You didn’t have to be a classical music lover to thoroughly enjoy the North Carolina Symphony‘s gala concert, “An Evening with Renée Fleming and Grant Llewellyn.” The extremely varied and colorful program spanned from verismo opera arias to Joni Mitchell and more. Perhaps even more significantly, the poignancy of this event was palpable. Originally planned for the 20/21 concert season and Llewellyn’s first season as the NC Symphony’s Music Director Laureate, the program was postponed, and ended up falling auspiciously on the 90th anniversary of NCS’s very first concert. As the first feature in Llewellyn’s four-year term in his new role, the audience’s gratitude was obvious, shown through numerous standing ovations throughout and enthusiastic applause, even between movements and sets. The maestro’s sixteen (and counting) years of service to orchestral arts and education in our state has certainly not gone unnoticed. Conducting solely with his left hand due to a stroke suffered in 2020, Llewellyn conducted with no less than his usual blend of sternness and ease, which only added to the multifaceted meaning held within this program.

And then, of course – there was Renée Fleming. A household name among music lovers, she is lauded worldwide for her work in both opera houses and concert halls, and on Broadway. She starred in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel in 2018, and released a musical theatre complication album called Broadway that same year. Of course, that’s just the tip of her massive discography’s iceberg – she’s been nominated for 17 Grammys and has won four. More details and highlights of both Fleming’s and Llewellyn’s accomplished careers would take up more space than this whole article!

This program’s two halves featured both orchestral-only and orchestral-vocal music. Beginning with the former, Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide saw the NCS in full orchestral extravagance. The 20-minute piece featured each of the orchestra’s sections in the spotlight – I was rapt during the chorale-like texture of the mournfully phrased horn sections. There was a lovely duet between woodwinds and pizzicato string accompaniment, hinting at the awesome woodwind lines we would hear later.

Fleming’s first fabulous appearance was for Ravel’s Shéhérazade, and even her initial footfall onstage was met with lengthy applause from the audience. She remarked later in the program how appreciative she was to perform Ravel’s lush song cycle, as she doesn’t get to perform it often. The first movement, “Asie” (Asia), featured Fleming’s rich lower range, and Llewellyn guided both vocalist and orchestra in a seamless flow between tempos and textures, alternating longing and playfulness according to the scenic lyrics. “La Flûte enchantée” (The Enchanted Flute), contains a spellbinding flute line, complimentary but independent to the vocal line, woven here by principal flutist Anne Whaley Laney. “L’Indifférent” (The Indifferent One) is likely the most seductive of the three songs, and was performed with extreme dynamic control that solidified the tension, spanning out to a contented ending.

Similar to Ravel’s exoticism, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnole Op. 34 is a vivid take on the folk songs of Spain. The five movements were a delightful orchestral interlude, with three on the first half of the program, and the latter two on the second half. Concertmaster Brian Reagin‘s dancing solos throughout were wonderful, and several individuals of the woodwind section gave free, cadenza-like solos (as well as the harp!) The voracious meter changes of the final movement were very satisfying.

The second half of the program saw the most vocal variety. Opening with selections from Maria Schneider‘s Winter Morning Walks, settings of Ted Kooser‘s introspective poetry, Fleming used the fantastic imagery to her advantage as she evoked the alertness of an early dawn walk. The rhythms of “Our Finch Feeder” are abstract and capricious like wind – the vocal melody keeps everything together. This was my first time hearing these pieces; I found Schneider’s realism to be captivatingly relatable, and clearly both Fleming and the orchestra relished in the picturesque music.

It wouldn’t be a Renée Fleming concert without a few diva-centric arias. Leoncavallo’s “Musette svaria sulla bocca viva” from La Bohéme and “Io son l’umile ancella” from Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur surely scratched that itch. The former was flirtatious and dance-like, effortlessly fun, and the latter’s contrasting tenderness mesmerized me. In contrast to these arias, but no less satisfying, “The Sound of Music” and “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” provided passionate and sweeping performances. Fleming used a microphone for these and most of the later selections, not necessarily for volume but to capture the nuance of these non-operatic works. I found that Fleming’s painting of nature imagery in this iconic music thematically hailed back to the landscapes of Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Schneider, bringing the program full circle.

Joni Mitchell‘s “Blue,” backed by a full symphonic orchestra, sounded like a contemporary art song, an interesting depiction. Then, the program would have ended with Andrew Lippa‘s custom-made “The Diva” (“let’s be a diva, me and you!”), but of course the audience would stand for no less than two encores: gems that I would personally not get tired of hearing. Fleming and the NC Symphony closed the concert with “O mio babbino caro” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” – what a privilege to hear both of these standards performed live! All told, “An Evening with Renée Fleming and Grant Llewellyn” was an unmistakably special event.