This program by the North Carolina Symphony was the first of four performances (the others take place in Raleigh and Chapel Hill) of a concert with a rather unusual – though successful – program concept. It was anchored by Brahms, whose works were the first and last pieces on the program. However, in an unconventional reordering, Brahms’ weighty third symphony, the biggest work on the concert, began the evening and was followed by the intermission.

This introspective, though also dramatic symphony, received a predominantly lyrical reading. The first movement quickly made an impression with gentle, shapely phrasing. Grant Llewellyn, the orchestra’s music director and the evening’s conductor, excels in drawing forth long lines, especially from the winds. Another strength of his, much on display here, is the crafting of connective passages or transitions. That helped to cohesively knit together the movement, and the symphony on a large scale as well.

The gentle second movement was by turns moody, lilting, and thoughtful, well projected along the long line. The third movement shared this expressiveness. However, the leisurely and sustained interpretation was not strongly contrasted in mood from the second movement. This resulted in something of a sameness, even if a beautiful sameness. A notable point in this movement was the dramatic hush in the transition back to the main theme.

The last movement brought forth the most sustained tension in the work. The middle section and recapitulation were passionate. The conclusion, with its gradual drop in tension to the transfigured ending, was beautifully paced. It is unfortunate that the acoustics of Kenan Auditorium tend to work against full projection of tone from the strings. That lush, romantic sound is an important part of the symphony, but didn’t always reach full fruition in this setting.

Following intermission, the scene became almost like an intimate gathering of friends. Llewellyn first conducted a divertimento for winds – attributed to Haydn – with a total of nine players. This light work allowed the oboes, bassoons, and horns – drawn from what may be his favorite section of the orchestra – to take the spotlight. The sound was well-blended, with always-attractive phrasing from the lead oboe. In another well-designed program touch, the tune of the second movement was also the main theme of the Brahms variations which ended the program.

Before that, however, a reduced string orchestra accompanied oboe and violin soloists in the Bach Concerto in C minor, S.1060; the players were Principal Oboe Melanie Wilsden, and Associate Concertmaster Dovid Friedlander. Llewellyn took over the harpsichord part, and the piece was led by the soloists. They coordinated beautifully with often exquisite phrasing. The second movement stood out for its almost intimate duet between violin and oboe. The third movement brought the piece to an exciting, kinetic close. For this listener, there was more than a desirable amount of vibrato from the violinist, and some very broad rubato bent the tempo more than necessary.

This almost social midsection gave a feeling for how simply pleasurable and fun a concert can be. It was especially fine to have the conductor, in true baroque style, join the ensemble at the keyboard, and work under the soloists.

Following this, full orchestral scale returned with the Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, by Brahms. This often bright, yet concerted work, ended the program with a successful blend of lyrical and exciting sections. The opening theme once again set off the phrasing and tone of the winds. But by the time the triumphant last chords were heard, all the sections of the orchestra had come together in an effective reading of this often-performed masterpiece.

As noted, this program travels next to Raleigh, then Chapel Hill; see our calendar for details.