The North Carolina Symphony presented a monumental program comprised of two works: Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74. These two masterworks were evocative, covering a wide range of harmonic, rhythmic, and emotional ideas with all the panache expected of our state’s unmatched ensemble. Guided by renowned visiting conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, the NC Symphony made its way through two remarkable compositions, displaying impeccable nuance, balance, and passion throughout.

The Symphony No. 4 was actually the second symphony Schumann composed, but its release was delayed until almost ten years later, when it had been edited into a more standard symphonic structure. Prieto and the NC Symphony’s interpretation minimized the pauses between movements, retaining some of the work’s original intent to feel more like a symphonic poem or fantasy – in my opinion, a choice that made the piece feel wonderfully immersive. Prieto’s conducting was abstract and seemed to be focused almost entirely on emotional intent rather than specific meter or rhythmic pattern, which fit the tone of the program perfectly; he reminded the players of the effect they were striving for, rather than dictating the specific way they achieved it. This allowed the orchestra to rely on their extensive training and seemingly throw their whole selves into the performance. I noticed perhaps one or two moments of slight phrasing issues across the ensemble and just the briefest of intonation discrepancies for a moment, but these were hardly distracting; issues were quickly addressed and ultimately served to underscore the amount of passion going into the performance.

The Schumann work was full of energetic, dark richness while always remaining lithe and unified in the development of the first section’s main theme. The second movement’s solos were immaculately balanced: oboist Melanie Wilsden and cellist Bonnie Thron‘s tender duets served as endcaps for Brian Reagin‘s deceptively simple violin solo line, which was a quiet delicacy every time it arose. The third movement’s heavy, stormy waltz was harmonically ever-evolving, utilizing an ethereal version of the earlier violin solo, reimagined for the full section. The final movement was a continuous build, jumping from a glorious triumph to a more minor development section, and flanked by declarative and unified brass and winds in some truly splendid moments.

The headline of the evening, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, while completely different in tone and scope, was just as varied and colorful. Both of these works conjure compelling and intricate stories, but Tchaikovsky’s is a wilder ride in terms of sheer power. The almost ghostly sound of string bass, viola, and Aaron Apaza‘s solo bassoon set a grim background for what felt like a powerful elegy. The quicker, gradually building string entrances were underpinned by echoing low strings and brass that seemed to resonate and echo much farther than the scope of the hall, foreshadowing the powerful outpourings of emotion to come. Deft, dissonant chords from the winds added to a sense of suspense, pressuring the overall pure and plaintive melodies. Samuel Almaguer‘s clarinet solo was delicate and dissolved into and out of nothing, drawing me in so deeply that the following section made me physically flinch in surprise as the anguished melodies grew in power again.

The second movement was more sedate in tone, even as it was rhythmically lilting, giving a much-needed emotional break. The asymmetrical five-beat waltz remained generally soft and pretty, never fully committing to major or minor, but always with a slightly unsettling undercurrent – in the best of ways! The third movement’s intricate rhythms took a moment to clarify, as they are rhythmically dense and complex with many sporadic entrances, but the excitement was always there, led by the relentlessly cheery line of the piccolo, played by Elizabeth Lunsford, and Apaza’s jaunty clarinet line. The movement grew more and more showy and stately, building to several passionate outbursts of percussion and the ensemble’s full, triumphant power – yet somehow miraculously always balanced and never unpleasantly overpowering – before reaching the engaging, rousing ending that brought the audience to instinctive applause. It’s easy to see why ensembles sometimes choose to program this movement last and leave the audience feeling refreshed!

However, that is not the end of the work. Ending with the fourth movement in its original place is no less powerful, though it leaves an entirely different takeaway. Prieto here set aside his baton to reflect the intricate, languishing lines of this sorrowful ending. The movement’s ebb and flow were like sighs at the beginning, and heaving sobs later on, driven entirely by feeling and unconstrained by rhythm or form. The buzzing of muted French horns added anxious intensity – and I want to take a moment to acknowledge the horn section of the NC Symphony, made up of Rebekah Daley, Kimberly Van Pelt, Corbin Castro, Christopher Caudill, Rachel Niketopoulos, and Tanner West. As an NC native and the daughter of a French horn player, in my social circles it is an objective fact that this horn section has always been amazing. Backed by a gorgeous low brass choir, the entire ensemble contributed to an overflow of sorrowful anguish that gradually diminished and dissolved into utter, devastated quiet. This quiet held for several weighty moments in which the entire hall seemed to hold its breath, before erupting into applause. I have never been to a performance that ended with quite this amount of catharsis. Prieto’s humble, enthusiastic physicality acknowledged volumes of gratitude for having been a part of something so moving, and his fist bump to the young boy in the front row seemed to sum up the intimate feelings of human connection that the evening’s works stirred.

There is still another chance to hear this exploration of harmonic ideas Saturday evening, before the NC Symphony begins to present its holiday programs – which will undoubtedly be a lot of fun, but will not even begin to scratch the surface of complex playing and interpretation displayed during this program. 

See our sidebar for details on the repeat performance.