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A major benefit of the extensive restoration of Memorial Hall and the creation of Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill has been the chance to hear world-class orchestras and soloists in an excellent acoustical space. Many visiting ensembles have been led by guest conductors so it was a treat that the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra appeared under the direction of chief conductor Mariss Jansons. Both are well known to collectors of recorded music. Guest violinist Leonidas Kavakos first came to attention with his pioneering recording of the original version (1903/04) of the Violin Concerto, Op. 47 by Jean Sibelius, paired with the final version (1905), on the BIS label.
It was apt and imaginative here to pair the Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35, by Eric Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), with the Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor by one of that composer's most important mentors, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). The son of Vienna's major music critic Julius Korngold so impressed Mahler that he insisted the youngster study with Alexander Zemlinsky (1872-1942). Many contemporary composers and conductors – Mahler, Richard Strauss, Arthur Nikisch, Felix Weingartner, and Bruno Walter – thought that young Eric's creative gifts rivaled those of Mozart. While Serialism had come to dominate 20th century music, Korngold continued to compose in the tonal, Late Romantic style. After he moved to Hollywood in 1934 and composed film scores for some thirteen films for Warner Brothers, the composer had two strikes against him from the critics and taste-makers of the time. His works have begun to enjoy revival only in recent years.
Korngold's Violin Concerto in D, composed in 1945, was dedicated to Mahler's widow, Alma Mahler-Werfel. He intended it for Bronisław Huberman, but it was premiered and first recorded by Jascha Heifetz. Many themes are drawn from at least four 1930s Warner Brothers films. It is in three movements. The yearning theme in the opening Moderato nobile is from Another Dawn (1937) while the serene second subject is taken from the Oscar-winning Juárez (1939). Both capitalize on the violin's capacity for expressive melody in all of its registers, and transitions, central development, and the coda give scope for the soloist's virtuosity. A melody from the title music for Anthony Adverse (1936) is used for the middle movement ( Romance), which features the solo violin playing almost non-stop, floating its singing line high above a hushed orchestral accompaniment. The playful rondo finale, Allegro assai vivace, draws from The Prince and the Pauper (1937) for a folk-like dance that is transformed into a song and finally a stamping 2/4 dance.
Kavakos fiddled tirelessly, producing a rich, warm tone in his violin’s middle and lower registers and extraordinarily immaculate intonation in the work's many stratospheric passages. Korngold scaled his orchestration so as never to cover the soloist, and Jansons further refined the accompaniment to provide ideal support. They made the strongest possible case for a work that could be a patchwork quilt in lesser hands. Prolonged applause was rewarded by Kavakas' elegant playing of Bach's Gavotte en Rondeau from Partita No. 3 in E, S.1006.
Mahler's Fifth Symphony has not lacked for solid performances throughout the state from the Eastern Music Festival, municipal, and regional orchestras. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra has a rich tradition of playing Mahler's complete symphonies. Their Chapel Hill performance raised the bar to a level that will be a real challenge for others to meet. The virtuosity of the solo players was astonishing. Principal trumpet Hannes Läubin was heroic and magnificent in the many extensive solos, beginning with the opening and most important theme. Principal hornist Eric Terwilliger was superb in the obbligato part that dominates the Scherzo and elsewhere. Stefan Tischer produced a warm and even tone from what has to have been the largest tuba I have ever seen. The woodwinds, especially the clarinets and oboes, brought out the importance of klezmer influence on Mahler, augmented by their frequent raising of their instruments' bells as well as the swagger of their playing. The unity and rich depth of the string playing was very satisfying. Jansons' interpretation was dramatic and propulsive with no sentimentalized lingering. Dynamic contrasts were maximized. The lovely Adagietto* for strings and harp was a poignant and elegiac eddy that led naturally into the rich development of the Rondo finale that culminated in blazing exhilaration. The audience in Chapel Hill will long remember this concert.
*For a recording of the Adagietto by a conductor who worked with Mahler, click here.