For reasons that elude this old Navy man, we Americans like to celebrate the 4th of July — our Independence Day! — with Tchaikovsky's "1812" Overture and New Year's Eve with old Viennese waltzes and such. With this in mind, the NC Symphony's December 31 program broke new ground by starting where traditional musical observations often end — with the "Radetzky March" by Johann Strauss I — and then embarking on an international tour of sorts that along the way took in some wonderful American tunes. Meymandi Concert Hall was decked out splendidly, with colored lights playing on the columns behind the orchestra, and the musicians were decked out, too, the ladies appearing in (mostly) full-length gowns of many colors, the gents in customary tail-coats but in many cases spiffed up with bright cummerbunds, and even the Maestro himself — William Henry Curry, on this occasion — looked resplendent in what appeared to be a new, custom-tailored set of fancy formal (white-tie) duds.
The concert was attended by an audience whose members appeared to be on the move, if not upwardly mobile — many were done up in formal attire, too, as if poised for post-concert festivities, and a few of 'em, arriving just in the time of Nick, as the saying goes, had obviously been partying a bit before they got there. Even so, response to the richly varied performances was consistently warm and often enough downright enthusiastic — no surprise, since the orchestra sounded truly wonderful. One reason for that is that the band was beefed up with some extra players (there were six doublebasses, as opposed to the customary five, pianist Donna Jolly was on hand, and tucked in behind the second violins were four — we counted 'em — saxophonists, headed by the inimitable jazz master, Gregg Gelb), but the main reasons, surely, were that some of the music was not exactly old hat — by which we aren't referring to stovepipes — and most of it was delivered with the same levels of attention and care this group normally invests in mainline classic work.
After the "Radetzky," with audience participation (at the conductor's urging), Curry led some surprisingly substantial works, including "Jubilee," from Chadwick's Symphonic Sketches, and the charming waltzes from Act III of Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. These scores — and the Overture to Die Fledermaus, by Johann Strauss II, that at once ended the first half and gave it altogether admirable symmetry and balance from a programming standpoint — were played beautifully by an orchestra that seemed to be having as good a time as the audience, and Curry helped keep things lively, too, by bringing to the readings degrees of inflection and incisiveness not always part and parcel of such affairs.
The evening's soloist was the fresh and appealing soprano Rebecca Luker, whose bio reflects vast Broadway experience and some orchestral work. She used a microphone, but the sound-minder was savvy, and balance between her voice and the accompanying forces was excellent. Victor Herbert's "Ah, sweet mystery of life" fit in with the light opera sense of most of the program, and she delivered the famous "Vilya-Lied," from Lehár's The Merry Widow very beautifully and in English, too, which means that many of us finally got to hear what the gorgeous tune is all about. (Curry announced that he will be conducting the complete operetta this spring, in a production being mounted by the Opera Company of North Carolina; see our series tabs for dates and times.)
The second half shifted to France and America, starting with Antal Dorati's charming La Vie parisienne Overture, based on themes by Offenbach* — there are few more frothy confections in the literature. Music from famous Broadway shows followed — "Falling in Love with Love" from Rodgers' The Boys from Syracuse and the Overture (arr. Don Rose) to Gershwin's Oh, Kay! and "Our Love is Here to Stay" (from Shall We Dance, which Curry reminded us was the last work from the pen of our great songsmith). Luker sang these in somewhat atypical ways, given that she's a B'way artist — they were given with restraint and great lyricism and never once belted. There was more of the same, too, in Meredith Willson's "My White Knight," perhaps the best-known ballad from The Music Man. The show drew to a close with selections from Cole Porter's Can-Can and then a healthy dose of the real thing, from Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, during which a few members of the audience kicked up their heels, but with discretion befitting the relatively early hour of a sometimes long evening.
The encore was "Auld Lang Syne," radiantly played, less radiantly sung (by the audience), and accompanied by confetti, streamers and some quite dreadful grinding from one of the ceiling devices that clearly misfired. Even so, the crowd went away happily into the night, some melting into the already large crowd on Lichtin Plaza, where in just a little over three hours Raleigh's little copper acorn was to be lifted and then lowered, ceremoniously, to mark the start of 2005. Here's hoping it is in every respect an improvement over 2004. Happy New Year!
*Edited for clarity 1/6/05.