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In a concert that was certainly one to remember, the classic themes of Dvořák and the wild exuberance of Prokofiev were united in the same evening with the North Carolina Symphony's engaging program. Grant Llewellyn conducted, and guest pianist Alexei Volodin brought Prokofiev's writings to life in Raleigh's Meymandi Concert Hall. These two phenomenal works, Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C and Dvořák's Symphony No. 5 in F, were first introduced by Karel Husa's Pastoral for strings. This sweeping work features a smooth melody, but with another dimension added by mysterious leaps in the melodic line. The texture grows slowly, with countermelodies that increase polyphony among the different string instruments, resting over a gentle pizzicato in the double bass. There are moments of fervent discordance, yet this was all executed by the Symphony with perfect blend. The Pastoral as a whole, similar to the works that followed it, was played to its full satisfying tonal richness.
Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C is arguably Prokofiev's best, and also is possibly one of the most difficult piano concertos in the performer's canon. In addition to the frequent occurrence of rapid, virtuosic passages, the pianist and orchestra have a relationship of direct exchange. Many other piano concertos feature the orchestra more as a secondary support of the soloist; this concerto had a sparkling interplay of themes instead, making the coordination sometimes more difficult for the musicians yet ultimately more rewarding for the audience.
The Andante portion of the first movement is quite short, featuring only a solo clarinet that soon gives way to the ensuing Allegro tempo for the rest of the movement. Volodin expertly navigated the various melodic relationships between piano and orchestra through a texture that was playfully mysterious, but not too dark.
The second movement, Andantino, begins like a graceful promenade, slightly pompous; this theme is taken by the piano. Volodin's treatment used elegant rubato that was very effective. The second half of the movement becomes more restless, with constantly changing textures and sudden building dynamics despite being a middle movement. The third movement, Allegro ma non troppo, is a sparkling yet tempestuous jewel; it begins with a furious theme in the piano supported by pizzicato in the strings. The rapidly changing moods of this movement are mesmerizing and a little puzzling. Throughout all of this was Volodin's consistent balance between maintaining mechanical precision and expressive accuracy – both of which are necessary to deliver Prokofiev's music. The concerto ends magnificently, with a sweeping texture akin to waves of sound in the orchestra. Volodin played the final passage at breakneck speed with unfathomable energy, leading many of the audience to leap to their feet in applause.
For the second half of the concert, NCS performed Dvořák's delightful Symphony No. 5 in F. Although this Symphony was written in only six weeks, it contains thematic synthesis that is complex yet memorable for the listener. The first movement is pastoral and joyful, and NC Symphony's fluttering woodwinds gave way to a grand, lyrical theme. This theme introduces a cadential set of three chords that, when played together, are achingly beautiful with a tone of hopefulness. The second movement, in triple meter, is slightly more serious in tone. The balance of a sweeping melody with underlying motion can be tricky, but naturally the orchestra's balance was seemingly effortless. The capricious, fun Scherzo movement gives way to the Finale, a decidedly different character change. The melody and themes of this movement are structured similarly to the first three, but in a minor mode. The Symphony's powerful brass section especially stood out in this movement, leading suspenseful growing and chromaticism. After all this tension, hints of the three chords from the first movement begin to rise, dissipating the seriousness. Together, NCS brought Dvořák's music to an emotional and triumphant close.
The performance on Saturday night in Raleigh has been cancelled (see the NC Symphony's statement). The concert will be repeated in Chapel Hill at UNC's Memorial Hall on Sunday at 7:30 pm. See the sidebar for details.