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Music lovers would have to be living in caves not to know that the NC Symphony has a new music director, a Welshman named Grant Llewellyn.* He is young, thin, energetic, active, and talented. Thus far, he and the orchestra have clearly been well prepared. He is no mere time-beater – the left hand often does more than mirror the right. He clearly has a good ear, too, thanks perhaps to his training as a cellist, and he listens as he guides, so it is now possible clearly to hear definition and details within the orchestra that, in past seasons, under his predecessor, were often blurred or glossed over. One of the keys to this change – and it is a change – is balance, which is better now, although the augmented band that is playing in Raleigh's Meymandi Concert Hall (and presumably on tour, when Llewellyn is on the podium) is not yet the "real" NC Symphony that folks beyond his immediate reach know. The concerts he is leading this season may or may not reflect his programming philosophy, but they are all attractive, mixing new works – or, more properly, works new to NCS audiences – with older, more familiar fare. So it's out with the old, to a degree, and in with the new.
On October 23, the NCS offered the third of three performances of Llewellyn's second program as MD. The concert began with two notable British works, Elgar's "Cockaigne" Overture, dubbed "In London Town," and Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem Together, these pieces give a snapshot of "Empire" – in its waning days, and lost. The Overture is a grand, expansive thing with an optional organ part that was, mercifully, not supplied electronically. (There's a place in Meymandi for an organ, and there's an endowed but unfilled organ chair on the published roster.) The performance was engaging because it was more chamber-like than bombastic. Dynamic contrasts were wide and varied, and the quietest passages were every bit as impressive as the loud ones. The conductor shaped and shaded and elicited many admirable subtleties while allowing the musicians themselves plenty of room to play, and these actions and the aforementioned clarity that emerged permitted the score to make its own case. There was strength in all sections, and the strings were never overpowered. Out with the old.... This was true as well in the Britten work, an important score that first-timers may have found difficult. (Composer J. Mark Scearce devoted his entire pre-concert lecture to the piece, and the roomful of folks who heard his remarks were surely aided in their listening experience by his astute explanations.) Sinfonia da Requiem, composed and premiered in the US during WWII, is for a very large ensemble with some instruments that aren't often found in standard orchestras. It is at once a memorial to Britten's parents and one of his several strong anti-war statements. The three movements take their titles from the Latin Mass for the Dead. The performance was superb, comparing favorably with the composer's own London/Decca recorded version, and the response of the nearly-full house – only the main choir stalls were vacant – was remarkable in many respects, not least of which is that – thus far – the crowd seems to trust the new MD's artistic judgment. (Attendees who missed Scearce's lecture and didn't read the program notes may wish to do so to learn more about the score and its genesis.)
The second part of the program was devoted to Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2, featuring soloist Markus Groh (whose bio is at http://www.schmidtart.com/artists/groh/bio_groh.html [inactive 2/05] and whose own site is at http://www.markusgroh.com/index_2.htm [inactive 6/05]). The instrument was new, too – out with the old. In this case, the "old" piano, a Steinway that had served for 17 years, was displaced as a result of a generous gift from Ernie Schoenfeld in honor of his spouse. Now 17 years is a mere blip in the life of a piano, as the recent area debut of an 1848 Pleyel in Greensboro demonstrates; if the NCS plans to keep this new instrument in "fighting trim," it might want to engage a new technician/tuner, rather than consigning it to whomever failed to keep its predecessor up to snuff. It could stand some tweaking soon, for the top seemed a bit brittle, and the mid-range was somewhat cloudy, although the latter may have resulted from Groh's generally light touch. Still, it's out with the old. (And it's a good thing, in retrospect, that all the Strads that went to the New Jersey Symphony didn't come here, or their days, too, might have been numbered, since they're really old....)
Groh is young and thin and technically skilled, and his performance was excellent. It is refreshing to have some new faces coming here, after so many retreads in the past. Out with the old, in with the new. With wonderful contributions from cellist Bonnie Thron, hornist Andrew McAfee, and other orchestral stars, and with Llewellyn actively watching, listening, and truly partnering his soloist, the results were splendid. The previous MD seemed only rarely to care about showcasing visitors, but Llewellyn knows the score, the drill, the ropes. The performance was distinguished by its clarity and precision – and, again, the key was balance. It can be done, as the new conductor demonstrated, and as Resident Conductor William Henry Curry and a few others have shown, over time.
This audience rarely withholds demonstrative praise, but this concert truly merited the ovation that ensued, which led, in time, to a solo encore – Brahms' Intermezzo in E-Flat, Op. 117/1. It provided a welcome bit of evidence that Groh isn't just a concerto powerhouse but can deliver in solo settings, too. And it was touching to note that Llewellyn sat on the risers by the back desk of the violins to savor his guest's playing.
So the NCS is on a roll, and Llewellyn is leading it. He seems, thus far, almost universally admired – by the audiences and by the players, too. At last – at long last – we have a MD who is also a conductor of merit and promise. It was a long time coming – 32 years, if you think about it, counting John Gosling** and Gerhardt Zimmermann. Yes, Llewellyn can conduct, and that's a crucial part of the MD equation. It will be a while before he takes hold in other areas, such as altering the personnel roster with anything other than new hires; and thus it may be several years before one can begin to judge the effectiveness of the changes that will be needed if the orchestra is going to achieve its stated goals. For now, he can make music and the music he makes is good. He probably cannot live up to the excessive hype that heralded his arrival, and he may not be able to save the orchestra from itself or even from its marketing department, but he's an honest musician, and that's enough, for openers. Out with the old. In with the new. It's high time.
*CVNC has covered all of Llewellyn's concerts in the Old North State – his two tryouts and his debut as MD. The reviews remain available in our archives.
**As this review was being prepared, word of Gosling's 10/18 death reached us. Details are at http://www.legacy.com/Savannah/LegacySubPage2.asp?Page=LifeStory&PersonId=2736011 [inactive 12/04].