The North Carolina Symphony kicked off its Summerfest pops season at Regency Park's Koka Booth Amphitheater with sophistication and style, performing a program of light classical touchstones. "The Best of the Four Bs" — that is, Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, and Hector Berlioz — was the first of two all-classical concerts in this series; the other features the well-loved Camille Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals" suite along with selections by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana and American-born Ferde Grofé.
Maestro William Henry Curry, the Symphony's Resident Conductor and Artistic Director of Summerfest, led the orchestra through enthusiastic renditions of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 1, and Brahms' "Academic Festival Overture" in the first half, concluding the evening with Berlioz' graphically programmatic Symphony Fantastique in its entirety. Overall, the evening may be called a success; the expansive swath of lawn between the amphitheater's futuristic band shell and the venue's restaurant teemed with contented audience members (picture a subdued Woodstock, only with camp chairs and organic juice boxes instead of free love and psychedelics), the weather was muggy but fair, and screaming kids were mercifully at a minimum.
Unfortunately, the orchestra sounded decidedly subpar in terms of tone quality and intonation. The problem wasn't limited to one section, either: the initial statement of the idée fixe in Symphonie Fantastique by the high strings usually sends shivers down the spine when performed on the orchestra's home stage. But none of the intimate, filmy sonority came across here, and the microphones picked up and broadcast a scratchy, shudder-inducing squeak instead. Rather than the rich, stentorian tone one hears regularly in Meymandi Concert Hall, the low brass inexplicably brayed through full-volume sections of the second half like grumpy elephants. (It's rumored that the trumpet microphones weren't even on....) The genial Curry charmed the audience as usual with his simple, clear explanations of the significance of the pieces and their themes, but even he sounded as though the heat was a little too much as the performance went on.
It's normal to expect a few glitches at the debut performance of a series like this. Summer pops concerts keep the Symphony on its toes, as minimal rehearsal time and substitute players present challenges to the ensemble as a whole. But a venue change, oppressively muggy heat, technical difficulties with amplification devices, and a recent statewide tour seem to have converged on the first performance of Summerfest 2007 with a vengeance.
On the plus side, the massive audience sat rapt through the whole thing. They chuckled at Curry's jokes, followed the developments and climaxes of each selection's themes, picnicked, and applauded with gusto. Regardless of the quality of sound, Booth Amphitheater's clean, secluded atmosphere might have a greater capacity to put an audience at ease than Meymandi, with its often gridlocked and torn-up surroundings. What's important about the first concert of this summer's pops series is that the orchestra, despite however many flaws, made an invaluable connection with the evening's audience — the kind of connection that should bring audiences to more serious performances at the Symphony's home venue in the fall. Concertgoers may not be able to catch lightning bugs or lounge on the ground at Meymandi, but there they'll get the chance to hear the North Carolina Symphony at the orchestra's best.