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The weekend that ended with a magnificent concert in Meredith College's Jones Auditorium, given by the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra on the evening of October 7, was a typically busy one for music as all three of the capital's orchestras strutted their stuff. Our colleague Paul D. Williams reports elsewhere on the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra's fascinating juxtaposition of movements of the second symphonies of Beethoven and Colin McPhee, given at NCSU on Sunday afternoon. And on Friday and Saturday nights, the NC Symphony offered its first real concert on the Raleigh classical series, inasmuch as its season-opener had been a semi-staged version of Mozart's Nozze di Figaro.
It's a shame that our orchestras insist upon piling up their offerings on the same weekends, since it's a fair bet that the big NCS crowds aren't likely to bother to attend the community orchestras' offerings. Maybe they wouldn't bother, anyway. That's too bad for them, for the programming of the community orchestras this year is especially attractive and, to tell the truth, sometimes the playing from our community groups is more exciting, too. I am not suggesting that the community orchestras are better than the NCS, but when a group like the RSO plays far above its norm — as it did on October 7 — you'd better believe that it's not only pleasing but thrilling, to boot. As a result, to these ears, the best place to be over the weekend, if one could be only one place, was Jones Auditorium, on Sunday, as Maestro Alan Neilson led the Overture to Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, Brahms' "Double" Concerto (featuring two of the RSO string sections' stars), and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
The RSO's Magic Flute Overture was suitably weighty and dramatic. Neilson has a nice sense of the theatre, and one could imagine this as a real curtain-raiser, preceding a performance of the opera itself. Then cellist Nathan Leyland and violinist Yang Xi delivered one of the finest performances of the Brahms "Double" Concerto I've yet heard. They played incisively, often passionately, and always in apparently complete unanimity with regard to the give-and-take phrasing that abounds in the work. The orchestra was with its colleagues at every step — at every phrase, indeed; it has, I think, never sounded better (and I say that as a long-time attendee). The winds and brass were remarkably fine, and Neilson knows how to maximize the impact of the strings in Jones, which is a somewhat problematic venue. The result was a rich sheen from the upper strings, palpable resonance from the lower strings, clear definition among all the strings, and, throughout, virtually ideal balance, both within the orchestra and with the distinguished soloists. There were clearly people in attendance who were not up to speed on concert etiquette — including lots of young people who were sometimes twitchy; there was applause during the pauses in the concerto. No matter. The crowd was into the music, the musicians were into the music, and the music spoke gloriously. It's too bad so many of those upscale downtowners missed hearing the RSO!
The concert ended with Beethoven's Fifth. Neilson and the RSO gave a memorable Beethoven symphony cycle a while back, and the orchestra remains a fine one for these works. It was therefore a pleasure — no kidding! — to hear the warhorse again, in part because the musicians tackled it with such enthusiasm. Neilson is not very interesting to watch, but he gives the players what they seem to need and they then return the favor. This familiar Symphony provided an outstanding ride at the end of a wonderful program, and I suspect it's only my personal familiarity with the Fifth that makes me think I will remember the Brahms a whole lot longer. Bravo!