During the year or more that the North Carolina Symphony (NCS) presented guests in live auditions for their new conductor and music director, Grant Llewellyn eclipsed all others, not only in terms of musical ability and pedigree but also in the force of his endearing personality. There was, however, some question about his experience with the full range of orchestral repertoire, as his specialty in Haydn and Handel gave some people concerns about his commitment to a broad range of programming. As we wind down the second year of Maestro Llewellyn’s tenure at the helm of the NCS, it is crystal clear that all the hype and hoopla surrounding his arrival was justly deserved and that he may yet launch this band into the big league. The past weekend’s concerts (heard April 28 and repeated April 29, at their Meymandi home) were perfect examples of the effective programming and high-level performance that has become the norm under Llewellyn.

You will always get a robust – perhaps heated – argument about any human endeavor whenever you label something as the “best” or the “first.” From general music appreciation courses to even the most esoteric studies of music history, one work is often named as the composition that began “modern music” – Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’une faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) by Claude Debussy. Along with this heavy responsibility comes the persistent insistence that it is the musical equivalent of the French Impressionist art movement exemplified by Monet, Renoir, Bonnard, Degas, and others. Actually, Debussy’s intentions in composing this work were more closely aligned with the interaction of poetry and music, and he was strongly influenced by the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Dreamlike, amorphous, sensuous, flowing, asymmetrical, hazy – like the water lilies of Monet – Debussy’s composition is a masterpiece of the pensive and fanciful. From the famous sinuous opening flute passage to the transparent, shimmering strings dying out at the conclusion, one can only guess at how audiences first reacted to this highly erotic aural bath. The NCS gave a stunningly French, evocative performance that dwelled in the world of dreams without becoming syrupy.

You want contrast? Well you’ve got it – about as far as you can get from the opening work. Although they are usually not all of one character or temperament, quite often a single impression comes to mind whenever you think of a composer – and that is often not far from the truth. Where Debussy is smooth, all curves, and rhythmically ambiguous, Stravinsky is angular, pointed, abrupt, sharp, and insistent. Obviously this does not apply to all of his works, but his Symphony in C certainly fits this description. Curiously, this is not a composition that is played all that often, so it was especially appropriate and unique to pair these two works on the first half. Although not as obvious as his neo-Baroque compositions, Stravinsky masterfully combined classical structures with his own unique harmonic, rhythmic, and orchestral language to create something both old and new. Stravinsky was known for treating musicians primarily as technicians – you play precisely what is written and follow whatever directions are given. You do not “interpret,” you do not inject your own feeling. Even in the slow, more lyrical movements, this presents a detached, alienated impression – but it is unmistakable Stravinsky, and the NCS followed all the directions in a pristine, accurate reading.

Poor Brahms couldn’t kick the ghost of Beethoven, whether self-imposed or not. His “firsts” were filled with angst, years of revisions, and the inevitable comments from those loathsome music critics that his works were derivative of the great Ludwig. When nearly all of those scribes pointed out the obvious – that the finale of his first symphony was based on the “Ode to Joy” of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – his response (and I will paraphrase here) was, “Well, duh!” His First Piano Concerto had a similar response and was painfully rejected at first. Written in D minor, as was Beethoven’s final symphony, there is an undeniable similarity in the opening movements of both works.

Piano soloist for this sprawling epic was Richard Goode, a musician who has been around for many years and who has recorded an enormous part of the repertoire. He and the orchestra had quite a task and, with only a few stumbles, they carried off what is a three-movement passage to every emotion and character that music can convey. Concertos, in general, are deceptively difficult animals to tame since conductors (usually) follow soloists who must then in a split-second pass it on to the orchestra. No sleepwalking through your part, please! Everyone must be at a heightened sense of listening and reacting. From the tortured, trill-filled angst of the first movement to the blessed serenity of the middle movement to the comparatively light-hearted romping Rondo, the soloist, conductor, and rank-and-file musicians were in synch and on top of their game.