A symphony orchestra is an awesome thing; forty to eighty or more highly trained professionals, dedicated to an art that lives, performing as a unit to impact an audience of hundreds. Whether it is the NBC under Toscanini or the Philadelphia under Ormandy or the NY Philharmonic under Mitropoulos or Bernstein or the Vienna Philharmonic under Eschenbach or the Montreal under Dutoit, something happens when everything works together the way it should. It is an encounter with life at its best, akin to flying in a dream. It is often an epiphany of deep significance, revealing something more of ourselves than we realized was there. I have heard all of the above orchestras in live performances – and many more – and while I must approach this with studied caution, the North Carolina Symphony under Grant Llewellyn on November 6 in Meymandi Concert Hall was impressive, very impressive. Everything on the program was transparent, light and airy – in different ways – and was given with a careful ensemble not only from the perspective of playing the notes in time, but also in terms of dynamics and expressiveness. In one or two places the ensemble was slightly tentative, and in another place the brass stood out a little (a very little) harshly. The NC Symphony is not quite there yet, but it is an exciting and wonderfully gratifying band to hear right now.

The program, presented before a near-capacity audience, opened with a rarely performed piece by the French Baroque master Jean-Philippe Rameau, who played a significant role in the development of opera, among other things. The Suite from Les Fêtes d’Hebe , an opera-ballet (the most accurate term for musical theatrical productions in Paris in the 18th century), is full of light, peasant-like yet eloquent dance rhythms. The strings of the orchestra performed with such entrancing panache that I sat through most of this piece with a smile on my face. The precision of the intricate baroque trills and other ornamentations was quite incredible.

The attractive and personable pianist Noriko Ogawa – a gift from Japan – was the soloist in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, composed at his villa in Lucerne during a happy and productive time in the early 1930s. Premiered in Baltimore in 1934 it was an immediate success and has been a popular audience pleaser ever since. The performance was fittingly brilliant; there is nothing else to say about it – brilliant. Ogawa was at the top of her form; her performance was solid and intense without showiness. The orchestra was near perfect whether providing accompaniment to showcase the soloist’s virtuosity or taking the stage in its own shining moments. There were times when the strings were so silky and lyrically beautiful that I was reminded of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s famous silver strings under Ormandy. The balance between soloist and orchestra was sensitively rendered under Llewellyn’s crisp conducting. Cheers and generous applause from the audience were rewarded when Ogawa returned to the stage for the third time and encored with a lovely performance of Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.”

The second half of the program was all Sibelius, beginning with the wistful and haunting tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela . When Sibelius is describing one of the epochal tales from the Kalevala , he provides a narrative as powerful and compelling as any ever composed. He sets a mood that sucks you in as though you were going through the whole story yourself. Thus a piece like The Swan of Tuonela can be terrifying, sad, consoling, or just simply beautiful, depending upon the path one takes to it. Michael Schultz’s English horn was awesome, rising and falling over the darkly mysterious black lake of death. The first chair solos from the violin, viola and cello were breathtaking, too, and the orchestra performed this transparent and delicate score with wonderfully controlled discipline.

I discovered the music of Sibelius when I was in my teens. After hearing the Philadelphia under Ormandy play the Second Symphony, there followed several months of visits to the local music store’s Lp listening booths and a handful of purchases – such as I could afford at the time. One of those purchases was a recording of the Second Symphony – the cover art was all forest green with stark tall trees. It became forever fixed in my mind as the perfect visualization of Sibelius’s music – majestic, outdoor, icy cold, and starkly beautiful. The Seventh Symphony is perhaps his greatest achievement in this form. Though but some 22 or 23 minutes in length, make no mistake about it, this is a big work. Rising from an only slightly embellished C minor scale, the music develops gradually across the chill plains and forests to the lofty peaks. Thin clouds skitter by and a pale silvery moon appears. After the music hesitates briefly in what must be the most glorious appoggiatura in all music, it settles us back home in a full, rich, warm C chord. The British seem to have a special affinity for the music of Sibelius, and Maestro Llewellyn grasped the full measure of this Symphony. The artists of the orchestra responded masterfully to every nuance, mood and sweep of the score. John Ilika’s trombone solo took us to the peak magnificently. The strings soared with a lush sound that was both chilling and comforting. But all that is just a subjective and imaginative personal response. The score reveals brilliant working and development of thematic material. The audience seemed a bit uncertain as to how to respond to it. I think they may have been looking for the theme, the big “melody,” and the traditional symphonic form and movement divisions. This is not a four-movement symphony played without pause – it is a symphony that has one thread of development running from beginning to end. It is also one of the high water marks in the development of the symphonic form as the ultimate orchestral comment on life’s foibles, tragedies and glories.

The North Carolina Symphony has the stated goal of becoming America’s next great orchestra. If this concert is an indicator of its potential, it may be on its way.

Listen to the broadcast of this program on WCPE on February 7 or on WUNC on February 28 (or both) and test out my impressions. The Maestro’s next concerts here will be in March 2005.