Friday evening marked the beginning of “A New Era” for the North Carolina Symphony as newly appointed Music Director Carlos Miguel Prieto led the ensemble in an engaging and contrasting concert. Appointed in July, Prieto’s enthusiasm for art and life was apparent from the podium, and the orchestra matched his energy throughout the performance. The program included Franz Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat, Paquito D’Rivera‘s Concerto Venezolano, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36. Soloists Pacho Flores and Héctor Molina demonstrated technical and musical prowess, and the audience was on their feet by the end of the first piece.

The first half of the program offered a contrast between genre and style as Flores skillfully executed the unique demands of the Classical and modern compositions. Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, one of the composer’s more popular works, introduced a new style of composition for the instrument and features a large melodic range with chromatic intrigue. Flores made his NC Symphony debut with confidence and poise; each entrance was precise with immense control over dynamic and harmonic phrasing. The orchestra provided aware accompaniment, filling out the sound during tutti passages and balancing sensitively during solos. Flores’s articulation and tone remained pure throughout the piece, which allowed for resonance without overpowering the ensemble – the dynamic manipulation in the second movement was especially impressive. Following Haydn, Flores was joined by cuatro player Héctor Molina for D’Rivera’s Concerto Venezolano, a piece written for Flores, originally premiered by Maestro Prieto in 2019, and nominated for Best New Classical Work at the Latin Grammys. This single-movement work features four different trumpets and the cuatro, a guitar-like Venezuelan instrument that provides both harmonic and rhythmic functions. The piece begins cinematically with high violins, interjecting percussion, and stately low brass. After establishing the character, the trumpet solo enters and expands upon the opening material. While Haydn wrote an orchestra part to accompany the soloist, D’Rivera wrote one to match; the ensemble writing was just as involved as the soloists’. Everyone on stage was a part of a whole, made evident through call and response exchanges of melodic material. The second theme was marked by a duet between concertmaster and cuatro, and I couldn’t help but think of Ástor Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango. Once established, the groove permeated the orchestra and the soloists were able to play skillfully alongside. Flores got a laugh out of the audience during his cadenza, skillfully playing runs until he reached the absolute lowest note on the instrument and milked the comedic effect of not having anywhere else to go. Snare and maracas joined the soloists up front and led the ensemble through an ostinato to the end, where the energy was infectious and resulted in a standing ovation.

After thorough applause, Flores and Molina returned for two encores, the first of which was Cantos y revueltas, a piece written by Flores. The piece starts somber and ceremoniously (representing someone confiding in a cow because the animal would have no judgment) and transitions into a set of “raucous” Venezuelan dances. The lamenting opening was full of pitch bends, and the orchestral accompaniment reminded me a bit of Samuel Barber’s lush string writing mixed with Aaron Copland’s open harmonic orchestration. The dance section began with a cuatro and cello soli that the rest of the string section joined one by one, creating a base for the trumpet to soar over. At one point, the conductor turned around to smile at the audience, as if to say “I told you so” about the vibrant dance. The second encore was a duet between Flores and Molina; I couldn’t catch the name, but I believe it was a folk piece of some sort. The two soloists were clearly having a great time playing together, and it was incredible to see how skillfully the two were able to navigate their respective instruments while still having fun.

After intermission, the orchestra returned for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, a staple in Russian romanticism. Composed in four movements, the symphony addresses the concept of Fate, which Tchaikovsky wrote was “that inevitable force which checks our aspirations towards happiness ere they reach the goal…there is no other course but to submit and inwardly lament.” The piece begins with a prominent brass motif, supported by punctuations in the strings and percussion. The main theme began after a well-timed grand pause, and the momentum of Tchaikovsky’s flowing melodies carried throughout the movement. Prieto manipulated phrasing and timing organically and the ensemble spun through motifs as one entity. The second theme appeared out of a perfectly paced rubato and the balance throughout soft dynamics was commendable as wind solis carried across the strings. I almost couldn’t believe how soft the timpani was able to get before leading the accelerando back to the first theme – the pacing was completely locked in throughout the ensemble. There were several moments when the horns were playing in unison and I couldn’t tell because it was so blended. The second movement opening solo was sublime; kudos to the oboe for establishing such a beautiful yet heart-wrenching character. When the string section took over the melody, the soundscape was perfectly balanced both in dynamic and articulation across the orchestra. The third movement, which always makes me smile, had such a playful energy without feeling frantic. The string pizzicato was light and had impressive dynamic range, while the middle trio section showcased the wind section’s secure ensemble. Bravo to the piccolo, whose solos were so flawless I wanted to stand up and cheer! Almost directly attacca, the fourth movement was a culmination of all the characters established in the previous movements. The energy from the third movement carried directly into the celli/bassi pizzicato and the winds and strings exchanged running melodies with little to no break in sound. The second theme had great contrast without losing momentum, and the return of the first movement brass motif was declamatory. The coda had vigor even from the timpani’s quietest entrance, and the accelerando to the end was celebratory and explosive without losing control. By the last chords, Maestro Prieto was practically leaping on the podium and the audience returned the energy with a standing ovation. After acknowledging the ensemble and the crowd, Prieto sat the orchestra for a final encore, Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No.15. The short piece emulated the energy from the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky, and the concert ended with everyone smiling. Congratulations to the North Carolina Symphony for a spectacular opener. I look forward to the rest of the season!