The North Carolina Symphony, under the baton of guest conductor André de Ridder, featured two outstanding symphonic works: the beloved “New World” Symphony by Antonín Dvořák and the masterful Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta by Béla Bartók.

De Ridder studied conducting in Vienna and in London. Currently, most of his work is in Great Britian and includes a wide variety of genres, from pop to opera, from ancient music to contemporary. He has conducted several world premieres of operas by contemporary composers. On the podium, his conducting has been characterized as reflecting a discerning ear for tempo, balance and timbre. He has been tagged the “livewire conductor” by the Times of London.

Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was commissioned by Paul Sacher to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the chamber orchestra Basler Kammerorchester, and was premiered in Basel, Switzerland on January 21, 1937, by the chamber orchestra conducted by Sacher. As its title indicates, the piece is written for string instruments (the usual, plus harp), percussion instruments (xylophone, snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam, bass drum, and timpani), celesta, plus piano. The strings are divided into two groups which should be placed antiphonally on opposite sides of the stage. Antiphonal effects are notable particularly in the second and fourth movements.

The piece is in four movements: the first and third slow, the second and fourth quick.

The first movement is a remarkable chromatic fugue with a constantly changing time signature and no key signature, but with sharps and flats all over the score. It is all built around the opening theme, which is played forward, then inverted and finally both simultaneously. It is meticulously worked into impeccable counterpoint. Thematic material from the first movement is used as seed material for the later movements, and the fugue subject recurs in different guises at points throughout the piece.

The second movement is quick, with a theme in 2/4 time which is transformed into 3/8 time towards the end. This movement makes creative use of the antiphonal stage layout specified in the score. A playful call and response is spiced with piano and celesta episodes.

The third movement is an example of what is often called Bartók’s “night music.” It features timpani glissandi and a mysterious, eyrie chromatic theme. It has been used as background music in a number of Hollywood movies.

The last movement, which begins with notes on the timpani and strummed pizzicato chords on the strings, displays a series of lively folk dances.

This was no music for the faint of heart and is challenging even for accomplished musicians. De Ridder led the NC Symphony in a tight, technically sound and emotionally satisfying performance which the full house audience responded to vigorously.

Big, Beautiful, Dark, and Scary was composed by Julia Wolfe (b.1958) after she stood with her children two blocks from Ground Zero on 9/11. It is a mood piece built on ascending chromatic scales against pounding rhythmic figures. It builds in intensity and doesn’t let up until the final undamped bell-tone fades away to silence. It was a worthy musical experience, and an interesting study in orchestral dynamics.

Dvořák’s time spent in the United States (1892-95) was something of a mixed bag for him. For much of the time he was unhappy with the cosmopolitan bustle of New York and was homesick for the quiet countryside of his homeland. His generous stipend as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City  had to be significantly cut due to a major depression in the economy. The bright spot for the composer was learning indigenous music; spirituals and native American chants and songs. He was given a four-month summer vacation during which he traveled to Spillville, Iowa, a settlement of Czech immigrants where he found peace of mind and productivity.

Whether this Symphony is American or Czech, as is often debated, is of little importance. The themes are winsome and have many influences including pentatonic scales, European forms, and Bohemian tunes. The rich orchestral flow of Brahms is there. In the third movement, one can hear, especially in the tympani, echoes of the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. Since its premier at Carnegie Hall, Dec. 15, 1893, it has been a consistent favorite in concert halls all over the world.

The first movement, in sonata form, strikes out on a leaping theme that invites the listener to come along. The developmental material includes music suggestive of some of Dvořák’s earlier works and possibly a reference to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Through careful phrasing and tempered dynamic expression, de Ridder led the orchestra in a captivating performance.

The second movement is dominated by one of the most memorable melodies in classical music played exquisitely by English Horn soloist, Joseph Peters. The movement opens and closes with a quiet chorale and, between the two theme episodes is a trio in C-sharp minor evoking an even more intense mode of longing than the main theme.

Dvořák related that the third movement contains music suggested to him from reading Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha.”

The final movement begins with a brief introduction, after which the main theme is introduced by the trumpets and horns, against a background of crisp chords played by the rest of the orchestra. The clarinet introduces the second them which is woven in with the main themes of the first two movement. A lively coda recombines material from all four movements before ending triumphantly.

The performance was polished with masterful dynamic expression, balanced orchestral crescendos and diminuendos. The woodwinds played with outstanding ensemble and the brass glowed. The strings shimmered and soared. Soloists were totally outstanding. The NC Symphony made it perfectly clear why Dvořák’s New World Symphony holds its exalted position with both audiences and performing artists. It is a magnificent melodic masterpiece and was superbly performed on this occasion.

This program will be repeated in Raleigh on Nov. 15 and 16. See our sidebar for details.