There was excitement outside the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts as masked guests lined up to show proof of vaccination before entering the brightly lit lobby of the Meymandi Concert Hall. The ushers warmly welcomed patrons as I navigated my way to my seat, after first scanning a QR code for digital access to the opening weekend program. The lights dimmed and a kind voice requested all electronic devices be silenced; the orchestra quieted, the brass tuned, and after an amusingly pregnant pause, Maestro David Danzmayr appeared to begin the North Carolina Symphony‘s 2021-2022 concert season.

The first piece on the program was Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” a staple for brass and percussion ensembles. The piece started with a thunderous entrance which the percussion executed well enough to startle a lady to my right, and developed into a sonorous chorale as each section entered. The low brass blended marvelously with the initial trumpet melody, and the French horns followed suit superbly. This piece is only a few minutes in length, but provided a grand beginning to the concert. After this introductory piece, Maestro Danzmayr addressed the audience, announcing that “The North Carolina Symphony is back!” before providing brief information about the following three works on the program.

The brass and percussion exited the stage in preparation for William Grant Still’s Danzas de Panama, a four-movement piece for string orchestra based on Panamanian folk dances. Throughout the jovial work, the ensemble exhibited great cross-section communication which resulted in nuanced dynamics, effective character changes, and fluid exchanges of melody and harmony. The themes were supported throughout by precise rhythmic motors and the entire ensemble moved together like a living organism, encouraged by Maestro Danzmayr’s enthusiastic phrase shaping. As this was the orchestra’s first concert in a while, I appreciated the showcasing of the separate sections that the first two pieces provided, as it allowed the smaller ensembles to highlight their specific strengths.

The winds and brass returned to the stage as the piano was brought out in preparation for the next piece, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, to be performed by soloist George Li. In his initial speech, Danzmayr joked that the audience would be receiving their full ticket’s worth, as this piece contained 24 variations. Despite the quantity, Li’s performance was paced wonderfully; each variation contained precise and intentional phrasing that created a highly-effective overall melodic arc. Li navigated the contrasting characters effortlessly and wove in and out of the ensemble’s unified accompaniment with ease. The orchestra followed Li with sensitivity while maintaining core in the sound and precise execution of interlocking countermelodies; the string tutti of the 18th Variation, which famously appears in the 1980’s film Somewhere in Time, made my eyes well-up and goosebumps appear, and the end of the work garnered a standing ovation that was definitely well-deserved. After the audience insisted with continued applause, Li sat in front of the piano again for an encore of Mendelssohn’s “Venetian Boat Song” in F-sharp minor, Op. 30 No. 6; this slow and lilting piece was a nice contrast to Rachmaninoff’s intricate and virtuosic rhapsody, and Li played with tenderness and care. The encore wasn’t announced from the stage, and my initial guess was that it was something by Chopin, but thankfully the gentleman to my left recognized the work and was able to provide me with the proper title.

After the intermission, the orchestra retook the stage for the final work on the program: Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, “From the New World,” one of my personal favorites that I never tire of playing or hearing. The first movement begins with a delicate cello and viola melody that the NCS executed beautifully and when the rest of the ensemble entered with the contrasting force of the main theme, the audience was rapt. The orchestra did not take the exposition repeat, but fluctuated between fast and slow themes smoothly while maintaining momentum through to the end of the movement. The second movement’s iconic English horn solo was executed beautifully, with sensitive accompaniment from the string and wind sections, and when the main melody (which later became the spiritual “Goin’ Home”) began in the strings, the elderly couple in front of me held hands in a moment of tenderness that mimicked the music coming from the stage. The third movement’s precise and interlocking melody went off without a hitch as the winds and strings navigated their off-beats and staggered entrances, and I was especially impressed by the triangle’s nuanced dynamics and the timpani’s effective punctuation. The shaping of the phrases throughout the ensemble as a whole was well-paced and individual melodies blossomed out of the tutti texture.

The last movement, one of my all-time favorites, began with a ferocity that rivaled the beginning of the Copland fanfare, and the ensemble followed the conductor’s declamatory beats steadfastly. The dynamic terracing throughout the movement was very intentional and there was great communication across the sections. The movement had an energy like a tornado, with whirling passagework and tremolos that created a spiraling energy carried to the stoic and triumphant end. The audience lauded the performance with a standing ovation and Danzmayr graciously accepted with two tutti bows and a third that allowed the soloists, especially the English horn, to receive proper commendation, before once again bringing the whole orchestra to their feet. The North Carolina Symphony’s return to the stage was a success, and I look forward to the rest of their concert season.