Under the direction of French guest conductor Emmanuel Villaume, the North Carolina Symphony and dynamic pianist Andrew von Oeyen treated the large audience in Meymandi Hall to music derived from the complex, rich aural palette of harmony that is the dominant characteristic of nineteenth-century composition. For this concert Villaume chose music of Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose works stand out among the many composed during that creative era.

Berlioz’s music is not as well known among modern audiences as that of Liszt and Tchaikovsky. This is especially true of the opening piece, the evocative Royal Hunt and Storm music from Hector Berlioz’s seminal opera, Les Troyens (The Trojans) which reflects the composer’s predilection for Virgil’s great classical epic, The Aeneid, and for expansive operas in which he could set such tales of grandeur. 

In The Trojans, the Royal Hunt and Storm music is a pantomime and scene as well as a tone poem delineating the consummation of the love between Aeneas and the Carthaginian princess Dido. As this dramatic scene progresses, the orchestra portrays the hunt going on in the woods surrounding the lovers, satyrs performing grotesque dances, and the passage of a great storm, all in music of rich color. Berlioz, one of the greatest masters of orchestration in the nineteenth century, employed in this tone poem those instruments conveying exactly the feelings between the lovers, the frightening actions of the satyrs, the varied sounds of the hunt, and the sublime terror caused by the mighty storm. The Orchestra under Villaume played with great skill, both as technicians and as sensitive interpreters of the composer’s intent.

The second piece on the program, Franz Liszt’s formidably challenging Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major with Andrew von Oeyen at the piano, was full of musical fireworks, shifts in meters and dynamics, and complex harmonies. To play Liszt’s compositions, a pianist must possess an exceptionally strong technique, of which von Oeyen showed himself to have more than a sufficient amount. Although he entranced the audience with the power of his individual performance, he also showed that he possessed something even more important: a thorough knowledge of the composer’s obvious desire to make the bravura playing of the soloist an integral part of the concerto. Both the soloist and the orchestra understood this, offering a performance that held the audience’s attention as thoroughly as any dramatic music could. All present could clearly recognize von Oeyen’s technical skills, but also recognized in him that greater artistry which goes far beyond individual display.

The final work on this program, Tchaikovsky’s popular Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (“Pathetique”), was the most dramatic music of the evening. Listeners not put off by Tchaikovsky’s many orchestral expressions of despair might describe the symphony as dramatic. Those who are offended might dismiss the music as melodramatic. No matter how you characterize it, Tchaikovsky has poured into this composition a complex of emotions that allows the instruments of the orchestra to weep with him, but not, I believe, to excess. The element which causes listeners to love this work or dismiss it as bathos is the conductor, whose emotions may rule his head (Carlo Maria Giulini comes to mind). This was not the case in the North Carolina Symphony’s treatment of this work. Villaume allowed the pathos to show through, but he was always in control of the music and the players, asking from the Orchestra a completely musical performance which treats themes of pathos rather than being overwhelmed by them.  

From the first movement, with its honest expression of agitation and pain, through the finale, a lengthy lament toward which the symphony has been inexorably moving, Villaume sustains the reality of increasing darkness which colors every line of the music. Emptiness unrelieved brings the work to a close, “not with a bang but a whimper.” It is likely that this finale troubles listeners, who want to hear a return to life, pleasure and joy to bring music to a satisfying conclusion. But neither the composer nor the conductor and his orchestra can offer this. Instead, throughout the performance of Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, Villaume and the NCS make every attempt to convey the feelings the composer masterfully represents.