By Roy C. Dicks: What’s the Score?
Raleigh, NC – Ten years into a relationship is a good time to stop and take stock. For Grant Llewellyn, music director of the North Carolina Symphony since January 2004, the assessments from all sides (himself, the orchestra, the management, the audience and the critics) seem to be the same: it’s been a roaring success. That’s a heck of a honeymoon, one that’s likely to continue through the 2017-2018 season, Llewellyn’s latest contract renewal end date. Meanwhile, Llewellyn is concentrating on the 2013-14 season, which he opened on September 19, 2013, in Raleigh with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and several Robert Ward pieces. Two additional Raleigh performances and one in Chapel Hill all played to positive reviews.
It’s easy to understand these assessments once you’ve seen and heard Llewellyn. He’s not the old-school stereotype of the reclusive, dictatorial conductor. His affable, down-to-earth personality, combined with his enthusiastic, deeply–felt musical interpretations, make him an instantly likable, accessible artist. The dashing and energetic 52 year-old Welshman is charming and charismatic, whether explaining upcoming programs in TV interviews or speaking from the podium during concerts.
One of eleven candidates for a new music director during the orchestra’s search in 2002 and 2003, Llewellyn came with fine credentials, including a conducting fellowship at Tanglewood Music Center (working with Leonard Bernstein and André Previn), heading Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society and holding conducting positions with three prominent European orchestras. After an impressive audition concert in March 2003, he returned in November, the first of four finalists to conduct another audition concert. Even more impressed, the committee decided to offer him the job immediately without hearing the others.
It didn’t take long for the musicians to warm to Llewellyn. Jeffry Moyer, a viola player with the orchestra from 1974 to 2011, confirmed the feeling. “When Llewellyn came, the atmosphere changed,” Moyer said in a recent interview. “He allowed us a freer musical expression. He demanded high standards but was very supportive. The skills and the cohesion of the orchestra have definitely risen during his tenure.”
Audiences noticed the difference quickly as well. Nancy Olson, long-time owner of Raleigh’s independent bookstore,Quail Ridge Books, had a typical reaction. “I began attending concerts in 1981 and have been amazed at the orchestra’s tremendous, steady improvement every season, culminating in the brilliance of Grant’s leadership,” she said. “No matter how tired I am, my Friday night subscription concerts inspire, uplift, and rejuvenate me.” (For a sample of this critic’s reaction from the audience over the years, see the sidebar for excerpts of my News & Observer reviews).
Reached by phone last month at his home in Wales, where he lives with his wife and four children, Llewellyn reflected on his decade in North Carolina. “I’ve enjoyed building a relationship with the orchestra and the public,” he said. “The chemistry that goes into that interrelationship is infinitely varied and challenging. I love that whole process and it’s always with the view of performing great music.”
Llewellyn is particularly proud of having challenged the orchestra to higher standards. “I inherited a fine orchestra but I’ve tried to raise the bar every time I’m in rehearsal and in concert. I regularly conduct orchestras in the U.K., Scandinavia, Germany and France, and each time I come back here, I can see how prepared and professional the orchestra really is.”
Sandi Macdonald, N. C. Symphony CEO and President since 2011, is in a position to judge Llewellyn’s influence, having previously worked with the orchestras of Cleveland, Seattle and Toronto. “Excellence is very much our goal and Grant is a leader in that,” she said. “He has an important role in attracting and retaining quality musicians and has had a huge impact in that regard, including the hiring of 17 new players during his tenure.”
One of Llewellyn’s key contributions has been the addition of more Baroque and Classical period compositions, both categories requiring a different approach and technique from the later Romantic and Modern periods. Jeffry Moyer recalled the first time Llewellyn scheduled a Baroque piece. “We didn’t play much Baroque before Grant and when we did, we played it awfully,” he remembered. “But during the course of Grant’s rehearsals an incredible change occurred. He got us playing in Baroque style without really telling us how. It was just through his sensitivity and skill.”
Llewellyn has initiated a number of special projects, such as his overview of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, programming one per year (he conducts Mahler’s Third this season) and he has been particularly interested in collaborative efforts. One of his favorites was the December 2010 staging of Peter Shaffer’s play, “Amadeus,” co-produced with Chapel Hill’s professional theater, PlayMakers Repertory Company. Costumed actors performed in front of the on-stage orchestra, which supplied appropriate Mozart pieces interspersed throughout. PlayMakers’ Joseph Haj, who directed the production, became an instant fan after the experience. “Collaborating with Grant was a truly gratifying experience,” Haj said. “He’s an artist all the way down. He talked me through particular pieces of music, describing why they were both extraordinary and important to the evening.” The pair now regularly get together to discuss new projects, the next likely in the spring of 2015.
The recent economic turndown slowed some of Llewellyn’s ambitions and ideas, but he’s optimistic about getting them back on track. “I hope there will be some major commissions for composers around the corner,” he said, “and broadcast and recording work is something I hope we can explore more.”
In the meantime, Llewellyn can take heart from the evidence that he’s done his job well. “It’s hardly safe for me to go out now without being recognized on the street, which is flattering for the whole orchestra. It shows that the general public has an awareness of us and a high regard for our work.”
For complete season and series details, see http://www.ncsymphony.org.
Here are some sample reviews from Llewellyn’s decade with the N. C. Symphony:
From my Raleigh News & Observer reviews:
Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill – May 3, 2007: “Grant Llewellyn was hired to take the N.C. Symphony to another level….But his greatest successes so far pale in comparison to his utter triumph… conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. “
Meymandi Concert Hall – February 19, 2010 (Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 and Brahms Symphony No. 4): “[The] concert was one of those nights you dream about, with performances that grab you up, shake you around, and leave you in a daze afterwards. Music director Grant Llewellyn and the orchestra were white-hot, aided by a world-class soloist, in an evening unquestionably demonstrating the cathartic power of music.”
Meymandi Concert Hall – September 8, 2011 (Mozart Requiem): “…Llewellyn demonstrated his deep connection throughout… 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.”
From Classical Voice of North Carolina (online review site):
Meymandi Concert Hall, Raleigh – April 8, 2011: “Llewellyn has crafted a string section that can whisper with the best, bringing a fine sense of delicacy without any thinness….” – Steve Row
Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill – February 7, 2013: “The North Carolina Symphony with Llewellyn at the helm is the equal of any orchestra I know in interpreting the music of Sibelius. This performance was rhapsodic, intense and superbly guided….” – Ken Hoover
From the Gramophone Magazine, June 2009 Editor’s Choice review of Llewellyn’s BIS CD “American Spectrum” (four works by American composers): “[T]he performances are more than just enthusiastic, with discipline remarkably tight…the result is a winner.” – David Gutman
From the International Record Review, December 2009 review of Llewellyn and pianist Yevgeny Sudbin’s BIS CD of Rachmaninoff and Medtner piano concertos: “[T]he intensity of the collaboration results in performances which withstand competition from the finest.” – Nicholas Salwey
(A shorter version of this story appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on Sept. 15, 2013)