Coping with crisisThe North Carolina Symphony presented a program that focused on Ludwig van Beethoven (Germany, 1770-1827) Saturday night. On tap was the famous Allegretto movement from Symphony No. 7, a 2020 work by Carlos Simon (United States, b.1986) that was inspired by that same music, and Beethoven’s magnificent Violin Concerto.

2020 was the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth and, in an insightful preconcert lecture (separately recorded and streamed) by NC Symphony associate conductor Wesley Schulz, I learned that the NCS was planning to “carry the celebration over into 2021…; we will continue to highlight the music of Beethoven.” Schulz then proceeded to talk about each composition on the program.

Joseph Peters, NCS Principal oboe and English horn player, served as the host of the streamed concert, interviewing both conductor Aram Demirjian and violinist Augustin Hadelich. He pointed out that this concert was the first in over 400 days that the NCS had played before a live audience!

The Beethoven Allegretto was conducted without a score by guest conductor Demirjian. His fluid conducting style worked wonderfully as the piece unfolded. This is primarily a theme and variations movement, with each subsequent variation becoming more complex, with added layers of sound as more instruments are employed. Especially noteworthy was the delightful dialogue between solo oboe and horn in the B sections.

Especially interesting was Schulz’s discussion of Simon’s composition “Fate Now Conquers,” a work commissioned by the Philadelphia Symphony. In a previous interview, Simon stated that the 4-minutes piece “was inspired by a journal entry from Ludwig van Beethoven’s notebook written in 1815” that “featured a passage from the Iliad: The Twenty-Second Book: ‘But Fate now conquers; I am hers, and yet not she shall share in my renown;’ ” Schulz pointed out a number of things in common between the two works, including Beethoven’s use of “a persistent rhythm….  Simon also uses recurring rhythms… and the relentlessness of the timpani…, another nod to Beethoven.”

The piece begins with a bang – two emphatic chords that repeat several times at the beginning and are recalled several times through the course of the piece. This is a dramatic, exciting work, full of fun, swirling textures. If one listens closely enough one can hear snatches of Beethoven’s theme slowly unfolding over the sound fabric. A calmer, quieter section surfaces with a solo cello obbligato (wonderful played by principal cellist Bonnie Thron) before mounting tension brings the syncopated, exhilarating ending. I have to agree with Philadelphia Inquirer critic David Patrick Stearns, who wrote that the piece owes “more to John Adams than to Beethoven.”

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61, was written in 1806, amazingly the same year the composer also wrote three string quartets, the 4th symphony, the 4th piano concerto, and a revision of his opera Fidelio. The work is now held in great esteem, although the premiere was unsuccessful; it was almost 40 years later that Felix Mendelssohn revived the work to great acclaim in London.

Conductor Demirjian and world-renowned violinist Hadelich focused on the “ma non troppo” (not too much) aspect of the opening Allegro ma non troppo. The orchestra presents the main themes of the movement for 3 ½ minutes before the soloist enters. The somewhat relaxed tempo allowed for exploration of the nuances inherent in the score, and Hadelich played with freedom. Demirjian did a great job of balancing the needs of both orchestra and soloist. There was nothing metronomic here, and it seemed clear that Hadelich led the way, with the conductor allowing the violinist’s musicality to shine through.

The filming was first rate, with split screens showing both soloist and orchestral principals and close-ups catching the fleet fingers of the violinist. The cadenza was particularly amazing, a combination of both gentle lyricism and thrilling pyrotechnics: double and triple stops and trills accompanying the main tune. The gentle ending and the orchestral reentrance were magical. The audience appropriately responded to the breath-taking movement with applause.

The slow 2nd movement is hymn-like, and Demirjian put down his baton allowing for more expressivity. As in the first movement, the orchestra presents the main tunes and the soloist eventually enters, playing arabesques around those themes. Again, Hadelich’s playing was magnificent.

The finale brims with energy and good humor clearly stating that all is right with the world. Again, there was lots of fiery fiddling from the splendid soloist. Throughout the entire work, the orchestral playing was first-rate; ensemble and intonation were unerring, and the instrumental solos were topnotch.

Hadelich returned for an encore: the 2 ½ -minute “Louisiana Blues Strut” by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (United States, 1932-2004). Stylistically, nothing could be more different from the Beethoven (except that both feature virtuosic playing). In the “Louisiana Blues Strut,” it was double and triple stops blues playing out the wazoo. Rousing!