On paper, the NC Symphony program for April 30 (repeated May 1) looked like a bit of pandering to the lowest common denominator, particularly in view of some of the “loftier” works given earlier this season on the NC Symphony’s Raleigh Classical Series, but in retrospect there was nothing to sneeze about insofar as Dvorák’s Violin Concerto and Janácek’s Taras Bulba were concerned, and indeed neither score turns up very often in live concerts. Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and Enesco’s Rumanian Rhapsodies used to be fodder for pops programs, but the lineups for those offerings have shifted radically in the past generation or so, and as a result the scores are also infrequently heard in the flesh today. The programs thus turned out to be better than some might have expected – in part, surely, because the honor of leading these last gasps of the NCS’ main classical subscription season prior to the arrival of the much-heralded new music director fell to William Henry Curry, long-term Associate Conductor and former IAPA (Interim Artistic Planning Advisor), a cumbersome title that expired with the appointment of Grant Llewellyn.

Before things got underway, there was a well-attended pre-concert lecture, given by Harry Davidson, Music Director of the Duke Symphony Orchestra. One could hardly help noticing that he and Curry are African-Americans, as is André Raphel Smith, the stick-waver for the NCS’s final concert this season in Durham (5/20) and its upcoming (and sold-out) gala (5/22). If tea-leaf-reading were worth the time, perhaps one could figure out why the orchestra thinks it is o.k. to engage African-Americans as speakers and conductors and, occasionally, soloists, but not to have even token representation within the players’ ranks.

Fortunately, Brahms didn’t discriminate…. Some of his Hungarian Dances, originally for piano duet, were orchestrated by various hands, including Brahms’ own, and the composer’s familiar version of the first one led off a group of three that opened the concert; No. 4 was played in a version by Paul Juon, and No. 6, in a version by Martin Schmeling. These feature what used to be called “Gypsy” tunes (the term is probably not politically correct), and they make for bracing concert-openers, fillers on all-Brahms programs, or encores. Curry understands the idioms and the traditions, too. He had the strings playing in somewhat old-fashioned ways, and he used lots and lots of rubato, and the results – in all three – were intensely stimulating and intellectually fascinating as well. In addition, these things make good program partners for music by Dvorák, the centenary of whose death is being marked this year, as previously noted in CVNC reviews. (There’s more to come from the NCS: the “New World” Symphony figures in Smith’s Durham program. And there’s more to come from other presenters, too: Dvorák figures prominently in the “September Prelude,” a new mini-festival consisting of two concerts being presented at the start of the 2004-5 season by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, Duke’s Institute of the Arts, the Chamber Arts Society, and the William S. Newman Artists Series.)

The soloist in Dvorák’s Violin Concerto was the dazzling young fiddler Sarah Chang, who does not seem to have let all the rave press she’s received go completely to her head. She’s a mover and a shaker, though – figuratively and literally, too – and actually watching her, as opposed to merely listening to her, ultimately proved distracting. She was all over her “space,” which was more ample than that provided most guest artists, and she pushed the envelope by getting within inches of the concertmaster, crouching down, and writhing or kicking out her feet as she played. There seemed to be some link between the dynamic level of the music and her body language, but even such routine housekeeping chores as removing broken bits of horsehair from her bow were done with oversized gestures, as if to make sure no one missed them. If ever she has to give up the violin, she has a secure future interpreting Salome’s dance, with or without the veils. Still, she was far less offensive than Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, to cite an more extreme example, and Chang can really play, and she is clearly a thinker, and she made a powerful case for Dvorák’s arguably weakest concerto. It helped that she was so beautifully partnered by Curry and that the many, many solo bits from our orchestra’s wonderful principals (and in some cases assistant principals) were so effectively realized. The orchestra sang out with enthusiasm when the soloist was silent, never once did the orchestra mask the guest, and at all times the players – collectively – gave the impression of being on exactly the same wavelength.

After the intermission, the 19th century gave way to the 20th as works by Janácek and Enesco took center stage. The former’s Taras Bulba, based on the Gogol story, is a three-part Rhapsody consisting of tone poems depicting the deaths of the tale’s principal characters. It is a dark and brooding work, and the troubled composer’s mood was not improved by the war that raged during its composition. Again, Curry elicited some exceptional (and exceptionally refined) playing from the horns, the large brass section, and the winds, many of whom, along with organist Donna Jolly, got their moments in the stand-alone sun at the conclusion of the work. (The organ was an electronic thing, of course…, but it sufficed….) Among the major stars of this performance was the always-reliable timpanist John Feddersen.

The Janácek led nicely enough to the somewhat more lyrical “Rumanian Rhapsody” (No. 1, in A Major) by Enesco. This and its companion work (No. 2, in D) are rarely heard nowadays, and one reason for that must relate to the increasingly homogenous nature of our orchestras, which has led to a loss of “stylistic” identity. It is thus particularly noteworthy to observe that Curry made the First Rhapsody sound totally idiomatic as he led a bracing run through the score. There were as many felicitous touches here as in the opening Brahms dances, and the crowd ate up every moment, giving the conductor and the orchestra a considerable ovation at the conclusion. With the Enesco, we bade farewell to the regular twelve-concert classical series in this venue till next fall.

Returning to the opening theme…, three pops concerts, with fiddler Mark O’Connor, are coming up (5/7-9); Bonnie Thron plays the Haydn concerto that Yo-Yo Ma isn’t giving here* (5/13 in Durham and 5/16 in Raleigh, led by Grzegorz Nowak, whose first appearances here stemmed from a “podium exchange” during the Zimmermann era); and then there are the two aforementioned programs led by Smith. But don’t despair as the season winds down: Summerfest gets underway on June 5, giving us eight more shots at our resident band. For details of all these concerts, see our calendar.

*To hear Ma play the D Major Haydn Concerto, readers can tune in WUNC-TV at 6:00 p.m. today (5/2).