The North Carolina Symphony, led by their esteemed Music Director Grant Llewellyn, presented a fascinating and varied program that was marketed as “Slavic Drama.” The composers represented were the Czech composers Karel Husa and Antonín Dvořák, plus the great Russian Sergei Prokofiev, pushing the designation of “Slavic” just a bit. This first playing of a three-concert run of this program took place at Memorial Auditorium on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Music written as a protest of or in reaction to political events and repressive regimes is nothing new. Probably the most well known is several of Shostakovich’s symphonies. The good news for composers is that unlike literature or the visual arts, no one can say precisely and definitively what a musical composition means – that is also the bad news. In 1968 the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the “Prague Spring,” an attempt to break the repressive communist regime. Karel Husa composed the highly emotional Music for Prague 1968 to commemorate this event and to honor his countrymen. Originally written for concert band, Husa arranged a version for full orchestra which was premiered by the Munich Philharmonic in 1970. This work is in four movements and can almost be considered a concerto for percussion instruments. In accompanying notes and remarks on his work, Husa did not mince words and freely expressed his disgust with war and destruction, and hoped to express this with his composition. The most affecting part is the second movement funeral march with its bells inspired by Prague’s “thousand spires” and its long-held string chords representing the tragedy of the Czech people. The NCS played with great sensitivity and gravitas as if music alone could save people in need.

When listening to Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, it comes as no surprise that his remarkable score to the ballet Romeo and Juliet was written around the same time period: sections of the concerto, or even entire movements could be dropped into the ballet score and would fit like a babushka. The soloist was the ridiculously young Latvian violinist Baiba Skride playing the “Ex Baron Feilitzch” Stradivarius, on loan from Gidon Kremer. This work is a masterpiece in every respect: modern but not abrasive, a musical language that could not be mistaken for anyone but Prokofiev, brilliant orchestration and a solo part that, at least in part, eschews blatant virtuosity for stunning lyricism. Skride was especially effective and affecting in the beautiful andante movement. Llewellyn controlled the slow orchestral pizzicati with the soloist to perfection. Skride gave an excellent and nearly technically flawless performance, but, I must admit that I cannot quite articulate what was missing – and I was not alone in that. Triangle audiences are known for granting standing ovations for nearly everyone, but not one person stood up after this performance.

Like Tchaikovsky, and to a lesser extent Mozart and Schubert, Dvořák’s last three symphonies get most of the airplay as compared to the earlier ones. In fact it was quite surprising to hear from maestro Llewellyn in remarks to the audience, that the performance we were about to hear of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 5 was the premiere performance by the North Carolina Symphony. Most of the composers of Dvořák’s epoch would probably have sacrificed years off their lives to have composed a symphony like this, but I would tend to agree with an early assessment of Dvořák that he was “an undoubted talent, but in a way which as yet remains formless and unbridled.” The first movement especially, although containing the unmistakable Dvořák sound, meanders and loses momentum. The orchestra also seemed to lose focus during the andante movement slipping into a “workmanlike” reading. Llewellyn seemed to sense this and whipped them back into shape for the tempestuous and surprisingly angry finale. The brass section displayed their prodigious chops and perfect intonation during the sunnier closing moments.