No North Carolina Symphony season is complete without a piano concerto – this winter season is replete with stellar violin soloists (the Classical Series concerts bookending this one both feature the instrument), and Behzod Abduraimov, the featured pianist, was no less spectacular. Hailing from Uzbekistan, the pianist and recording artist has since been performing worldwide to great acclaim. Joining him onstage was guest conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen, whose international credits are a split between symphonic works and opera. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was accompanied by Rene Orth‘s brief tone poem-like Chasing Light and Berlioz’s broad Symphonie fantastique. All three works are certainly very different, but the NCS connected them with a sense of dramatic urgency that threaded through the concert.

It is unfortunate that works by women composers are rare appearances on classical music programs (in general, not just in NC), so when one is featured, it is a bright spot. Rene Orth (b.1985) is a versatile American composer whose work Chasing Light is a brief but detailed glimpse at where modern classical music may be headed. It is abstract, but not too abrasive; theatrical, but still unique. Jensen’s angular conducting led the prominent percussion section, who used techniques quoting jazz and even pop styles, interspersed with imitations of thunder and playful, non-linear melodies in the rest of the orchestra. It ends abruptly, quietly, but not without making an impression. Hopefully, someday soon it won’t be such a notable and rare occurrence to see compositions from women on the classical music stage.

There is not much to say about Rachmaninoff’s behemoth of a concerto that hasn’t already been said. It towers high in pianists’ repertoires and contains everything one would want in a Romantic-era concerto: lyrical, aching melodies but also pompous ones; a unison theme in the middle movement that belies its difficulty; and of course, shimmering, jaw-dropping cadenzas. All this, and more, in about 35 minutes.

Abduraimov sank into the opening chords, smoldering in the opening tempestuous theme. Throughout the concerto, his interaction with individual instruments as well as the orchestra as a whole was impeccable. For instance, the opening theme of the middle movement is introduced by the flute – Abduraimov’s subsequent interpretation was seamless. In this same movement, the tension swells to the goose bump-inducing final cadenza. This seamlessness between pianist and orchestra was not only melodic but also evident in the wild tempo changes in the unbridled presto that closes the work. Sadly, this concerto is not featured is Abduraimov’s discography… – yet. You can purchase or stream his two CDs, though, recorded with Decca. (Neither of these feature his encore piece, either – Liszt’s playful La Campanella – but a search on YouTube will produce it.)

Berlioz’s personal narrative Symphonie fantastique propelled the Romantic drama of the concert forward. In classic Berlioz style, there are two harps, five percussionists, and offstage solos (bells and an oboe in the loft above) in two different movements. The orchestra and Jensen performed the five movements with an extraordinary range of expression and mood, from delightful rubato in the second movement (a waltz) to the spooky bassoons in movement four. Berlioz’s signature idée fixe is lovingly twined throughout, except in the final movement where the woodwinds play a shocking caricature accompanied by crashing brass and percussion, symbolizing the artist’s disgrace and death. Although the concert ended unfortunately for Berlioz’s character, it was a wonderful conclusion to this program.