With a program including no percussion, no 19th-century music, and scarcely an orchestral climax, the North Carolina Symphony continued its 2014-15 Wilmington season with an unusual and appealing concert. The evening, in which the largest ensemble grouping was a chamber orchestra, included two of Bach’s Brandenburg concerti – chosen from his six dazzling works in this set – as well as music by Britten and Ravel.

The Bach concerti are as easily chamber works as they are orchestral, and it was in their chamber guise that they were heard in this concert. Grant Llewellyn, the orchestra’s music director and principal conductor, introduced the first work, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G, S.1048, with an engaging description of the atmosphere in which the six pieces might have been heard in the 18th century setting for which they were composed. He then retired to the sixth row to enjoy his superb players performing chamber music for the ample Kenan Auditorium audience. The North Carolina Symphony players are fine chamber musicians indeed!

This concerto features three groups of strings in polyphonic conversation with one another; here the violins and violas performed standing, which tended to make the back-and-forth dialogue more visually explicit. Bach’s contrapuntal mastery was on full display in the clearly-shaped phrases. The first movement tempo was brisk. If occasionally there was a slight unevenness in the rhythm, it was largely subsumed by the propulsion and clarity of the lines. There is no slow second movement written out by Bach; the performers used a short and lovely (unidentified) cantabile violin solo for this section. The third movement was as fine and pleasurable as the first.

The Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat, S.1051, was performed after the intermission. Its highly unusual instrumentation includes no violins, but rather two violas and also – in the original intent – two violas da gamba as soloists. Here the gamba parts were taken by standard violas, but with their players sitting, as the gamba players would have done. This performance featured the same tight interplay of lines as heard in the previous concerto. It was perhaps even more apparent here, given the close canon of the violas in the first movement. The violas also lend this music a mellow quality not characteristic of violins; it is a special sound to be savored. The second movement gave extensive play to Bach’s exquisite long-melody writing; it is safe to regard Bach as one of music’s great melodists. The third movement had a delightfully brisk and airy quality. The entire performance was a pleasure to experience.

Before intermission, Llewellyn mounted the podium to lead a performance of Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31. Like the Bach, this piece is essentially a chamber work, dominated by the tenor and horn. The strings contribute harmony and atmosphere rather than melodic material and are rarely heard in a leading role. The six poems which make up the cycle, all by British writers, span a wide variety of mood with the linking theme of night. The tenor was Nicholas Phan. He has a light, lyric voice, from which he drew sensitive color and inflection. The last song, Sonnet, was especially affecting. Other lovely moments were the orchestral fade at the end of the Pastoral and the shimmering end of the Sonnet. Rebekah Daley, the principal horn of the NCS, played her solos with a rich palette of color. The ever-so-wistful Epilogue for offstage horn was lingering and beautiful.

The final work on the program was Ravel’s sparkling Le Tombeau de Couperin. Ravel himself, as master orchestrator, translated four movements of this work originally written for the piano into the medium of a chamber-sized orchestra. It was delightfully performed with Llewellyn leading. The rapidly-moving, gurgling Prelude was finely transparent in tone; the Forlane was by turns jaunty and graceful; the Menuet was lovingly lyrical, and the ending Rigaudon was brisk and fun. Melanie Wilsden, the orchestra’s principal oboist, played her numerous solos with artistry and aplomb (the oboe part of this piece is known for its difficulty). Anne Whaley Laney, the orchestra’s principal flutist, contributed fine solos as well.

Such “music among friends” programming brings a different ambience to the experience of an orchestral concert. The orchestra’s players shine in this environment, and Llewellyn as commentator contributes elegance and humor as well as superb musicianship. Hopefully more such imaginative concerts will follow in future seasons.

Note: This program will be repeated on Nov. 18 in Chapel Hill; see the sidebar for details. Then, on Nov. 21 and 22, in Raleigh, the third Brandenburg and the Ravel will he heard in concerts featuring Brahms’ Violin Concerto. For details of these, click here..