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Wit without wisdom

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In remarks before the opening concert of the Raleigh series of the North Carolina Symphony last Friday, conductor Gerhardt Zimmermann stated that he intends to introduce into each concert a work by a living composer. For the first concert he chose Peter Schickele, known both as a living composer and a dead one--aka J.S. Bach's lost son, P.D.Q. (1807-1742?).

Although new music for its own sake rarely draws a crowd, Schickele's New Century Suite, composed for the New Century Saxophone Quartet, promised at least to attract the curious on two counts. Besides the Peter Schickele name, the New Century Saxophone Quartet, made up of graduates from the N.C. School of the Arts, is also familiar to Triangle aficionados of WUNC radio, where some years ago it held a residency with the station.

This being the Suite's world premiere, the composer himself was present and delivered some comments on the work before the performance. Taking his cue from the eclecticism of an ensemble of musicians whose instruments are best known in jazz combos, Schickele chose to combine popular and classical elements in his equally eclectic Suite. Despite its title, which in classical terms suggests a set of dances of approximately equal length and importance, the five-movement work's central focus is a set of variations in movement four based on the bass line of J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations, and it is as long as the rest of the movements combined.

Bach's bass line formed the harmonic and structural underpinning of his set of 30 keyboard variations. Schickele creates his own set of variations by using the four-phrase bass line motif as the melodic core of the movement, shifting the theme around the orchestra, lacing it through the harmonic structure, and splitting and recombining the four four-note elements. He even throws in some canonic writing, another imitative sop to his mentor. While certainly the most interesting movement of the work, the variations came off more as clever than profound.

By contrast, the rest of the Suite was pretty much fluff. Lots of scrambling up and down scales in tone clusters that provided more momentum than coherence. And yes, there was lots of jazzy--even circus stuff--thrown in, a few quotes from well known melodies (the "British Grenadiers") a la Charles Ives and, of course, P.D.Q.'s famous quodlibet pastiches. It was a real "Schickele Mix," reminiscent of the eclectic combinations of music the composer was wont to feature on his weekly NPR show. All this the ensemble of sax soloists pulled off with grace and aplomb. Nevertheless, our feeling was that here was yet another piece of Schickele wit with little musical or emotional depth. As such, New Century Suite would have fitted much better into NCSO's Summerfest rather than the regular classical series.

All three works on the program were dances or had strong dance rhythms. Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, composed for Martha Graham and her modern dance troupe, has become an icon of the American classical music sound. The NCSO captured the shifting moods of the piece as it cycles through its parallel opening and closing themes. Almost a concerto grosso, the work showcased some of the outstanding first chairs of the symphony, especially clarinetist Jimmy Gilmore.

After the intermission, the orchestra ended the program with a performance of Beethoven's 7th Symphony. The work's rousing and driving rhythm once impelled Richard Wagner, who worshiped Beethoven, to call it "apotheosis of the dance." Zimmermann drove the performance with a relentless tempo that expressed the maniacal power of the work, especially the finale. In the first movement he contrasted well the intense slow introduction with the exuberance of the vivace main section. In the second movement, essentially a rhythm without a theme, Beethoven's carefully layered orchestral construction was crystallized in the careful balancing of the instruments as they enter the ensemble. Unfortunately, by the finale, Zimmermann's old penchant for overindulging the brass got the better of him so that by the movement's climax the trumpets were drowning out everyone else.

The orchestra sported a number of new young faces, especially in the violin section, and a new principal cellist, Bonnie Thorn, to replace Brian Manker, who left us to become principal cellist with the Montreal Symphony. The stage was spruced up, looking less jerry-rigged than usual, since the concert was taped and was televised by UNC-TV the following day. A more extravagant opener will take place next February--weather and construction crews permitting--when the NCSO will move to its new, permanent home next door in Meymandi Hall. EndBlock

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