Grant Llewellyn led the North Carolina Symphony in a 2012-2013 classical season orchestra highlight concert featuring Sibelius’ Second Symphony, along with works by Benjamin Britten and Robert Ward.

The program in Memorial Hall on the campus of UNC-CH began with Robert Ward’s rousing “Jubilation Overture.” Ward earned a Bronze Star for meritorious service in the Aleutian Islands in WW II. During his military service he managed to compose two serious orchestral compositions, Adagio and Allegro, first performed in New York in 1944, and “Jubilation: An Overture,” which was written mostly on Okinawa, Japan, in 1945, and premiered at Carnegie Hall by the National Orchestral Association the following spring. The work was written in anticipation of the early end of the war after news reached the Pacific front that Germany had surrendered. The NCS sparkled in their performance of Ward’s music.

Ward came to North Carolina in 1967 to become Chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. After holding posts at Duke, he retired in Durham and is often seen at local concerts and events. He was present on this occasion and received a generous ovation from the Chapel Hill crowd.

Widely acclaimed and popular cellist Zuill Bailey joined the orchestra next for Benjamin Britten’s Cello Symphony. Yes, that’s right, Cello Symphony! Britten felt, as the composition took shape, that this was the proper form for this work even though it features a solo instrument. It grew out of a close relationship with “Slava” (Mstislav) Rostropovich, who inspired and informed the work and premiered it in 1964.

The Cello Symphony has been described by many as being a broad arch from darkness to light. It begins with dark confusion. The second movement is marked “Presto inquieto” and is a sardonic dance/march in 3/8 time somewhat in the style of similar movements by Shostakovich. The third movement does have some achingly beautiful passages for the solo cello but continues in the dark, deep vein of self-examination. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, elements of light creep in. But even with the bright D major resolution that ends the piece, the light is not accompanied with joy or even full confidence. It can be an emotionally disturbing piece, but it is a work we need to hear.

The orchestra was at its best in this sometimes chaotic, unpredictable, and rhythmically complex score. Bailey put himself totally into the music, tackling head on the broad range of technical challenges. His performance was flawless and emotionally intense. Yet I felt something was missing, and what it was, I think, was the “Slava” factor. The piece was written for Rostropovich and should be played, I believe, with bite and with total abandon; no smoothing of the rough edges, no making sweet the bitter. Still, it was an awesome performance by both soloist and orchestra.

(This was in fact the second performance of the Britten in Chapel Hill this season, the first having been by Brent Wissick and the UNC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Tonu Kalam. For a review, click here.)

It was in 1951 at the age of sixteen that I first heard Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D minor, Op. 43, in a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. It bowled me over. Very soon after, I obtained a recording and in a short time I was humming, whistling, or singing most of this symphony while tossing newspapers on my customers’ front porches from my bicycle early in the mornings. I still find it an utterly captivating work. From the whispered mysteries of the north with which it begins to the bold and heroic ending; it is invigorating. The North Carolina Symphony with Llewellyn at the helm is the equal of any orchestra I know in interpreting the music of Sibelius. This performance was rhapsodic, intense and superbly guided through the snowy forest paths of Finland out of which it grew. Most impressive were the well-crafted dynamics and tempo changes, as well the ensemble precision and the cohesion of all the parts. It was a joy to hear this wondrous symphony once again.

This program will be repeated Friday, February 8, and Saturday, February 9, in Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh. For details, see the sidebar.

And note that, under the auspices of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, Bailey returns to Raleigh with pianist Navah Perlman and violinist Philippe Quint for a gala on April 27 and concert on April 28. For details, click here and here.