Classical music is a tricky thing. Over the past century, its overriding sense of elitism—the notion that the only way to experience it is in a “perfect” performance by a major performer—has created a situation where the relative merits of a classical scene are often defined more by who is coming to town than who is from town. We are lucky that the Triangle does well on both fronts, from the world-class imports of the university presenters to the homegrown populism of the Raleigh Civic Symphony and Chamber Orchestra.
The out-of-town landscape continues to be dominated by Duke Performances and Carolina Performing Arts (Disclosure: The author writes program copy for Carolina Performing Arts on a freelance basis). Both organizations have existed in various forms since the 1930s and emerged in their current incarnations in the mid-2000s, with missions to bring national and international performers to Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill, respectively.
On the classical front, the organizations have slightly different focuses: DP leans toward chamber and choral ensembles, while CPA generally works at a slightly larger scale. But both have served as anchors, presenting canonical classics alongside newer works from the cutting edge. Next season, DP features a deep dive into Beethoven string quartets, performed by ensembles from London and Paris, as well as Jeff Scott’s genre-bending Passion for Bach and Coltrane. CPA brings Sarah Cahill to explore four centuries’ worth of keyboard music by women and also presents Meredith Monk’s futuristic vocal work.
While it’s important to get a glimpse of what’s shaking things up in New York and London, Los Angeles and Berlin, the true engine of the scene is local. We have numerous ensembles covering different corners of classical music: North Carolina Opera presents fully staged classic operas; Duke’s Ciompi Quartet, newly revitalized after the addition of cellist Caroline Stinson, continues to find new things to say in the string-quartet repertory; the Mallarmé Chamber Players mix historically informed performances of medieval music with eclectic selections from across the centuries; and on and on.
The centerpiece of the local classical scene remains the North Carolina Symphony. In recent decades, it has built a reputation for strong performances of orchestral staples alongside a fascinating commissioning program focusing on works by a younger generation of composers, often with North Carolina connections. The resulting pieces by Caroline Shaw, Sarah Kirkland Snider, William Brittelle, and Andrew Norman, to name a few, have provided thrilling glimpses of where the orchestra writ large is going. The North Carolina Symphony has also been a leader in the orchestral world in presenting soloists, conductors, and composers who are women and people of color.
The symphony currently finds itself at a crossroads, though. Longtime conductor Grant Llewellyn is leaving the orchestra, so much of this season’s programming is dominated by the most conventional, overdetermined, large-scale symphonic works. In and around these colossi, the symphony is playing ten shorter works by women. While the intentions are sincere and the selections are intriguing, it feels a bit like female composers are being given secondary status when all they get are overtures or character pieces. It would be great if, just once, the symphony would foreground one of these women instead of yet another performance of, say, a Rachmaninoff piano concerto, regardless of how compelling that performance may be.
One local organization that has no problem foregrounding a diverse range of voices is the Raleigh Civic Symphony and Chamber Orchestra. The symphony has been around since the 1970s, and the chamber orchestra was founded in 2000; in the last five years, under the direction of conductor Peter Askim, the orchestra has presented some of the most fascinating and inventive programs in the area. Unlike the North Carolina Symphony or the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, the Civic’s musicians are almost entirely amateurs, an equal mix of N.C. State students (the university is a co-sponsor of the group) and community members. Each concert has its own theme, based on historical events or created with N.C. State faculty.
For instance, in April, the Raleigh Civic Symphony presented a powerful concert reflecting on the centenary of the passage of the nineteenth amendment. Alongside early-twentieth-century works by Ethel Smyth and Florence Price, Askim collaborated with N.C. State design professor Derek Ham and composer Aleksandra Vrebalov on an immersive work using virtual reality and avant-garde compositional techniques to tell the story of the fight for women’s suffrage in the U.S. The orchestra was scattered around Stewart Theatre, creating an ever-shifting tapestry of sounds, including riffs on “Strange Fruit” and barrages of percussion, as quotes from prominent suffrage advocates and scenes from the movement flashed on VR headsets.
Even more impressive, the Raleigh Civic Symphony has presented a world premiere in every concert in the past four years—sixteen new pieces so far. While professional orchestras will commission a few pieces a year, that concentration is really unusual, especially for an amateur ensemble. And more is on the way: The Raleigh Civic Symphony recently received a New Music USA grant to commission a piece by Allison Loggins-Hull, to be premiered in April next year. They’ll also be collaborating with Tift Merritt on a song cycle about Raleigh’s now-closed Dorothea Dix Hospital and Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro.
“Everybody says that they’re scared of programming new music, but the new piece is always the piece that people come away talking about,” Askim says. “Why should it only be the elite groups that play new music? Normal people, community people, should have that experience of bringing a new piece to life. It shouldn’t be reserved for people in New York and LA and people who went to conservatory.”
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