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NC Symphony Music Director Grant Llewellyn made liberal use of his collection of musical hats (conductor; collaborator/accompanist for pianist Clara Yang, harpsichordist; and raconteur/program announcer) in a concert of music by Mozart, Purcell, Schumann, and Britten at Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall. Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony No. 1, programmed for the February 14 and 17 versions of this concert was not performed at this concert.
The orchestra’s strings had starring roles in the first two works: Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute, K. 620, and the Suite from Abdelazar, or The Moor’s Revenge, Z. 570, by Henry Purcell. Llewellyn’s tempo for Mozart’s fugal Allegro was more than brisk, so that the groups of four sixteenth-notes which appear twice in the fugue subject were blurred rather than articulate. That said the performance sparkled with bright energy. Following the Overture, the wind and brass players and half the string bass section left the stage as Llewellyn moved to the harpsichord for the Purcell suite. As the Maestro pointed out, this less-familiar work was programmed because its second movement, a Rondeau, served as the theme for Benjamin Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, the music which closed the concert. From my seat, the harpsichord was inaudible except for a brief passage when only a small concertato group of strings were playing, but the entire suite served to show the high quality of this group’s string sections. It was good to hear them when they do not have to battle for sonic equality with the full complement of brass, winds, and percussion.
With no intermission, the concert-grand piano was wheeled onstage for Robert Schumann’s iconic Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54. Written for Schumann’s wife, the virtuoso pianist Clara Schumann, the concerto was played here by another Clara: Clara Yang, of the UNC Music Department. Ms. Yang is in full command of this score, bringing a myriad of tonal colors to her playing. In only a few bars could more weight in the bass registers add to the drama of Schumann’s passionate writing, but the highest registers of the piano sang brightly. Llewellyn’s sensitive accompaniment of the slow movement produced memorable beauty in the dialogues between piano and ‘cellos, and between piano and solo winds. Simply put, this was a fine performance of a well-beloved work by pianist and orchestra in perfect collaboration.
The concert closed with a masterful reading of the Britten variations and fugue, alternatively titled The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Written in 1946 for a film to acquaint young students with the orchestra, the work begins with the statement of its main theme, that of the Purcell Rondeau, by the full orchestra and then, in turn, by the full woodwind, brass, string, and percussion sections. Each of the thirteen variations which follow shows off a particular segment of those sections, including a variation for harp and another variation requiring five percussionists (in addition to the timpanist). After the variations, Britten begins a fugue which seemingly is unrelated to the Purcell theme, curiously like German composer Max Reger’s pattern for many of his chorale variations for organ. The fugue begins with the piccolo and gradually adds instruments until the Rondeau theme returns with the full orchestra, the Purcell tune in a remarkable coexistence with the fugal melody.
The fugue, marked Allegro molto, was interpreted literally by Maestro Llewellyn in a bravura ending to this scintillating music. The piece is designed to show off an orchestra, and the NC Symphony responded brilliantly. The conductor moved among the players for bows with sections large and small, tributes well-deserved.
The program, with the addition of Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D, will be repeated on Sunday, February 17, at 8:00 PM at the Kenan Auditorium at UNC-Wilmington. See the sidebar for details..