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Orchestral Music Review

NCS: Charming Classicism, Lyrical Modernism and Emotional Romanticism

October 18, 2007 - Chapel Hill, NC:

The North Carolina Symphony, under the baton of guest conductor Joseph Swensen, performed in UNC’s Memorial Hall with guest violinist Henning Kraggerud. It was a balmy Thursday evening for this time of year. The concert included classicist Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), modernist Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) at his lyrical best, and late romanticist Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). This program began with a stirring rendition of the National Anthem with enough of the audience singing that they could be heard over the orchestra at times.

Swenson was Principal Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra from 1996-2005, and when he relinquished this post in September 2005 he was invited to become the orchestra’s Conductor Emeritus. Kraggerud is a young Norwegian who has already performed with numerous major orchestras in Europe and is in high demand both as concerto soloist and committed chamber musician.

It is said that the musicians at the Esterhazy estate called Franz Joseph Haydn“Papa,” or at least this is what my generation was taught; it is an appropriate moniker. He was certainly the father of the classical era. During his long and mostly secure service to Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy, he worked out the sonata form in string quartets, symphonies, and a variety of other creations. He used extraordinarily inventive skills to solve problems of development, harmonic progression, and other musical puzzles many other composers would have abandoned, and he left a legacy of always fresh sounding symphonic works.

The name “The Bear,” attached to Symphony No. 82 in C Major, derives from a recurring feature in the last movement, in which Haydn imitates the sound of a bagpipe with a low sustained drone accented with a grace note on the downbeat. The curious sound reminded early listeners of the music used to accompany dancing bears, a popular street entertainment of the time. This performance was crisply, sprightly, and elegantly delivered, especially the charming third movement minuet.

Sergei Prokofiev, like his countryman Shostakovich, fought for many years the Stalinist-inspired label of decadence. He died on March 5, 1953, just a few hours before the death of Stalin. Nicholas Slonimsky, writing in the 8th ed. of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, notes, “Curiously the anniversary of Prokofiev’s death is duly commemorated while that of his once powerful nemesis is officially allowed to be forgotten.” (I happened to be in New York a month after Prokofiev’s death and heard Mitropoulos lead the New York Philharmonic in a memorial performance of his Fifth Symphony. It was unforgettable.)

Very early on, Prokofiev earned the reputation of a “modernist” and the bad boy of Russian music, writing pieces with extreme dissonances and such things as a piano piece with the left hand and the right hand in different keys. He had a penchant for playfulness and mischievousness in his music but also an unfailing sense of enticing melody.

The Violin Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 19, was composed in 1916-17 and was premiered in Paris on October 18, 1923. Marcel Darrieux was the violinist and Serge Koussevitsky conducted the Paris Opera Orchestra. It is not a bravado showpiece; there is no cadenza, for example. But it is Prokofiev at his most lyrical. The first movement opens quietly, ethereally, and builds in intensity before ending calmly again. The second movement bounces along in a playful mood with a slight hint of Shostokovich here and there. The third movement progresses through an astonishing variety of tone colors before ending quietly as the work had begun. Kraggerud was at one with the concerto. His beautiful tone and technical skill were thrilling.

It is the view of some that Sibelius (born Johan Julius Christian) was the greatest symphonist since Beethoven. A close musician friend of mine referred to him as “just a Finnish Tchaikovsky.” (Not a compliment!) Another associate heard him as disorganized and directionless. On the other hand, Vaughan Williams dedicated his Fifth Symphony to Sibelius. The LA Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen is currently engaged in a retrospective called “Sibelius Unbound.” Perhaps it is time to take a second look at the work of this northern composer who left us with "Finlandia," "Valse Triste," and a reputation for being deep in the bottle. This last may account for the fact that he published nothing during the last 30 or so years of his life.

In his First Symphony, the first movement opens with a modal-sounding clarinet solo, is watered and fertilized with strings and nervous woodwind passages, branches out with sweet flowerets in the strings, and finally sings in the full orchestra before dying away to make room for the second movement. The second movement is a wistfully beautiful adagio, building to a climax in the middle before fading away with the original theme. The third movement swings into action with tympani and woodwinds, and the fourth movement builds to a triumphal conclusion.

Jimmy Gilmore set the tone with his exquisitely toned and phrased solo clarinet opening. From there on it was a ride through the Finnish countryside filled with a rich variety of colors, bright skies and dark shadows, and emotional depth that was rapturous and satisfying. I felt that Swensen had somehow found a way to smooth out some of the jagged edges some conductors see in this early work, and it was truly something to experience. The NC Symphony came together under a special inspiration in this performance.

The program is being repeated October 19 and 20 in Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh and should not be missed. See our calendar for details.