Coping with crisisWhen attending a North Carolina Symphony concert pre-pandemic, audience members probably wouldn’t expect to hear every single musician play individually. Solos and concertmaster spotlights, sure – but not every single instrument. However, since the NC Symphony’s 2020-21 season began, the programs have done just that. With a series of chamber music concerts, the organization has been able to show off even more the incredible individual talent of Meymandi‘s resident orchestra. In fact, the latest program, “Bernstein and Barber,” was the first concert thus far to include every section of the orchestra in one concert program. The eclectic 20th century American program included not only two titular composers but also four contemporary composers who are having a huge part in defining the face of classical and chamber music in the 21st century.

The “spirit, color, and inventiveness” of American music (in the words of Joseph Peters, oboist and now the NCS’s virtual emcee) is found through all six of the program’s featured composers and especially in Jessie Montgomery‘s folk-inspired “Strum.” As implied by the title, “Strum” features lots of non-bowed textures that are traded among the NCS’s string quintet. It is inquisitive and full of movement. Rhythmic transitions from one pattern to the other are often led by one instrument – sometimes violin, sometimes double bass, or sometimes just with a unified breath from all five artists. As in the several past concerts, split-camera angles were used to visually capture the morsels of melody that each musician traded.

This was true, too, with Samuel Barber’s “Summer Music,” played by the NCS’s principal winds. The quintet flickered between two main moods – a languid melody with the oboe as centerpiece, and homophonic staccato-ish chords shared by all. From the lovely horn melodies cutting through the haze, to a bubbling river from the clarinet, it was really great to see each of the orchestra’s artists cast in a different light. This same quintet performed “Red Clay and Mississippi Delta” by composer Valerie Coleman. The joyful piece’s beautiful writing gave our woodwinds lots to do: playful, trilling melodies abound in all five instruments.

Caroline Shaw‘s “Valencia,” described by the composer herself as “simple in some ways and complex in other ways,” finds nuance and unpredictability from something common – the Valencia orange. This string quartet begins with prismatic high strings that filter in and out carefully between pizzicato. It’s definitely not predictable like eating an orange would be, but the quartet held the flow powerfully, ending with a satisfying, sonorous pizzicato cadence.

The final NC Symphony section of the program began with a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Dance Suite for Brass Quintet and Percussion, a series of cheerful fleeting snapshots. The longest and most percussion-filled movement, “MTV for Jerry,” was a very enjoyable jazzy frolic. Continuing the streak of mixed meter and rhythmic precision, Eric Ewazen‘s “Tense and Dramatic” from Frost Fire definitely lives up to its name. Locomotive pulses are layered with syncopated melodies that together create musical urgency. The piece’s concluding moments were performed with great precision and power.