Orchestral Music Review Print

An Exceptional Evening with Llewellyn and the North Carolina Symphony

January 9, 2010 - Raleigh, NC:

The financial strictures facing organizations which rely on donations for their survival, such as orchestras, opera companies, the arts in general, and universities, have led to some creative thinking about programming. It would be safe to say that a program of three symphonies from the same pen would have been unlikely just a few years ago, but in these tormented times an evening of three classical symphonies from 1788 (Mozart’s last three works in the form, nos. 39, 40, and 41 (K. 543 in E-flat, K. 550 in G minor, and K. 551 in C) makes perfect financial sense, with a limited body of winds necessary to accompany the string band (no oboes in K. 543, no trumpets/timpani in K. 550, no clarinets in K. 551, and only one flute in all three). But what is common wisdom about Mozart piano works – that the clarity of the writing requires a virtuosity that later and noisier works do not – is also true about these symphonic works – nothing can be achieved simply through orchestral color and masses of sound.

Music Director Grant Llewellyn and his forces took on the challenge, with results that demonstrated why the North Carolina Symphony is incomparably the premier cultural organization in the state, offering programs with a national, nay, an international level of quality, in a superb concert venue, Meymandi Concert Hall. K. 543 is perhaps the least well-known of the final three symphonies, but the introductory Adagio was played with a gravitas that recalled the opening of the overture to the Magic Flute, beautifully sustained and with excellent ensemble in the downward runs in the strings. The dotted rhythms of the second movement, "Andante con moto," recalled the seriousness of the very opening, particularly with the appearance of the chromatic alteration, which leads to an entire radically chromatic section, unexpected in what might be a moment of repose. Llewellyn’s fast tempi were surprisingly quick throughout the evening, so that the final Allegro here was quasi Presto, and admirably light.

Anyone with any level of exposure to classical music knows the tune which opens the G minor symphony, even if they don’t know what piece it is. I had forgotten that it is marked “Molto Allegro”, and here it certainly was molto. This whole work, at least under Llewellyn’s direction, seemed to look backwards in style towards the sturm und drang of the minor key symphonies of C.P.E. Bach. The first movement was frenzied, but not frantic, the sort of character that might have been marked “smanioso” or manic. The sequences of the Andante were almost Baroque in their effect, and recalled the composer’s Requiem in its use of earlier idioms. Most importantly, it was clear that Llewellyn’s direction brought out the essentially operatic nature of Mozart’s musical thinking, with each motive highly characterized and individual in its effect.

The evening closed with the “Jupiter”, which is noted among analysts for its plethora of differing motives. All (or almost all) sonata forms contrast first and second themes (usually reducible to masculine and feminine characters), but here even the first four measures are clearly assertive and then plaintive, and I have rarely heard them so clearly delineated. The opening motive of the following Andante was beautifully shaped.

Was there not anything to criticize in this wonderful program? Well, I might have liked to hear a bit more of the trumpets, who were sited so as to blend rather than to blare. But indeed this was an admirable evening, one to remember fondly through the cold winter.
Llewellyn had advised the audience before the "Jupiter" began that we would hear what usually is omitted, the repeat of the B section of the closing movement, and this made it clear that the wonderful moment of strict counterpoint in whole note which follow the repeat, is a peroration, a completion, a final afterthought. A fitting end to Mozart’s very last symphony.

Regrettably, two rude and uncultured members of the audience chose to walk out during the repeat! The rest of us rewarded the NCS with a richly deserved standing ovation. As my spouse noted, this was certainly the best concert she had ever heard in North Carolina. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!