – and some of the most evocatively “American” music, too – but it’s a fact, and the NCS artists gave this familiar fare their all, proving once again that there’s nothing – nothing at all – like live performances.
Speaking of the “Friday Favorites” crowd...: folks who lament the graying of orchestral audiences should probably avoid concerts given during working hours like this one – many attendees were bussed in from retirement communities – there was a veritable knot of busses parked on the apron at the front of the hall – and gray was absolutely the dominant hair color in the hall. No matter – these folks were as enthusiastic as kids at a rock concert – and a good deal more clear-headed, too!
As mentioned above, this program will be performed in New Bern on May 16 and in Wilmington on May 18. For details, see our Eastern calendar. The NCS’s regular concert season ends May 20-21 with music by Copland, Hanson, and Tchaikovsky, also under Curry’s baton. See our Triangle calendar for details.