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Orchestral Music Feature Print

The Parade of the Guests at the NCS

April 22, 2003 - Raleigh, NC:

As the only CVNC writer who managed to hear all nine of this past year's invited guest conductors who were to be potential candidates for the position of Music Director and Conductor of our orchestra, it has fallen to me to compose a kind of summary article and evaluation. I shall take them up in chronological order of their appearance, and will not comment on the guest soloists who played under them, since they were covered in the individual reviews, of which I wrote two. (CVNC 's reviews are linked to each candidate's name.)

The season opened in mid-September with Peter Oundjian, who led a wonderful performance of major war horses - the strings had never sounded quite so fine, no doubt the result of his many years as first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet. It was love at first sight for the players and the audience, but it did not lead to a courtship and marriage, for he was named Music Director and Conductor of the Toronto Symphony, his home town orchestra, early this year, and is thus out of the running. Our loss, their gain, for he was outstanding, and he might well have been my first choice had he been available.

Next, in early October, we met Nicaraguan Giancarlo Guerrero, now Associate Conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra. Perhaps in part because he came on the heels of the initial infatuation, he seemed a rather large disappointment. His opening work, Revueltas' Sensamayá , a Latin-American score from his specialty repertoire, was flashy but did not particularly impress, and the other works, both chestnuts of the standard repertoire, were generally unremarkable if serviceable interpretations. Apparently he did not impress the musicians or the administration either, for he has not been invited back.

Andrea Quinn, who hails from Great Britain and is Music Director of the NY City Ballet, brought November in for us in a most energetic way. Indeed, she worked herself up into a sweat readily visible from where I sat in the choir loft, as if at the gym. She connected with our players and elicited a fine reading of Elgar's Enigma Variations , and the other pieces were good, too, but she vastly over-conducted from my both literal and figurative perspective. An acquaintance suggested that this may come from her years of conducting in a pit for both musicians and dancers, and this is not at all implausible. I hope she tones it down a bit on her return visit.

In mid-November, American pianist Jeffrey Kahane traversed the continent from LA where he is Music Director of the LA Chamber Orchestra and the Santa Rosa Symphony, to lead very good performances of less frequently played literature, except for the work with the soloist, the introspective Schumann Cello Concerto. He was not flashy, and indeed his style was the diametrical opposite of his predecessor's, but apparently he didn't impress even if he didn't disappoint; there will be no return engagement. Was the contrast perhaps too great? Was it because of the works he chose? Someone commented that he was not sufficiently imposing because he is too short(!). For this reviewer, he was a welcome relief from the previous adrenaline rush.

In mid-January, Roberto Minczuk, fresh from being named Associate Conductor of the NY Philharmonic - the first since Leonard Bernstein, the orchestra having done without one in the intervening years - made the hop down from the Big Apple. More war horses, but his Brahms was wonderful. It was a truly impressive concert, as well it should be from one of his stature. He's invited back, too, but how realistic a candidate is he? An associate has to be "on call" to take over in an emergency as well as handle the concerts he's scheduled for. What happens to our concert if he has to fill in there when he's scheduled to be here? We lose him, and the Associate Conductor, William Henry Curry, steps in and waves the stick - there's certainly no question that he can do so, but... if this is to be the scenario, then why don't we just make him our head honcho? There's precedent for this in the very case of the aforementioned Lenny Bernstein, at the NY Philharmonic, and as in that instance, we'd have a conductor who's also a fine composer. It seems pretty tempting and tantalizing to me.

At the crossover between January and February, young American Michael Christie came to town and directed an interesting program consisting of five unknown works, an all-too-well-known one, and one that is not as frequently played as it deserves. The last of these, Sibelius' Symphony 5, is not easy to pull off because it is almost entirely slow-paced, but he succeeded very well in spite of his youth. This very youth, however, apparently made many, both in the hall and on the stage, hesitant to consider him seriously. This is curious since we have just lost Assistant Conductor Jeffrey W. Pollack, whose youth, vitality, and enthusiasm are already being missed.

Brazilian Fabio Mechetti made the jaunt up from Florida, where he is Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, for the mid-February concert that featured a fine Berlioz Symphonie fantastique (parts of which were also conducted by Pollack in a recent Summerfest concert that I covered) for the composer's bicentennial birthday year. Like his other Latin-American predecessor, he chose to open with a work from that repertoire, Ginastera's Dances from the ballet Estancia , which generally impressed more than Guerrero's Revueltas. Nonetheless, he didn't inspire an invitation to return, even though he's the one who lives the closest by. Rumor has it that he has a somewhat difficult and contentious personality.

Welshman Grant Llewellyn, Music Director of Boston's Handel and Haydn Society which specializes in Baroque and Classical period music, led a performance that featured none of the above in early March. His style was subdued - reserved, even - in the flashy work with the soloist, Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No. 2, but the musicality was readily evident. He lives in Wales, however, not in Boston, so while he would be most welcome from my point of view, I wonder if he will move here. The workload of our orchestra is such that it can't really function with a Music Director who flies in and out the way Gerhardt Zimmermann does with Canton, OH, and here we're dealing with a transatlantic flight, American Airlines' direct route to London notwithstanding.

The parade ended with a bang when Indonesian-born Jahja Ling, recently named Music Director of the San Diego Symphony, led a brilliant - in every sense - performance of a favorite piano concerto and two well-known dance suites in late March. The latter works were a huge contrast with each other and he made the most of it and brought out the best in both. He is as musical as Llewellyn, but much more domineering and flamboyant, albeit not in an unpleasant way. He impressed the audience immensely, and it went wild with its enthusiasm - and he got invited back, too. Again, I cannot help but wonder how realistic the transcontinental commute is, any more than the transatlantic, and he surely will not base himself here and fly to and from San Diego. Would you?

So, the first and last were hands down the best. None were complete flops. The general level was very high and very satisfying, not really all that far below the top two if you stop to think about it. But are we aiming for too big a name rather than a truly realistic option in the selection of those - Quinn, Minczuk, Llewellyn, and Ling - invited for return engagements? Time will tell, but if all four of them turn us down, I suspect none of the remaining ones will consider us afterwards. One thing that the parade showed us all, however, is just how good our band is. It - the parade - has perhaps raised the NCS up a notch or two in the national perception. We may not be big time, but we're way more than small fry; we are most definitely on the map, and in large measure, we have our retiring Music Director, Gerhardt Zimmermann, to thank for that.

Footnote: On April 22, the NCS announced the four "final candidates" cited immediately above, along with two new ones - Alastair Willis, who will appear here (and in Southern Pines) 9/18-20, and Anne Mason, scheduled for 10/23-25.