Penguins peculiarly packed together is an image that kept coming to my mind as I looked at the tuxedoed forces of the North Carolina Symphony (NCS) assembled on the stage of the Carolina Theater in downtown Durham on October 23. Although the musicians may be a bit snug on stage, I find this to be one of the great venues for orchestral music in the triangle. As part of the NCS’s Durham concert series, this is certainly a welcome departure from the acoustic abomination of a full-size orchestra in Duke Chapel, where the series’ annual choral events are held.

As the music director search continues, we are exposed to another season of guest conductors. This concert featured Anne Manson, Music Director of the Kansas City Symphony since 1999. Manson has a long and impressive resume, including the distinction of being the first woman to conduct an opera at the Salzburg Festival.

I got in trouble before in a review of the opening concert of the 2002-03 season when I simply questioned the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the start of the program. An informed reader gave me a brief history of the NCS including the tradition of playing this at the start of each season. Fair enough, but I find this a questionable practice as a regular feature before every concert. (A disclaimer should probably be put here that this does not necessarily express the opinion of CVNC.ORG, its board of directors, other writers, etc.)

After the full orchestra played Francis Scott Key’s and John Stafford Smith’s greatest hit, two/thirds of the players exited and we were left with a small string ensemble. What followed was an intriguing performance of the third movement of “Balsis” (“Voices”) by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. In the long tradition of great composers living in subjugated republics of the former Soviet Union, Vasks’ work speaks to the struggle for freedom, love of his heritage, and the simple beauties of life. Written in 1990-91 during the most turbulent times of Latvia’s struggle for independence, this is a three-movement work meant to be played without pause, a work that should not be torn apart if you are to respect the composer’s intent. Since the entire work is about 27 minutes long and the final movement is perhaps 10-12 minutes, I cannot understand the decision to not play the composition as written and as intended. Despite the program notes’ disclaimer that “the individual movements have frequently been extracted for individual performance,” in the future I hope the NCS will not choose to break apart works like this for the sake of saving fifteen minutes of playing time.

Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto is one of those works that seemed to have foreshadowed a greater level of what is expected of superior technique and virtuosity on the instrument. Like other works that once were deemed “unplayable” or were the exclusive province of a single performer, this concerto has slowly grown into the repertoire of an elite class of pianists. Stephen Hough, guest soloist for this and the following two performances at Meymandi Hall, amply demonstrated his inclusion in this class. This is a work that tends to take several listenings to assimilate everything going on, since the awe-inspiring technical virtuosity usually overwhelms your senses. Manson generally gave a clear beat and, as should be, allowed the soloist the freedom to control some of the tempos and nuances. Not being a keyboard player, there were some passages that Hough played that looked and sounded like humans would not be capable of doing. These were tossed off with effortless grace, control and inevitability. Watching a performance like this, one wonders about the limits of musical technique. Are there any? Are new “unplayable” works such as this once was considered now being written? Are humans actually evolving to attain these levels?

I have always thought that one of the surest signs of an excellent musician and performance is the ability to bring out something new, fresh and different in a work that many of us may have heard dozens of times. Some have even gone to the extreme of saying “if you can’t do that, then why are you playing it?” A performance of a standard orchestral warhorse like Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 may well qualify for this category, in addition to its ability to draw an audience. Up to this point I hadn’t paid very much attention to Manson’s stick technique or even her presence because of the overwhelming majesty of Hough’s playing. There seemed to be somewhat of a disconnect between how Manson was conducting and the orchestra’s response. This is a work that probably every member of the orchestra has played many times; in such works a conductor may even be superfluous. However, I was hearing some beautiful inner harmonies, counter themes, and orchestration that I had not heard before, traits that can only be brought out by someone well in control and knowing what she wants out of the orchestra. It made me want to go back to the score and see what these features were that, until that performance, were not apparent to me. When you walk away from a performance of an old friend where you learn something new, that is definitely a successful night out.