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Orchestral Music Review Print

North Carolina Symphony's Evening of Grand Music

February 13, 2009 - Raleigh, NC:

The North Carolina Symphony and its resident conductor, William Henry Curry, presented a Friday concert filled with great music for the pleasure of an audience which filled the hall, clearly showing that there is hope for the continued appreciation of great music in our city, even at a time when minds are understandably filled with concern about the economy’s chances for a recovery. This audience came early, fighting the usual heavy traffic buzzing around the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts and caused Meymandi Hall to ring with a cheerful level of anticipatory chatter. The orchestra, always on stage early, no doubt recognized what the size of the audience represented. The players’ noisy tuning and repeating especially difficult phrases again and again during the few minutes before the concert seemed to have a certain excitement which lasted throughout a grand evening of music.

First on the program was Sergei Prokofiev’s tuneful, rhythmic and effervescent Classical Symphony, Op. 25 (Symphony No. 1). This work, arising from the composer’s admiration of the symphonies of the late eighteenth century, particularly those of Joseph Haydn, does have much of the classical organization and clearly defined phrases and cadences, but it also has a few harmonic twists that are not what Haydn would have expected, but which added vivacity and musical surprises for listeners whose ears were sufficiently attuned to the differences between classical and early-twentieth-century progressions.

The opening of the first movement, with a dazzling D major tonic chord ascent into the musical stratosphere, is a modern version of the eighteenth-century Mannheim skyrocket. The Symphony’s boisterous playing of Prokofiev’s twentieth-century expression of this musical phenomenon was a delight and no Haydn orchestra could have executed it better. The excellent playing of the clever recapitulation, beginning in the wrong key, and the clearly-intended skipped beats which the composer inserted into this movement were a delightful musical spoof of conservative eighteenth-century symphony’s ironclad compositional rules, and no doubt Haydn would have smiled if he could hear it. The larghetto second movement had some lovely moments when the orchestra enunciated a lyrical opening theme in the violins, introduced a gentle pizzicato section in the middle of the movement, and progressed to a rousing tutti then subsided to a quick, soft conclusion. After the third movement, a tuneful Gavotte rather than a Minuet, came the demanding finale with its virtuosic music allowing for only the best performance from all players.

The second work of the evening, Chopin’s Concerto in F minor, Op. 21, for piano with Horacio Gutierrez as the soloist, was a pleasant change of pace from the majestic Prokofiev symphony. This concerto has all that we expect from Chopin: perfectly crafted, romantic melodies and the technical demands on the soloist. The orchestral introduction to the first movement, offering a fairly lengthy statement of the thematic material to be taken up by the piano soloist, was the most extensive playing the instrumentalists had to concern themselves with in this work. But anyone who knows Chopin is far more interested in the magical sounds emanating from the keyboard than in the orchestral music. In this performance the star was indubitably Gutierrez; with masterful liquid runs and frequent powerful work in the lower registers of the piano in the first movement, and the inexpressibly beautiful melody of the adagio, a statement of love made with tenderness and gentle restraint. In both these movements there are occasional flashes of virtuosity which Gutierrez clearly enjoyed supplying, but it is the last movement which brought out Chopin’s great skill as a composer and pianist, and allowed Gutierrez to demonstrate that he was quite equal to Chopin’s technical demands.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 was placed last on the program for good reason: it allowed the orchestra to use all its skills to meet fully the requirements the composer makes on it. It is unlikely that few of the audience in the hall could easily forget the powerfully dramatic music of this great symphony.

Its first movement begins with a dark, chant-like melody stated in unison by cellos, horns and solo clarinet, thus allowing the first of several instrumental ensembles to show their musicality and skill. After a brief orchestral introduction the melancholic first theme is heard, followed by a totally different second theme — pure and lyrical — in the cellos. The development section leads to a recapitulation which reveals Rachmaninoff’s genius as a composer as he reiterates and enlarges upon his two dissimilar themes, returning finally to the dark chant which opened the work. In performing this movement, the NC Symphony and its conductor ably captured all the composer’s musical intentions and caused all in the audience to listen intently to each phrase; rhythms were exact, phrases were clearly enunciated, and intonation was impeccable.

This excellent playing continued in the second movement, which is part adagio with its two dissimilar themes, and part scherzo, and embodies all the performance difficulties, successfully overcome, of moving between the extremely different tempos of these two musical entities. But it is the finale we recall even when we have trouble remembering the beautifully played themes of the adagio. This towering, virtuosic movement, a challenge even to the greatest orchestras, was an example of the growing strength and musical excellence of the NC Symphony, which overcame all difficulties the music presented. All the players made the martial first theme ring through the hall. The second somewhat more quiet theme, stated in strings and harp, is lyrical and in simple chordal style, offering a complete change in dynamics. The middle of this movement includes a fugal development of the main theme, followed by the chilling tones of the Dies Irae and the intertwining of this somber chant with the main theme, all of which lead to the spectacular recapitulation and the thunderous coda.

The sustained applause and standing ovation following the last triumphant orchestral statement were never more deserved than on this evening.