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The North Carolina Symphony, our superb state orchestra, gave an impressive concert at Wilmington's equally impressive Wilson Center. The program consisted of three works: a light-spirited opener, a meaty work featuring percussion, and after intermission, Rimsky-Korsakov's ever-popular Scheherazade.
The conductor, Ruth Reinhardt (pronounced RINEheart) is an exciting up-and-coming younger talent. She has led numerous orchestras in the U.S. and Europe, including the Dallas Symphony, where she was assistant conductor for two years. The opening work on the program was the brief and bubbly Polonaise from Dvořák's Rusalka, an opera she has conducted. In the polonaise, a bright, march-like fanfare alternates with softer wind and string sections, leading to an energetic, brassy ending. Here, as a preliminary view of the conductor, one could note clear and, in the softer sections, expressive shaping of phrases. One might have wished for the programming of a full overture or tone poem rather than this delightful but very frothy start. The following work – and the audience, too – would have done fine with the Act I Prelude to Lohengrin or, for that matter, Dvořák's Carnival Overture.
The next piece brought two outstanding talents to the stage alongside Reinhardt. One was heard but not seen: the composer Jennifer Higdon, whose Percussion Concerto closed out the first half. Born on the last day of 1962, Ms. Higdon is one of today's leading composers. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 and has received numerous commissions from, among many others, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony. She has premieres of commissioned works upcoming to be performed by New Music America and the President's Own Marine Band, among others. Listeners with longer memories may recall hearing the North Carolina Symphony play her blue cathedral (written with small letters) in fall 2016 – a piece which has been performed hundreds of times.
The percussion soloist in the tour-de-force concerto was Colin Currie. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, he is a thriving international performer, appearing with ensembles such as the Royal Concertbebouw Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. He has premiered works by Elliott Carter and Steve Reich, among many others, and is himself a conductor, helping to push forward ongoing developments in percussion music.
The concerto, completed in 2005, is in a single movement of a little under 25 minutes. It was commissioned by a consortium of three American orchestras and is dedicated to Currie, for whom it was written. The piece won a Grammy in 2010, the same year that Higdon won the Pulitzer for a different concerto; a recording, with Currie as soloist, is preserved in the Library of Congress.
The work features a fascinating panoply of percussion sounds and moods. It begins evocatively with the marimba (a favorite instrument of the soloist), then a quiet statement, and a swell, followed by silence. The next participant is the orchestra's percussion section, in what turns out to be a signature element of the piece: substantial interchange between the percussion soloist and the percussionists of the orchestra, an unusual concept in a concerto and here, richly successful. Currie commanded an entire battery, moving among the marimba, vibraphone, and on the other side of the conductor's podium, an array of drums. Among other reasons, the piece is exceptional for the choreography required of the soloist.
The orchestra, outside of the percussion, is primarily coloristic. There are several brief, weightier interludes in the orchestra, but primarily it stays in the background. One effective color was when the vibraphone accompanied the leading winds.
Reinhardt led with precision, and the orchestra evinced tight rhythmic correspondence with the soloist. The technique of soloist, conductor, and superb orchestra players led to a cohesive experience. The large variety of percussion sounds and techniques – seeming at times to move through an array of cultures – were presented with unerring soloistic precision. The cadenza ending the work was played with blistering virtuosity. There was plenty of technical dazzle before that, but the cadenza – again featuring extensive collaboration with the percussionists of the orchestra – was the climax. It had almost an African drumming character and built up terrific momentum.
The kinetic conclusion was greeted with great approbation by the audience. Wilmington is now a place where recent music, and challenging works, can be performed for receptive audiences.
The second half was entirely devoted to the lush, colorful Scheherazade of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Yet this was more than the savoring, again, of a beloved work – it was a fresh and uplifting experience. The imposing beginning was followed by a distinguishing quality of Ms. Reinhardt's conducting: sensitive phrasing. Lines were shaped in beautiful arcs. The full orchestral theme was gorgeously rich and expansive, full from the bass up, and followed by a wonderful shift to delicate tones. Fine tracery among the parts characterized a later chamber-like section. In the second part, the bassoon and oboe shaped equally beautiful lines, as did the full string section.
There was plenty of drama too, with palpable tension in the string tremolando parts; in the fourth section of the piece, the rhythms of the storm were absolutely sharp. I could almost hear the waves breaking on the rocks. Elsewhere, the strings could be remarkably quiet as they supported lovely wind solos. The ending, where finally the tension of the story is resolved, was as beautiful as might have been hoped, with fine intertwined lines and a bit of magic on the quiet last chords.
Another quality of this performance which must be mentioned is the rubato. Shifts in motion accompanied the melodic and character shifts of the phrases and colors. There might have been an unusual amount of liberty in this performance, but it served the dramatic and expressive nature of the piece seamlessly. Brian Reagin, the concertmaster of the orchestra, earned praise for a beautifully expressive – of course also technically superb – performance of the solo violin part, which is Scheherazade herself. His rendering also featured expressive rubatos, pauses and emphases which breathed life and depth into the character. The harp which at times accompanied him, phrased right along with him, in a sensitive duet.
This very fine concert suffered only from the fact that audience attendance was sparse. There is no obvious reason why. Those who were there had a memorable musical experience.
This performance repeats in Raleigh on Saturday, April 30. See our sidebar for details.