Over time, the NC Symphony’s programming has tended to be fairly conservative. This has worked to the orchestra’s advantage in some respects – the group is apparently solvent, unlike many American bands – but has frustrated some seasoned music lovers. There’s been modern music from time to time – the orchestra has received national recognition for its efforts in this regard – but many of the new pieces have been short or otherwise insubstantial, so perhaps the awards stem from the fact that other outfits do much, much less. Anyway, on the evening of April 11, the program, crafted by Associate Conductor and Interim Artistic Planning Advisor (or IAPA, for short) William Henry Curry, began with a new work by William Bolcom, the guru of turn-of-the-[20th]-century popular music. The piece, “Inventing Flight,” marked the centenary of manned flight and was co-commissioned by our orchestra and the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, whose Music Director, Neal Gittleman, gave the pre-concert lecture at the first of two Raleigh performances. (Duke SO Music Director Harry Davidson is slated to present the pre-concert talk on April 12.) The official premiere took place on April 10, in Chapel Hill. The work will be recorded by the Dayton group following performances in Ohio in May. The commission was supported by the First Flight Commission and the NEA.

Bolcom’s score is “A Suite of Thumbnail Portraits” – of Daedalus and Icarus, Leonardo da Vinci, and Wilbur and Orville Wright. The three movements are effective musical sketches, brilliantly scored and consistently user-friendly. Under Curry’s leadership, the Meymandi Concert Hall performance was impressive, so one can hope that the NCS will give it again, beyond its scheduled repeat here and a reading in Manteo, in June. Bolcom boldly wrote his impressions of Daedalus for solo cello, played in Raleigh by Bonnie Thron. Icarus, a flighty character in more ways than one, is depicted by the brass instruments, which is a bold stroke, given the potential for imbalance between the solo string player and the others. There was clarity amid the occasional musical mayhem. The second movement is said to depict Leonardo as an old man, reflecting on his failed projects – he designed flying machines and much, much more. It would be the slow movement, if this were a symphony. The finale, which depicts failed attempts and ultimate success, is pure Bolcom, set in ragtime garb but with hints of this and that – some Gershwin and perhaps even some Grofé – from one of our leading musical chameleons. The coda (for want of a better word) is a twelve-second whirlwind ride that is meant to depict that actual first flight. The piece was warmly received, and its rendition could not have failed to please Bolcom, whose recent knee injury kept him from coming to the Triangle.

The evening’s guest soloist might have been overlooked amid the excitement of the new work, but the Curtis-trained American violinist Elissa Lee Koljonen gave a marvelous performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, marvelously supported by an orchestra that has not always been kind to visitors. She is a superb player who stands and delivers and who puts all her emotion into the music, rather than frittering it away on annoying physical mannerisms. This was the real thing – a straightforward, civilized and respectable reading of this composer’s best-known work. It’s a fairly dark and somber thing, and the solo violin’s lower-register richness was often apparent. So, too, was the rich orchestral accompaniment which, in lesser hands, can come across as turgid but never did so on this occasion, so attentive was the conductor.

The second half of the program was devoted to a complete performance of Tchaikovsky’s rarely-heard “Manfred” Symphony. It’s probably a safe bet that few people in attendance, on either side of the footlights, had ever heard it given live. Those who know the piece from recordings seem to be of two minds – they either love it or despise it. On one hand, it’s certainly no worse than, say, “Francesca da Rimini” – but it’s much longer. On the other hand, one can hear in this score much that is deeply loved in Tchaikovsky’s ballets and operas. That it is also a kitchen-sink piece is apparent, too, for there’s a lot of “stuff” in the music (as noted in our recent review of excerpts from the score, played by the Durham Symphony Orchestra on April 6). Curry clearly loves the work, and he facilitated a stunning traversal of it. There may or may not have been enough strings – it is a matter of record that the NCS is string poor – but the players it has are excellent musicians, and with Curry at the helm, they were always audible. This is no mean feat, given the scoring, which includes bass clarinet, two harps (the extra player was Winifred Garrett) and organ. (And yes, we need a real organ in Meymandi!) The headline gives away the overall assessment – this was, for the NCS, a triumph in programming and playing, too.

There were empty seats for the April 11 concert, so readers who missed it may wish to consider attending the repeat tonight, April 12.