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The North Carolina Symphony dazzled with a special event program of half North Carolina gems and half classic Tchaikovsky under the direction of conductor David Glover. The first half was a preview performance for the orchestra's participation in SHIFT: A Festival of American Orchestras later this month, presented by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.(North Carolina locals will have the chance to hear the entire program at the Kennedy Center Bon Voyage March 24 in Meymandi Concert Hall.) In preparing this program, the North Carolina Symphony was extremely intentional to choose pieces and composers that best represent the culture of NCS and the music of North Carolina. Works by Robert Ward, (whose connection to North Carolina lies in his work and teaching at the NC School of the Arts and Duke University) and Caroline Shaw (a Greenville NC native) completed this particular program, which will later be joined by works of Mason Bates and Sarah Kirkland Snider.
The historical and cultural context of Ward's Jubilation Overture makes an energetic and accented work even more powerful. This locomotive piece was composed while Ward was overseas in Japan and East Asia during World War II. Rather than creating a musical reflection of the conditions of war he was living through, Ward composed an optimistic, jazz-colored overture. Conductor Glover added to this energy too, with his gestures communicating a sense of energy and fun.
The unusual name for Shaw's composition Lo for Solo Violin and Orchestra is intriguing by itself, but it is intriguing musically as well. This work, purposefully not a concerto but rather an exploration of all the possible relationships between a solo violin and the different sections of the orchestra, was performed masterfully by the composer herself. According to Shaw, only about a quarter of the entire violin's solo is notated, a map for the soloist and conductor to follow together while leaving plenty of room for improvisational freedom. The work began meditatively, with Shaw playing a slow, careful rising scale over an orchestral texture that grew gently. At the beginning, the orchestra's sections interjected at a seemingly random pace before settling to a repeated moving chord progression in the strings. Throughout Lo, this same progression is treated to several inversions and transformations. Shaw blended effortlessly with the orchestra at times, and at other times her solo moments were glimmering and rippling with soft virtuosity. By the end of the two movements, the audience had experienced the slow unraveling of conventional systems – form, meter, tonality, and expectation.
The NC Symphony's performance of Tchaikovsky's masterful Symphony No. 4 was, of course, delightful. It is not often that a composer specifically names which work was his or her best or favorite, but Tchaikovsky did just that with his fourth. Within the symphony is a battle between optimism and fear, two forces that were very present in the composer's life at the time, and two forces that were made very clear by NCS. The stormy first movement and the raucous, folk song-driven fourth movement are perhaps the most crowd-pleasing, but particularly, the third movement was not to be overlooked by these musicians. In the midst of turmoil, this Scherzo: pizzicato ostinato appears with an engaging, playful melody and a delicate texture. The whole of Tchaikovsky's work is full of wonderful moments for members of the woodwind section; this is especially true in the third movement. The oboe's stately tune in a trio with rapid piccolo flourishes and punctuated brass created a unique texture that makes you lean forward in your seat, all the way to the electrifying cadence that concludes the fourth movement.
This performance repeats Sunday evening in New Bern and again on April 1 in Southern Pines. See the sidebar for details.