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The New Year's Eve concert has its own special traditions which must be observed, and Grant Llewellyn and the North Carolina Symphony hewed to these, while at the same time creating an attractive hook around which to construct their program – that of young (that is, child prodigi-ous) talent, with three young performers with Tarheel roots or connections, and works by the Viennese prodigies Mozart and Korngold.
The evening began with a waltz by Johann Strauss, Junior, "Morning Papers," Op. 279, a reference to Viennese New Year's traditions. Sad to think that the newspaper may soon be a footnote in the history books, rather than something that links us and Strauss. One wondered what the topical reference from Strauss's day might have been for the passage in unison brass....
Next came a work from Jewish child prodigy Erich Korngold, a student of Zemlinsky (also Jewish). Korngold was a first-rate talent whose work might be better known to concert audiences had he not had to emigrate from Austria in the 1930s, effectively putting an end to his production of music for the concert hall, as he brought his talents to bear creating memorable film scores for Hollywood. The NCS offered the Overture to Der Schneemann (The Snowman), a ballet created for Vienna in 1910, and written when the composer was 11, a lovely work combining Puccinian sonorities and the Viennese waltz.
The evening's first young performer was Jodi Burns, a soprano heard in two movements from the Mozart warhorse Exsultate jubilate, K.165, closing with the famous "Alleluia." Burns, a graduate of Ohio State who is presently a Fletcher Fellow at the NC School of the Arts, has a fine voice, with effective coloratura at the top, and what is not so common, solid and characterful low tones at the bottom of the range. Her presence on stage, however, is still that of an immature talent, with concert nerves in evidence, and a sort of winningly apologetic smile after each phrase. She can yet be a diva, but first must achieve a commanding air. It was not until her popular numbers on the second half that I realized who she incarnated on the stage – Renée Zellweger in the role of Bridget Jones.
Alan Toda-Ambaras, who was heard as cello soloist in a valuable and rarely heard Hungarian Rhapsody by David Popper, was a complete contrast to Burns – serious in demeanor from the moment he appeared, and knowing the importance of what he had to offer. He played with utter technical mastery, and what is more important, with poetry, employing frequent and idiomatic portamenti to expressive effect, and conveying the gypsy and Eastern qualities of the work, particularly with a long and slow slide that drew gasps from the cognoscenti in the audience. To quote conductor Llewellyn, after the work had concluded in a virtuoso manner, "Wow!"
The second half moved decisively in the direction of the repertoire of the Boston Pops under Arthur Fiedler, with a brief and delicious morsel by Leroy Anderson. Burns was heard once more in Gershwin's "Fascinating Rhythm" and Lerner and Loewe's "I could have danced all night," with an unnecessary mike (proved by the tech crew's forgetting to turn up the sound for her second number), in which she was much more at home, leading one to think that her fach might be Broadway and not Vienna. The NCS strings played Gershwin's Lullaby (with qualities of the tango), a lovely piece and scarcely known.
The third of the three soloists was saxophonist Corey Dundee, heard in the third movement of a saxophone concerto by late NC composer Russell Peck, where these ears, at least, heard more to praise in the fluid and convincing performance than in the rather weak work itself. Another weak spot was the prominent percussion part in the arrangement of "Begin the Beguine" in which one realized what kind of groove the percussionists for the Boston Pops had in order to make a symphonic orchestra swing. It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing, and "Begin the Beguine" didn't have it.
After the evening formally came to a close with the Weber Invitation to the Dance, gala-goers were treated to a Joseph Strauss polka with obbligato laughs (audience participation gleefully invited by the conductor), an arrangement of the "Pink Panther" bringing together all three soloists, and finally the whole throng holding hands and singing "Auld Lang Syne."
It was a feel-good evening, and a delightful way to close the musical year.