By John W. Lambert
RALEIGH, N.C. – In music as in politics, money talks. That’s one reason our continent’s largest orchestras tend to get the most coverage, even in an era of declining journalistic attention to the performing arts. The behemoths of concert music have big budgets for marketing, programming, artists, and conductors, and attending their presentations is, as a social commentator once opined, the done thing.
But there’s more to the music business than our major orchestras. Fine regional and community orchestras are ubiquitous, and many of them merit a good deal more attention than they tend to receive. These orchestras do solid work in their own territories. Many of them travel for educational work but tend not to tour very much. They are known at home but with relatively few exceptions have little reach in terms of patronage or renown. Occasional recording projects or broadcasts might extend their influence.
All this is why the upcoming SHIFT Festival in Washington, D.C., is so important, as orchestras from throughout the country appear in the principal venue of our nation’s capital, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Four have been selected for this, the series’ first year. The line-up for 2018 has already been announced. Let us hope this can be an ongoing celebration of the performing arts in America. (The program appears to be an indirect outgrowth of an earlier series of concerts given in New York under the banner Spring for Music.)
Among the participants this spring is the North Carolina Symphony, an organization established in 1932 that, with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra (founded in 1934), was the first in the U.S. to receive statewide governmental support (in 1943). The NC Symphony’s legislative grant is for its educational work in the state’s schools, not its concert-giving. To fund those concert offerings, extensive campaigns are undertaken by a substantial development department. There’s pride in “our orchestra,” and patrons of long standing tend to remember their first encounters with symphonic music in school gyms or auditoriums long ago. Thus, it’s a done thing.
As a lead-up to SHIFT, the NC Symphony is offering four evenings that include Timo Andres’ Everything Happens So Much, premiered earlier this season in Boston. That history is significant, as second performances are perhaps even harder to achieve than world premieres (a reminder of the need for a foundation to fund repeats of new scores soon after they are first played).
The new work by Andres (born in 1985 in Palo Alto, Calif.) merited attention but got relatively little from the orchestra’s press department, which instead concentrated on the music that preceded and followed it. Those works were Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Grant Llewellyn, the Welsh-born conductor who is the orchestra’s fifth music director, was on the podium in Meymandi Concert Hall for the Feb. 10 concert, the second of four presentations of this program in three cities. The Raleigh hall, the orchestra’s home, built as a concert room and opened in 2001, represents a huge improvement over the previous venue but is not without its challenges, which include some dead spots, the first balcony’s fairly deep overhang of the main floor, and audibility issues for performers on the platform. That said, the sound in most places is excellent, particularly under Llewellyn, who was trained as a cellist and whose prior American gig was with Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, where he polished his ability to achieve balance and clarity with reduced forces.
A major push to make the NC Symphony “America’s next great orchestra” fell afoul of the 2008 recession, and recovery has been slow here, as elsewhere, in the arts. The current roster lists 65 instrumentalists, including 40 strings. Concerts at the orchestra’s home base often involve supplemental players, as appeared to be the case on this occasion. Still, the numbers were smaller than one might normally expect for big Russian works.
Llewellyn introduced the Andres from the stage at this pre-Valentine’s concert, joking (after the R&J) that Everything Happens So Much is enough to test any relationship but then giving a thorough and serious discussion that helped the medicine go down quite nicely. Indeed, the appealing piece lives up to its title, said to stem from a now-defunct California Twitter feed. It is generally busy and often layered, sometimes briefly suggestive of other music from here and there, and more rhythmically complex than listeners may perceive at first hearing. It is skillfully and richly orchestrated, with considerable percussion and ear-catching parts for piano, harp, and celesta. There are actually melodies, some of which seem almost chorale-like. And along with the busyness there are several portions that bring some calm to the proceedings – a relatively sedate middle section and a surprisingly tame finale. The work was played with evident skill and led with keen enthusiasm.
Everything Happens So Much is typical of the new pieces being offered nowadays by American orchestras, which feel obliged to promote contemporary music but whose marketing staffs are reluctant to drive off patrons with too much new stuff. The eleven minutes of Everything Happens So Much seemed just about right for the crowd in attendance. It received polite applause.
There’s more about the music here, together with a five-minute excerpt from it.
It was sandwiched between two intensely familiar scores.
There was skill in the execution of the Tchaikovsky and interpretive insight, too, and the big Rimsky-Korsakov tone poem has rarely sounded so radiant, live or on records. Llewellyn ably controlled the balances and dynamics, projecting as well an admirable sense of the long lines. There were stellar solo contributions in Scheherazade, particularly from concertmaster Brian Reagin (applauded also at Chautauqua, where he has served for 20 years), principal cello Bonnie Thron (whose link to the Apple Chill Chamber Players predates her engagement here), and harpist Vonda Darr, along with many woodwind and brass players, more than a few of whom hold longer tenures with the orchestra than the incumbent music director. The audience erupted with applause and there were many standees.
Let us hope this group’s return to the Kennedy Center – its first concert there since 1978 – represents the dawn of a new era for the state’s venerable orchestra.
Readers can hear the NC Symphony in action at the Kennedy Center on March 29. Other participants this year are the Boulder Philharmonic (March 28), the Atlanta Symphony (March 31), and The Knights, with the San Francisco Girls Chorus (April 1).
There are of course orchestras like the NC Symphony all over the U.S. and Canada. Indeed, there are within 30 miles of the Raleigh-based NC Symphony at least ten other symphonic groups (not counting pre-collegiate ensembles), operating on far less money and garnering even less recognition.* Few get the press coverage or widespread support they merit. It’s for this reason that SHIFT is so important. Long may it thrive.
North Carolina patrons can hear the Washington program on March 24 in Meymandi Concert Hall.
For more information on the challenges faced by American orchestras and their long-term patrons, click here. And consider especially the plight of even smaller orchestras throughout the country. Yea, verily, it’s getting hard to make a living in this business.
*The ten are: Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, Raleigh Civic Symphony Orchestra & Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra, Durham Symphony Orchestra, Durham Medical Orchestra, Duke Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, U.N.C. Symphony Orchestra, Chapel Hill Philharmonia, & Really Terrible Orchestra of the Triangle.
John W. Lambert is the former executive editor of Classical Voice North Carolina.