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Witches, wizards, ghouls and goblins turned out in droves, both on stage and off, for the North Carolina Symphony Spooktakular and the public debut of the NCS's new assistant conductor Kenneth Raskin. The musical fare was about what you'd expect for a Halloween program - a little Grieg, Saint-Saëns, Humperdinck, Gounod and, of course Harry Potter (courtesy of John Williams) - but what Education Director Suzanne Russo and Community Development Manager Rob Madrey, together with Raskin, cooked up in their cauldron between musical numbers was a real hoot.
Raskin is a natural ham, conducting the opening number - "Harry's Wondrous World" - all done up as his alter ego "Raskindor." He then shed his wizard's attire and fished around in the proverbial box of costumes, disguised as, well, a conductor: wild white wig and a formal jacket with "Leopold" written on the back to perform Stokowski's famous ( Fantasia ) transcription of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in d minor, accompanied by a light show.
Raskin went back to the box to attempt to conduct "The Witch's Ride" from Hänsel and Gretel with a whisk broom, but the old hag had cast a spell on the orchestra so that it couldn't play anything but a cacophonous splat. So poor Raskin had to call in Hilda Lovewitch (played by NCS Operations Manager Allyn Love) to brew a counter-spell, cauldron, disgusting ingredients and all. The two of them then got into in the kind of repartee made famous by Jim Henson, you know, appealing to kids but with just enough grown up humor to keep the parents chuckling and engaged. Love was terrific as a laconic Hilda with none of the stereotypical witchy stuff; he may have looked like Margaret Hamilton but he acted like Jack Benny. Anyway, they worked it out.
The orchestra's next guest - a cross between Darth Vader and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come - was "The Grim Reaper," sickle and all (played by Rob Madrey), to read the short verse that had inspired Saint-Saëns's "Danse macabre." Raskin conducted this work with a femur bone.
Everyone knows how wiggly little kids are a concerts, religious services and other formal occasions of that ilk, so Russo and Madrey built in a costume parade to "Funeral March of a Marionette." Given the age of the audience, both kids and parents, we were probably the only ones who got the allusion to the Alfred Hitchcock Show.
The idea of having an invisible conductor for "The Hall of the Mountain King" from Grieg's Peer Gynt was one of those touches of humor for the adults. How do you get the orchestra to accelerate at the same pace and in the same place in this piece without someone to give the beat? Well, the problem was solved by an invasion of a troll who knocked the invisible conductor off the podium just in time to keep the musicians together.
Donning his wizard robes again, Raskin closed the concert with another excerpt from the Harry Potter soundtrack and an encore, the theme from Ghostbusters in which the whole audience participated.
We have no way of evaluating Raskin as a conductor based on this concert, but he has a natural way with kids. And don't fool yourself; it ain't easy. Nowadays, kids are sophisticated and jaded by entertainment. Raskin has two qualities that disarm them: refusal to talk down and non-frenzied, self-ironic humor. If all the kids' concerts are this good, maybe the grandparents who subscribe to the grown-up series ought to bring the grandchildren. Congratulations to everyone who created this mayhem.