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Triangle music lovers of a certain age will remember decades when the world's great orchestras played in the abysmal acoustics of N.C. State's Reynolds Coliseum under the auspices of the long defunct Friends of the College. The price was nominal. For real-world prices, great visiting orchestras can still be heard in Charlotte's fine Belk Theater as part the Carolinas Concert Association. One of London's three major orchestras, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, gave a demonstration of the highest standards of solo and ensemble performance on January 17. On the podium was Charles Dutoit, whose restrained and unambiguous beat place him at the top among current conductors. Many collectors will remember the benchmark series of recordings made during his twenty-five years as Music Director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra along with a large number of concerto recordings with numerous major orchestras and soloists.
Beyond his Violin Concerto, the works of Jean Sibelius are seldom programmed by professional orchestras in North Carolina. In 1893, as part of a growing Finnish nationalism movement, a student group at Helsinki University asked the composer to write a score for a series of historical tableaux. The purpose was to raise money for projects to strengthen Karelia's cultural links with Finland and that portion that now overlaps the eastern border. Russia dominated the region at that time. Sibelius created a series of choral and orchestral pieces, including an overture that is sometimes played alone. Later, he picked three numbers – an Intermezzo, Ballade, and Alla marcia – to form the Karelia Suite, Op. 11. During the opening, the fine full "pp" sound of the Royal Philharmonic strings was immediately striking. Dutoit was masterful as he methodically graduated the buildup of dynamics. Rhythmic underpinning was solid and unfaltering. When the full orchestra finally played "forte" it was breath-taking. The unanimity of the brilliant trumpets was astounding. Throughout the concert the horns were wonderful; their echo effect in this section, suggesting vast space, was memorable. The Ballade evoked the world of the minstrel, opening with hushed woodwinds, especially oboe, clarinet and bassoon. Pizzicato double basses and, later, strummed cellos capped the effect. There was a "hurdy-gurdy" effect from droning cellos and violas. The conclusion is a swaggering march. Briefly the full brass covered the strings, the only flaw in the scintillating finish.
Mozart's lively Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K.219 ("Turkish"), made a fine vehicle for American violinist Joan Kwuon. Her growing career has featured debuts at the Tanglewood Music Festival and Lincoln Center along with tours with the London Symphony and the current one with the Royal Philharmonic. Chamber music appearances have included the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, La Jolla's Summerfest, and New York's Bargemusic. Kwon played with a refined classical style and produced a solid, warm tone. In the cadenzas, her bowing was immaculate, with understated elegance. The melting melodies of the Adagio were the best showcase for her musicianship. The rousing finale was good, but I have heard more fiery interpretations. Dutoit and the orchestra provided an accompaniment that fit like a second skin, not just like a glove. I would have preferred more obvious give-and-take between Kwuon and orchestra soloists.
Dutoit lead an astonishing performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, in B Minor, Op. 74. There were no weaknesses in any section of the orchestra. The dynamics were finely gauged, and Belk Theater allowed for the barest of pianissimi. The woodwinds were sumptuous, with extensive important solos from the bassoon and the clarinet. Starting with a very slow tempo, Dutoit led the four movements almost seamlessly, with virtually no breaks. The first movement faded to silence only to heighten the effect as the second opened with an orchestra forte like the crack of a whip. It ended with a beautiful blending of the trombones and tuba. In the third movement's waltz, the cellos sang with an opulent richness. Cannily catching the hall's acoustics from the Karelia Suite, Dutoit balanced the brilliant brass and strings perfectly in the blazing finale. A grinch-like critic might carp that this performance lacked raw passion, but many, many things were done well. Tchaikovsky's skill for structure and orchestration were given their full measure. Bravo!