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If ever there were any doubt about the North Carolina Symphony's position as a first-rank orchestra, it was completely erased at Friday's performance in Raleigh's Meymandi Concert Hall. Two towering works of the classical canon were given fresh, vigorous interpretations by two under-40 artists, matched by the ensemble's impressive spirit and talent.
Cellist Johannes Moser has firmly established himself as a dynamic performer with a number of recordings and dozens of concerts annually. Domingo Hindoyan, an alumnus of Venezuela's El Sistema music education program, has rapidly risen to leading orchestras and opera productions around the world. Here they joined forces for a revelatory traversal of Antonín Dvořák's Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104. Long considered the pinnacle of cello concertos, the 1895 composition alternates between heartfelt romantic melodies and frenzied dramatic passages requiring pinpoint accuracy.
Moser's attention-getting entrance in a black, rock star-style shirt emblazed with a shiny band of material and his calm, in-the-zone demeanor during the first movement's five-minute orchestral introduction set up an intriguing anticipation. It was fully satisfied when he suddenly flung out his bow with a flourish and dove into the cello's intense first measures with an almost maniacal fervor. When he reached the aching main melody, his facial expressions and body movements minutely reflected each fleeting emotion, sometimes eyes closed in near-pain, other times smiling and rocking back and forth.
Similar expressions and gestures continued through the tender second movement and the uplifting third movement. In the final minutes of the piece, in which Dvořák paid tribute to a recently deceased woman he had loved, the grief was palpable in Moser's quiet solo passage, ending in a tear-inducing high trill.
Such overt physical manifestations of the music could have seemed showy and pretentious in other hands, but Moser justified them all with his prodigious playing and moving interpretation. He didn't try for a big, pumped-up sound but employed a clear, lean tone that was intimate but never too light. When called for, Moser produced deep, woodsy lines that still retained admirable clarity, with never a hint of scratchiness.
Hindoyan's confident leadership inspired the orchestra to gorgeous playing and striking precision. His utter assurance in every measure made it plain that he knew the score well. This allowed him to collaborate with Moser in taking some sections in more extended tempos and others in more animated ones than usually heard, both ably convincing their choices.
The orchestra seemed more intently focused and absolutely unified than in recent memory, projecting a vibrantly alive performance. Principal horn player Rebekah Daley gave her lovely first movement solo a mellow richness, while concertmaster Brian Reagin matched Moser's enthusiasm in their duet passages in the third movement. The performance made the familiar work new again, one that will linger in the memory for quite some time. The genuine, long-lasting ovation at the conclusion elicited an encore from Moser: a quiet, introspective playing of the Sarabande from J. S. Bach's Cello Suite No. 1.
After intermission, Hindoyan returned to conduct a gripping performance of Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, Op. 100. The 1944 work has lost none of its searing impact, combining soaring anthems with harsh blasts of dissonance. Whether approaching it from the composer's general description as the triumph of the spirit of man or from those who find it a commentary on the brutalities of war and oppression, the piece is equally engaging and disturbing.
Hindoyan did not try to downplay the work's savage elements but also made sure the buoyant melodies weren't slighted. Hindoyan was particularly adept at building crescendos and controlling the extreme shifts in dynamics. He forged the seemingly disparate sections of the first movement into an identifiable arc, made the second movements odd little rhythmic patterns crackle, and shaped the fourth movement's stirring pageantry with a shinning glow. Hindoyan's grasp on the third movement's little stops, starts, and turn-backs was confident but didn't fully knit the scattered bits into a whole.
Still, the performance impressed mightily, demonstrating the full range and skill of the orchestra's members. Of the many solos in the piece, tuba player Seth Horner deserved particular praise for his constant underpinning of so much of the score.
The concert will be repeated on Saturday, March 3 in Meymandi Concert Hall. See our sidebar for details.