Last Wednesday, the North Carolina Symphony finished its fifth public rendition of Seeing Is Believing, Nico Muhly's lambent and restless concerto for violin and a small sliver of the orchestra itself. For the performance, the symphony's assistant concertmaster and the piece's soloist, Karen Strittmatter Galvin, had learned a new instrument—a phantasmagorical six-string electric violin, connected by wires to a looping station that allowed her to render more than one line at once.
It was certainly an audacious selection for the Southern symphony, a certain head-scratcher for its silver-haired audience. To mitigate consternation, the symphony paired the piece with Vivaldi's Four Seasons, a genuine greatest-hits classical cut, and played it above halcyon clips from North Carolina's state parks. They performed the program five times, even dipping to Southern Pines and Wilmington for the well-attended show. During the pause between the Muhly and the Vivaldi Wednesday, though, when the run was nearly over, conductor Grant Llewellyn poked at Muhly and Galvin, saying the orchestra had added an extra show because this strange new music and instrument had proven so popular. He was talking about the Vivaldi, of course—in essence, apologizing for the unsettled, unfamiliar new work by upholding the tired old one.
Amid the N.C. Symphony's most daring season to date, it's easy to detect some of that same apologetic sense in the symphony's choice to book a collaboration with Five for Fighting, an adult-contemporary piano man best known for (frankly, if remembered at all) decade-old singles such as "100 Years" and "Superman (It's Not Easy)." Though singer John Ondrasik has a pleasing pop voice, which cracks at just the right points in his range, his pleasant albums are paragons of pabulum. He's more Don McLean than (former symphony guest) Randy Newman, more Hallmark greeting card writer than provocative composer. In the last few years, we've watched the state's symphony tease out, in real time, what kind of organization it hopes to be. This, like Llewellyn's embarrassing onstage rhetoric, is a vapid concession in a string of successes.