The North Carolina Symphony concert at Wilmington’s fine Wilson Center consisted of three works for large orchestra, all with programmatic content. They were led by the superb conductor Gemma New, giving here her third program with the NCS.

New (her first name, Gemma, is pronounced as in Jemma) began the program with Rainphase, written by the award-winning composer Salina Fisher at the age of 22. New gave an introduction to this piece by her fellow New Zealander which was engagingly filled with energy and enthusiasm. This turned out to be the hallmark of her performances as well.

Fisher writes that the piece suggests “last rays diminishing as gray clouds form; droplets released; a frenzy of water and wind, all collecting in streams.” The music is filled with evocative color. It began with sounds suggesting birdcalls in the forest, followed by deep, resonant tones. Rustling in the strings almost made the mist of rain visible and later came the unmistakable evocation of the plink-plunk of raindrops. Unconventional percussion instruments contributed to a soundworld of evocative beauty. This is clearly a composer of imagination and promise.

One could note in New’s conducting of the piece that there was a great deal of leading with two hands, and a consistently large beat, even when the tone was quite soft. Both of these aspects may have been deliberate responses to the challenges of a new work being performed for the first time by the orchestra.

But to focus on what might be seen as drawbacks would not do her justice. What came across most strongly was New’s shaping of phrases, and the leading of phrases seamlessly into one another. As a result, the line of the piece was held continuously, in a constant flow of expression.

This became even more apparent in the following Nocturnes by Claude Debussy. The tone from the start was beguiling. New phrased with her beat at every moment and seemed to be calling forth the exquisite tone almost by osmosis. The subtle first movement, “Nuages” (Clouds) featured exquisite color and shifts of timbre, and again, phrases flowing finely into one another. The four-note motive came almost imperceptibly out of the surroundings each time it appeared. The North Carolina Symphony, in the subtlety and nuance of tone, showed what a very fine instrument it is. The wind section in particular shone with exceptional tonal beauty.

“Fêtes” gave the listener the first opportunity to see New lead energetic music and bigger climaxes. As supple as was creation of lines in the previous movements, in this very kinetic movement she led the bracing rhythms with seemingly ceaseless energy. The powerful climax was compelling, and the first of a number of instances in which the orchestral sonority was so large that it almost overloaded the sonic response of the hall. New, one could see here, in case it was not already apparent, is a real musical leader.

The concluding “Sirènes” returned to the evocative quality of the pieces preceding it, with the same sense as before that the music was almost a single long phrase. At the beginning, the chorus seemed too incisive, rather than atmospheric. They settled in later however, to the suggestive sounds evoked by the title. There were fine gentle high notes, a beautifully drawn-out and phrased peak, and a lovely ending.

Following intermission came the ever-popular orchestral epic The Planets, by Gustav Holst. New burst forth in the opening “Mars” with fiery intensity. Yet even here, the propulsive rhythm was carried through with line and vivid response in color. The often-diaphonous “Mercury” also showed color and line in the delicate interaction of harp, celesta, and winds. “Jupiter” was big and bold with a wonderful accumulation to the climax. Soaring grandeur was balanced by lyricism. Here again New’s command of the orchestra came through; one could feel the range of the ensemble from top to bottom.

The drooping oscillations in “Saturn” carried quietly intensive atmosphere, while the march section of “Uranus,” at first gripping, became nearly overmastering. The shift from the huge climax to ppp in the strings was memorable. The concluding “Neptune” – Pluto had not been discovered yet – is always, to repeat a word, memorable. Here, it certainly was, as supple lines led eventually to the chorus – women of the NC Master Chorale – wafting in and the ending, fading out of hearing, sound and silence drawing together.

To come back to the adjective used before, New as an artist and conductor is simply superb. The audience responded to this in an unexpected way. This writer has observed the development of audiences here in Wilmington to the appreciation of new and sometimes challenging works, and at the same time, to experiencing multiple-movement pieces without interrupting them by applause. Here, however, the audience applauded after every movement of both the Debussy and the Holst. It would seem that this was simply an expression of appreciation for the exceptional performances. The enthusiastic ovation at the end made that appreciation plain enough. It is to be hoped that New will be back many times to lead this orchestra, which she drew to heights of artistry comparable to her own.

This program repeats in Raleigh on Friday, January 10, and Saturday, January 11, followed by an additional performance in Chapel Hill on Sunday, January 12. See our sidebar for details.