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Orchestral Music Review

A Chilly Concert on a Chilly Night

March 17, 2005 - Durham, NC:

March 17 started out with snow and ended with the NC Symphony under Grant Llewellyn doing an all-Classical-era concert – Mozart and Beethoven – in Durham. The first thing we noticed after the concert got started was that the Carolina Theater was cold. Everyone around us still had on overcoats, jackets, or wraps. At times it felt like a window or a door was open somewhere. Midway through the second half of the concert it felt like maybe, just maybe, the building was starting to warm up, and I thought I caught a whiff of heating fuel as though the furnace had misfired.

But enough of that – we came to hear the concert. The program began with the Overture and Ballet Music from Idomeneo, King of Crete, Mozart's opera seria that was by all accounts a success but was performed only twice in his lifetime because of declining interest in the genre. Mozart's greatest creative desire was to write operas, and though he excelled in every form he undertook, it is his operatic masterpieces that are the most magical and magnificent expressions of his art.

This was followed by Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat, K.482, during which the following stream-of-consciousness process took place: "This is not very tuneful Mozart. My eyes are still blurry from the drops the doctor put in them today. Are those natural trumpets at the back of the orchestra? I can't tell from here. These are charming scales. Now he has modulated to F minor. Another series of scales.... Now back to A-flat major.... Now here comes the cadence – uh, cadences. How many? Four? Sixteen? Well, don't be critical – it was the style of the time. Ah, now there's a charming melody.... What was it Sting said in that magazine article I read? He likes a lot of Mozart, but a lot of it is exceedingly boring. I have to agree with him tonight. What am I thinking? Mozart is a safe programming choice.... I can't wait to get to the Beethoven. It sure is chilly in here tonight...."

Mozart, to me, is like an amusing uncle at a family gathering. He can delight you with memorable stories you never forget. But he can also be so dull you begin to feel anesthetized. The orchestra also sounded a little less exciting than I have heard them in the recent past – or maybe they were just chilly, too.

Honestly – and as objectively as I can be – the Idomeneo Overture and the Piano Concerto were fine. The orchestra played superbly and Brazilian-born pianist Arnaldo Cohen was brilliant. In the program notes, musicologist Cuthbert M. Gridlestone writes, "Of all his concertos, this one is the queenliest. Combining grace and majesty, the music unfolds like a sovereign in progress, the queen of concertos." This was the first concerto in which Mozart used the clarinet, and its warm and mellow sound adds a noble quality. The most impressive sounds where in the sections where the interchange was intimate and intricate between the soloist and the orchestra. There were some beautiful melodies and some impressive Mozart charm, but mostly it seemed to me just routine, formulaic, and unexciting. Maybe it was my weariness or the chill in the theater....

The second half of the concert brought us a pivotal work in music history. The symphony – no, music – would never be the same after Beethoven's "Eroica." From the first two mighty chords and opening theme, we know we are not twenty years but light-years after Mozart's elegant concerto. Beethoven develops his thematic material in such a way that it seems to have just grown naturally under white hot inspiration, though in reality it is as tightly structured as any previous symphony. Longer than any symphonic movement up to this time, the music of the first movement of the "Eroica" is infused with powerful emotions and profound statements. The sense of awe is even greater with the second movement. A funeral march introduced by the violins over a rolling three note accompaniment (like a drum roll) in the basses instills a sense of tragic grief. Then the oboe enters with a theme in the major key that develops into a fugual climax of such intensity as to be nearly overwhelming. It always gets to me. This was the only point of disappointment in the orchestra's performance – the climactic horn solo sounded more shrill than mellow, as I am used to it. Maybe listening to recordings has ruined my ear for live concert hall performances. The horn trio in the third movement was however amazingly played – precise, rich, and heroic. The fourth movement unfolds as a set of variations on two themes and is one of the great models of symphonic development. It reaches its conclusion in a brilliant presto led by the heroic sound of the horns. The "Eroica" Symphony is a monumental and majestic moment in music history and indeed in the history of mankind, even without its references to the hero who might have been. And this music still moves us mightily two hundred years after it was first heard by an amazed audience in Vienna on April 7, 1805.

The NC Symphony with Llewellyn at the helm somehow did not sound as brilliant in the Carolina Theatre as it does in Meymandi. It may have something to do with acoustics or the ambience or the cool temperatures or even where I was seated, in the balcony. Nevertheless it is an outstanding orchestra. I like Llewellyn's no-nonsense conducting style. The fine intricate and delicate interplay of the solo and ensemble work continues to impress. Although the orchestra's sound seemed a little thinner than usual – there were fewer strings, to be consistent with classical performance practice, I assume – it is, as a whole, still outstanding.