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The North Carolina Symphony gave its first Wilmington concert of 2018 with two very familiar works: Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in B-flat, and Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky. The performance was led by Rune Bergmann, a Norwegian conductor who has been building an international career and was making his first appearance with the North Carolina Symphony.
This performance showed how it is possible to make very familiar music a new and exciting experience. Bergmann had an infectious enthusiasm. He fairly bounded on to the stage and seemed to take sheer pleasure in music making. Without the physical constraint of a podium – being tall, he could do without one – he moved around freely, creating closer-than-usual contact with the orchestra, and seemed to draw the music directly out of the ensemble. His sometimes-unorthodox conducting style signaled gestural meaning at least as much as delineating a beat. His arms would barely move for several measures; then, at the key point of a phrase, his beat would return, sometimes just for a moment, to take command.
Combined with the superb North Carolina Symphony, the result was artistry of the highest order, with a line of concentration that led from the beginning of a work to its end. In the Beethoven, focus and intensity were palpable from the first mysterious notes of the introduction. The following Allegro was energetic and transparent. There was rhythmic clarity in the main motive and fine articulation in the strings. Precise wind entrances – Bergmann drew all of this forth without the use of a baton – signaled with a bare movement, opened into shapely phrases. There was a wonderful pianissimo in the development section, with an atmosphere which, despite the classical character of the work, intimated the romantic era soon to come.
The second movement again offered concentrated lyricism, along with lovely phrases and rich tone. The secondary theme was wonderfully delicate, while the brief B-flat minor section brought forth strong drama. There was magic in the coda, and even the timpani line at the end conveyed its own tension and character.
The third movement was suitably vivacious, with the contrasting trio delightfully pastoral. The strings had beautiful pp. The last movement was sheer delight, with sharp rhythms in the best Beethoven style and pauses that were dramatic events in themselves. The North Carolina Symphony has always excelled in 19th century music. This performance showed them equally compelling in the Classical style as well.
The second half was entirely taken up with Pictures at an Exhibition, a large and colorful work which is a showcase for orchestra. Mussorgsky wrote the piece in homage to his friend Victor Hartmann, an artist whose early death brought about an exhibition of his paintings. Pictures literally depicts walking through a gallery and experiencing the art works. Mussorgsky wrote it as a piano piece; the masterly orchestration by Maurice Ravel heard in this concert has become standard as well.
As in the Beethoven, here an often-heard work could be experienced as fresh and new. Everything about the performance was compelling, from the bright and rich brass playing to the superb wind solos and the lush strings. And not least the projection of the whole which led the work seemingly inevitably from the promenade at the beginning to the grandiose conclusion depicting the great gate of Kiev.
The opening Promenade showed immediate color and contrast; the following "Gnome" movement brought forth vivid drama, a ponderous character, and a hugely bright ending. The following gently reflective Promenade led, in "The Old Castle," to beautiful phrasing in both the bassoon and the famous saxophone solo. The "Tuileries" had a delightful lilt, and "Bydlo" brought real power, with an impressive percussion buildup and drop away near the end.
The following Promenade was a beautiful high-lying contrast. In the "Ballet of the Chicks," which the orchestra played with highly exact rhythm, Bergmann led with surprisingly little beat at times – a good example of the synergy between an artist-conductor and a first-class orchestra. The "Marketplace" evoked all the bustle of such a lively spot. When finally, the piece arrived at its culmination in "The Great Gate of Kiev," it was the grandest of perorations, a magisterial ending in which the full orchestra, drawn forward by the conductor's delineation of both rhythm and phrase, produced an almost overwhelming effect. The superb acoustics of the Wilson Center were on display too as the hall rang almost to overflowing with orchestral power.
The ending ovations were more than deserved. Wilmington, with North Carolina's orchestra and its top-caliber artistic leaders, and with the fine Wilson Center as a performance locale, is becoming the site of world-class music making.