The North Carolina Symphony, performing under the baton of William Henry Curry, tagged this program “Fire and Ice.” It began with a stirring and gorgeous performance of Jean Sibelius’ most popular work, “Finlandia.” In Curry’s hands it sounded fresh and exciting, as though you were hearing it for the first time.

The bulk of the program featured Sibelius’ 4th Symphony and Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto, both composed between 1909 and 1911. To put things in perspective, this was two or three years before The Rite of Spring exploded on the stage of the Théâtre des Champs-Ėlysées in Paris. Schoenberg was experimenting with atonality and had written his Theory of Harmony though it was not published until 1922. Tensions leading up to the breakout of WW I in 1914 were building throughout Europe.

Both of these major works are iconic 20th century romantic masterpieces, albeit coming from different directions. Of course the ice alluded to in the title of the program was Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 64, perhaps his iciest. Sibelius had recently undergone serious surgery for removal of a cancerous growth in his throat. He had also encountered Schoenberg and Stravinsky in Vienna and his often shaky self-confidence was even more troublesome.

The most experimental of his seven symphonies, the 4th is a work characterized by a predominantly somber mood and unresolved thematic material. After a striking introduction in the low strings and bassoon, the cello plays a mournful tune somewhat reminiscent of “The Swan of Tuonela.” This melody and most of the thematic materials that follow seem obsessed with making sense out of the tritone; that interval that cuts the scale in half (C – F sharp in the C scale) and, isolated, has always been considered one of the most unpleasing harmonic sounds in the human ear. At one point in the finale, Sibelius creates violent harmonic tension by juxtaposing the keys of A minor and E flat major which are a tritone apart. The glockenspiel seems to want to pull the harmonic resolution toward A major, but loses out in the end to the pathetic cry of the oboe as the basses and cellos insist on a C natural and the symphony fades out quietly in a desolate A minor.

There are moments in the slow movement (which Sibelius places third, contrary to classical tradition) that almost burst forth in rhapsodic triumph, only to fall back again and again. The second movement, though foreboding as a whole, has its moments too where the sun is on the verge of breaking through but slips back behind the grey clouds. The impact of this symphony is hard to explain. It is a remarkable experience to truly hear it all the way through. Curry and the orchestra rendered a stunning performance with special recognition deserved for the solo work of the principal string and woodwind players. The sadness was palpable. The terror was unmistakable. The despair was almost overwhelming. Still it left this reviewer feeling cleansed, renewed, and ready to do what must be done. Though separated by almost a half-century, it portends the words of Anne Frank: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery and death… I think… peace and tranquility will return again.”

Rachmaninoff, on the other hand, was sure of himself through and through by the time of the composition of the 3rd Concerto.  He looked on experimental idioms of the early and mid century with great disdain and maintained, without apology or regret, a philosophy of unrestrained emotionally charged romanticism. And why not? It was the stuff of his history and his experience. His sustained melodic lines, rich harmonies, and opulent orchestration represent the pinnacle of the romantic era.

The Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, certainly not harmed by the popularity it attained as the star of the 1996 movie Shine, has long been known as one of the most challenging works in the repertoire. Sometimes known as “Rach 3,” its technical demands are the stuff of legend. David Dubal in the third edition of The Art of the Piano (Amadeus Press, 2004), quotes Gary Graffman as lamenting that he had not learned this concerto as a student, when he was “still too young to know fear.” I have heard stories that there are pages of the piano score with so many notes that the black print outweighs the white paper background.

Twenty-one year old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang tackled this rhapsodic monster with confidence, phenomenal technical skill, and sensitivity to every nuance. She played the piano with her whole body, demanding every ounce it would give, and the tender passages seemed to melt the very air and everyone in Memorial Hall. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of her: “To listen to her in action is to re-examine whatever assumptions you may have had about how well the piano can actually be played.” 

The work follows the standard concerto three-movement form. The first movement is a moderate allegro with some mighty climaxes in the development of the two major themes. Unless I am mistaken, Wang used the original cadenza, far more difficult than the second cadenza that Rachmaninoff himself used in his recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy in 1939.   

The second movement, a deliciously romantic intermezzo, transitions without pause into the third movement, which develops with great vigor, alluding to some of the themes from the first movement, and building finally to a triumphant passage with reminiscences of the second concerto.

The orchestra, spurred on by the outstanding soloist and Curry’s sensibilities, performed impeccably. The audience was rewarded for its sustained ovation with two encores from Wang: the piano version of “Vocalise” by Rachmaninoff and an unspecified sonata by Scarlatti.