Bustling in from the cold outside, masked and vaccinated patrons were offered a QR code to scan for the evening’s program as the North Carolina Symphony returned to Meymandi Concert Hall at Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. The headliner of the program was Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite, accompanied by three other works depicting extra-musical stories and images, according to Maestro Joshua Gersen, who addressed the audience several times with information about the pieces.

The concert began with Samuel Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal, a piece written as a musical homage to Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comedy of the same name. The opening flourish in the triangle and winds started the concert with fanfare, and the whimsical nature of the evening’s program was established. The main melody, presented in the violins, was performed intentionally and with dynamic nuance before being passed throughout the rest of the string section and orchestra. The winds were especially sparkling, and the lower string section provided a lush bed of sound for the contrasting second theme. The horns projected regally above the flurry of sound and the main theme soared whenever presented in the violins. The piece contains lots of sectional passagework that the ensemble executed cleanly, creating a wash of sound similar to something out of a high-fantasy film. Finishing with a flourish, Maestro Gersen acknowledged the audience and fist-bumped Concertmaster Brian Reagin before the string section departed the stage.

As the stage crew set up for the next piece, Maestro Gersen spoke to the audience with one of the featured soloists, pianist Aaron Diehl of the Aaron Diehl Trio. The “Nadia Boulanger of Jazz,” Mary Lou Williams was a prolific jazz pedagogue and composed her “Zodiac Suite” originally for jazz trio. Posthumously published, the piece has been arranged for jazz trio and chamber orchestra; it highlights characteristics of signs from the astrological zodiac. The Symphony performed seven of the twelve movements: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Leo, Virgo, Libra, and Scorpio, each movement effectively demonstrating a different personality. The drum set and double bass soloists provided secure grooves atop which the piano solo and orchestra were able to shine. Alternating between otherworldly sustains, lively perpetual motions, and swingin’ blues melodies, the piece had an overall momentum that the orchestra executed well with intentional phrasing and nuanced dynamics. The final movement, Scorpio, was my personal favorite, as all members of the ensemble had a chance to shine; the sultry winds and sustained strings combined with the muted trumpets and steady trio ostinato to create an effect that reminded me of a James Bond film.

After the intermission, Maestro Gersen once again addressed the audience to provide information about the following composers, Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky was influenced by Ravel, and Maestro Gersen pointed out how there would be orchestrational and harmonic similarities between the French Mother Goose Suite and the Russian The Firebird Suite. Both pieces call upon fantastical imagery, and the North Carolina Symphony executed the magical qualities brilliantly as Maestro Gersen impressively conducted both without a score.

Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye consists of five movements, each depicting a separate fairytale. The “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty” showcased the delicate ensemble between winds and strings, with a beautiful flute melody accompanied wonderfully by the violins. In “Tom Thumb,” the strings were muted and created an effortless and consistent flow of sound that allowed interjections from the English horn, clarinet, flute, and concertmaster to shine. The lively “Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas” had great interplay across the sections of the orchestra with effective dynamics terracing and flourishing. “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast” was a beautiful depiction of one of my favorite fairytales. The harp and strings provided a shimmery waltz that the clarinet and contrabassoon (Beauty and the Beast, respectively) were able to float over effortlessly. The finale movement, “The Enchanted Garden,” had a unified string sound with an amazing balance between sections; the second violin and viola harmonies and countermelodies were able to come through and provided a depth to the sound. The concertmaster and principal viola duet was sublime and accompanied thoughtfully by the winds and brass. The timbre of the whole movement reminded me of a landscape shot in a BBC period piece.

Stravinsky’s The Firebird (1919 revision) has become an orchestral staple. Hearing this iconic work immediately after Ravel’s highlighted how connected and influential all music is to each other. The “Introduction and Dance of the Firebird” begins with an ominous cello and bass melody that eventually passes to the violas and second violins. The dynamic control exhibited by the Symphony was phenomenal. The interplay between fragmented wind melodies was smooth and accompanied well by the effects in the string section. “Dance of the Princesses” reminded me of the “Beauty and the Beast” movement from the Ravel suite, and the harp and strings established a similar bed of sound that let the concertmaster, oboe, and cello solos soar. When the first violins took over the melody, it was delicate and heart-wrenching. This beautiful second movement is abruptly followed by the “Infernal Dance of King Kastchei,” which begins with a massive downbeat that made the couple in front of me jump. This frantic movement highlighted the brass and percussion, and all the moving parts throughout the rest of the orchestra lined up well to create a tumultuous and foreboding dance that spiraled all the way to the suddenly calm “Lullaby.” This berceuse centered around a haunting bassoon melody that floated over evocative muted strings and gave me chills – truly a wonderful execution of a beautiful solo. The “Finale” bloomed out of the mysterious string tremolos, and the French horn melody immediately made my eyes mist. The melody of this final movement always makes me think of Disney’s Fantasia 2000; the Symphony played the glorious melody with lush string sustains and absolutely impeccable brass. The end of the movement, punctuated wonderfully by the bass drum and timpani, is a triumphant celebration and wholly encapsulated the fantastical theme of the evening’s concert. The North Carolina Symphony provided the audience with a concert full of magic and wonder, and I am so thrilled I had the chance to experience it.

North Carolina Symphony’s The Firebird concert continues through Saturday, November 6. For more details on this event, please view the sidebar.