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The ever-charming Grant Llewellyn helped the North Carolina Symphony see out the old year and welcome in the new one with a characteristically well-designed program focused on Vienna, the city whose orchestra seems to hold the patent on New Years’ celebrations. Almost every item on the long and varied program had some construable connection with the city of the waltz.
The evening began with the overture to Johann Strauss Jr.’s Fledermaus, a work perhaps once more familiar than it is in 2012, followed immediately by two numbers featuring the star of the evening, soprano Sari (pronounced Shari) Gruber – “My Hero” from the operetta The Chocolate Soldier (1908) by Oscar Straus (not a member of that Strauss family), and then “Mein Herr Marquis” from Fledermaus (1874). Gruber is a thoroughly accomplished young professional who commanded the audience’s attention from her first note. “My Hero” was sincere, compelling, romantic, and “Mein Herr Marquis” entirely insincere, flighty, with a superb demonstration of how to produce a stage laugh while singing.
Next, listeners were treated to solo work by an even younger professional, flutist Scott Kemsley from North Carolina, who is now a student at the Juilliard School. Kemsley is so young that as yet Google finds only his Facebook page, and no professional site. He is slight of build, and has a somewhat diffident presence on stage, but delivered a fine performance of the Mozart Andante in C; light, delicate, with perhaps a little more authority needed in the inflection of the rhythms. (He was heard once more in the Mozart D major Rondo, K. 373 in the second half. I do hope that Llewellyn will bring him back for a more modern and more substantial work with the NCS on another program).
The rest of the first half included a delightful and entirely “Pizzicato Polka” by Josef Strauss, a bit of exotica with Moorish touches from Lehar’s Giuditta (1933) (Judith is a married temptress romancing an Army captain. Here she sings “My lips kiss so hotly”), and the little-known “Overture di Ballo” by Arthur Sullivan. The latter was fascinating for lovers of Gilbert & Sullivan, who could listen for the characteristic touches from the composer of their favorite operettas. I had the impression, though, that the idiom and the passagework were rather unfamiliar for the orchestra, particularly in the finale which should have featured full-out fiddling but instead was quite tentative.
Standing out on the second half was the Adagietto from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, dedicated by Llewellyn to mark the recent passing of several important supporters of the NCS. Lllewellyn drew the audience (some of it unwillingly, as evident by the plethora of coughing and hacking) into an entirely different world, the Vienna of inner suffering and neurosis, rather than champagne and merriment. The director maintained the final silence for at least ten seconds before releasing the audience. Certainly the audience’s favorites, in contrast, were the familiar “Sound of Music” and “My Favorite Things”, delivered by Gruber with conviction and fluency. The evening concluded with the festive Nicolai Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor.