This month’s edition of the North Carolina Symphony‘s Friday Favorites featured an All Strings offering, with a smaller ensemble under the baton of guest conductor Sameer Patel. (The program was also performed on Thursday in Southern Pines and on Saturday in Wilmington.) Usually lighter fare, the Friday Favorites are well-attended by devoted concertgoers and tend to feature either already popular works or showcase lesser-known works by favorite composers. Next month’s concert, for example, will be All Mozart.

First up was just the first movement of Four Novelletten for Strings, Op. 52, by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. A cheery piece with a playful waltz feel, accentuated by a bright tambourine, it was pleasant, conveying an uncomplicated happiness, though thoughtfully and thoroughly explored. The cellos and basses were especially robust against all the higher timbred sounds, and the orchestra, as is their usual, performed with the utmost finesse and energy. The work may have been inspired by Robert Schumann’s Novelletten, Op. 21, composed over sixty years earlier. It is similarly comprised of short ideas suffused with Romanticism and I would have been interested to hear NCS perform the whole work, especially in light of February being Black History Month. Coleridge-Taylor went on to make three U.S. tours after the Four Novelletten‘s premiere, famously conducting the US Marine Band and receiving an invitation from Teddy Roosevelt to visit him at the White House. Coleridge-Taylor made significant contributions to music in the African Diaspora and advocated for African-American representation, saying, “I am a great believer in my race, and I never lose an opportunity of letting my white friends here [in the United States] know it.”

Patel then briefly introduced the next work by Gustav Holst, who actually attended the Royal College of Music in London at the same time as Coleridge-Taylor. They both studied composition with the same professor – Charles Villiers Stanford. Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite in C, Op. 29, No. 2, begins with a quintessentially jaunty and catchy folk tune. The orchestra’s overall range of dynamic contrast was breathtaking throughout the concert, but nowhere was it more dramatic than during the Holst. The second movement’s ostinato passed between the violin sections was at first a quiet shimmer and eventually insistent and frenetic. The violin solo (as well as the later echo by solo viola) in the third movement was quiet and plaintive, yet soared gracefully over precise, ringing pizzicatos – making it all the more exciting and surprising when the entire orchestra responded with insistent, rhythmic motion or full, passionate unison melody. The delicate ending of the third by solo players in violins, viola, and cello practically disappeared into nothing.

My favorite movement of the work is the Finale, based on the folk tune “The Dargason” and already introduced in Holst’s Second Suite in F for Concert Band, Op. 28, No. 2. Without the benefit of the wind ensemble’s variety of tone colors and timbre contrasts, the orchestra had to deliver precise articulations to make sure all the delicate countermelodies and interlocking rhythms could be heard. They were able to provide a full, robust, and satisfying balance of parts, and the contrast of extremes between the violin and bass at the end was the perfect cherry on top of such a fun piece.

Finally, the “heart of the program,” according to Patel, was Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet in D minor “Souvenir de Florence,” Op. 70. Honestly, after the complexity and contrasts of the Holst, this one was a bit underwhelming. The orchestra did a wonderful job with its tempestuous, passionate opening, evoking images of a nostalgic Florentine summer, but the work as a whole felt repetitive and overly drawn out. That said, the interplay between parts – expanded from the original sextet into a full string orchestra work in this arrangement by Lucas Drew – was complex and interesting, adding depth, warmth, and even more range of expression through changing timbres through the harmonic development of the work. The intricate pizzicato from the second violins and violas in the second movement was masterful and supported a lovely first violin and cello solo.

There were are few timbral inconsistencies laid bare by the spare orchestration; because the smaller viola and cello sections were divided into two parts, for example, tonal and pitch differences between individual players jumped out more than usual. It was hard to tell if the players were slightly out of tune, or just playing with different qualities of sound – especially in the drawn out unison sections in the fourth movement. This, however, was a minor flaw in a generally very fine work. The second two movements seemed to suggest a return home from vacation in Florence to the composer’s Russian home; folk idioms grew into frenetic rhythms that seemed to build suspense continuously to the end, with an enviable wellspring of energy.

The afternoon was an enjoyable treat and an opportunity to hear works that are not recognized or programmed often, at least in this area, and Patel was an enthusiastic and compelling guide through them. This ensemble, as always, delivered a refined exploration – not at all diminished by the reduced, all-strings orchestration. Instead, it allowed the string sections a moment to shine, and the smaller, afternoon audience a chance to hear something different.