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When during the concert season of 2008-9 rumblings about the increasing financial insecurity of the North Carolina Symphony began to be heard, I doubt that many people were inclined to worry — at least, at first. However, when Music Director Grant Llewellyn stood at the podium on a dark winter night and reiterated the increasing difficulties the orchestra was facing, there seemed no way that any of us could ignore the problem any longer.
When the hugely augmented orchestra took the stage for its first concert of the 2009-10 season, the great number of instrumentalists required for the performance of some of the most powerful late-nineteenth century music ever written revealed how much effort has been expended in recent months to maintain the life of this superb orchestra. Every magnificently-played phrase the orchestra brought to life throughout the evening allowed its appreciative listeners to realize completely what this music-loving community might have lost.
The music performed on this program was the epitome of the great human admixture of laughter and tears and life and death — all the grandeur, passion, melancholy, and tragic events which characterize human life, as well as the darkness and the inevitability of life's ending. It is no wonder that the difficulties of a great orchestra to maintain its existence are an appropriate background for its performance of music which profoundly expresses the struggles of humanity and the organizations that represent the most precious elements of our existence.
The orchestra's inspired playing of Johannes Brahms' majestic, darkly-heroic "Tragic" Overture, Op. 81 (1880), set the musical tone for much of the orchestra's performances throughout the evening. This work, characteristic of most of Brahms' most somber compositions, has the dark, effective sonorities of low winds and brass which call to mind much of the anguish in human existence. The skillful playing allowed the dark, burnished colors of these instruments and the sepulchral sound of trombones and other low brass to dominate the piece from beginning to end. Despite its dark tone, however, this music was also profoundly moving and established at once a powerful connection between the audience and the orchestra.
The second work of the evening, Richard Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" (1870), reveals the composer's ability to create musical majesty in some of the best-known love music composed in the nineteenth century. This beautifully-composed musical statement of passion for his wife Cosima is brimful of Wagner's expression of tenderness, emotion, and the rich melancholy which lovers often feel. The NCS expressed with great skill the overpowering beauty of the rich orchestral textures of this piece and emphasized its many delicate solo lines, all skillfully played, evoking the depth of Wagner's feelings. This composition was a pleasure to hear from beginning to end because of the orchestra's superb utterance of the major ascending and descending thematic materials and phrases which develop from the complex harmonies and underscore the many magnificent dynamic shifts which occur throughout the work.
Also on this program was Wagner's deeply-romantic Faust Overture, written in 1840, long before he could bring to orchestral life his visions of the great operas for which he would be known. His musical characterization of Faust reflects the dark, despondent, often tragic figure brought to life by Goethe and is colored by much of the same spiritual darkness listeners hear in Brahms' "Tragic" Overture. Wagner's music surrounds the dark Faust with flitting spirits characterized by various solo instruments and by somber orchestral themes that reflect Faust's recognition of his mortality. The orchestra played Wagner's music with all the ability its instrumentalists could bring to the task and would have no doubt met with Wagner's approval.
Also related to the Faust legend is Franz Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz" No. 1 (1860), based on two poems by Nicholas Lenau which weave a rather erotic tale about Faust. One of these portrays a wild night of dance and love-making between Faust and a beautiful young girl. Liszt's passionate orchestral music reflects the erotic nature of their love and the darkness of Faust's soul, which has been wholly removed from the spiritual world it once inhabited. This virtuosic treatment of the "Mephisto Waltz" was full of fire and passion, faithful to Liszt's musical purposes and orchestration and reflecting the diabolic images and bacchantic characters representing the evil impulses driving Faust.
The final work on this program, Richard Strauss' monumental "Tod und Verklärung" ("Death and Transfiguration"), Op. 24, was the most awe-inspiring performance of the evening. In playing Strauss' great music portraying a life ending, a man's pain, his past recollections, the struggles of death, and the final reward of a beautiful existence far beyond our own, the men and women in this orchestra reached an excellence they have never shown before. Every section played beyond my expectation, especially in the lengthy, seemingly unending coda which seemed to grow more powerful and inspiring as the long minutes passed. It seemed to me that the North Carolina Symphony was assuring its audience of a glorious truth — that it is now overcoming the insecurity of the past and is moving with confidence, hopefully free of struggle, towards a bright new day.