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The North Carolina Symphony performed at Wilmington’s superb Wilson Center in a program inspired principally by the sea. It was a grouping of some usual and unusual music. Grant Llewellyn, the orchestra's music director, was the conductor.
The opening piece was The Oceanides by Jean Sibelius. The work is a free-flowing tone poem, not adhering to a fixed form. It has an immediately poetic beginning and a big climax. However, for a fair amount of its eleven minutes, it seemed rather without direction and could have benefited from more tension and intensity.
The performance had an unusual visual feature: a large screen which projected pictures of the sea, alternating with views of the orchestra itself performing. At its best, the views (including some of the waters around Wilmington) were gorgeous and made the viewer wish for more. Sometimes it was a bit distracting, especially in the significant stretches when it showed the orchestra itself. It was a nice touch to have the same water view at the end as had been shown at the start.
This was followed by the Poème, Op. 25, of Ernest Chausson. The soloist in this work for violin and orchestra was concertmaster Brian Reagin. The work is essentially what the title suggests – a poem in music. A good part of it is introverted, and this was what came over most effectively. Reagin, a fine artist, played with sweet, expressive tone and finely drawn-out lines. What was less strongly projected, from both soloist and orchestra, was the high romantic passion which also plays a significant role in the piece. The beauty of the tone and character of this nearly quarter-hour work lacked somewhat in overall shape and the building of climaxes.
The half ended with a rarity: "D'un matin de printemps" (Of a spring morning) by Lili Boulanger. This greatly gifted composer was the younger sister of the renowned pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, the teacher of some of the century's most famous composers, such as Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, and Darius Milhaud. Lili Boulanger's life was cut tragically short by illness at the age of 25, so her gifts were only partially brought to fruition. This piece is in a freely tonal idiom and shows an imagination for tone color and dynamic rhythm. At a little more than five minutes, one wished it had continued. The performance was effective, with a bright climax, a lovely contrasting section to the main energetic material, and vigor at the end.
After intermission the concert continued with Four Sea Interludes, Op. 33a, from Peter Grimes, by Benjamin Britten. In staged presentations of the opera, these segments provide for changes of scenery and also communicate the character of the action. The first, evoking dawn, had a haunting quality, with the high-range strings counterpointed with low brass. The second section had a stringent intensity and also long melody, richly played by the lower strings. The third, moonlight, had a measured, pacing quality and also lovely and rich swells, the clearest sense of the sea to that point in the group. The last is the drama of the storm. The orchestration is full and complex, with dark rumbles from the percussion and also a beautiful sustained moment before the coda brings this turbulent essay to a conclusion. The group is as much four discreet tone poems as it is a unified set. There was much effective color in the performance and dramatic energy in the last movement.
One of the great masterpieces of the repertory concluded the program: La Mer, by Claude Debussy. This piece, a marvel of orchestral imagination and color, depicts the sea from early morning to midday liveliness and afternoon turbulence. The world here is brighter than in the preceding Britten, offering a different character to some of the same aspects of the sea. The projected pictures were especially lovely; one would have liked more of them.
The first movement began with an immediate beauty of color, yet it also seemed a bit brisk, which subtracted from the highly evocative quality of the piece. There were supple wind lines and a beautiful decrescendo to the theme featuring the cellos. The soft transition to the final triumphal crescendo was especially effective. The orchestra, with Llewellyn at the helm, exceled in such gestures.
The second movement, which vividly captures the character of the waves, had wonderful colors. The brief violin solo was as playful as the extended wind passages, and the ending was finely subtle. The final movement had much energy and tension right at the start and a beautiful quiet contrasting section, followed by an exquisite high-lying passage. The ending of the piece and the concert was expansive and dramatic.
This program will be repeated in Raleigh at Meymandi Concert Hall on Saturday, April 13th, and then in Chapel Hill on the 14th, followed by a final performance in Southern Pines on the 23rd. See our sidebar for details.