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While violinist Joshua Bell and his Stradivarius were, justifiably, the twin attractions featured in the publicity preceding the North Carolina Symphony's gala concert opening their 2018-2019 season, the orchestra and conductor Grant Llewellyn were equally impressive.
From the opening molto vivace unison string passages in Hector Berlioz's Le Corsaire Overture, Op. 21, and sterling performances of Franz Liszt's Les Préludes and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34, to Llewellyn's sensitive collaboration with Bell in the beloved Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77, by Johannes Brahms, the NC Symphony was in fine form.
The Berlioz overture displayed the virtuosity not only of the string sections but also of the collective brass sections and several instrumental solo voices, with flute and clarinet especially strong. You knew that the finale of the work was approaching as the three percussionists rose from their chairs to join the rest of the ensemble in responding to Llewellyn's exemplary clear conducting style.
Liszt's Les Préludes contains some of his most stirring music, leading to its being borrowed for such disparate uses as Nazi Germany's propaganda films and the soundtracks of thousands of episodes of the radio drama "The Lone Ranger." Its lesser-known quiet moments include lovely musical dialogues exquisitely performed by harpist Vonda Darr*, flutist Anne Whaley Laney, and clarinetist Samuel Almaguer.
The five movements of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Spanish Capriccio" could be considered a "concerto for orchestra," as they provide for solo performances by each of the orchestra's sections and by many individual musicians as well. Llewellyn's rhythmic drive spurred a rousing reading which brought well-deserved loud applause and acclamations from the almost full-house audience in Meymandi Concert Hall. At the work's conclusion, the conductor gave individual bows to outstanding soloists including concertmaster Brian Reagin, hornists Rebekah Daley and Kimberly van Pelt, principal cellist Bonnie Thron, oboist Melanie Wilsden, and the previously-mentioned principal flutist, clarinetist, and harpist. Principal bassoonist John Pederson, while afforded fewer opportunities for solos, undergirded the woodwind section with excellent playing and musicianship. (As is often the case, one wishes for more violinists; the current ratio of 14 Violin I to 8 Violin II is a recipe for imbalance in the upper string sections.)
After intermission, all eyes and ears were focused on Bell, his 1713 Strad (which Brahms once heard), and Brahms' Violin Concerto, high in the canon of favored Romantic-era concerti. While Bell's playing style is more athletic in nature than most of his predecessors in the stratosphere of great violinists (including Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin, whose recordings of this concerto are still popular), his music-making is of the highest degree. His intonation approaches perfection, from the long, sustained lyrical melodic lines which are a significant part of Brahms' musical genius, to the long passages of multi-note chords which Bell delivered with deft attacks from his Tourte (18th century) bow. Bell played his own cadenza in the opening movement; although it was on the long side in comparison to the composer's offering, it worked well, serving to recap the principal thematic material which preceded it.
Llewellyn kept the NC Symphony "in sync" with Bell throughout the concerto's three movements, giving them free dynamic rein in the fortissimo sections and bringing them to a whisper when necessary, allowing Bell to revel in his violin's glowing upper registers.
All in all, this was a glorious evening of orchestral splendor provided by one of the world's greatest violinists and an orchestra and conductor in which the state of North Carolina may take warranted pride.