By Roy C. Dicks: What’s the Score?
The North Carolina Symphony began its 80th season in Raleigh, NC, in September 2012. I attended three out of its six Classical Series concerts in Raleigh between September and December, reviewing them for the Raleigh News & Observer. Below are the three reviews as they appeared in the paper. Overall, the concerts were satisfyingly consistent and engaging, with intriguing repertory that belied any dumbing down or popularizing of the classical series.
1.N.C. Symphony’s Quirky Mix Hits Right Notes – Oct. 6, 2012
“Capricious” best describes the N.C. Symphony concert Friday – based on the nature of the compositions as well as their selection and organization.
Conductor Grant Llewellyn used the term when he told the audience that, because the pieces were personal favorites, he had tried finding connections among them after choosing them. The six short works, most from the first half of the 20th century, made for intriguing listening, one rivetingly so.
Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is a much sunnier work than his earlier two. He worked on the piece in Asheville, trying to alleviate the ravages of leukemia, likely accounting for its spiky clarity, birdsong imitations and vigorous rushes of energy.
Pianist Peter Serkin confidently illuminated every measure, alternating forceful, precise chords with hushed, gentle phrasings. In the hymn-like second movement, Serkin mesmerized with his quiet intensity. Llewellyn was an equal partner in charting the subtle changes in dynamics and moods.
Serkin returned in the second half for Igor Stravinsky’s “Capriccio,” a three-movement concerto more astringent and prickly than the Bartók. The work doesn’t draw the listener in until the wild frenzy of the last moment, where Serkin’s stunning blaze of runs and cross-hand dexterity drew a standing ovation.
Before that came Stravinsky’s “Ragtime,” a piece for 11 disparate instruments, including cornet and cimbalom. Llewellyn revealed all the quirky outbursts but didn’t convey the cheeky fun in the piece. The cimbalom was the connection for including Claude Debussy’s “La plus que lente,” a dreamily swirling waltz evoking ballrooms on the Riviera .
The concert began appropriately with Antonín Dvorák’s 1883 “Scherzo capriccioso,” a slight tone poem of romantic folk tunes and bracing brass fanfares. It ended with Maurice Ravel’s over-exposed but still beloved “Boléro,” a piece that allows many wonderful solo turns form the orchestra’s musicians as they trade off the work’s hypnotically repeating melody. Llewellyn built the long crescendo astutely, starting with a languid, relaxed atmosphere, slowly increasing the tension to the finale’s fevered ecstasy.
The eclectic programming was appealingly unconventional and worth the admission price for the Bartók alone.
2. Haydn, Mahler Lesson On Symphonic Form – Nov. 3, 2012
The symphony is a musical form that has been a concert staple for over three centuries. Examples from two influential composers, Franz Joseph Haydn and Gustav Mahler, were on the N.C. Symphony program Friday night, worked into an informative lesson about the form by conductor Grant Llewellyn.
Haydn is known as “the father of the symphony” for shaping and regularizing its structure. Friday’s program opened with one of his earliest, Symphony No. 7, “Le Midi” (“Noon”), part of a trio of “Day” symphonies composed in 1761 (the others being “Morning” and “Night”). For “Noon,” Haydn used the Baroque concerto grosso format (in which a group of soloists within the orchestra alternate with the rest of the players), adapting it into the familiar four-movement symphony.
Llewellyn led an extremely engaging account of the piece, full of sprightly rhythms, high energy and crisp precision. The instrumental solos traced lovely patterns against the full orchestra, especially in the operatic second movement, in which concertmaster Brian Reagin played a dramatic mini-concerto, later joined by cellist Bonnie Thron in a vigorous duet. Leonid Finkelshteyn’s lovely double bass solos graced the third movement and flutist Mary E. Boone supplied the butterfly flutterings of the fourth, given sunny insouciance by Llewellyn.
The longer second half offered Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”), his 1908 composition with vocal soloists that is a symphony in everything but name. The six parts are settings of verses by eighth-century Chinese poets that speak to the man’s short stay on earth. Llewellyn proved his understanding of Mahler’s lush, exotic and wide-ranging sound world, giving full value to the soul-searching meanderings and playful jaunts the music takes but keeping the momentum firmly moving.
Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, a North Carolina native with Metropolitan Opera and Grammy credits, sang out with clarity and beauty of tone, especially in the quieter sections, although his highest notes were tightly pushed. Mezzo Susan Platts projected warmth and richness, but under pressure the voice hollowed out and became vibrato-laden. Llewellyn allowed the orchestra to overwhelm the soloists at first but soon adjusted the balance, allowing Mahler’s unique way with song setting to make its full effect.
3. N.C. Symphony Contrasts Storm and Stress
The last two N.C. Symphony classical series concerts in Raleigh have provided instructive programs on the extremes of the symphony as a musical form. Two weeks ago, the program contrasted symphonies by Haydn and Mahler; Friday’s concert paired symphonies by Mozart and Shostakovich.
Both concerts were structured the same: a 20-minute 18th century symphony and a 75-minute 20th century one. This made for awkward early intermission breaks, but the juxtapositions offered dramatic demonstrations of the form’s wide-ranging possibilities. Friday’s concert could have been titled “Sturm und Drang” (“Storm and Stress”), as both works had those elements.
Mozart’s 1773 Symphony No. 25 in G minor came at the beginning of that literary and musical movement, significantly breaking with the tradition of lightly entertaining symphonies in major keys. The first and last movements are particularly dark and moody, and even the third movement minuet is more forceful than usual.
Guest conductor Carlos Kalmar quickly established a precise control, eliciting sharp attacks and highly-charged tempos, but also pointing up subtle waves of dynamics and rhythmic changes with gestures that guided the players and audience members through the score’s various shifts. His was a somber, cool approach that took away some of Mozart’s playfulness that still exists underneath the storminess.
Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 is called the “Leningrad” because it was a response to Hitler’s devastating assault on that city in 1941. Premiered in 1942, the piece vividly portrays the horror of the attack but also the resilience and determination of the citizens.
The nearly half-hour first movement begins in peace but soon gives way to an inexorably repeating melody representing oncoming forces, culminating in an extremely harsh, hall-rattling battle. The second movement is a grim, ghostly dance, the third mostly funereal with flashes of defiance, the forth a huge buildup to a triumphant fighting back.
Kalmar confidently led the expanded forces gathered for this performance, including ten additional brass players arrayed above the orchestra in the choir loft. The orchestra played brilliantly with frightening fervor, especially the seven-member percussion section.
Kalmar’s approach was clear-eyed and unsentimental, admirably controlling the quick turns and sudden changes dotting the score. Despite some repetitiveness, the score’s overwhelming impact turned the evening into a major event.