The NC Symphony’s first concert of the New Year proved to be a splendid evening of seeing and hearing old friends along with some of the finest playing I have heard from our state orchestra. Gerhardt Zimmermann, whose official title is now Conductor Laureate, returned for a wonderfully varied program. I attended the January 8 concert at the Chapel Hill Bible Church, and as is usually the case, there was an excellent turnout.

Having seen many programs in the past with Maestro Zimmermann conducting, I know that he is not at all averse to speaking to the audience. This has always seemed to liven up the evening a bit as well as providing some interesting tidbits about the music being played. This evening there was none of that. It was very business-like and mechanical for the most part, until the final work on the program – more on that later.

The first half was all Beethoven, featuring two works that are examples of the great composer at his sunniest. There is a long history of all the versions of the overtures to Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera. The first three are known as the “Leonore Overtures,” each being written for revisions of the opera. These were considered so majestic and overwhelming that it was felt they took momentum away from the first act itself. The fourth and final version, which was played at this concert, contains no thematic material from the opera and is much lighter than its predecessors. From the opening fanfare, this work contains all the stylistic elements identifiable as Beethoven. After a few minor splats from the horn section near the opening, the orchestra settled down and gave a spirited and energetic reading.

Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony so bursts with cheer, energy, and good nature that some have suggested that it can be called the “humorous symphony”; fortunately, this has not caught on. Adding to this perception is the fact that this work does not have a slow movement. The other Beethoven symphonies and many other works contain sublime, deeply felt slow movements that would seem out of place in this almost blindingly bright and relentlessly racing work. The Eighth opens quickly and gets right to the point. There is no slow introduction, and the main theme is introduced as quickly as the much more famous “fate” motive of the Fifth Symphony. Probably the best known feature of this work is the metronomic woodwinds in the second movement. This actually was Beethoven’s way of lampooning the new invention of Maelzel – the metronome. The unbridled energy continues on through the final two movements. This is a work that is obviously great fun to play, and if this music won’t uplift you and make you smile, then nothing will.

The second half was a unique treat since it combined a work that is not heard all that often with one that is well known and that was played as well as any orchestra anywhere could play it. Known more by its subtitle, “Peacock Variations,” Zoltan Kodály’s Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song was written in 1939 for the 50th anniversary of the famed Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam.* The work became a metaphor for freedom and hope and was subsequently banned by the Nazis during World War II. The pentatonic theme, its sixteen variations, and the finale are a wonderful mix of familiar folk-like melodies along with more adventurous re-workings of the melodies. Although it is not quite at the exalted level of a masterwork like Elgar’s Enigma Variations, this is a composition I’d like to get better acquainted with.

It has often been an uphill battle against the perception that orchestras like the NCS can never measure up to places like Boston, Berlin, London – just to name a few. With ever more frequency there are performances by this organization that make you wish that aficionados of these undeniably great orchestras could hear the NCS. One of these occasions was the final work on this program. The 1919 version of the Suite from The Firebird, by Igor Stravinsky, contains five sections of the complete score originally written in 1910 for a Diaghilev ballet. This is one of those works where no matter how expensive a home music system you might have, nothing takes the place of hearing and seeing it performed live. The playing and direction was of such high quality that one can only hope that a recording of this performance might eventually be released. The work ended with chords played by the brass section that were so powerful and pristine that it was as if a mighty organ had suddenly materialized.

Another great occasion like this one was a concert last November where Grant Llewellyn conducted a ravishing version of Debussy’s La Mer. As this goes to press it was just announced that Llewellyn has accepted the position of Music Director and Conductor of the North Carolina Symphony. It is a fitting transition that such an exalted performance by Zimmermann triumphantly transfers the NCS into its next phase. The search is over. Congratulations to the NCS and to all music lovers throughout the state.

*Note: A recording of the world premiere, led by Mengelberg, is available in several CD incarnations, including a bargain-priced 10-disk set from Q (No. 97016) and a more expensive single from Audiophile Classics (101.550).