Seldom have all the elements that combine for performance excellence met as they did during the March 4 North Carolina Symphony concert in Elon University’s McCrary Theatre. Most of the music was familiar to the audience and the musicians, having been programmed frequently. The soloist, Emanuel Ax, has an unaffected stage presence that belies the depth of his musicianship as well as his technical mastery. The guest conductor, Jahja Ling has had years of experience with one of the greatest orchestras, the Cleveland Orchestra.

It is a sad commentary on the Symphony’s history of programming that the appearance of any Mozart concerto or symphony would be considered a rarity. Ax delivered a deceptively simple and deeply eloquent interpretation of Mozart’s Concerto No. 17, in G, K.453. Most profound was the chamber music give-and-take between the soloist and the woodwinds in the slow movement. Ling fitted the accompaniment like a glove with tight ensemble and perfect balances between the strings and the brass. Afterward, he had flutist Anne Whaley Laney and oboist Michael Schultz stand because of their winning partnership with Ax.

A perfectly judged performance of Rossini’s Overture to L’Italiana in Algeri opened the concert. McCrary Theatre is an intimate venue that seats somewhat more than 700. What a delight it was to hear the soft, delicate pizzicatos have a palpable “weight.” Section ensemble was very tight and phrasing ideal, with full value given to the pauses. Ling acknowledged the fine work of oboist Sandra Wehner Posch, who had a central role, as well as flutist Mary Boone.

The North Carolina Symphony has always given good performances of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, in D, Op. 43. Ling brought this standard to a higher level with a traditional but vital reading. The brasses were in top form but reined in and perfectly balanced, so the strings were never swamped. All sections of the orchestra played at the top of their form; a list of those deserving acknowledgement would double the length of this review. The five horns, led by Andrew McAfee, were in fine fettle. Unlike Meymandi Hall, wherein the sound of the lower strings tends to be attenuated, McCrary Theatre reinforced the solid phalanx of violas, cellos, and double basses with which Ling conjured a surprisingly full sound.

Our orchestra is about twenty strings shy of the ideal but most of the finalists for the music directorship have shown that balanced performances are possible. The Symphony ought to keep up guest conducting relationships with all these fine musicians.

This program is repeated tonight (3/5) and tomorrow (3/6) in Raleigh. See our calendar for details.