Ignat Solzhenitsyn finished his week-long residency with the NC Symphony (November 11-17) with a concert on the afternoon of November 16 in Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall and a chamber music recital in Peace College’s Kenan Recital Hall on the evening of November 17. All of the performances for the residency featured music by Mozart and Brahms.

The orchestral program, played earlier in three other cities (Southern Pines, Winston-Salem, and Henderson) opened with Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni , K.527. Solzhenitsyn stood behind the piano keyboard (its tail pointed into the orchestra and its cover removed) and conducted without a podium, music stand, or score. The orchestral forces called for by Mozart were larger than customary in his time, and they were deployed as was customary then, with the second violins opposite rather than beside the firsts, and the violas in the latter position. The conductor elicited a crisp, clean, Classical performance that was well nuanced.

This led into the same composer’s Piano Concerto No. 24, K.491, which Solzhenitsyn conducted from the keyboard without a baton, of course, and also without a score. With the piano in this position, it often seemed, except in the parts where it was alone, more like a part of the texture of the orchestra than a solo instrument standing out above it. The pianist conductor shaped the orchestral sound with his hand gestures and played with an appropriately lighter touch in the solo portions. He led and gave a reading that was a bit on the Romantic side, although by no means sappy, rather than four-square classical – perhaps appropriate for this fairly late (five years before the composer’s death) and melancholy work, one of only two piano concerti in a minor key (c). He used Brahms’ cadenza at the end of the first movement.

After intermission, we heard Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, Op. 68, composed in 1876 when his career was fairly well along also, because he felt daunted by the task of composing a work in this genre, following in the footsteps of Beethoven. Solzhenitsyn conducted this from a podium, but again without music stand or score, and he maintained the split-violin arrangement of the orchestra. He led a reading that was more Classical than the lush late Romantic one we are accustomed to hearing, although it was conducted and played with passion. Great attention was paid to balance, articulation, and detail. The orchestra sounded the best this reviewer has ever heard it. It is unfortunate that there were so many empty seats in the hall.

Solzhenitsyn spoke eloquently and intelligently about the symphony prior to the performance, in a manner that belied his youthful 31. He continued this at the Monday recital, speaking in learned detail about each of the works, their structure and movements, to an overflow standing-room-only crowd. In this case, his comments had to substitute for the lack of any notes in the printed program.

This program opened with Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 2, Op. 26, dating from 1861. Solzhenitsyn was joined by concertmaster Brian Reagin, assistant principal violist David Marschall, and principal cellist Bonnie Thron for a passionate, committed performance of this work, monumental in length, style, and importance. As Solzhenitsyn commented, if Brahms’ symphonies are sometimes said to be like chamber works in their tight structure, the chamber works often have a symphonic scope, and these fine musicians certainly gave this work that scope. It was as fine a reading as one could hope to hear.

After the intermission, we had a lighter-weight dessert in Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat, K. 452, for piano and winds, dating from 1784, and, as Solzhenitsyn told us, the very first work ever composed not only for this instrumentation but for more than one instrument along with the keyboard. Here he was joined by principal oboist Melanie Wilson, bassoonist John Pederson, principal clarinetist Jimmy Gilmore, and assistant principal hornist Kimberly Van Pelt, another group of fine players. It was another committed classical-style reading, and it made for a fine conclusion to not only the evening but also the weeklong stay. For both works, there was excellent balance amongst the instruments, with each voice being clearly audible and the volume and blend well nigh perfect. Communication between the players was excellent.

Solzhenitsyn is a whole-body pianist, making the music flow out of the tips of his fingers from the movement of his upper torso, shoulders and arms but with virtually no gratuitous, flamboyant gestures. His conducting style is very similar. He has clear visions of the works and of how they should be played and sound and is efficient and successful in eliciting from our fine orchestra – he used the term himself in his Sunday afternoon comments – precisely what he wants. Several of the musicians commented to me at the reception following the Peace College performance that it had been an inspiring and intense week. The same terms could be used to describe the performances: they were inspired even if they were not the customary types of readings, and they clearly grew out of the pianist-conductor’s intense and attentive study of the scores. And the playing was marvelous throughout both evenings.

Audiences at both performances were impressed, rising to their feet more than once. Of course, we know that everyone gets a standing O around here, and it is nearly an insult if one is not given, so the true measure is the speed and spontaneity with which the audience is up. The Mozart Concerto and the Brahms Quartet brought them quickly and nearly unanimously to their feet.

We hope Solzhenitsyn will return for another residency in another year and understand that discussions to this end are already under way. These two concerts were truly outstanding and exhilarating. Heck, maybe we should consider him as a potential Music Director candidate? He is currently Principal Conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and could easily keep that position and add on our symphony. Philadelphia is closer than New York, San Diego or Wales.