The North Carolina Symphony opened its 2012-13 season in Wilmington with a program of primarily familiar works and yet with a significant twist as well. Under guest conductor Tonu Kalam, the ensemble turned in performances which at their best were compelling. This was the second evening of his first all-classical programs with the orchestra, following a concert in Salisbury the night before.

The opening work was Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. The fun, frothy character came over successfully, and well-phrased passages stood out. Overall though, the string sound was rather thick, a result perhaps of the romantic-sized orchestra being deployed.

The following Hector Berlioz piece was the unusual twist. This was the Love Scene from his Romeo and Juliet. The piece as a whole is rarely performed, given its huge dimensions and orchestral demands. But the love music is a manageable chunk, a 15-minute tone poem for reduced orchestra which aspires to translate the rapture of love into purely instrumental sound. It is safe to say that the piece only partially achieves its aim. Yet there is beautiful, atmospheric music, particularly at the very gentle beginning and end, with some passionate climaxes in the middle. The orchestra played those passages effectively, even if the whole, despite its beauties, is fairly discursive and doesn’t offer the beguiling melodic inspiration one might yearn for in music of love.

The music and performers seemed to come into their own with the following overture to Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz. This monument to German romanticism received a gripping performance, beginning with the dark opening unison strings. The following horn solos were lusciously phrased. The decrescendo leading to the ominous clarinets of the magic bullets showed a real strength of the conductor: bringing the orchestra down to a whispering pianissimo. The following turbulent music was exciting, as was the development. The triumphal ending, reached by another outstanding decrescendo, had all the brilliance one could hope for. Another feature of Kalam’s conducting that stood out was his clear delineation of rhythm, especially through accents, which helped give the performance a tight, cohesive quality.

The second half of the program was devoted to the beloved Symphony No. 1 of Brahms. There was much drama, weight, and power in the performance. The first movement, though well-played – especially the intense introduction – was perhaps the least distinctive. But from there, beauties abounded. The second movement in its lushness carried the rapture that one would have wished to experience in the Berlioz. The phrasing was finely nuanced and passages towards the end created a wonderful hush. The third movement was beautifully gentle and showcased the tone and phrasing of the orchestra’s winds. The trio had a finely shaped build-up and the ending was an affecting reminiscence. This led directly to the stormy drama of the final movement, which Kalam led with sustained intensity. The brooding start created immediate force with the opening crescendo. The pianissimo pizzicato string passages were strongly evocative; the transition to the famous C major theme was beautifully treated. The theme itself carried the same lushness that had been so successful in the slow movement. The work ended in the high excitement of the propulsively-played coda and the triumphal chorale, bringing the symphony to a powerful conclusion.