The opening concert of the North Carolina Symphony‘s 2008/09 season was a triumphant celebration of American music that featured a generous and diverse helping of orchestral favorites along with a world premiere. Music Director Grant Llewellyn led the orchestra before a packed house at their Meymandi Concert Hall home base.

The North Carolina Symphony not only has a long and distinguished history of  commissioning and performing new works, but a majority of those are composed as a celebration of some aspect of life in, or the enormous geographic diversity of, the state of North Carolina. This world premiere, “City of Oaks,” was composed by Robert Ward to celebrate the opening of Raleigh’s new Convention Center. Adding to the North Carolina connection is the fact that Mr. Ward, after a long and distinguished career – including a Pulitzer Prize for his 1961 opera The Crucible – has spent the second half of his professional life associated with some of the great artistic institutions of this state. This brief work (less than ten minutes) is a mini tone-poem describing “… the abundance of great trees along the city’s streets and the civic pride of its citizens.” The loving depiction of the capital city was received enthusiastically as Mr. Ward walked to the stage to receive the enthusiastic response. He also was presented with a surprise performance of “Happy Birthday” in celebration of his 91st birthday. 

Samuel Barber is a master of meticulously crafted compositions that have the ability to conjure up powerful and visceral emotions. Although his Adagio for Strings by far gets the most airplay, his profoundly evocative and wistful depiction of American life in early 20th century America, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, is an underrated masterpiece that gets far too few live performances. Based on a stunning text by James Agee, the Soprano soloist sings of one childhood summer night that is both idyllic and foreboding. The soloist was Nicole Cabell, who in 2005 was anointed with the all-encompassing title of “BBC Singer of the World.” The orchestra is reduced to chamber size and Llewellyn led them in a performance laced with great sensitivity, subtlety and attention to the text. While nothing could be faulted as being “wrong” with the performance, Ms. Cabell’s vocal approach was simply not an appropriate fit to the simplicity and innocence that the music and text portrays. Remembrances of typical American childhoods, generally, do not equal grand opera.

Like Barber, who despite dozens of masterpieces, is most remembered for his “greatest hit,” Leonard Bernstein both enjoyed and suffered from the general estimation that his West Side Story is the greatest score ever written for an American musical. Bernstein put together a collection of nine Symphonic Dances from the score to be played as an orchestral showpiece – and it certainly does require a large and virtuosic group to successfully and authentically pull it off. Llewellyn brought his youthful energy and enthusiasm to this familiar score and in turns transformed this “classical” ensemble into a small jazz combo, a Latin big band, and an after hours jazz club. The percussion section gets a big and complex workout and for the most part performed admirably, although there were times when “correctness” interfered with the ability to swing – especially in the Mambo/Dance in the Gym section. (The name of one of the nine sections was omitted from the printed program.*)

One of the earmarks, oops, I mean “hallmarks” (watching too much political news lately) of a great musician/conductor is to perform a work you may have heard dozens or even hundreds of times before and still be able to demand your attention and even uncover something new. The NCS performance of Antonin Dvorák’s well-worn Ninth Symphony, “From the New World,” was such an event. Llewellyn and his players performed this most American of symphonies composed by the Czech master as if they were discovering its boundless treasures for the first time. The famous English horn solo in the Largo movement, played by Michael Schultz, was a lesson in how even large orchestras can stretch phrases and adapt to rhythmic playfulness at the whim of a soloist and still keep together. One of the great improvements in this orchestra during the Llewellyn tenure is their remarkable dynamic range – especially at the low end. Playing extremely softly, but with sustained energy and no loss of rhythmic precision, is what separates good from great ensembles and this attribute was demonstrated through this familiar symphony.

This concert was a microcosm of what makes American concert music such a great experience and the potential that lies ahead for this art form. Kudos to the entire North Carolina Symphony organization for such wonderful programming and execution. 

*Updated/corrected 9/19 based on reader input, for which we are always grateful.