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The audience in Durham's Carolina Theatre for the May 20 concert of the North Carolina Symphony heard a fully satisfying evening of great music played for all it was worth. It marked a triumphant return for guest conductor André Raphel Smith, who was born in Durham in 1962 and began his formal music lessons at age 11. He played trombone in the Duke String School Orchestra and was a student at the Eastern Music Festival. I reviewed his successful return to the EMF as a guest conductor as well as his concert with the Greensboro Symphony as a candidate for music director. To his impressive resume can be added his recent appointment as Music Director of the Wheeling Symphony. He also directed this season's off-series NCS gala featuring Yo-Yo Ma in Raleigh.
Smith chose ideal tempos for a warm sounding and richly phrased performance of Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a. Perhaps due to the cramped stage of the Carolina Theatre, there were noticeably fewer string players than is common in Meymandi Concert Hall. Despite this handicap, he secured a sonorous full sound from all the strings. I relished the well-rounded sound of the lower strings, especially the violas, which too often sound attenuated in Raleigh. Even more important, the conductor gave a virtual masterclass on how to get expressive and precise brass playing without drowning the rest of the orchestra. I have seldom heard the trumpets, trombones, and horns turn in more brilliant and subtle performances, and this standard held for the whole concert. The bucolic qualities of Brahms' score were limned perfectly with tight ensemble playing and no sacrifice of expression.
Other regional orchestras and concert series ought to rush to sign up the guest violinist Soovin Kim. He has built up a fine track record since winning the first prize at the Paganini International Violin Competition in 1996. His sumptuous tone was immediately noticeable in the solo opening of the Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63, by Sergei Prokofiev. He easily filled the hall with sound, whether it was forte or the most delicate, floated pianissimo. Smith and the orchestra provided taut support, fitting the melodious solo line like a glove. While this concerto is more melodic than the first, employing "Socialist Realism" in one of the first works written after Prokofiev's return to Russia, there was no lack of delectable tartness from either soloist or orchestra where needed. Balances between the soloist and the orchestra and within the ensemble, too, were exceptional. The second movement was a banquet of seemingly endless melody apparently spun out effortlessly.
Dvorák's Ninth Symphony may be an old warhorse, but with the bait of Michael Schultz's peerless playing of the second movement's glorious English horn solo, I will take the hook anytime. This orchestra has turned in many good performances of the Dvorák over the years and this was one of the best. Conducting without a score, Smith made the music seem newly minted. There wasn't a routine bar, and the phrasing communicated spontaneous music making of the first order. The rhythms were well sprung and section ensemble was outstanding. The second movement was simply breathtaking. Other fine solos were played by Principal Clarinet Jimmy Gilmore, Principal Oboe Melanie Wilsden, and Principal Bassoon John Pederson. The five horns, led by Andrew McAfee, were golden. It was a mark of the quality of this performance that there was at the end a moment of dead silence before the audience came out of the spell Smith had cast to give hearty applause. Smith had Schultz stand and then worked his way through the players to give him a vigorous and well-deserved handshake.