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The North Carolina Symphony, led by its music director Grant Llewellyn, gave another unusual concert at Wilmington's superb Wilson Center. Imaginative programming has become a feature of this orchestra's calendar. Concerts also feature artists who are doing innovative things outside classical music while bringing their creativity to this genre as well.
The program was entirely American and spanned the years 1924 to 2018. It featured two unusual performances flanked by familiar pieces. The opening work was Aaron Copland's brief but impressive "Fanfare for the Common Man." Written during the dark days of World War II as an uplifting, inspiring piece, it is scored for just brass and percussion. The distinctive character of this performance was its grandeur. Led by Llewellyn at a broad tempo, the orchestra brass section played the piece with power and breadth. The following work was an evergreen, one of the beloved pieces in the repertory. At the same time, it was performed in a manner which almost made it new. This was George Gershwin's wonderful Rhapsody in Blue. Written in 1924 to make the emerging jazz style palatable to American audiences, this reimagining of the piece brought the Rhapsody back to its jazz roots.
The soloist was the Japanese pianist Makoto Ozone. He has become well-established on the jazz scene, recording with major jazz names and touring with his own big band. Here he expanded Gershwin's score with extended piano improvisations. He is a fine improviser, playing with élan and éclat. He has a consummate fluency at the keyboard which helps make his solos sparkle.
There was however a drawback to this improvisatory creativity. The Rhapsody didn't only become a good deal longer, but it also lost its character as a work for piano and orchestra and became a jazz piano piece punctuated by ensemble interludes. One could delight in the solos while also wishing that they were shorter so that the piece would carry its overall design and forward momentum.
Much of the performance was very fine. Sections caught a honky-tonk, even riotous character which carried the listener along. There was a fine shift from ff to pp in the latter part of the piece, and the piano part in the coda was played with brilliance. The opening was perhaps the least satisfying. The tempo felt a little too fast to be relaxed and let the syncopations speak easily. There was enough rubato in the piano part that the rhythmic consistency was weakened. Yet while the overall approach was a mixed success, there was a great deal to enjoy, and one could appreciate the fresh, creative approach to this great and familiar music.
Following intermission came a world premiere commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony. It was titled "Si Otsedoha," meaning "We're Still Here" in the Cherokee language. A piece in five parts for chorus, soprano soloist, and orchestra, it tells of the terrible trials of the first Americans and their determination to remain with us and strong and optimistic for the future.
The piece grew out of the North Carolina Symphony's music education residency in Cherokee, North Carolina, which began in 2016 and culminated in this work by composer William Brittelle. The orchestra's educational outreach has brought symphony music to large numbers of young students, and in this case also fertilized a valuable cultural exchange. The words of the piece give us a story which needs to be heard. Significantly, many of those words were written by the Cherokee Chamber Singers – the high school chorus which performed – or by students in the Cherokee schools. As such, it is a personal statement by young adults on their heritage and their future. The 15-person chorus sang with conviction. The orchestra supported them with music holding evocative colors. The soprano soloist, Eliza Bagg. an up-and-coming young performer who also works in experimental styles, sang haunting vocables, with a sound that seemed to conjure the hills and the forests. At times she soared above the chorus like a talisman from the skies. The choir was led effectively by Michael Yannette; having two conductors on stage – Llewellyn conducted the orchestra – was a bit unusual but allowed the choir to sing under their normal conductor.
If one had a drawback to cite in this affecting and passionately-performed music, it would be the length. The message had been conveyed well before the piece ended. The sense of length was aided and abetted by the overall similarity of much of the orchestral music. Rarely did the orchestra stand out, and there were no accumulative orchestral climaxes that would have given the piece points of shape and culmination.
That said, one must salute the North Carolina Symphony for commissioning and performing this music and for its work with students that brought it about. The students contribute a great service by bringing their story forward. And Brittelle, the composer, described in a program note the sense of personal mission he brought to creating this music. That it came to be represents something very fine in our identity as Americans.
The concluding piece was another of the great works from the American repertory, Copland's Appalachian Spring. Written originally to be danced by the innovative Martha Graham and her company, Copland shortly afterwards recast it as an orchestral suite. This has become one of the more popular works on the concert stage. Its most famous section is the lovely set of variations on "'Tis a Gift to be Simple."
This was the only piece on the program featuring the full orchestra, and the orchestra shone. The tranquil opening carried a spacious expressivity. The following section burst forth with rhythmic excitement. The rhythms were tight and strong. The next part, picturing the couple about to be married, carried lyrical beauty in the winds and strings. The variations had all the shapely lines and energetic excitement one could wish for. The concluding section, returning to the character of the opening, was simply beautiful, with a fine flute solo and an ending fading into a hush which was nothing short of magical. It was an exquisite way to end the concert, and a moment for an American to bask in the great creativity our musical culture has brought forth.
This program was also presented on the previous two days, in Raleigh.