The North Carolina Symphony closed its 2016-2017 season with a program of Russian music: Rodion Shchedrin‘s Concerto for Orchestra No. 1, Naughty Limericks; Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s celebrated Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35 with soloist Augustin Hadelich; and Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich.

The NC Symphony was in fine form. Conductor Grant Llewellyn brought out the humorous quirkiness of Shchedrin’s score, provided sensitive accompaniment to Hadelich’s fiery reading of the Tchaikovsky concerto, and probed the depths of the Shostakovich symphony with a performance that channeled Rostropovich’s with the National Symphony Orchestra or Valery Gergiev’s with the Mariinsky Orchestra.

Shchedrin’s orchestral music is, more often than not, full of humor. In his verbal program notes, Llewellyn described Naughty Limericks as “weird and wacky.” For some nine minutes, the orchestra gamboled its way through thickets of chastushki. (A chastushka is a short song with a rhymed text, with, in Shchedrin’s words, “humor, irony, and a sharp satire of the status quo, its defenders and the ‘leaders of the people’.”) While there were no texts, the satiric element was clearly present in the use of a prepared piano in lieu of a Balalaika, plenteous glissandi (not only for violins, but, mirabile dictu, for the double basses), and percussive effects including whip/slapstick riffs and frog-on-string notes from the string sections. This is a fun piece, albeit one requiring superb rhythmic and technical control; it was a great curtain-raiser and a foil for the Tchaikovsky which followed it.

Violinist Hadelich, playing a 1723 Stradivari instrument, brought a stunning performance of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. His intonation was, in a word, perfect; he tossed off the virtuoso passages with ease, sometimes at tempos that threatened to leave the orchestra behind despite Llewellyn’s careful attention. The first movement’s breathtaking conclusion brought the audience to its feet as if they had not noticed that there were two more movements to follow. The orchestra’s woodwind section outdid itself as one after another solo line (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn) wove its way through the work. After the lyrical Canzonetta slow movement, the Allegro vivacissimo Finale produced enough violinistic fireworks to resemble a July 4th celebration; Hadelich and the orchestra received the well-deserved second standing ovation of the concerto. The ovation continued until Hadelich returned on stage to play an encore: the Caprice No. 1 by Nicolo Paganini.

After intermission, Llewellyn led a major-orchestra-class performance of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony. This was a conductor in full control, inspiring his orchestra not just to play the notes, but to find the spirit within those notes. The NC Symphony has rarely, if ever, sounded better.

The story of this symphony is well-known, although one may wonder why it served to put Shostakovich back in the good graces of Josef Stalin and the USSR’s Communist Party. What one takes from this music may depend on what one brings to it, in terms of how one perceives the world in which one lives. Its message was likely clearer to the average Russian living in the turbulent times only two decades after the 1917 revolutions than to those in power.

The symphony’s four movements are titled simply with tempo indications: Moderato, Allegretto, Largo, and Allegro non troppo. Those titles give no hint of emotional depth, but the orchestra found much there. The first movement’s violent, jagged mountainous terrain begins with strings only, adding instruments one after another until, just when one expects a dramatic fortisissimo conclusion, the music ends as it dissolves into a barren landscape. Llewellyn’s tempos were perfect, his direction probing and commanding.

After the second movement Allegretto, a sardonic scherzo, we heard the evening’s finest playing in the heart of the symphony, its third-movement Largo. Mstislav Rostropovich described this symphony as including a “message of sorrow, suffering and isolation,” and that message is surely embodied in the Largo.

Beginning with a small group of back-of-section strings, the music’s volume and intensity mounted over a timpani pedal-point, each note seeming to be infused with desperation tempered by hope. Over tremolando strings, searing melodies seemed to cry out in a way that only music can express. I was reminded of words by poet Edward Borgers:

When all mankind has shouldered arms, when earth is trembling to the tread of marching feet,
When skies scream death, when jagged flames have ripped the night in shreds,
When from the crumbled heaps the orphaned babe cries out alone,
Our God, have mercy on us all!

The movement’s final two chords seemed to whisper an “Amen,” then there was hardly a pause before the battle sounds of the final Allegro non troppo began. While the Russian authorities heard a proclamation of victory in the D Major chords which conclude this symphony, those who heard their everyday existence in Shostakovich’s music may well have considered those chords to be “fake news.” The triumph of this symphony is the way in which it allows music, and those musicians who bring that music alive, to express the depths of human experience and emotion.

Thank you, NCS members, and thank you, Maestro Llewellyn, for a superb performance.

This concert will be repeated on Saturday, May 20, at 8 PM in Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall. See our sidebar for ticket details.