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Meymandi Concert Hall was slow to fill October 18 for the first night of the penultimate pair of Raleigh classical concerts being led by Gerhardt Zimmermann as his tenure as Music Director of the North Carolina Symphony comes to an end. A major, prolonged traffic jam due to the opening of the N.C. State Fair may have scared off some and delayed others. Some may have played cultural hooky. The two major orchestral works on the program, one from the heart of 19th-century Romanticism and the other, one of the seminal works of the 20th century, were ideal for an assessment of the artistic legacy of his twenty-one years as Music Director.
In his pre-concert discussion, Associate Conductor William Henry Curry was generous and gracious in his praise of Zimmermann, esteeming his straightforward musicianship, his willingness to not impose himself upon the scores he conducts, and his broad repertory. These aspects were on display throughout his interpretations of both works. Two major assets to be passed on to his successors were also present: a pliable instrument with no major weakness in any section (other than too few strings) and a superb concert hall, in which the most refined touches may be heard. It is not perfect - there is some loss of sound from the lower strings - but it represents a big step forward.
No doubt some concertgoers of long experience may have taken umbrage at having a brief musical introduction to Stravinsky's Petrouchka ballet music, but I suspect Zimmermann has a better feel for the majority's musical experience. In part due to the decline of music education in the schools as well as to the fact that the expense of raising a family keeps a segment out of the concert hall for a time, many have limited experience with the broad repertory. Declining public radio sources have left only the easy crowd-pleasers with much airtime. Zimmermann briefly described and conducted musical excerpts that portrayed the characters or important elements, such as the famous " Petrushka chord," the simultaneous chords of C and F sharp major (the infamous tritone of music history). He got silence from the orchestra when he jumped ahead three excerpts and gave the downbeat for the wrong selection.
Petrouchka (all my references spell it Petrushka ) was given a superb performance, with fine playing from all sections of the orchestra and superb solo work from many principal players. Extra strings would have been nice; during the first major entrance of all the brass, the strings could be seen sawing but hardly heard. Other than this brief episode, the balance between brass and strings was good. The rhythmic changes were handled well, and Zimmermann drove the music forward. The hall's quirky acoustics, combined with the composer's use of the high registers, made the cellos sound thin. The woodwinds were outstanding, with brilliant solos from Anne Whaley Laney, flute, Elizabeth Lunsford, piccolo, Jimmy Gilmore, clarinet, John Pederson, bassoon, and, not least, Michael Schultz, English horn. Indeed, some of the latter's rich low notes in the third scene made me think that he had switched to a basset horn. Concertmaster Brian Reagin and Principal Trumpet Paul Randall earned Zimmerman's acknowledgment at the end of the piece. Donna Jolly was the excellent unidentified pianist, who played a vital role throughout the ballet. Just one of the hundreds of orchestral details that would have been lost in Memorial Auditorium's murk came near the end of the last scene: "ppp" for three horns above woodwinds and pizzicato cellos and basses. The program indicated that the 1947 version was used but clearly (and wisely) the conductor did not opt for Stravinsky's optional concert finish, which has a brilliant fortissimo ending instead of the more subdued original finale. In the words of Edward Downes (writing in The New York Philharmonic Guide to the Symphony), we clearly heard the latter's quiet and ambiguous "ending on an unresolved melodic dissonance: the two root notes of the ' Petrushka chord' - C natural followed by a low F sharp."
Brahms' Symphony No. 4, in E Minor, Op. 98, received a good, standard reading. Zimmermann took care to bring out clear string articulation. The balance between brass and strings was fine, and even the viola section got to shine on its own at several points. All the sections played well. Symphony subscribers of long standing will appreciate how plangent and precise a horn section Zimmermann has, at last, achieved. Less than a decade ago, the sound that might have issued from former players verged on a game of sonic Russian roulette! The section, led now by Andrew McAfee, was simply superb. The conductor drew a richer sound from the cello section than in the Stravinsky, but the hall nonetheless robbed them of some of their warmth and color. John Feddersen was the rock-solid timpanist. Among the woodwinds, Melanie Wilsden was excellent in her extensive oboe part, and Gilmore was up to his usual high standard. There were many details that could never have been heard in either of the Triangle's venues with "Memorial" in their names.