Coping with crisisIn a previous review, I commented on the environment of the “virtual concert,” writing that “One of the significant casualties of the global pandemic, apart from the loss of human lives which are its greatest casualty, is that of ‘live’ concerts of all kinds. Perhaps, in classical music, this is most evident in those events which require large performing spaces and usually attract equally large audiences: concert halls and sacred spaces such as churches and synagogues.”

The stage at Meymandi Hall in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts wasn’t filled with string players. Those expecting the NC Symphony’s full string complement of some 40 musicians saw, instead, widely spaced and masked, 22 players along with guest conductor Timothy Myers. The concert’s amiable video host was the NCS’s associate principal oboist/English hornist, Joseph Peters, who gave background information about the program and, at the interval, interviewed the conductor and one of the solo violinists, Erin Zehngut.

The program:

Edward Elgar: Introduction and Allegro for Strings

George Walker: “Lyric for Strings”

Philip Glass: “Echorus”

Edvard Grieg: “From Holberg’s Time” (The Holberg Suite, Op. 40)

Regardless of the ensemble’s size, the sound was opulent. The Elgar was appropriately Elgarian, its Romantic soul and its flowing melodic lines shimmering. The solo quartet not being separated from the rest of the band made its contributions somewhat anonymous when listening from one’s stereo-system speakers, but the interplay was nonetheless vibrant.

George Walker‘s “Lyric for Strings” was composed as an elegy upon the death of his grandmother. Peters, in comparing “Lyric” with Samuel Barber’s famed “Adagio for Strings,” suggested that, while Barber’s work was written for everyone, Walker’s was written for “you.” In keeping with the mood of this music, Myers put his baton aside. The work begins and ends with an excruciatingly-intense ppp; had there been a ‘live’ audience in the hall, they would have held their collective breaths while the conductor’s hands and the players’ bows remained motionless. This was an exquisite performance of an emotionally-intense work.

Zehngut was joined by colleague/violinist Karen Strittmatter Galvin in Philip Glass’ 1995 “Echorus,” a 7-minute-plus work that manages to combine a classical form (it’s somewhat of a chaconne) with a minimalistic approach which nevertheless never approaches a stasis. The undulating motion which pervades the work makes its sudden conclusion all the more abrupt, just as one expected the music’s mesmerizing motion to continue while time, but not the music, was suspended.

The concert closed with one of the best-known works for string orchestra, Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Fashioned after a Baroque suite based on dance forms, honoring the era in which Baron Holberg lived, this music is delightfully open in Grieg’s appropriations of those earlier rhythms. The suite’s five movements are well-described here. Myers’ tempos were “just right” for each dance, the “Sarabande,” featuring ‘cellist Bonnie Thron‘s always-singing tone, was slow-but-not-too-slow; the closing “Rigaudon” was scintillatingly fast, but not frenzied.

Orchestral musicians who frequently play for more than one conductor must be flexible. In Myers’ case, no doubt because he often conducts operas from the pit, one looks in vain for a downbeat, because all his downbeats look like upbeats. That’s a necessity when one’s beat must be seen from a considerable distance above, but should not become an irreversible habit.

The video production was well-done, save for sometimes lingering for too long on a single musician. It began with the sound of the musicians tuning up as one might hear them when entering the lobby of the concert hall, that sound getting louder as the camera moved up the grand stairway and finally into the hall. A rather humorous element which could use considerable editing, however, is the closed-captioning. This system, appropriate for the spoken remarks, gave us “greek” and “grigg” for Grieg, “sara bond” for Sarabande, “heir” for Air, “Thrawn” for “Thron,” and “aaron zengu” for Erin Zehngut. Voice recognition software needed assistance here!

It’s one of the welcome side-effects of the pandemic that brings about the chance to hear these works for string orchestra. Thanks to the NC Symphony for its flexibility and for the musicianship of its string players!