The latest offerings in the NC Symphony's current season, given on October 2 in Chapel Hill and on October 3 and 4 in Raleigh's Meymandi Concert Hall, were presented under the baton of Associate Conductor William Henry Curry. This reviewer heard the final concert. Curry planned a program of music from all around Europe that offered the flavor of the country visited, although only one work was by a composer native of the country evoked.
The program opened with Felix Mendelssohn's "Hebrides" Overture, Op. 26, also known as "Fingal's Cave," a concert overture and not the opener of a larger-scale work. The composer was inspired during a visit to the islands off the coast of Scotland in 1829, but the melody line is apparently not an authentic folk tune. Curry led a taut performance, taking it at a good clip and not dawdling in the lush melodies as some are wont to do with the Romantic composers.
We remained in Scotland, though on the mainland, for the next work, Max Bruch's "Scottish" Fantasy for violin and orchestra, Op. 46, which, on the other hand, does use authentic folk melodies. Although frequently heard on the air because of its upbeat melodies and tempos, it is not that frequently played live. The harp was brought forward and positioned to the conductor's right, just behind the podium, allowing for lovely duets between the two solo instruments that were well balanced as a result of this positioning. The NCS' Concertmaster, Brian Reagin, was the soloist, and although he used a score, he demonstrated that he had clearly mastered the work's twists and turns and difficulties. He produced a sweet tone throughout. The first movement was languid, the second sprightly in contrast, although not as fast as I have heard it played. It led without break into the meandering third movement with a pregnant pause, however, before jumping into the brisk fourth, although there was some appropriate lingering over certain phrases therein. It was a nicely nuanced and refined interpretation, devoid of the excessive lushness with which some readings have imbued it. The audience was quickly on its feet, calling Reagin back twice for additional bows, and Curry also acknowledged harpist Anita Burroughs-Price for her fine contribution.
After the intermission, we headed from the mists of Scotland to the fogs of Finland for native Jean Sibelius' "Pohjola's Daughter," Op. 49. This, the last of the series of tone poems that recount episodes in the epic folk legend of the Kalevala, is a marked contrast with the work that preceded it, being largely quiet and more slow-paced. Curry gave a superb reading, bringing out all the subtleties and controlling the dynamics wonderfully to produce a crystal clear performance. It was enhanced by excellent solo work from several of the principals - cellist Bonnie Thron, bassoonist John Pederson, clarinetist Jimmy Gilmore and oboist Melanie Wilsden, all of whom were asked to take solo bows at the end of the piece. Much of Sibelius is not an easy sell, but Curry is a super salesman. I found this a most enjoyable piece.
From the cold north we leapt to sunny Spain for Maurice Ravel's "Pavane pour un Infante défunte," composed for piano in 1899 and orchestrated by the composer in 1910. Ravel had not yet visited the country, although he was born and raised in the neighboring Basque region of France; he finally went in 1912. The titular dance is a stately one, for the court, and the orchestration conveys it with Ravel's usual delicate and nicely painted orchestral colors. The reading was appropriately refined.
We remained with the same composer for the concluding work but headed towards Central Europe to Vienna to hear La Valse . In this case, the orchestral version came first, in the form of a ballet intended for, but ultimately rejected by, Serge Diaghilev. It bears an opening inscription setting the scene in an Imperial court in 1855. Curry led a brilliant rendition, with lushness and volume in spots, that would have been richer if our band had more strings. Having heard the composer's piano reduction at least twice in the past year, it was interesting to hear the original.
The program notes by Scott Warfield were generally illuminating without being too verbose but curiously completely ignored the subtext of the final work that suggests the ultimate self-destruction of the decadent Belle Époque civilization with some of the crashes in the percussion and the breakdowns at other moments. They also signaled the end of our fine musical tour. I'm ready to sign up for Curry's next trip.