There was a lot going on both outside and inside Meymandi Concert Hall on the wretchedly cold first night of the North Carolina Symphony‘s current pair of Raleigh Classical Series concerts. Although the sidewalks had been cleared of ice, early arrivers who parked on the street were offered lifts to the front door. A pre-concert lecture by resident scholar William Robin drew a substantial audience to the small space at the northwest corner of the Swalin Lobby. (He said nothing about the new work that was originally intended for performance on this occasion.) Downstairs, in the Betty Ray McCain Gallery, violin students from Ligon Middle School and Enloe High School (Hallie Turner, Abby Hall, Eliza Ma, and Daniel Hong, with pianist Elizabeth Hess) offered music by Bach, Mozart, and Vivaldi. Inside the auditorium, musicians placed flowers in a basket on a chair as they came onto the stage; the program contained an insert concerning the loss on the previous Monday of long-time violinist Jess Isaiah Levin, and the evening began with a stirring tribute to him by bassist Bruce Ridge, speaking on behalf of the orchestra, followed by a profoundly moving performance of the “Nimrod” section of Elgar’s Enigma Variations.*

The program embraced four distinguished works by Russian composers: Glazunov’s Overture to Borodin’s opera Prince Igor came first, followed by Borodin’s “In the Steppes of Central Asia” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture.” The second half was devoted to Prokofiev’s Sinfonia concertante with Texas-based, Virginia-born cellist Zuill Bailey, a frequent visitor to the region, as the soloist. Grant Llewellyn conducted. The place bristled with at least 20 microphones and maybe more, as the Prokofiev was being recorded for probable commercial release. (A CD of Britten’s Cello Symphony by Bailey and the NCS stemmed from similar concert recordings.)

It may be worth noting that the Metropolitan Opera omitted the Prince Igor overture entirely in its recent production of the opera; click here for details. That said, the NCS’ performance had a lot going for it, and there’s much to admire in the piece as wrestled to the ground by Glazunov after Borodin’s death. (To read Glazunov’s statement about the process, click here.) In addition, the Overture contains many tunes that were surely familiar to members of the audience, since large chunks of Borodin’s music were lifted for the great Broadway musical Kismet.

There followed “In the Steppes…” (also exploited for Kismet), a lovely little tone poem** with – as Robin had explained – some political overtones that are muted in the final musical product. (Those overtones include mingling of Russian and “Asian” themes with the Russian tune dominating the work’s finale.) This too was quite lovely as played on this occasion, with superior execution from the musicians of the orchestra and comfortable leadership from Llewellyn, who seemed to be allowing the instrumentalists freer rein than he sometimes does.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Overture is one of the more spectacular items in the Russian orchestral canon, and it certainly fit the program’s overall billing. There have been more exciting performances, but in this somewhat relaxed reading there were many delights from throughout the orchestra, and the clarity and definition left little to be desired. (For a fascinating alternate “take” on this music, readers are urged to hear the 1953 Stokowski version, in which the conductor substitutes a bass soloist for the lines generally played by the trombone.)

Part two was devoted to a performance of Prokofiev’s Sinfonia concertante, that master’s important work for cello and orchestra, based on an earlier concerto and completed in cooperation with the great Mstislav Rostropovich and premiered by him the year after the composer’s death. (Poor Prokofiev! He died the same day as Stalin, so the news received little coverage at home.)

Begging the indulgence of our readers, I am compelled to say that I heard Rostropovich perform in London nearly 50 years ago, in a series of festival concerts in which the soloist played 30+ major works for cello and orchestra, culminating in Britten’s Cello Symphony. For me, however, the Russian scores were the absolute highlights, and I have talked ever since about the passion and commitment of Rostropovich’s playing – these renditions were and remain among the most exceptional musical experiences of my life.

That said I am pleased to report that Bailey paled little in comparison and excelled in many instances in technical and artistic terms and particularly in the lyricism he projected. The orchestra was not quite as animated as I recall the LSO having been, under Gennady Rozhdestvensky‘s baton,*** but this Raleigh performance was revelatory in many respects, so here’s hoping a CD release will indeed be forthcoming in the near future. The work itself is somewhat episodic and in places almost fragmentary, but Bailey and Llewellyn seemed in complete accord with regard to the several component sections, and the overall arch, from the tense opening measures to the second part’s skirmishes (borrowing Felix Aprahamian‘s operative word) to the exhilarating finale (there being no other way to describe it), was readily apparent throughout.

Bailey threw himself into the performance, at times bringing to mind Rostropovich’s almost demonic approach, in which he oftentimes seemed barely able to wait during orchestral passages before resuming his own playing.

The sole downside was a feeling (from seats on the right-hand side of the hall, on the floor) that there was not always enough cello sound, this serving as a reminder that, much as we like Meymandi Concert Hall, it is not a perfect venue by any means, so some re-evaluation of its acoustics at some point would most surely pay handsome dividends. The recording will be better, as the balance between the orchestra and the solo instrument will likely be remedied throughout – and chances are good that the aural experience was also entirely different elsewhere in the hall (as, for instance, at the front of the upper balcony – which on this particular evening appeared to be basically empty).

Nonetheless this was indeed a spectacular evening, handsomely realized, and it was particularly gratifying to have our state orchestra with its Welsh conductor and an American cellist go head-to-head in Russian music against the Mariinsky’s recent Chapel Hill concerts and do so well!

This program will be repeated on Saturday, February 21, in the same venue. I’m tempted to go hear it again – yes, it was that good. Those who missed it could hardly do better than to call immediately for tickets and make the trek downtown! For details, see the sidebar. And for still more information, click here for the orchestra’s own preview.

*The orchestra has established a fund to support Levin’s family. The announcement reads:
“The Jess Levin Fund, in memory of our colleague Jess Levin, has been established. On February 16, the Musicians of the North Carolina Symphony lost our dear colleague, Jess Levin. Jess was a violinist in our orchestra for over 40 years, as well as a brilliant photographer. His sudden passing is a shock to us all. A fund has been established to support Jess’ family at this very difficult time. Every orchestra is a very large family, and we hope the community that surrounds the North Carolina Symphony will support our family member at this terrible time. Donations will be collected by our Principal Flute, Anne Laney. Checks can be made out to: Jess Levin Fund. Donations can be sent to: Anne Laney, 409 Accolade Drive, Cary, North Carolina 27513. Please note that donations are not tax deductible. All contributions received will go to assist Jess’ wife and family. Thank you, The Musicians of the North Carolina Symphony.”

**”In the Steppes…” was also heard the week before, in Durham, courtesy of the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle.

***Rozhdestvensky had conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic in Raleigh three years earlier, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis.