The North Carolina Symphony (NCS) started out their 2016 Classical Series with a mix of the old and new, tragedy and triumph, as well as guest artists. But best of all, it was the familiar core musicians that make up our state’s orchestra that was back in brilliant form promising a new year of sublime music making. This particular program also highlighted this organization’s unique commitment to bring music to communities across the state as they performed this same concert in Chapel Hill and Raleigh, and will take the show on the road to Southern Pines and Wilmington the next week.

On the podium, making his first appearance with the NCS, was Marcelo Lehninger, the Brazilian-born music director of the New West Symphony Orchestra in Los Angeles as well as a former associate conductor of the Boston Symphony. His resume is also filled with numerous conducting appointments throughout the world in addition to his expertise on the violin and piano. He opened the evening’s concert with the very dark and deep “Tragic” Overture by Johannes Brahms.

Despite being written in the summer of 1880 close to the time he had also written the Academic Festival” Overture, these two overtures are 180 degrees apart in temperament. The latter is upbeat, full of hummable tunes and even a bit frivolous while the “Tragic” Overture sounds exactly like its name implies. Although there is nothing to indicate that this refers to any particular tragedy, the sense of foreboding and gloom is painted so vividly that one almost cowers at the sense of despair with which Brahms envelops us. But, a good cry or fright can be very uplifting also! Lehninger led the NCS with a wonderful “big picture” approach so as not to unleash the full force of the pathos too soon, much like a very long and gradual emotional crescendo. The orchestra followed his lead with a stunning build-up that sparingly but inevitably released the full force of one of Brahms’ most somber and profound works.

Andrew Norman (b. 1979) is a Los Angeles based composer whose numerous orchestral, chamber and vocal works have been heard in many of the most prestigious music venues including the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Aspen Music Festival and the Bang on a Can Marathon. Tonight we heard the twenty-minute Suspend, a fantasy for piano and orchestra that was written for Emanuel Ax. This work, in part, is inspired by and evolves from fragments and motifs by Brahms. The soloist was Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, who currently holds the very first artist-in-association post with the New York Philharmonic. This is one of those contemporary works that tries to be all things in different guises to all tastes – but this one succeeds and captivates your attention from the start. When playing works named or implied to be a “fantasy” one tries to give the illusion of on-the-spot improvisation in a quasi dream-like affect. It was hard to tell how much, or even whether Barnatan was spontaneous in these passages but its effect was haunting. In a work such as this, the conductor almost becomes superfluous as the ebb and flow of cascading musical filaments becomes too personal to be directed. The hallmark of a successful new work is when you are drawn into it and want to hear it again: Suspend did just that and the genuine and enthusiastic applause evinced the appreciation.

We went from the inward and contemplative to a work that is the essence of majesty, heroism and exhibitionistic bombast (at least the two outer movements): Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73, nicknamed the “Emperor,” not by Beethoven but by his publisher. This concerto is not only epic in style and content but its heavenly length also foreshadows other mammoth concertos like Brahms Piano Concerto No.2.

Right from the start, Beethoven sets the musical world upside down by starting off with a powerful and aggressive cadenza that is then handed off to the strings to proclaim the first theme with equivalent bravado. Barnatan was explosive where needed and lyrical and expressive without losing any impetus to the musical flow. He and Lehninger seemed to be in synch with the tension and release of the sudden shifts of dynamics and tempo that infest Beethoven’s music.

The second movement is one of the most sublime and spiritual in all of Beethoven’s works, including his late string quartets. Sandwiched between the bravado and technical display of the outer movements is music so placid, serene and timeless that you can feel yourself entering another world. Barnatan, somehow coaxing an exalted tone from the piano, floated above the quietly sustained harmonies of the orchestra and transported us all to another realm. The deceptively difficult pianissimo playing of the orchestra was just another example of the world class level of their playing.

We may not have wanted to awaken from the beautiful dream of the slow movement but a quirky, syncopated, forceful theme started off the finale and it was back to the majestic. A powerful end to an emotionally charged evening of music.   

For the upcoming performances of this concert across other areas of the state, please see the sidebar..