The very different musical heritages from England and Russia were highlighted on the coldest night of the year by the North Carolina Symphony in their Meymandi Hall home base. The guest conductor was scheduled to be Joana Carneiro, but a shoulder injury forced her to cancel and Christian Knapp took over baton duties. While not quite rising to the celebrated folklore of the 25 year-old Leonard Bernstein substituting at the last moment for Bruno Walter, Knapp proved to be an energizing and powerful presence on the podium that added extra spice to our world-class orchestra and soloist.

Next to the questionable culinary palatability of British food, for musical historians their favorite slap at the Brits is that prior to the 20th century the last great English composer was Henry Purcell – and he died in 1695! Of course this is a subjective and often nationalistic attitude, but the 1900s did indeed usher in a wealth of tremendously talented, original and influential English composers. The first half of this program began with Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten; a composer that many feel put British classical music back on par with and elicited the same respect as music of Germany, France, Russia and others.

Peter Grimes is set in a fishing village and deals with murder, suspicion, homesickness and other delicious human foibles that have inhabited opera for centuries. The four interludes are each used as a prologue and almost a musical sketch of each act and its characters. This is not the bucolic, strolling-along-the-verdant-meadows, polite sensibility that is often associated with British music. It is craggy, angry, jagged and working class. Where Debussy’s La Mer (written about 40 years earlier in 1905) is sensual, fluid and describes the natural world, Britten’s interludes are hard-edged and human. The orchestra, particularly the brass section, communicated the harshness of not only the physical elements, but the damage we all inflict on each other.

A generation prior to Britten was Edward Elgar, the poor soul who was forced to live with the double-edged sword of being the “first great English composer since Purcell.” Elgar’s only cello concerto shares a similar story with several other now-acknowledged masterpieces: its premiere in 1919 was a disastrous failure and a second performance did not occur for more than a year. Tonight’s soloist was the young German-Canadian soloist Johannes Moser who has already had a tremendous career in an ever-growing collection of young outstanding cellists. Despite our best efforts, it is difficult for fans of this work – especially cellists – to hear this work and not think of Jacqueline du Pre who resurrected and championed this concerto in the 1960s. Moser was at his best in the virtuosic passages, particularly the linked Allegro movement that is a frightening tour-de force of bow control. I didn’t quite get that emotional sweep and tingle-down-the-spine feeling that is within this work, especially in the opening. Moser is a dynamic presence on stage and you can see in his physical demeanor the phrasing and his love of the music.

After intermission we moved from opera, concertos and all things anglophile to Russia and ballet. Igor Stravinsky, the towering figure of 20th century music, was still a struggling composer in 1909 when possibly the greatest collaboration of his career began. Serge Diaghilev was forming the Ballet Russe and was looking for composers to both arrange existing music and write new material. He initially hired Anatoly Liadov to write the music for The Firebird, a new ballet based on a Russian folk tale. The procrastinating Liadov was soon fired, Stravinsky took over and the rest is history. Premiered in 1910, this work has several versions, and we were quite fortunate to hear the not-often played expanded 1945 version. This has basically the same material as the more commonly performed 1919 version but there are five additional sections following the opening. You can certainly hear the characteristic early Stravinsky style that culminated with The Rite of Spring in 1913, but there is also a similarity to Ravel’s Ma mere l’oye (Mother Goose Suite) written around the same time.

One has to imagine what it was like for musicians to have been handed this score at the first rehearsal. Even 100 years hence, this score is still a monumental challenge for any ensemble. But the North Carolina Symphony is not just any orchestra. They went beyond the technical difficulties of all of the musical aspects of Stravinsky’s score and entered the realm of playfulness and emotional depth.