On a program of all symphonic works, solo and chamber musicianship was the biggest highlight of the North Carolina Symphony‘s concert in Chapel Hill. I’ve come to count on the NCS for their outstanding full-ensemble moments, but guest pianist Conrad Tao took the concert in a totally different direction. Tao’s soloistic artistry and leadership left a lasting impression on me; throughout the performance, I felt my attention drawn to the individual voices of featured players and sections.

Like a tapestry woven from personal experiences, Jessie Montgomery‘s Records from a Vanishing City was a beautiful landscape for the NCS to showcase the individualism of their members. Montgomery’s reputation precedes her; guest conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong described her as “one of the most important composers in American music.” Records from a Vanishing City is dedicated to Montgomery’s family friend James Rose and is inspired in part by the rich record collection left to her after Rose’s passing. Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Coltrane, hints of world folk music, and snippets from an Angolan lullaby paint the everyday diversity of music from Manhattan’s Lower East Side where Montgomery grew up. Much of the piece feels hazy, mysterious, and naturally a little mournful, yet it never felt unhappy. Above murky, pulsating strings, many solos emerged from the texture and revealed the piece’s underlying optimism. A peacefully ruminating solo from oboe and repeated by clarinet set the contemplative mood of the opening section. Against a troubled atmosphere created by the strings, a flowing and simply content solo from bassoon was echoed by glowing muted trumpet. In the final moments, a blooming string quartet diffused the last idea of cheerful hopefulness before the uncertain ending. Reflecting on the performance during the transition afterward, I couldn’t help but think how Montgomery’s writing was incredibly soloistic itself. Arguably, the writing of any composer could qualify as soloistic, but Montgomery’s voice rang so clearly throughout Records from a Vanishing City. The emotive qualities are often confusing, unclear, and conflicting, yet so beautifully specific to her own experience. Bringing this complexity of emotion to life was a great success on the part of the NCS.

Contrasting the introspectiveness of Montgomery, Elgar’s In the South was more like a gallant narrative. And with Elgar, each instrumental feature drove the story along. Reminding me of Ein Heldenleben, Don Juan, and Eine Alpensinfonie, Elgar’s tone poem was operatic, romantic, and heroic from the very first minute! To be honest, if I hadn’t known that Elgar was on the program, I would have guessed that the last piece of the night was a Strauss classic. And much like Strauss, it wasn’t long before the piece’s heroism was replaced by longing and calamity. Like thunder in a storm, the North Carolina Symphony brass section shook the room in their perilous barrage against the strings. Tuba and bass trombone especially electrified the sound of the stratified chords. Switching moods again, the orchestra dovetailed off the sturm und drang tempest with an exchange of love-struck solos between principal viola and French horn. Softening the mood and captivating their listeners, both soloists deserved their enormous applause in recognition of their sensitivity. The same heroism at the beginning of the work returned triumphant in the final moments and brought the work to a marvelous conclusion. Even with a completely different genre, the NCS aired the versatility of their solo performances.

Between the Montgomery and Elgar, the NCS already had a concert brimming with virtuosic solos and soli. Though, without Tao’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, I don’t feel that those moments would have stood out to me with so much brilliance. Additionally, by putting the orchestra in an accompanying role on the opening piece of the program, the artful individuality of the following pieces had a contrast to shine against. From the moment Tao’s steps took him striding to the piano center stage, it was clear he was prepared to make a lasting impression on the audience with his performance of the “Emperor” concerto. Truly the rockstar of the night, Tao’s performance theatrics and dynamic body language added an element of surprise and excitement to his performance. There were even moments when I thought I could hear heard Tao singing along with the orchestral accompaniment which recalled for me the deeply personal relationship between piano and pianist in Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Even days after the concert, I’ve caught myself whistling the teetering primary theme from the final movement of the concerto. Tackling Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 is a feat unto itself, and Tao was able to do so with a degree of expressive freedom that accentuated the solo performances of others throughout the evening.

I’ve written before about how much I enjoy the symphonic vitality of the North Carolina Symphony. Through this concert, the NCS was able to demonstrate the range of colors available to the symphonic orchestra beyond the larger-than-life moments. Even Lecce-Chong shared some of his personality with us during his time on the podium. Beaming with gratitude, Lecce-Chong told us how excited he was to bring us “joys that haven’t been heard before” to a larger audience. The North Carolina Symphony is greater than the sum of its parts to be sure, but it was the vibrant character of every soloist that realized the uniqueness of each work.