Sax Star Marsalis Sparkles In N.C. Symphony Opener

Grant Llewellyn conducts the North Carolina Symphony on opening night in Raleigh's Meymandi Concert Hall.  (Photos courtesy of the North Carolina Symphony)
Grant Llewellyn conducts the North Carolina Symphony on opening night in Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall.
(Photos courtesy of the North Carolina Symphony)
By John W. Lambert

RALEIGH, N.C. – Opening nights of new seasons are cultural and social events throughout America, whether the venue is at Lincoln Center or far removed from our major musical centers. Sometimes, these programs are important contributions to the arts, too, reaching far beyond typical star-studded gala openers attended by folks keen on seeing and being seen. In the capital of North Carolina, home base of the first state-supported orchestra in the United States (a claim disputed by Vermont), the North Carolina Symphony continues to thrive under the leadership of Grant Llewellyn, a Welshman whose previous American posts included a stint as music director of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society.

Branford Marsalis performing with the North Carolina Symphony.
Branford Marsalis performing with the North Carolina Symphony.

The Raleigh program – all 20th-century fare, by Bernstein, Schulhoff, Glazunov, and Debussy – on Sept. 19 was distinctive enough to be cited by Barbara Jepson in a recent CVNA article about opening nights. That it was polished by a concert the previous evening in Chapel Hill, N.C., may have helped. But Llewellyn is known for his careful preparation, and these instrumentalists tend to play as if their lives depend upon this work, which perhaps they do, so everyone was in top form for this first of two capital-city subscription presentations in the orchestra’s purpose-built Meymandi Concert Hall.

First up was Bernstein’s Divertimento (1980), written for the Boston Symphony’s centennial season. It’s a set of little vignettes in various short forms, starting with fanfares and ending with a rousing nod to Sousa, generally exuding the spirit and charm for which our great American composer-conductor-pianist-educator was known and for which he is likely to be remembered. It’s Bernstein at his most brilliant, and it’s Broadway, too, in the sense that our national theater music was for several generations of enthusiastic listeners partly defined by this composer. The performance crackled with energy as principals throughout the orchestra strutted their technical and artistic stuff, often with exceptional radiance.

Marsalis and Llewellyn savor their collaboration.
Marsalis and Llewellyn savor their collaboration with the orchestra.

There followed a pair of important albeit rarely-heard works for saxophone and orchestra. Erwin Schulhoff, whose music, suppressed by the Nazis, is at long last enjoying something of a renaissance, composed the Hot Sonate for saxophone and dance band; Richard Rodney Bennett arranged it for alto saxophone and chamber ensemble early in this century, and it has been championed by the evening’s soloist, Branford Marsalis, a resident of Durham, and a member of the famous musical family. (His brother Wynton will appear in Chapel Hill, N.C., later this season.)

The performance was smooth and polished but the music itself is somewhat tame, as often seems to be the case with jazz-inspired pieces by pre-World War II European composers. Evidence of Marsalis’ amazing ability and musicianship abounded, however, and there was incisive support from the ensemble of winds, brass, and percussion.

Marsalis’s second contribution to the evening was the Saxophone Concerto by Glazunov, which allowed the guest artist to demonstrate his substantial classical chops. This rhapsodic piece, written in three parts played without significant pauses, exudes late Romanticism in the composer’s warm embrace of rich string sound and in his treatment of the solo instrument. It was received with somewhat more enthusiasm than the Schulhoff, and the guest artist and conductor were recalled several times for bows.

Marsalis has been active this season, and the season’s just starting. He discussed John Coltrane’s work during a remarkable re-construction of A Love Supreme just a couple of weeks ago. And he’s active in the community in other ways, teaching at North Carolina Central University and serving on the board of the North Carolina Symphony.

The North Carolina Symphony in concert in Meymandi Concert Hall.
The North Carolina Symphony in concert in Meymandi Concert Hall.

The concert ended with Debussy’s La Mer. This tone painting, with its Impressionistic color washes, is an orchestral tour de force that Llewellyn led with keen insight and understanding, resulting in a performance that was both subtle and overtly dramatic.

This orchestra’s published complement is currently 67, including 42 strings. Additional players are often brought in for concerts in, which was the case for this program. There were some moments during the Debussy when still more strings might have made a difference, but Llewellyn, trained as a cellist, knows how to balance his resources to achieve the sound he seeks, so there can have been few complaints. At the end, the ovation went on for many minutes. The season will bring its share of warhorses and standard works, but the season-opening program provided an unusually stimulating start.

Our “major” orchestras tour less frequently than was once the case, but our regional ensembles have for the most part filled the voids that would otherwise exist in state, regional, and local cultural fabrics. The North Carolina Symphony is a prime example, delivering entertainment, enrichment, and education through its several series of classical, pops, and chamber offerings, some of which now take place in fairly atypical places, and through its many presentations in schools. This opening concert was an outstanding example of this now wide-spread phenomenon in our country.

These concerts are recorded for future broadcast and streaming, generally during the following summer, so this program will likely reappear in due course.


The N.C. Symphony’s Pops series begins Sept. 26 with Bernstein’s West Side Story – the film, with live orchestral music.

John W. Lambert is the former executive editor of Classical Voice North Carolina.

Editor’s Note: This review is part of a series of articles that address regional orchestras and significant regional performing arts presenters. For others in this series, click here, here, and here.