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RTOOT Debuts, Hill Hall Survives (Barely)

by John W. Lambert

December 10, 2008, Chapel Hill, NC: Did you know that Andrew Carnegie funded the building that houses the main concert hall of UNC's Music Department? Don't get carried away, however, with the notion of a Carnegie Hall Junior or anything of the kind. Uncle Andrew had in mind a library, not a music room. And it was libraries that some of us doubtless thought of and perhaps longed for — hushed, quiet libraries, watched over by old maids who kept the dirty books to themselves lest they pollute the minds of young people.... Yes, I thought on the evening of December 10 of a nice quiet library, a comfortable place suitable for thought, reflection, meditation, and perhaps even prayer.

Instead there was a "public act" that brought to mind the early days of the old Village Orchestra (to confine these ravings to Chapel Hill) before it put on airs and rechristened itself the Chapel Hill Philharmonia. In many respects, too, it suggested the old Village Band, doubtless due to the presence of not just one but in fact two tubas. But I'm getting the cart before the, well, I'm not too sure what to call it.

The program, printed (to some extent) in German and English, billed the event as "rtooT: The Really Terrible Orchestra of the Triangle." Believe me, I'd have sung a Christmas "Ave" or two if I'd thought it would have helped, but it wouldn't have; and thinking of Richard Strauss' advice concerning brass instruments — don' t look at 'em, it merely encourages them — I tried to avoid seeing and being seen, too. After all, even for a really terrible critic (just ask my friends, and never mind my enemies; a former colleague once noted those aforementioned ravings and suggested they were the product of a crank, from the lunatic fringe...), this little band of amateurs, who seem to have been auditioned primarily to weed out some of the more competent players, presented quite a conundrum. There were 37 or so of them, including those two tubas, a home-made alto violin, and a cello played as if it were a bass (or was it the other way 'round?). The concertmistress was the principal clarinet player, which significantly increased my anxiety. The first violinist, pressed into conducting, sought to flee the stage. I tell you, if William S. Newman were still alive, he'd have flat-out torn the arms from his customary seat in the back of the hall (that was before they got new, improved, upholstered chairs...) and hurled them at the people on the stage.

But I digress. Florence Peacock, beloved of music lovers throughout the region, appeared in a blue evening gown, with sequins, no less. It wasn't the blue some people who live in the vicinity of a nearby gothic rockpile seem to prefer, so I wondered if that's what led to the first departure from the hall (although chances are it was something more mundane, like a restroom break). Anyway, the great lady beckoned us to stand, and we did so, expecting (perish the thought!) the national anthem. Instead, there was this "Hark the Sound..." thing. Hum. Hark the sound, indeed. If only we'd known.

Did I mention that, aside from Peacock, concert attire seemed entirely optional? That's not to say that anything improper was noted, but the lack of uniformity among the members suggested a degree of something or other that would not have passed muster anywhere else.

There followed opening remarks, a welcome, a guide to the programme, a pitch for support, a mention of some of the amenities in the room (crayon girls and such), a nod to the rooting (or rtooting) section (reserved for Really Terrible Listeners), a plug for the reception (always a high point at area cultural events), and more such drivel from My Strow W. Sands Hobgood, who seemed to be trying to postpone the inevitable, and who, like Peacock, used to have a pretty decent reputation in these parts. He then hightailed it to the clarinet section, leaving his clearly unwitting assistant, who happened to be the first fiddler, to face the lions.

Mr. Lyle, who sort of resembled what folks think an actual classical musician should look like, immediately sought to abandon his post, but threats from another player persuaded him to stay. The resulting "Marche Slave," attributed to Tchaikovsky, passed painfully, as if following some exceedingly spicy entrée....

Mercifully, there was diversion in the form of the program notes, scholarly and decked out with footnotes that can only have been the product of too many musicology courses — that music department over there better watch out, or else. These notes were among the evening's prime attractions, and the fact that they made no noise whatsoever was also welcome.

There was a long pause while the stage was reset for part of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, played with far too much effectiveness and directed, too, by Hobgood his own self. (The concept reminded one of Mitropoulos, who sometimes played and conducted concurrently, but Hobgood is neither a mystic nor Greek....) The agony of this rendition stemmed from its funereal pace and the fact that the others on the stage insisted upon doing something every time the pianist waved his hands above his shoulders — which should forever onward serve as a warning to flamboyant keyboardists.

There then was a long pause while the stage was reset to make the piano go away. (This instrument's namesake — it was either "Terry" or "Stafford" — was not in the hall, but we learned the following morning that an emergency call has gone out to the tuner, who was expected to make it all better again.)

There followed an approximation of the famous "Black and Blue Danube Waltz," to borrow Spike Jones' name for one of Waltz King Johann Strauss II's most famous opuses (or should that be opi?). Hobgood took all the repeats —it was by any standard too long — and then took a cell phone call, too.

There was then an even longer pause, for intermission, during which several self-respecting moosicians (who shall remain nameless) fled. Alas, since this really terrible critic was actually working, he had to remain — and to endure yet another holiday pops segment with an obligatory sing-along....

You know, the basic flaw in RTOOT's design is that we have plenty enough orchestras here already, and some of them are sometimes terrible, and some of them are sometimes really terrible. That said, few match the sheer brilliance, in the terrible department, of RTOOT. We are therefore really blessed. But we'll still have to ask, "Which one?" when someone mentions the RTOOT in polite company. Or on second thought....

And did we mention that RTOOT is based on the inspired and inspiring example of Edinburgh, Scotland's RTO, the (original) Really Terrible Orchestra, which coincidentally will make its NY debut, at Town Hall, on April Fools Day 2009? (You think I'm kidding? See [inactive 8/09]. And you can go up on the train, with RTOOT personnel — that should be a trip to remember! Be sure to check the RTOOT website for details in the near future!)

There followed a Greensleeves fantasy for winds, brass, and percussion; how fitting that the strings were given extra time for offstage tuning in this number! "Jingle Bell Rock" featured a trio disguised as a cadenza — for drum set. The sing-along brought back Mme. Peacock, the really talented Diva Soprano of Chapel Hill who was thus horrendously out of place in these surroundings. Her partner, tenor Philip van Lidth de Jeude, is an exceedingly jolly personage who, like most tenors, past and present, managed to sing louder than the orchestra — yes, even this orchestra.

One of the sing-along arrangements was by local musician Tim Baker. He used to have a fairly decent reputation, too.

There were no encores, but the "Dance of the Comedians" would have been appropriate, it seemed to me, at the time. Upon reflection in the cool light of day, however, it's clear that that tune might have been a shade too suggestive. After all, we have plenty of really terrible dance companies around here, too, and it would be a shame if RTOOT were merely the beginning of a trend.

In conclusion, it really wasn't as terrible as it could have been, so if they are really serious about this, I suggest that they abandon rehearsals altogether before the next program.

Speaking of which, we will announce the next events in the life of RTOOT in due course so readers may ensure that they are otherwise unavoidably engaged somewhere else.


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