The NC Symphony is celebrating its 75th anniversary this season with a series of short works it calls "North Carolina Postcard Commissions." These are little vignettes, mostly, that depict in music some aspect of life in the Old North State. The latest of these pieces to be brought forward is "Over Looking Glass Falls," by composer, banjoist, and professor Paul Elwood, a Kansan (b.1958) who currently teaches at Brevard College. Transylvania County, where Brevard is the principal metropolis, is home to hundreds of waterfalls, and Looking Glass Falls is among the most spectacular. Elwood's prize-winning background in traditional music has facilitated his creation of a particularly effective, often hauntingly evocative work in which its eloquent symphonic language is enriched with Appalachian flavor and color.
Elwood and NCSU professor and conductor Randolph Foy provided pre-concert commentary on the new work, helping set the stage for its second performance — it received its official premiere the previous evening, in Southern Pines. A string trio from St. Mary's School entertained elsewhere in the venue while patrons waited to get into the hall.
When Resident Conductor William Henry Curry stepped onto the podium, there were no additional remarks; instead, Elwood's appealing music began at once. It was played by a lightly augmented orchestra. The score is richly punctuated with percussion, including mallet instruments and rain sticks. Concertmaster Brian Reagin plays several attractive fiddle tunes (and seemed to enjoy figuratively letting down some of that "long hair"). One can imagine the power of the falls, the noise the water makes, the halo of mist rising above. Low brass instruments seem to portray strong undercurrents. Toward the end, Reagin and Principal Bass Leonid Finkelshteyn left the stage for some remoter fiddlin' and slappin'; this section gradually came into focus over the orchestra; having them merely off to the side but still on-stage might have made more sense. "Over Looking Glass Falls" ends quietly, as rain begins. There was polite applause, and Elwood seemed very pleased.
Thus far, the new works in the "Postcards" series have proven to be winners, in the eyes of CVNC's critics. But all new music merits revisiting, so here's hoping the entire series will be played again — and recorded, too, in a complete set. But meanwhile, they're all short enough to stand playing twice on their introductory programs....
The first half continued with one of the most enduringly popular concerti in all of Western art music: Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, the one made famous by "Tonight we love" and War Bonds concerts a generation ago and that wily Texan — Cliburn, in case there's any possibility of a question.... The soloist was Jon Kimura Parker, whose work has been savored in this area on previous occasions, in a solo recital at Duke and with the NCS. His Tchaikovsky was big-boned but elegant and a bit of a technical miracle, so clean and clear was his playing. He didn't get carried away, physically — he rose up off the bench only a couple of times, toward the end of the work — but he demonstrated plenty of power and plenty of engaging musicality, as needed. Curry and the orchestra met him blow for musical blow, from the rousing introduction to the fleet finale, in which the playing from all concerned was truly breathtaking, thanks to the absolute precision with which the music was executed. It was quite a show and much, much more: for once, the war horse appealed in part due to its inner beauty. The standing ovation led to a single, serene encore: Joplin's "Solace" (known as "A Mexican Serenade").
Following the intermission, the concert continued with Carl Nielsen's brilliant Symphony No. 5 (1921-22). Curry had clearly crawled into its skin, and his brief spoken introduction went miles toward making its unusual form, structure, and moods — and mood swings — palatable. Nielsen is in some respects an acquired taste, in part because performances of his music are so rare. This two-movement but multi-part score, which Curry dubbed "The Heroic Symphony," depicts the struggle of good with evil, the latter portrayed by the snare drum, brilliantly played by Kenneth Whitlow. This post WWI work thus suggests and in some respects anticipates Shostakovich's WWII "Leningrad" Symphony, wherein there is comparable use of percussion.... In the case of this great Nielsen Symphony, good ultimately triumphs, and the finale builds and builds in a way that suggests Mahler without the latter's longwindedness. We'd benefit from explorations of more music by this Great Dane, but till the NCS takes up the thread again, readers can get a quick fix in Chapel Hill on February 22, when UNC concerto compeition winner Wonkak Kim and the UNCSO essay Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto, his last completed orchestral work. See our calendar for details.
It's a shame that Curry gets so few subscription concerts. He's the artistic leader who helped our state orchestra retain stability through the final years of the previous MD, the seasons of conductor tryouts, and the first part of the Llewellyn era. Curry is a fabulous all-'round musician who, like the greatest of the great, pours his heart and soul into everything he touches. This concert, with a new work, a familiar potboiler, and a virtually unknown classic, was typically superb, and the response of the near-capacity crowd demonstrated audience appreciation of the guest soloist, our fine orchestra, and Curry in roughly equal measure. Bravo!
Note: This program will be repeated Saturday, February 10, in the same venue. Click here for details.