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To open his tenth season as Music Director of the North Carolina Symphony, Grant Llewellyn chose landmark works of the state and of the world: music by NC composer Robert Ward, who died just this year at age 95, and Symphony No. 9, Op. 125, by Ludwig Van Beethoven. Ward, who only seven months ago attended an NC Symphony performance which included his "Jubilation Overture," was represented by "City of Oaks" and by two movements from Sweet Freedom's Song.
"City of Oaks," commissioned by the NC Symphony for Raleigh's Convention Center opening in 2008, is an overture in sonata form. Its two principal themes are a fanfare-like succession of chords and a contrasting lyric tune reminiscent of a Western film score. Though only a little over six minutes in length, the work's orchestration includes sections for the woodwind, brass, and string sections, each played with élan. This music deserves many more performances.
The orchestra was joined by the NC Master Chorale for two choruses from Ward's 1965 cantata, Sweet Freedom's Song: A New England Chronicle. In "Come, ye thankful people, come," the Chorale sang the rapid fugal passages with dexterity. The women's voices blended beautifully with Anita Burroughs-Price's harp in their quiet passage. The cantata's closing movement takes as its text Samuel Smith's "Let music swell the breeze," which many know as a stanza of "America." Here, Ward's writing is more vocal in style, with a melody treated as aria, chorale, and contrapuntally to good effect. Orchestra and chorus combined for a rousing performance.
The word "great" is so misused these days that it has become essentially meaningless; however, in the pantheon of classical music, "Beethoven's Ninth" occupies a niche reserved for truly great works of art. One mark of greatness is that a listener will always hear something new; I had not noticed before that three of this symphony's four movements end with either a theme of nine notes or, in the case of the finale, a passage of nine beats. Intentional? Perhaps, but all the stronger for not being obvious. This symphony's power is such that it made Johannes Brahms spend two decades composing his own first symphony, fearful of not living up to Beethoven's standard; and who is to say that the mysterious-sounding opening bars of "the Ninth" were not lurking in Gustav Mahler's mind when he began his first symphony?
The opening Allegro's thirty-second note syncopations lacked the energy required even in the sotto voce passages; this robbed the beginning of its rhythmic intensity. In the louder passages, the "pick-up notes" regained their necessary accents. The rest of the movement was just as Beethoven would have wanted to hear it. The second movement, Molto vivace, sparkled, thundered or waxed lyrical where called for, and concluded with the thirteen-bar Presto section, in which Beethoven managed to compress the thematic elements of the movement, leaving the audience breathless with its final nine notes. The glorious third movement, Adagio molto e cantabile, is Beethoven's final bridge to music's "Romantic Era." While his melodies are so often little more than scale passages or arpeggios, here the first violins spin out melodic writing that presages Brahmsian melodies. Llewellyn's attention to dynamics helped to make this performance one of true beauty.
With the Master Chorale in top form, the conclusion of the final movement's "Ode to Joy" was greeted by cheers from an audience on its feet. Of the solo voices, bass Kevin Deas and soprano Barbara Shirvis made the strongest impression. Tenor Benjamin Butterfield's voice was not large enough to carry over the chorus men and the orchestra in the Alla Marcia passage, but he and mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy acquitted themselves well in their vocal-quartet parts. Except for the marcato pummeling of the principal melody to which Beethoven set poet Friedrich Schiller's "An die Freude" invocation to "Joy, daughter of Elysium," the chorus's performance was exemplary. Particularly memorable was their sound in the "Seid umschlungen, Millionen!" ("Be embraced, you millions!) section. Congratulations to Alfred E. Sturgis for making his group such a fine resource for the North Carolina Symphony and to conductor Grant Llewellyn and his musicians for bringing beauties both new and old into our lives.