Music Director Grant Llewellyn brought North Carolina Symphony listeners at Meymandi Concert Hall a concert with a somewhat unusual program: a sort of orchestral double-decker, with the three Leonore overtures by Beethoven (No. 1, Op. 138, No. 2, Op. 72a, and No. 3, Op. 72b) surrounding two concertos – the well-known solo concerto in D minor, BWV 1052 by Bach, and the less-familiar piano concerto in C minor, K. 491 by Mozart. The Leonore overtures are fascinating in that they give a view of Beethoven’s various solutions to producing an instrumental introduction to his only opera, and one in which the question of what it means to be a hero is given a feminine incarnation. To these ears at least, the first of the three showed Beethoven reflecting more of the womanly character of Leonore than the other two, which perhaps focus more on Florestan and traditional male heroics.
I had been particularly interested to hear this concert because of guest Robert Levin, highly-regarded as a Mozart specialist and one of the few classical pianists who will venture to improvise. Unfortunately, the choice of the Bach concerto to fill out the program (rather than another piano concerto by Mozart) was wrong-headed on almost all counts. Levin and the band were struggling to establish who would control the tempo of the first movement, giving the distinct impression that the pianist was rushing ahead, and careening out of control, something reinforced by a seeming inattention to dynamics in Bach’s complex writing. The density of the style here would be effective for a harpsichord, but for the Steinway it sounded overwritten with some particularly ugly pianism in the cadenza. It’s hard to imagine why Llewellyn thought that this piece was a good idea – effective performances on harpsichord have been the norm for decades now. A performance on piano must have something special and different to be convincing in 2009 and this one was well below acceptable.
The Mozart concerto showcased some fine playing from the winds, but although Levin seemed much more at home than in the Bach, I was disappointed here as well. Levin’s stage presence (seated facing directly out at the audience) was distracting from the music, as he seemed to be play-acting his interactions with the band, particularly in the realizations of the continuo. His cadenza might have been more effective on a fortepiano – here it seemed brusquely out of character with the elegance of the rest of the work.
Finally, I must say that though the idea of contrasting the three overtures was interesting in theory, in the practice of this concert it didn’t work – all prologue and no payoff. I was left waiting to hear some dramatic singing, some theatrical moments. Llewellyn would have been better advised to include an operatic scena in place of the Bach.