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The North Carolina Symphony provided its large audience on Saturday evening with a musical program filled with variety, engaging melodies and harmonies, and a high degree of purely sonic pleasure, particularly in the second half of the concert. The evening's high point, however, was a dynamic performance of the great Brahms Violin Concerto by Japanese soloist Midori Goto, who prefers to be known simply as Midori. Under guest conductor Michael Christie's careful direction, Midori's powerful performance of the concerto and the orchestra's solid playing throughout the concert warmed up a cold winter night and brought well-deserved, enthusiastic responses from the audience.
The engaging music of three of Antonín Dvořák's Slavonic Dances from Op. 46 — Nos. 1 in C, 4 in F, and 5 in A — opened the concert in fine style. These dances, although not adaptations of actual Slavonic folk tunes, seem authentic because their composer knew very well the tonal colors, melodic shapes, rhythms, and above all the spontaneous, often passionate nature of the genuine articles. All three of these delightful pieces bear the Dvořák stamp of great melody, infectious harmony, and folk rhythms, and they have as well a beauty and excitement captured completely by the orchestra. Certainly they were an excellent way to begin a concert full of melody and charm.
The second work on the program, Johannes Brahms' majestic Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77, was a showcase both for the brilliance of soloist Midori and for an orchestra, which seems to become more exciting to hear each time it performs. Midori has not been trained in the usual way, particularly in a great university or conservatory; in fact, she is an academic whose education has been predominantly in psychology but also in gender studies. But her years of study with her mother prepared her for the career she enjoys today.
Her skill showed itself immediately from her first bowstrokes, which the audience patiently awaited through the initial exposition of the customary two themes of the first movement. When she did enter the musical discussion at the introduction to the second exposition, her beautifully lyrical statement of the first theme and her playing of a new, equally lyrical second theme revealed a skilled violinist with great command of her instrument. In this movement, the power of her legato passages and the sweetness of her many high notes and phrases revealed a superb lyrical and expressive player. Her warm, passionate evocation of melody in the lower voice of her instrument showed her audience her command of the whole voice of her instrument. Also, the imposing cadenza introducing the coda revealed other technical aspects of her skill — her double-stopping and her ability to play breathlessly-rapid passagework over the violin's entire range — and brought her performance in the first movement to a stunning conclusion. In the adagio, the soloist's lyricism and especially her melting high notes held the attention of all who heard them. The finale, a boisterous dance with a pronounced gypsy character, was Midori's chance to show off her technique in a breathtaking statement in double-stops of the major theme. Indeed, unlike his compositional demands on the soloist in the first two movements, everything Brahms asks her to play in the finale is unabashedly virtuosic.
If I were required to question Midori's musical approach to anything in this great concerto, it would be what I often felt to be too much of a good thing: high notes that were occasionally too soft, so much so that they were very difficult to hear, even from my excellent vantage point. But I have nothing remotely negative to say about the orchestra's performance. The brilliant colors of Brahms' superb orchestration, especially for brass, called forth the best the players had to give.
The concert's second half featured the works of Hector Berlioz and Ottorino Respighi, both of whom were inspired by Roman scenes, melodies and dances, and shared a penchant for orchestration filled with vibrant color, rich melodic lines, dramatic shifts in dynamics, and in general a feel for creating some purely sonic events which do not fail to captivate an audience. Berlioz's "Roman Carnival" Overture, Op. 9, is typical of the composer's delight in creating grand orchestral effects. The introductory material in this work reveals his ability to create beautiful melody, typified by the English horn. But audiences think primarily of Berlioz as the genius who could bring together many kinds of instrumental combinations that cause listeners to sit forward in their seats and wonder what they will hear next and to use these combinations to bring together sometimes disparate music, such as the saltarello, some carnival music he heard while in Rome, and the English horn melody in the rousing conclusion of the overture.
Respighi utilized many of the same compositional techniques in The Pines of Rome. But he went beyond Berlioz in the degree of the many purely sonic effects he used to evoke the sights and sounds of four well-known spots in Rome, each of which comes to musical life in a way completely different from the others. It is in the fourth segment, "The Pines of the Appian Way," in which the music makes one see and hear the marching feet of the spirits of the many armies who have marched along this way over hundreds of years, that the immense orchestra on stage and a brass contingent off stage in a corner of the balcony bring to a smashing conclusion the most purely sonically effective of the evening's performances.
This concert included some of the world's great music, in particular the Brahms concerto, as well as some which may not be quite its equal in worth. No matter the degree of greatness of the music, however, the North Carolina Symphony played all of it with a polish and a gusto that all present rejoiced to experience.