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The North Carolina Symphony's latest installment of the 2021 streaming season, "Pops Around the World," aimed to alleviate the stir-craziness that some of us may feel now that the pandemic shroud is beginning to lift. Led by charismatic guest conductor Sarah Hicks, the NCS performed works from several continents, albeit mostly focused on the European. Hicks, given her array of specializations including film and pop music, was a perfect choice for this pops program. And she is no stranger to the Meymandi stage, having been associate conductor for NCS from 2007 to 2010. Not only is she the principal conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall with the Minnesota Orchestra, but Hicks is also a frequent guest conductor and collaborator with arts organizations across North America, Europe, and beyond.
Our NC Symphony host Joseph Peters was joined by Hicks for pre-concert interviews that were shown between sets, wherein she described her impetus for this wanderlust-inspired program. Hicks chose pieces that encapsulate their country of origin, from the rustic peasant dances of Norway to the Middle Eastern and Northern African influences on Manuel de Falla in Spain.
Edvard Grieg's "Bauerntanz" ("Country-dance") from Two Norwegian Melodies begins with bell-like peals in the strings, before launching into a joyous, bouncy melody with playful rubato that was led by Hicks effortlessly. For a bit of contrast within the genre of folk-inspired music, Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances were comparatively more "serious" and stately. The seven movements were also a vehicle for some delightful solos in the violin and flute. Themes of contrast and travel continued with the juxtaposition of Rossini's Overture to L'Italiana in Algeri with "Georgia on My Mind" and "An Irish Party in Third Class" from the movie Titanic. Rossini's signature constantly flowing melodies were just the right amount of locomotive without feeling rushed; "Georgia on My Mind" was lush and naturally relaxed, featuring NCS trombonist John Ilika. With Larry Moore's arrangement of a traditional Irish reel for Titanic, Hicks and the orchestra captured the pure joy of Irish dance.
Described by Hicks as one of her favorite pieces, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Four Novelletten is one of the composer's shorter, lesser-known works. The first movement, No. 1 in A, is full of whimsy: sweeping lyrical string melodies and tidbits of percussion form a lush, waltz-like atmosphere. NCS's own violinist Emily Rist Glover was featured in the bold string ensemble work Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas by Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla. Playing the first movement, "Verano Porteño" the orchestra created a fierce, pulsing backdrop for the enigmatic violin solo, which, in a nod to its Northern Hemisphere counterpart, includes the rapidly descending, fiery melody from Vivaldi's "Winter."
Speaking of fiery, de Falla's "Ritual Fire Dance" from the ballet El amor brujo brought the flames to close this concert. NCS's pulsating lower strings formed the sparkling embers underneath, while oboe and clarinet solos emulated the unpredictably licking flames. The flame reaches its highest when sharp trumpets enter, rolling forward to a breathless conclusion.