The NC Symphony returned to its home turf — its first concert was presented in 1932 in UNC’s Hill Hall — to launch its 75th anniversary series in Memorial Hall. It was an auspicious occasion. Although UNC has become the region’s most inhospitable place for getting to concerts, thanks to the horrendous parking problem that some of the best intellects in captivity seem incapable of solving, Memorial Hall was completely sold out for this program. The bill of fare was unusual — an American work received its world premiere in company with 20th-century French and Russian scores. (No complaints about “all the modern stuff” were heard.) The lineup — seven short pieces, none longer than 22 minutes — seemed to suit folks with short attention spans better than, say, long-winded Bruckner or Mahler symphonies.

It was a fairly noisy program that wound up having a lot going for it. The new American piece was the brief (4.5 minutes, ’twas said) “Triangle Transit,” the last orchestral work of long-time Chapel Hillian Roger Hannay, who passed away in January at the age of 75. It’s not a typical Hannay score but at this stage of the game I am not sure what “typical” means in terms of his large output — or anyone else’s, for that matter. It’s mostly bright, boisterous, and energetic; it is at times amusing; and here and there it’s fairly serious, with undercurrents that suggest Wagner or Strauss in dark moods. That said, however, it is also unmistakably American in the sense that those who are familiar with the music of Ives or Copland or Bernstein will immediately recognize. The composer wrote some notes into the score that Music Director Grant Llewellyn read to the audience before the performance. Hannay’s own brief note on the music was included in the program, and it’s short enough that I’ll take a chance with the copyright police and reprint it here:

“The impression I have of North Carolina is its absolute modernity with the Research Triangle and the enormous growth of population and commuting. My piece involves the commuting and transportation aspects of a modern technological area that brings all kinds of problems with it! It is exuberant, joyous and entertaining, in four descriptive sections.” Yes.

(For excerpts from a recording made at the dress rehearsal and more information about the new work, including comments from the composer’s daughter and the conductor, visit: NDB101306.mp3/view?searchterm=hannay [inactive 11/07].)

“Triangle Transit” is the second of seven musical “Postcards from North Carolina” by distinguished NC composers that are playing major roles in the celebration of our state orchestra’s 75th anniversary. Here’s hoping that it and the other new works will be played again and again by this orchestra.

French music is almost a new discovery in the Llewellyn era, and a welcome discovery, too. Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales seemed a bit disjointed, thanks to some gaps between the sections — tightening these up would have made the music seem more “of a piece” — but the playing was wonderfully clear and atmospheric. There was more of the same when Canadian pianist Louis Lortie came onto the stage to solo in Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, written for (and recorded by) Paul Wittgenstein, a WWI vet who elicited a flock of left-hand pieces from major composers of the first part of the 20th century. Ravel’s is one of the very best, and it received a stunning performance on this occasion, one in which only rarely did dynamics and balance get a bit out of control.

Lortie is a superb technician with a great deal of artistic savvy, so it was appropriate for him to play three (scheduled) Rachmaninov Preludes from Op. 23 — nos. 5, in g minor, 4, in D, and 7, in c minor. These gave further evidence of Lortie’s superior dexterity and musicianship in richly-varied moods.

The guest pianist’s name was on the marquee, as it were; the trumpet soloist’s name ought to have been, too, thanks to his outstanding work in the concert’s grand finale. Scriabin’s Symphony No. 4, Op. 54, is perhaps better known as the Poem of Ecstasy. Music by this composer is something of an acquired taste, and this tone-poem-like score is no exception. Parts of it sound distinctly French; of course, there’s such a strong cultural link between the French and the Russians that this is almost like stating the obvious. But there are also some tawdry bits that seem to prefigure Stravinsky but lack his compositional spice. The Symphony (or Poem) makes an impression on an audience by virtue of its stellar demands, particularly on the first trumpet; and on this occasion, Paul Randall earned his keep and then some, for sure. The other brasses, horns, winds, and percussionists showered themselves with considerable glory, too, and at the end of the piece, the hall erupted with applause and cheers.

On the down side, the concert experience was marred by some serious hackers — shouldn’t the NC Symphony have bowls of cough drops in the lobby like bigger groups up north? — and by an intrusive photographer in the balcony whose meanderings during the concerto were particularly annoying.

Folks reading this review before the evening of October 14 have time to make tracks to Raleigh for the repeat of this program in Meymandi Concert Hall, where the parking situation is under much firmer control; for details, see our Triangle calendar.

A footnote: The absence from NC Symphony programs of any music by Roger Hannay since 1983 is difficult to fathom, but “Triangle Transit” is welcome, as are the other “Postcards” works being given this season. In his relatively brief tenure, Grant Llewellyn has revitalized — galvanized, indeed — our state orchestra. And there’s even talk of expanding the band — presumably an essential ingredient in the making of “America’s next great orchestra.” It has yet to happen in this administration, and of course it didn’t happen under the last one, either, so the NC Symphony remains roughly the same size it was back in 1983. There were in fact a great many substitutions in Chapel Hill, but the net number of augmentees was minimal, and the orchestra’s now-chronic shortage of strings was palpable, most notably in the Ravel Concerto, when the strings and even the piano were at times inundated, and in louder portions of the Scriabin, when the brass instruments (and an electronic organ) overcame everything else. The presence of that organ reminds one that the NCS’ endowed organ chair remains vacant, perhaps because there’s no organ in Meymandi Concert Hall or Memorial or the Carolina Theatre…. We’ll return to all these themes again, to be sure.