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Our venerable state orchestra, the North Carolina Symphony, treated the public at the University of North Carolina Wilmington to a program with an unusual balance. The first half was devoted to a series of airy dance pieces; the second contained a single, weighty symphony.
The concert began with the overture and a movement from Schubert’s Rosamunde, one of the most lyrical and simply beautiful pieces in the repertoire. The performance was characterized by attractive phrasing, crisp rhythms, and an almost beguiling sound from the substantial-sized orchestra. The winds especially, excelled in producing shapely and gentle phrases. The lower registers were quite soft, helping to give the whole sound a wonderful lightness. Conductor Grant Llewellyn understands how to lead with a light touch and allow the spontaneity of his players to shine through.
The next piece gave us more of the Viennese dance style with the "Morning Papers" waltz by Johann Strauss Jr. The same light, attractive sound came through here as in the Schubert. But it was rather metric, lacking enough of the lilt, beat flexibility, and string swoops which give a waltz its distinctive Viennese flavor. The transitions, which should be carried with a gentle rubato, were sometimes imprecise.
The concluding item of the first half was four excerpts from Respighi’s ballet La boutique fantasque, based on music of Rossini. The tarantella and mazurka were very attractive, though one wondered if the tarantella might not have been even faster and more highly energized. One would have liked a bit more exaggeration or grotesquerie in the can-can; the galop rounded off the set with high energy fun. Overall the performance was enjoyable, if also somewhat straight-laced.
The entire second half was devoted to the fourth symphony of Brahms. This large-scale piece, by turns somber, dramatic, and elegiac, was in almost complete contrast to the music of the first half. In the first movement, the conductor’s somewhat brisk style didn’t always fully convey the dark, passionate mood. This was noticeable, for instance, in the sometimes-underplayed swells, which help give this music its expressive intensity. The most dramatic sections were the development and the coda. The transition to the recapitulation was gripping, filled with anticipation. Throughout the movement, the winds phrased lovingly, while the violins were not always tightly together when they reached the high register.
More beauty of phrase awaited in the second movement, even as the lyricism could have been more expansive. The third movement had the lightness and brightness that sets it apart so much from the other three.
The large-scale, often dark last movement again did not always have the somber drama that characterizes this piece. But the return of the opening theme was intense. In the latter section, the swells one had missed in the first movement were there, and the coda ended the symphony in a blaze of tragic drama.
The sharp duality of the music on this program allowed the listener to get a portrait of its conductor as well. Mr. Llewellyn seems most at home in music of a lighter, more lyrical character. Phrasing and fineness of tone would appear to be his special strengths. He has the ability to lead playing of drama and power, but based on this performance, isn’t as consistently compelling in music of that character. That said, the intensity of the ending brought ovations from the audience, and they were well-deserved.
*We are pleased to welcome Barry Salwen to the pages of CVNC. A brief bio may be found here.