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Orchestral Music Review

Raleigh Symphony Orchestra Jazzes Things Up

Event  Information

Raleigh -- ( Sun., May. 6, 2018 )

Raleigh Symphony Orchestra: "Jazz and the Symphony"
$25-20; Children Under 12 Free -- Jones Auditorium at Meredith College , (919) 546-9755 , http://raleighsymphony.org -- 3:00 PM

May 6, 2018 - Raleigh, NC:

The Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, since 1979 a mainstay of the capital's cultural life, is experiencing change – and that's a good thing. It's been going on gradually since Jim Wadddelow took over as music director and conductor. The most perceptible changes have been in programming and steady improvement in individual and ensemble skills. The orchestra's latest concert, heard on a lovely Sunday afternoon that some must have thought too pretty to be cooped up inside an auditorium, demonstrated how far the RSO has come on multiple levels, and the printed program itself heralded still more positive changes to come.

The lineup of works included important albeit somewhat rarely heard early 20thcentury compositions by Aaron Copland, Maurice Ravel, and Kurt Weill, all influenced to some extent by jazz in its earliest manifestations. A concurrent theme might well have been the many influences of war on art music, as the first was commissioned at the end of WWII and the others came sort of midway between the first war to end all wars and the second….

Copland's "Letter from Home" was written in 1944 for Paul Whiteman's band, with support from ABC; orchestration and revisions extended to 1962, but the piece remains little known, so its appearance on the occasion of this Jones Auditorium concert was welcome. The composer was remarkable and distinctive, and his music remains so – it takes only a few measures before the aura of spaciousness that reflects our nation is made known to listeners, spaciousness that some surely read as a musical expression of our manifest destiny. In this instance, the inspiration is much more intimate, and the overall impression, wistful at this remove from the war, is often elegiac. The RSO played it with care that projected high levels of devotion; Waddelow was an alert and watchful guide.

Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, premiered in 1932, ranks near the top of his popular jazz-influenced works, although it has not been given hereabouts for a very long time. The soloist was Margaret Evans, a colleague of the conductor and, like him, a denizen of Meredith College. She gave an elegant, often energetic performance, handsomely accompanied by many distinguished solo contributions from the orchestra. Here as elsewhere during the afternoon, there was a very strong and immediate string presence, and the winds and brass were nicely managed in terms of balance. There was a little cloudiness in the sound, low in the spectrum, during the louder passages, perhaps suggesting a shade too much orchestral sound at times. In retrospect, it was in fact the very quietest sections that were the most magical, sections wherein intensity and incisiveness remained constants as delicacy of expression bloomed into the hall. The slow movement was quite magical – and might well have been a highlight of the afternoon….

…But for the appearance on the second half of the program of the virtually unknown Symphony No. 2 of Kurt Weill, composed in Paris in the early '30s when Weill himself, having left Germany, was basically enroute to America. (North Carolinians may recall the composer's somewhat later work on the musical Johnny Johnson with our playwright Paul Green.) Two fairly substantial orchestral scores survive, neither very familiar apart from recordings; Waddelow is almost certainly correct in his assertion that this was a Triangle premiere of the second one, if not more than that. In some respects it is as sardonic as Shostakovich, although here Weill is thumbing his nose at socialist repression rather than Stalin's communism. The program notes relate the genesis of the piece, which contains elements – both echoes and premonitions – of Weill's more familiar and popular cabaret music. That Bruno Walter championed the score before he, too, fled Europe is worthy of note. That its critical reception was not enthusiastic reflects, perhaps, the fact that writers back then were a good deal more influential than is the case today! That aside, there is much to admire in the music, whether or not one considers its history, so here's a hearty bravo for Waddelow and Company for bringing the symphony to such vibrant life for us. A repeat – an encore – would be welcome. And revival of the single-movement Symphony No. 1, which may be heard on YouTube, might well be worth considering, too. The performance in Raleigh seemed to glow from within as all the participants clearly dug into the notion of discovering this "new" work, and the applause at the end was substantial.

We mentioned at the outset the changes that are afoot for the RSO. In addition to some exciting symphonic programs coming up in its 39th season – and some fine guest artists – there's a new partnership in the works, the first demonstrations of which will come at the start and the conclusion of the 2018-19 year as the RSO joins hands with the Raleigh Little Theatre for an evening of "Heroes and Villains of the Stage and Screen" in the fall and a concert version of Bernstein's West Side Story next spring. Stay tuned for complete details.