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For better or for worse, the NC Symphony's annual Pops in the Park concert marks the start of the season, hereabouts. The series has been running for 24 years, which means it's about the only thing related to the Symphony that pre-dates Conductor Laureate Gerhardt Zimmermann. These free, outdoor concerts actually began "in the Park" - Pullen, to be specific. It was a charming idea, but the facilities and access were poor, so the next year, they were shifted to Meredith. This time around, the venue was the pavilion at Regency, which is the closest thing our wandering orchestra has to a summer home. It makes sense to do Pops in the Park there, where the lake provides some separation and a bit of safety, too, when the fireworks are let rip.
Associate Conductor and IAPA (Interim Artistic Planning Advisor) William Henry Curry conducted an attractive program before a small crowd. The one rehearsal had been rained out, so there was basically no tech rehearsal, either. At the appointed hour, and after some chitchat from Debra Morgan, representing WRAL-TV5, the sponsor, the Maestro announced a 10-minute rehearsal, and the show got underway at 6:40 p.m. The first half was music that encompasses Western themes - as in cowboys. Williams' Overture to The Cowboys is a quasi-crossover piece; it was the lightest thing on the program, and it was handsomely played. The sound wasn't bad, under the circumstances, although the volume for the pre-concert remarks was set much too high. There were more speakers on the stage than at Summerfest. From a seat on a line with the engineers, things sounded rich, full, and surprisingly directional. In two excerpts from Copland's Rodeo, balance was excellent, and the dynamics registered nicely, even in very soft passages. During three substantial cuts from Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite , we wandered around, checking on the sound in other parts of the park. Only at the back, just in front of the high-rent district, was the sound truly poor.
The first half was warmly applauded by the crowd. It didn't rain, but it had poured earlier, the grounds had taken a beating, and the humidity was oppressive.
The second half represented a first, of sorts - the first appearance at Pops in the Park of a large contingent of amateur players, some of whom have, in recent years, played with the NCS at a Cary-sponsored concert called "Play with the Pros." The program listed 21 fill-in strings and 13 others, although they weren't all there. Nonetheless, the sound of the massed orchestra was richer, fuller, and brighter with the guests, and Curry was right on when, after Sibelius' Finlandia , he turned to the crowd and said they should be hired. (For the record, the players included two chips off Symphony blocks - the children of two members helped make it a family event.)
It wouldn't be Pops in the Park without the "1812" Overture, but this time Tchaikovsky's "Slavonic March," rarely heard in concert now, preceded it. Curry has a gift for big, romantic pieces, and he does Tchaikovsky extremely well. For a change, fireworks didn't intrude on the finale of the Overture, but alas fake (synthesized) cannons did, and it wasn't a good move, because the speakers could barely handle the booms. The fireworks did come, however - in the finale of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," which ended the concert. Overall, the playing was excellent, the sound in the park was better than just o.k., and those brave attendees were rewarded with a much better-than-average program, an hour's worth of which was telecast on WRAL on Labor Day (when it was bright and clear). WUNC-TV will show the same abbreviated version on September 22, at 9:00 p.m. But folks who really want to hear our state orchestra as it can and should sound owe it to themselves to visit Meymandi Concert Hall. There's no better time than the present. See our calendar for details.
(Attributed to William Thomas Walker when moved into these archives; corrected 5/3/16.)