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Although entitled "The Firebird," that Stravinsky suite was only one of three programmatic works on this program, along with the mercurial violin concerto by Jean Sibelius. Violinist Augustin Hadelich and his 1723 Stradivarius violin were the brightly-shining stars in the concerto, while the North Carolina Symphony's collective musicianship provided star quality in their performance of two Stravinsky ballet suites (Pulcinella and The Firebird) and in Sibelius' melancholy Valse Triste.
The stories on which the Valse and the two Stravinsky suites are based are well-known; to save many kilobytes of text, I won't recount them here.
The NCS string sections took center stage as the Valse Triste opened the concert. Their pianissimos were simply gorgeous, embellished by the 'cello section's five-note cadential theme. This brief work's melodic content (that is, a tune which lingers in one's memory after the concert is over) is in contrast with Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor, which makes its effects through changing moods and colors, rather than through Brahmsian melodic lines.
In my review of Hadelich's 2017 performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto with the NCS, I said, "His intonation was, in a word, perfect; he tossed off the virtuoso passages with ease...." That statement applies again: Hadelich's intonation was exquisite. His Stradivarius sang, its softest tones easily reaching the balcony of Meymandi Concert Hall. Maestro Grant Llewellyn was an equal partner in the concerto, sensitively combining with Hadelich to probe the depths of musical feeling in Sibelius' work. They both brought out the rhythmic changes which brighten the opening movement when, without changing the 3/4 time signature, the accents become duple (as if written as 6/8), rather than triple.
The second movement, Adagio di molto, is the most "Romantic" sounding part of this concerto; soloist and orchestra were again on the same wave-length in plumbing its depths of feeling. The final Allegro, ma non tanto movement begins with a fiendishly-difficult solo passage which sounds like a cadenza; its difficulties were hidden behind Hadelich's virtuosity.
The audience demanded an encore, and Hadelich offered nothing less than the 24th of Nicolo Paganini’s Caprices, all of which he has recently recorded. To say that the pizzicato section of this encore was spectacular would be an understatement.*
After intermission, the NCS took on not one but two major works by Igor Stravinsky: orchestral suites drawn from two ballets created by Sergei Diaghilev for his Parisian Ballet Russe. If the music of Pulcinella doesn't sound like Stravinsky, that's because most of it was originally composed by Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-36) and/or his contemporaries. Stravinsky added a half-bar here and there and totally re-orchestrated the music for many different instrumental groups so that this ballet music takes on the guise of an 18th century concerto grosso. There was a string quartet (first-chair players all) and groups of woodwind and brass as well. A delightful gavotta featured a colorful trio of flute, bassoon, and horn.
The concert closed with the 1919 version of Firebird (the music adapted for a somewhat smaller orchestra than the original 1910 production, but still quite large). In stark contrast to the new-classical Pulcinella score, this music is Stravinsky at his most romantically-expansive, showing the influence of his teacher, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The NCS was equal to the challenge, from the quiet introduction through the perpetual-motion dances and into the exuberant finale.
Llewellyn's incisive beat, always clear, signaled the rhythmic vitality which crowned the last movement, with its unusual seven-pulse meter providing a truly "grand finale" ending.
The entire evening reflected the superb musicianship of each member of the North Carolina Symphony as well as the conductor. This program will be repeated on Saturday in Raleigh and on Sunday in Chapel Hill, for details of which, see the sidebar. Those audiences are in for an evening of great music, definitively and beautifully performed.