The North Carolina Symphony kicked off its 2011-12 season in Wilmington with a program featuring Schubert’s “Great” C Major Symphony. The moniker is meant to distinguish the piece from Schubert’s “Little” Symphony in the same key written earlier, but could just as well refer to the transcendent quality of the work itself.

As a counterbalance to the massive Schubert, the shorter first half featured two very familiar, often-performed works. The first was “Night on Bald Mountain” by Mussorgsky. This staple of the repertoire was actually written in good part by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky’s sometime mentor who helped bring his music to the stage after his death. This performance began with effective swells helping to set the eerie mood. The following tutti chords were tight and, as happened elsewhere in the concert, the grand pause was truly dramatic, a taut suspension of motion. As the first part of the piece unfolded, the conductor, William Henry Curry, showed his customary fine control of color. The middle section lost perhaps a bit more than a desirable amount of kinetic quality, but the recap built up strongly again. The wind solos in the final section were beautifully evocative.

The next work was the first suite from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, incidental music to Ibsen’s play by the same name. Like the Mussorgsky, this piece is frequently heard in concert and has also entered the popular domain. The first number was the evergreen “Morning Mood.” Once again, sensitive wind solos and finely created colors characterized this movement. The following “Ase’s Death” projected first a mournful and later a soaring quality, with a beautiful sustained hush in the last section and a dark ppp at the end. “Anitra’s Dance” bounced, and “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” the final number in the set, led from a lumbering start to an effective accumulation at the end.

Despite the familiarity of these pieces, Curry led readings that did not become routine but rather projected excitement in the act of performance. He also addressed a few words to the audience and in so doing – especially in his humorous off-the-cuff reaction to a ringing cell phone – created a good extra-musical rapport with his listeners.

The second half was devoted entirely to the symphony that Schumann praised for its “heavenly length.” The work is not only Schubert’s “great” essay in music for the orchestra, but one of the pinnacles of the symphonic literature. The performance featured much beautiful playing as well as some expectations unfulfilled. The first movement began surprisingly fast. This took away some of the majesty of the opening horn call and the general expansiveness of the introduction. Also, it led to the basic beat of the following allegro being surprisingly close to the opening andante. This movement, like the rest of the symphony, features exposed wind writing, both fast and slow; the orchestra’s players rose to the challenge with consistent beauty of tone and phrasing. Yet overall, there was also some lack of the directional intensity which characterized the pieces in the first half and which holds together a work of this demanding scale.

Like the first movement, the second also began somewhat briskly, even almost perky. This did not allow its haunting, tragic quality fully to emerge. This music is the embodiment of the sadness, sometimes bittersweet, which characterizes Schubert, along with gaiety and dance. The reflective quality missing from the theme emerged more fully in the middle section, and later, after the climax, with its dramatic grand pause. That pause seemed to set into motion a different character, with a coda that created a dark, sustained tone. Here Curry and his forces captured the weight of this somber poem, which gives glimpses of a lifetime of experience, yet was written by a man not yet thirty.

The third movement scherzo brings the symphony fully into the domain of the dance. It is unusual in its length and complexity. Curry’s tempo carried both the weight and the energy of the movement. The trio had the needed wistful quality.

The fourth movement was the most successful and gave a culminating brilliance to the performance. From the opening it caught the momentum of the piece, fast and whirling yet not hectic – Schubert in the thrill of the dance. The rhythm of the rapid triplets was always clear and defined. The middle section projected tension and a strong peak. The buildup to the return in E-flat was also tautly done, followed by an effective wind-down to the coda. The ending was powerful and grand. This movement was exciting, even scintillating in its bright colors and energetic momentum. The virtuosity of the orchestra, especially the winds, carried the work to an imposing conclusion, received with justified enthusiasm by the audience.

This program is being toured widely as the season gets underway. It was given earlier in Southern Pines and Fayetteville, and presentations in New Bern, Wilkesboro, and Salisbury are pending. For details, see the sidebar.