Orff’s deceptively simple melodies and spirited rhythms pose great challenges. The chorus must spit out words at a furious pace, make hairpin turns in dynamics, and shift quickly in sudden syncopations. The N.C. Master Chorale conquered all these obstacles in one of its most impressive performances in memory. Director Alfred E. Sturgis honed his singers into a precise, rich-voiced ensemble.
They followed conductor Grant Llewellyn’s every gesture in an exciting, vibrant reading, emphasizing the orchestra’s brilliant percussion section in Orff’s demands for bells and wood blocks, gong and timpani. In the grandest moments, with all the brass section ablaze, the hall’s rafters seemed to shake.
Orff saves his most daunting tests for the vocal soloists. Metropolitan Opera regular Barry Banks had only one solo but he was instantly the audience favorite, applying his firmly focused tenor to the impossibly high lines of the Roasted Swan section.
Baritone Jason McKinney displayed superb acting skills as drunken abbot and dreamy lover, his singing consistently warm and subtle, needing just a little more edge in the loudest passages. Soprano Heather Buck floated through the sensuous filigree assigned her, successfully nailing the cruelly exposed high notes.
The program opened with Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria,” a 25-minute piece that approaches the familiar Latin mass text with quirky astringency and jaunty playfulness, seemingly irreverent but ultimately moving. Llewellyn led the orchestra in an intense yet lyrical performance, the women’s chorus suitably ethereal; the men’s satisfyingly bold. Heather Buck’s solos had lovely tone but too much flutter and lacked a firm center.
Unusual Program Balanced, Refreshing (published March 17, 2012)
Creative concert programming can make the difference between the routine and the refreshing. Friday night’s N. C. Symphony offering proved the latter in its unusual ordering and balance of compositions.
Music director Grant Llewellyn paired two well-known orchestral pieces by Beethoven and Richard Strauss with more rarely programmed vocal works from each.
The concert began atypically with a full symphony, Beethoven’s No. 8. Llewellyn joked afterwards that it made a rather nice overture (a typical concert opener), but there was truth in the jest.
This half-hour work moves apace in its sunny, genial way, like a bracing spring walk with rarely a storm cloud. Llewellyn gave it tightly controlled precision and invigorating thrust, mindful of the sudden twists in rhythm and dynamics that Beethoven salts in with a wink. The brass and percussion were more prominent than ideal, but the horn section was heavenly.
Llewellyn opened the second half with Strauss’ popular tone poem, “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks,” a riot of rich colors and surprising outbursts representing the wily adventures of a folktale rogue. Again, Llewellyn conducted with crispness and command, successfully negotiating treacherous shifts and turns while urging the players to shine individually and collectively. There can be more palpable humor in the piece than Llewellyn allowed, but the presentation was thrilling.
Contrasting these upbeat works were two with darker, more contemplative aspects.
Following the Beethoven symphony, soprano Barbara Shirvis sang his concert aria, “Ah! Perfido,” a 15-minute operatic-style scene in which a woman alternately curses and entreats her faithless lover. Shirvis made believable distinctions of the varying emotions, her voice clear and strong, especially appealing in the lower register and in the quieter sections. Some high, intense notes had a breathy lack of center, but overall her performance impressed.
Ending the program, after the Strauss tone poem, was that composer’s gorgeous, melancholic “Four Last Songs” (more atypical programming order). Shirvis interpreted these autumnal musings about the end of life with delicacy and great feeling.
Her voice is not quite the size needed to ride Strauss’ thick, creamy orchestrations, even under Llewellyn’s astute restraint, but the two artists made the wafting, wistful melodies a most satisfying finale.
Tango Program Offers Unexpected Moments (published January 29, 2012)
With the tango's popularity as social dance and TV entertainment, it's logical that the N.C. Symphony would organize an evening of tango and Argentinian music. Although more pops-style than usual, the program Friday in Meymandi Concert Hall under conductor Grant Llewellyn showcased the orchestra splendidly, offering the unusual and the unexpected.
The surprises started right away, with the stage set with music stands but no chairs. Composer Osvaldo Golijov asks the strings to stand during his 1996 "Last Round," a short piece in memory of the great tango composer-performer, Astor Piazzolla, who died in 1992.
The standing added solemnity to the first movement's foreboding rumble and the second's emotional keening, the strings producing a gorgeous, lush tone. The players' mirror-image arrangement mimicked the structure of the bandoneón, the accordion-like instrument associated with the tango.
Things brightened with Piazzolla's "Concerto for Bandoneón," featuring soloist Coco Trivisonno. His self-effacing style belied his mastery of this difficult instrument that has buttons on each side instead of a keyboard. The sharp chords and spiky melodies of the solos were beautifully intertwined with piano, harp and plucked strings, often dramatically underlined with timpani.
Russian native and Australian resident Elena Kats-Chernin wrote her 2009 "Re-collecting ASTORoids" in homage to Piazzolla, its five movements ostensibly reflecting his style. Unfortunately, the piece is bland and facile, with monotonous repetition and crude percussion. Even the musicians seemed uninspired as they worked their way through it.
In dramatic contrast, the final selections, four dances from Alberto Ginastera's 1941 ballet, "Estancia," demonstrated what a skilled composer can do. These colorful episodes blazed with images of Argentinian ranch life, energized with an array of percussion that took seven players to execute.
Before the Ginastera, Trivisonno and the strings played Piazzolla's lovely "Adiós Nonino" while Daniel Arredondo and Karen Jaffe danced a slow tango down front. Their movements seemed too tentative and correct to be considered a performance, although their encore ending the evening, to Piazzolla's "Milanga del Angel," showed a bit more flair.
The evening never quite caught fire, but the musicians provided enough hot spots to demonstrate again why live orchestral music can be so satisfying and engaging.
Symphony, Pianist Lortie Dazzle (published November 13, 2011)
Conductor Grant Llewellyn jokingly urged the audience at Friday's N.C. Symphony concert not to think of the programmed works about the dead as depressing - at least not until they heard them. But Llewellyn needn't have worried, with brilliant pianist Louis Lortie ready to astound and the ever-responsive orchestra waiting to dazzle.
The concert's main works were connected through the Gregorian melody, "Dies Irae," characterizing the Day of Judgment for the dead. It has fascinated composers for centuries, Liszt and Rachmaninoff making especially creative use of its hypnotic phrases.
Liszt packs his 15-minute "Totentanz" with an astonishing range of variations on the tune, some reverent, some mocking, some classically counterpointed, some modernistically percussive. All challenge the performer, but for the virtuoso Lortie, the piece became a jaw-dropping demonstration of agility and precision. He doesn't indulge in a grand manner, but his body language and facial expressions add immensely to his interpretation. He and Llewellyn had total rapport in this gripping roller coaster ride.
Although not connected to the evening's theme, Liszt's short "Fantasy on Motive's From Beethoven's 'The Ruins of Athens' " made a delightful contrast, especially the jaunty mutations of the familiar "Turkish March." Lortie's witty playfulness won another well-deserved ovation.
The "Dies Irae" is more subtly interwoven into the Rachmaninoff works that bookended the concert. The tone poem, "The Isle of the Dead," was inspired by an Arnold Böchklin painting of a volcanic island with a grotto of tombs being approached by a boat with a coffin.
Rachmaninoff skillfully evokes the motion of the oarsman and the sepulchral aura of the landscape. Llewellyn led a tightly controlled transversal of the piece, including the build-up to the climatic release of the earthly world, followed by hints of the "Dies Irae" as the boat recedes from shore.
Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1 was a failure at its premiere, partly because of its rather choppy and repetitive nature. But the composer's constant threading of snippets of the "Dies Irae" throughout gives the work a satisfying unity.
The orchestra reveled in the wide variety of effects, at one point requiring six percussionists. Llewellyn emphasized a range of dynamics and lyrical outpourings, although some doses of headlong passion would have added some welcome sweep.
Symphony Soars As It Remembers A Tragic Day (published September 10, 2011)
Music often expresses what mere words cannot, especially in times of great sadness. To memorialize the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the N.C. Symphony programmed 18th and 21st century vocal works whose reverence and dignity made gratifying appropriate gestures.
Mozart's Requiem is the composition of choice for many such occasions because of the emotional range contained in its compact form. That Mozart was writing it on his deathbed and felt he was composing his own funeral music adds to this Requiem's particular power. Its ultimate serenity brings a comfort that goes well beyond its specific religious context.
Conductor Grant Llewellyn demonstrated his deep connection throughout Thursday's performance, supplying an electricity to the rhythms and dynamics that kept the work moving but never rushed it. He had confident control of every wafting, ethereal phrase and every sudden, dramatic outburst.
Llewellyn also had intensely focused communication with the N.C. Master Chorale, well prepared by its director, Alfred E. Sturgis. The 170-voice choir gave one of its finest performances in memory, impressive in its precision and fullness. Soprano Dominique Labelle, mezzo Krista River, tenor Richard Clement and bass Christópheren Nomura contributed solid solo and quartet singing, especially affecting in the operatic Benedictus. The orchestra, with a special nod to the trombones, played gloriously.
The choir and orchestra opened the evening with Mozart's short but achingly beautiful "Ave verum corpus," giving a foretaste of the coming Requiem. In between was J. Mark Scearce's "This Thread," a 20-minute piece for orchestra, violin and mezzo. Premiered in 2004 and performed a number of times since, the work incorporates Toni Morrison's poem, "The Dead of September 11." Orchestral fragments, some harsh and disturbing, others wistful and yearning, surround the soloists, reflecting the nature of memory. Scearce skillfully employs a wide range of effects, especially from the percussion, although the repetitions of several themes could have used more variety.
Krista River's mezzo had a lovely richness and dramatic sensitivity, but it was soft-edged, making few words distinguishable, even with a microphone. Brian Reagin's eerie, sorrowful violin commentaries mirrored the text's emotions admirably.
There will be many speeches and testimonies in the next few days, but none are likely to have more effect than this evening's fine tribute.