There was music in the air at Meymandi Concert Hall as guest conductor Karina Canellakis returned to Raleigh for the first of two presentations in the capital of an all-orchestral program devoted to music by Mozart and Shostakovich; the program had also been given in Chapel Hill the night before. The result was magical all around: insightful Mozart, stunning Shostakovich, and superior sound resulting from her inspired leadership plus the venue’s new acoustical canopy.* She’s been here before, leading a pair of Russian Festival concerts at Summerfest in 2015 (reviewed here and here) and then returning for four more concerts in 2017 (described here and here). So maybe it was rapport established with the musicians of the NCS on those previous occasions, or maybe it was that new canopy (the result of a $1.2M public-private partnership involving the City of Raleigh and patrons and friends of the orchestra), but the overall results were truly remarkable. Canellakis herself, American born, with musical parents and of Greek and Russian ancestry, certainly knows her way around podiums, as her bio reveals; lots of experience in Dallas, early in her career – she’s not yet 40 – resulted in a series of impressive debuts literally all over, and she’ll take the reins as chief conductor of Holland’s radio orchestra next season. As it happens, this writer heard her debut with the London Philharmonic last fall in a program that was every bit as impressive as this one in Raleigh – and in which many outstanding qualities of her work here were also readily apparent, including quite astonishing clarity, definition, incisiveness, and intensity. London’s Festival Hall wasn’t full. Meymandi wasn’t either. Based on the results she achieved, it’s clear there’s greatness there, so sold-out houses are surely in her future and – with luck – ours, when she returns!

The program began with Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. No, really. And that was all there was on the first half. The strings had been reduced to 18, and there were nine winds. You could hear everything, literally. Mozart is not as common a staple in orchestral programs as he once was, but this rendition should inspire the suits in symphony offices to re-think their abandonment of his music. And the kid’s birthday, coming up on Jan. 27, should provide additional incentive. Here, Canellakis led the thrice-familiar score with keen awareness of its many felicitous beauties, directing it without a baton but oh, so expressively – damn, she knows what that left hand is for, and she used it often! Mid-level and senior listeners know this music perhaps too well, but here it was like experiencing it for the first time, so there were revelations at every turn, and those revelations came (of course) from the work of our superior artist-players in the NCS. There’ve been times when one couldn’t always tell who was doing what in Meymandi, but (as in London) the winds (one flute and pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns) were immaculately clear and detailed, and (golly!) they worked together like a well-oiled machine. The strings, too, excelled, demonstrating their overall excellence throughout. There was warm applause at the conclusion – richly deserved all around.

Part two was devoted to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, for some the prize of the composer’s 15 major works in this form. Putting aside for a moment our strained state of relations with the Russians, this, too, proved revelatory, reminding one that the folks that birthed this music were at one time our friends, allies, and comrades in arms. This symphony isn’t of the bombastic wartime ilk, not is it overtly solicitous of favor or approval. (It was premiered after Stalin’s death.) There are profoundly reflective moments – some of those moments are of considerable duration, actually – and there are passages of exhilaration that leave one figuratively spinning, top-like – but the piece reaches a conclusion that is neither manic nor depressive – perhaps not such an easy accomplishment for the oft’-troubled composer. The performance itself was as stunning as anything experienced in this venue in a very long time and perhaps even more so. Canellakis gave magnificent leadership, invariably making her cues with grace and dignity – she is a delight to observe as she works. But more important, she let our fine instrumentalists play, and play they did, delivering inspired solos aplenty from all quarters as the richly-scored symphony unfolded before our eyes and ears. (Alongside the customary wind, brass, and percussion lineup the complement included two piccolos, English horn, E flat clarinet, contrabassoon, tuba, and a flock of heavily engaged percussionists.) Again, the clarity and definition were hallmarks of the reading, and the precise playing, the clean phrasing enabled listeners to savor the colors and textures in a way that reminded one of the fact that nothing compares with live concert performances – and certainly not performances as inspired as this one.

If you missed it, get thee there for the repeat, on Jan. 12. For details of that, see the sidebar. And for more information about this program, see the NCS’s preview, here.

*The canopy is new, and it’s still being tuned and adjusted. It may or may not have much effect on the sound as perceived by listeners in the hall, but initial reports from some of the musicians are intensely favorable. They’ve long complained that they could not hear each other on the stage. If this addition fixes only that problem, it will have been well worth the investment. Otherwise, the stage lighting is noticeably improved, right off the top. As of Jan. 11, the NCS was still seeking $50K to complete the funding. (We still need a portable shell for choruses on the floor and for smaller ensembles playing there, and we still need an organ.)

Note: Richard Rodda’s fine program note is well worth your attention, as is the decent-sounding 1976 recording on YouTube by Mravinsky, who had led the premiere in 1953.