There’s nothing inherently wrong with a meat and potatoes orchestral concert that consists of an overture, a concerto with guest artist, and intermission followed by a well-known symphony. But with the mantra of change and diversity floating through the autumn air it’s a wonderful evening out to experience programming that’s innovative and different. The North Carolina Symphony (NCS), in addition to elevating their level of performance to rival that of any other orchestra, has also made a commitment to presenting programs that have unifying themes. Tonight’s concert, at their home base of Meymandi Hall, featured the Carolina Choir of UNC Chapel Hill. When one thinks of choirs it is a natural impulse to follow that with thoughts of text, words, ideas and language. This was not the case tonight as the works performed all used the choir as just another orchestral color – a wordless instrument that expands the palette of sounds.

The guest conductor was James Gaffigan, the impossibly young Associate Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony and collector of conducting prizes and accolades throughout the United States and Europe. His program was a wonderfully conceived journey from French musical impressionism to American jazz and back, which he began with Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes. The three sections of this work – “Nuages” (clouds), “Fetes” (festivals) and “Sirenes” (sirens) – form musical imagery comparable to the great French impressionist landscapes of Monet, Pissarro and Bonnard. Works of this kind sound effortless, dreamy and comforting, but that belies the highest level of musical skill needed to convey that effect. Gaffigan and the NCS were superb in painting these images and emotions, especially with the addition of the wordless chorus in the rarely performed Sirenes movement.

There have been countless attempts to meld the seemingly disparate elements of European concert music with American jazz and most of them are an embarrassment of lame clichés supported by musicians who are not equipped in one style or the other. After nearly 85 years, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” for piano and orchestra remains as the perfect blend of what was then the upstart jazz with classical music. A huge bravo goes to principal clarinetist Jimmy Gilmore as he gave a stunning interpretation of the famous opening glissando that serves as a call to the musical establishment that jazz has arrived and deserves to sit at the musical adult dinner table. The rest of the orchestra also conveyed a great spirit of swing and at times sounded more like a big band than a symphony orchestra. Piano soloist was Anne-Marie McDermott, a multi-faceted soloist with a long and distinguished resume. Unfortunately, her playing and approach sounded stylistically more like Rachmaninoff than Gershwin. I was able to watch her hands and was surprised at the extreme virtuosity required for this well-known work. Getting through many of these passages had the result of the loss of the abandon, lightness and even playfulness that is critical to this composition. These issues improved greatly during her performance in the second half of Gershwin’s lesser known Second Rhapsody.”   While this sequel does not have equally memorable themes as the first, the spirit and characteristics are quite similar and McDermott blossomed.

Guest conductor Gaffigan is a passionate and emotive musician who has the rare ability to convey the nuts and bolts of the score as well as the emotional content – without creating a spectacle or drawing attention away from the end result. There was an obvious authentic bond between him and the orchestra – rare for a one-shot guest. Continuing with the French/jazz connection he began the second half with the popular “Pavane” by Gabriel Faure. Although there is a text to this work, again it is the color and texture of the choir that remains in our ears as a complement to the ravishing melody and harmonies of this work. Special recognition must go to Dr. Susan Klebanow, director of choirs at UNC Chapel Hill, for her expertise in preparing the Carolina Choir for this concert.

The evening ended with the second suite from Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloe. This sensuous exploration of the Greek myth was recently performed, without chorus, by the UNC Chapel Hill Symphony Orchestra with this writer as part of the cello section. It is a unique experience to be on the inside of preparation for this very complex work and then to hear it performed by a professional orchestra only a few weeks later. This is a piece where you oscillate from almost X-rated sensuousness to boisterous outbursts and everything in between. The NCS, along with guest choir and conductor, performed at the level which makes art come alive. Gone was the execution of notes and playing of instruments – they affected an emotional response that transcended mechanics.