The Wilmington season finale of the North Carolina Symphony offered delightful contrast. The concert, at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium, was led by the orchestra’s resident conductor, William Henry Curry. The first half was devoted to Mozart; after intermission the proceedings were turned over to the sheer good times of Johann Strauss, Jr., the “Waltz King.”

Mozart and Strauss were both Austrian; Strauss was born outside Vienna, and Mozart adopted the city later in life as his home. As composers they share the creation of a large amount of good-spirited, melodious music. But Mozart of course had his dramatic side, and that is the aspect which was highlighted in this evening concert, the second of the day for these artists (the program having been played in Raleigh, mid-day).

The concert opened with the overture to the operatic masterpiece Don Giovanni, beginning the concert in the darkest possible hues that were further enhanced by the use of the rarely-heard Busoni concert edition of the score, with its hints of the Commendatore’s music in the finale. The first two minutes are followed by the light-spirited main section, embodying the duality of the opera itself. In this performance the opening, while dark in timbre, lacked portent and mystery. Where it could have been most soft, the volume was closer to medium, which diluted the atmosphere. The allegro main section came over as somewhat slow and lumbering rather than exuberant. As in the introduction, at places where the strings could have been delicate and light, they were too loud to produce this quality. The large string section used for the performance could have been part of the reason for this.

Mozart’s turbulent Symphony No. 40, in g Minor, K.550, was the following work. In the first movement the effect was rather light, almost as though the piece were dance-like. It lacked the dramatic weight of this powerful music. The second movement continued that quality. This sustained essay was flowing but also almost perky, rather than thoughtful and inward-looking in character. However, in the last minute of this movement, it was almost as if a switch were flipped. All at once the playing took on weight and the ending was full and expressive.

From here the performance came alive. The third movement, a muscular and dramatic minuet, carried weight and energy. The latter part of the main section, with its trenchant chromatic movement and dissonances, developed real intensity. The trio had a fine light quality with lovely wind playing. The fourth movement brought gripping intensity. Contrasts were strongly delineated, even vehement, and peaks of phrases carried expressive weight. The repeat of the first section added even more strength to this fiery conclusion.

Following the intermission came sheer diversion and pleasure with four works of Johann Strauss. The energy and verve were all there, immediately presented in the delightful “Entry March” from Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron). So too was the lightness in the strings which had been missing earlier – showing that the size of the section was no hindrance at all. The following overture to Der Zigeunerbaron highlighted another aspect of Strauss’ music: its moments of nostalgia and wistfulness. The duality between joy and reflection is significant; it mirrors Strauss’ own personality and arguably too the dark and light of the Viennese character as projected by this most quintessentially Viennese composer. The performance captured that quality as well.

Another thing that was artfully done in this and the following pieces – the Kaiserwalzer and the overture to Die Fledermaus – was the transitions between sections. Strauss, in his series of dances, was a master of the transition, and rendering that effectively is of real importance in his music. The former piece also offered rich sound and an especially good loud-to-soft transition into the coda. Not particularly present was the characteristic Viennese waltz lilt – with the displaced second beat – which is at the core of this style. As a result, the waltzes came over as rather straight. However, there were many beauties and a good deal of music which wasn’t waltzes. The audience voiced ample appreciation at the end of this most enjoyable second half.

This program will be repeated in New Bern on Sunday, May 4, at 7:30 p.m. For details, see the sidebar.