Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh’s BTI Center for the Performing Arts had a good audience on hand for the 3:00 p.m. Sunday Serenade Concert by members of the North Carolina Symphony conducted by Gerhardt Zimmermann. The selections ranged from a “faux baroque” work through two classical compositions with the size of the orchestra ranging from baroque-sized with just strings to a larger, classical configuration with brass, woodwinds and percussion.

The hall was almost too large for small forces involved in the opening work, Handel’s Concerto Grosso in A, Op. 6, No. 11. Parts of this are re-workings of the composer’s Organ Concerto, Op. 7, No. 2. According to Stanley Sadie, writing in Handel Concertos, “the string version is much more carefully worked out in detail, with an independent viola part. The organ ‘ad lib’ passages within the movements (are) assigned to the first violin and mostly now accompanied.” Much to my surprise, from my seat in the first balcony, the unamplified harpsichord continuo could be heard. Zimmermann chose apt tempos throughout with excellent balances between string sections. This was a rare opportunity to savor the sweet violin solos of the orchestra’s new Associate Concertmaster, Jeff Thayer, who made the most of the transformed organ parts. I almost missed the part of the “concertino” group; cellist Elizabeth Beilman was seated in the second cello position nearer the harpsichord and almost hidden from view by the conductor. I believe the third member of the concertino was violinist Emi Hino. In addition to Thayer’s violin solos, he joined these two to provide the contrast with the full string orchestra. This small ensemble would have made a stronger impression in the Fletcher Opera Theater. Still, the textures were much clearer than if the forces had been inflated. I look forward to hearing more baroque repertory from the NCS in the future.

It was a treat to see and hear the next work, Giovanni Bottesini’s Concerto in B Minor for Double Bass and Orchestra, featuring the orchestra’s Principal Bass, Leonid Finkelshteyn, as the expert soloist. Since there is a dearth of concertos for their instrument, double bassists have been forced to compose their own. Bottesini was a great pioneering virtuoso. Alas, he was not a great composer; he was a competent work-a-day classical composer, mostly of operas. Not strong on Germanic sonata form and structure, this concerto intended for the bass to “sing” in the bel canto style. All the frequent arpeggios that took the soloist into the extreme high registers were beautifully managed, as were the fast passages. It was a pleasant trifle, enjoyable for sheer virtuosity rather than musical substance. The great double bass concerto is yet to be composed. The program notes had the three movements listed under the next piece on the program.

A “Faux Baroque” piece opened the second part of the program. When I first started collecting records, the “Adagio in G Minor for Strings” barely by Tomaso Albinoni, was almost as obnoxiously omnipresent as Pachelbel’s slightly more authentic “Canon.” Most performances were bass-heavy with an organ and with strings played with a broad, all-purpose vibrato. As Scott Warfield’s excellent notes explained at length, Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto cobbled this pastiche together from “a mere fragment of a piece in manuscript, which he believed to be the slow movement of a trio sonata by Albinoni. [He] used this surviving bass line and its six measures of melody to construct a conjectural movement.” Helped by the absence of the organ part, Zimmermann led a clear-textured performance that was well balanced and that made good use of varied dynamics. Associate Concertmaster Thayer had another fine solo. Throughout this piece and the whole concert, the viola section sounded better than on any occasion that I’ve heard since Meymandi Hall opened.

At the conclusion of the last piece on the program, Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 86 in D Major, one of the six “Paris” symphonies, I immediately began to wonder why Zimmermann had not programmed more works by Haydn and Mozart over the past twenty years. True, old Memorial Auditorium would have hidden most of the sound below “mp,” but our orchestra is just the right size to play this repertory – it is not large enough for the late Romantic works so often programmed – and we have had musicians of sufficient quality to realize true classical works for some time. The opening tutti of the Haydn symphony was beautifully blended, and the orchestral balance was excellent throughout. String articulation was outstanding, too. The transition from the slow introduction to the “allegro spiritoso” section was well managed. At times, I thought the tempo of the latter was a little too fast, but the musicians played it clearly. The second movement, taken at a good slow tempo with full value given to Haydn’s important pauses, made a fine contrast to the first movement. The minuet was a real delight, the brasses-two horns and two trumpets-were stirring. String phrasing was exceptional and the “trio” section was so exquisite that it elicited premature applause at the end. The violins played with delicacy and speed in the exciting last movement. There was a wonderful violin figure set against bassoons. This may have been the finest performance of an early classical work Zimmermann has given here. I hope his successor will mine this repertory extensively. Bravo!