The North Carolina Symphony gave its first Wilmington concert of the new year, offering a varied program that reversed the typical performance order: two 20th century pieces comprised the first half, while the ending work was from the 19th century. The performance was led by guest conductor Christian Knapp whose career has taken him to such prestigious venues as the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and Mostly Mozart in New York.

The opening piece was the Divertimento for String Orchestra by Béla Bartók. The playing began with an immediate display of rhythmic energy, which turned out to be a leading characteristic of Knapp’s conducting. Another quality which made itself heard fairly quickly was his ability to draw a hushed tone from the orchestra, as he did here when the main theme returned at the middle section.

The second movement was dark and evocative. It is the gloomy centerpiece of this otherwise lighter-spirited work. There were more examples here of beautiful fades: one in the middle which led to a jarring surprise forte, and another, at the end of the movement. On the opposite side, the buildup in the middle of the movement was finely graded. The third movement carried all the propulsiveness one would hope for in the dynamism of Bartók’s irregular rhythms. Knapp is clearly at home in such music. The humorous section near the end was genuinely funny. The solo quintet, which is given an important role throughout the piece, played with clear tone and well-defined contrast in sound. It was a fitting display for the orchestra’s fine string section leaders.

Bartók was followed by the violin concerto of Samuel Barber, written in the same year. Mr. Knapp was joined at center stage by Brian Reagin, who is in his 25th season as concertmaster of the North Carolina Symphony. Reagin is a persuasive soloist. He carried a fine sweet and long-lined tone in both of the first two movements, where soulful melody is at the core. His high notes were pure and clear. In the brief, exciting last movement, Reagin played with virtuoso aplomb and carried off this non-stop rollick with vigor, although perhaps the accents could have been even sharper and more jagged. Reagin’s artistry was matched by beauty of lyrical tone and line in the orchestra. Soft sonorities were delicate and lovely. The colors of the winds were sensitively delineated; the oboe solo in the second movement was finely expressive.

The second half was devoted to the largest work on the program, the Symphony No. 7 of Antonín Dvořák. The dark and intense opening section once again showed Knapp’s rhythmic vigor but also his propensity to sustain a very large beat over longer periods. This led periodically to what seemed like exaggerated gestures, especially with his left hand mirroring much of the time. Rather oddly, the exact opposite happened in the coda of the first movement, where Knapp’s gestures seemed to diminish in intensity at the height of the climax.

That said, this symphony is one of Dvořák’s most dramatic works, yet features a profusion of gentle lyrical writing as well. Knapp excelled in this dichotomous character. Over and over there were examples of rubato leading seamlessly to a new tempo, or of an agogic pause leading to a beautiful expressive emphasis. These were carried by the orchestra with the kind of flexibility and apparent spontaneity that a listener might associate with a single pianist or a duo, rather than a large ensemble. In carrying the contrasts of dramatic and lyrical expression, Knapp was superb.

Beautiful hushes occurred at the brooding end of the first movement and at a number of points in the largely reflective second movement. This extended movement features numerous melodies; the unfolding of the material was wonderfully cohesive. The rhythmic life of the third movement, redolent of Dvořák’s famous Slavonic Dances, was infectious. The dark fourth movement, with its powerful ending major-mode assertion, was compelling, as was the rendering of the entire tapestry of this symphonic masterwork.

This program will be repeated on January 24 and 25 at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh. For details, see the sidebar.