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The first hints of spring brought an enthusiastic turnout to hear a program offered by the North Carolina Symphony under the baton of American guest conductor Andrew Litton, including two staples of the repertory, The Planets, Op. 32 by Holst, and the Piano Concerto, Op. 16 by Grieg, as well as a little-known early work by Ralph Vaughan Williams, his Overture to The Wasps.=
Vaughan Williams was a late-starter in the Rameauvian vein – it was not until 1910, when he would turn thirty-eight, that he would produce the Tallis fantasy, arguably the first piece in which he expressed himself in his own voice. The Overture to The Wasps, the play by Aristophanes for which Vaughan Williams wrote incidental music, dates to 1909, and the various components of the work have not quite stewed together long enough – bits of Sullivan (who had only passed on in 1900), English folksongs in the Mixolydian mode, with a French sauce (Ravel, with whom he studied). Attractive, but not yet a masterwork to set aside those from later years.
Litton welcomed his school chum pianist William Wolfram for the Grieg. Wolfram, a head taller than the conductor, cuts an imposing figure on stage. Can there be anyone who does not recognize the thundering arpeggios at the opening of the Grieg concerto? This is one of those pieces which sit at the boundary between the “pops” repertoire and the serious stuff, and the composer himself produced almost nothing in the weightiest forms, preferring to focus on songs and smaller piano pieces. The concerto has exactly these assets and liabilities – simple, singable, memorable tunes, but little in the way of meaty development or counterpoint, or indeed real musical substance for Wolfram to dig his fingers into. There was general applause after the first movement, and at the conclusion of the work, even this curmudgeon has to admit that the shift to the major in preparation for the Big Tune ending the work is a cinematographic masterstroke which demands a standing ovation (it got one), not through speed or virtuosity, but through sheer grandeur. I felt exploited, but Wolfram, Litton and the NCS drew every bit of passion from the work.
My reaction was completely opposite for The Planets. The idiom for "Mars," which opens the seven-planet suite has been so thoroughly mined by John Williams and his epigones for soundtrack use, and yet the original movement remains as a exceptional high-point of sheer genius in the entire oeuvre of its composer, and indeed in the entire twentieth-century, simply stunning in its originality, and making an unmatchable impact on the listener in the concert hall. Litton and the NCS were petrifying – the sheer volume of sound could flay your ears, and the assaults were brilliantly done. One could almost not even think, but just viscerally absorb the violence.
Litton sensibly left a very extensive silence before continuing. After such a beginning, what can follow? And yet the quality and, what is more, quantity of invention that Holst brings to the remaining six movements is astounding, particularly in "Jupiter," the closing moments of which were sheer perfection. (“Bravo, Brass!” I noted). So much of this work anticipates the works of later in the century, not least among its moments being the infinite fadeout with repeated augmented chords from the women’s chorus which, rather than conclude the work, escorts it, and its composer into eternity (recalling the pull of the Ewig-Weibliche which closes both Faust and the Mahler Eighth). As I walked from Meymandi, I heard fellow-concert-goers giving thanks that budget cuts had not deprived us of this fulsomely-scored work. Thanks to the NCS, Litton and the many extra players for giving us this brilliant work in such a memorable performance.