The North Carolina Symphony wrapped up its New Bern series with a program including two much-loved works by Beethoven and Brahms. They were preceded by an unfamiliar piece, one that fit perfectly into the romantic character of the Brahms which ended the concert. The orchestra's music director, Grant Llewellyn, conducted.
The opening work was the Intermezzo, Op. 8, by Franz Schreker. Schreker, born in 1878, was a precocious talent. He trained in violin and composition in Vienna and made his reputation particularly in opera; some of his ten operas were very successful at the time and have been enjoying recent revivals. In 1920 he was appointed director of the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, arguably the most prestigious position in Germany. His career ended with the rise of the Nazis. Schreker was Jewish. He was forced from his position and died not long after.
The Intermezzo is an early work. It was written in 1900 for a competition where it won first prize. The piece was well-received at its premiere in Vienna. It is in a thoroughly romantic style, a short, melodious, expressive piece for string orchestra. The orchestra's string section shone here. The performance opened beautifully, sliding gently into the first idea. The tone was richly lyrical, even with the dry acoustics of the performance space. The character was reflective and sustained throughout. A fine feature was the melding of phrases in moving between sections; one grew out of the other. The return was ethereal and the ending suffused with pensive beauty.
Beethoven's 4th piano concerto brought the concert to intermission. The soloist in this evergreen work was the fine pianist Clara Yang. She is on the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill and has been building an estimable performance career with appearances in the U.S. and abroad. She played with expressive line and fine, even articulation. One might have wished her to linger a bit more on the reflective opening and soar higher in the lovely secondary theme. But these were moments. The lyrical and virtuosic character of the piece was finely projected. The orchestra captured the lyricism as well, with shapely, transparent lines that weaved attractively around the piano. Yang's cadenza had real brilliance, in a space where glittering sound is difficult to achieve.
The two-character drama of the second movement, where the stern string orchestra at first almost overwhelms the plaintive piano, faded to a beautiful hush at the end. The third movement was delightfully jovial. The orchestral rhythms were crisp and Yang's near-perfect articulation was a pleasure to hear.
The second half was devoted to Brahms' Symphony No. 1. This piece is deservedly played very often, and the North Carolina Symphony made its own fine contribution. The performance carried the full range of brooding portent, dramatic power, and lyrical expansiveness. A noticeable feature was the tightness of the wind and brass chords which often provide rhythmic punctuation. Among the high points were the oboe solo in the first movement, the solo violin at the end of the second movement, the gentle clarinet theme of the third movement, and the great horn solo in the fourth. The interaction of the violin and the horn in the latter part of the second movement had the intimacy of chamber music. Llewellyn's direction was especially sensitive here and the ending chords were exquisite.
Other places which stood out were the powerful climax of the first movement development and, for the opposite reason, the peak of the third movement. Performances often bring this to quite a dramatic high point, but here it was light, very in keeping with the character of the movement. The luminous ending of the first movement left a strong impression, as did the surging growth to the jubilant coda and the culmination of the symphony in blazing light. The enthusiastic response of the audience was well-deserved. Having a state orchestra of such high artistic quality is a great benefit to all of North Carolina.
The North Carolina Symphony repeats the Schreker Intermezzo and Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in Meymandi Concert Hall, Raleigh at noon on Friday, May 12.