The North Carolina Symphony’s repertoire took an intriguing turn for the macabre in their most recent performance of works from composers Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) and Franz Liszt (1811–1866) under the baton of Music Director, Grant Llewellyn. Although very stylistically different, both composers reveal a fascination with death and the afterlife in the featured selections in the November 10 performance in Chapel Hill and the November 11-12 performances at Meymandi Hall in Raleigh. All four selections derive from reflections on death in some aspect, and all four incorporate variations of the thirteenth century hymn, Dies Irae, or “Day of Wrath.”

The Symphony opened with Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead,” Op. 29, inspired by the Arnold Böcklin painting of the same name. The unique meter and subtle give and take within the orchestra conjure imagery of a lonely journey through the River Styx to the isle of the dead. The quiet and subtle tension contrasted starkly with the following “Totentanz” for piano and orchestra by Franz Liszt. “Totentanz,” meaning “Dance of Death,” opened with the bold, foreboding chords on the solo piano. Featured pianist, Louis Lortie, animated the exhilarating dance-like variation on the Dies Irae in the exciting exchange between piano and orchestra. His quick-flying hands evoked a standing ovation from the audience both with “Totentanz” and again following intermission with “Fantasy on Motives from Beethoven’s The Ruins of Athens” for piano and orchestra.

The program concluded with Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 by Rachmaninoff, returning to the more subdued, morose sounds of longing invoked in the first Rachmaninoff piece of the evening. If the brilliance of Liszt’s music lay in the forward virtuosity of his composition, Rachmaninoff’s strength lay in his subtlety. Subsequently, it takes an educated ear to appreciate some of his movements. The first hearing of Symphony No. 1 was deemed a total failure. Saturday’s audience may have appreciated Rachmaninoff’s near refusal to conclude a musical idea, but maybe not. The composer builds tension with hushed, unfinished thoughts throughout the first three movements to finally conclude with the dramatic fourth Allegro con fuoco.

The common theme of the Dies Irae throughout the four selections of the evening allowed the North Carolina Symphony to provide a diverse program with a recognizable similarity. The familiarity and captivating skill of guest pianist Louis Lortie engaged the audience and allowed for exposure to more challenging musical ideas from such impressive composers as Rachmaninoff and Liszt. 

The end of November brings about the beginning of the Symphony’s holiday season. Don’t miss the November 25-26 performances of Holiday Pops:  A Carolina Christmas, conducted by the Symphony’s own Music Director, Grant Llewellyn.