The North Carolina Symphony’s spring road show came through the former colonial capital with a program of tried-and-true classics. The musicians, under music director Grant Llewellyn, played quite well, even though the full range of their sound was offset by the acoustics of the New Bern Riverfront Convention Center exhibition hall.
Llewellyn conducted the opening Overture to the Marriage of Figaro by Mozart (K. 492) at quite a brisk pace, without losing any of the precision of the attacks, especially in the string sections. The wind passages also were clearly delineated. But almost from the very outset, one could sense that the overall sound for the evening would be close to one-dimensional, and that a mighty effort would be required to infuse the music with all the proper changes in dynamics, especially when a piano soloist took the stage, and with both density and transparency.
Israeli-born pianist Alon Goldstein, who studied under Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory, gave a marvelous reading of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54, a piece at the top of just about everyone’s list of favorite Romantic piano concertos. Because it is heard so often, a soloist must attempt to bring something new to the performance, or risk making the performance sound a bit too mechanical.
Goldstein’s approach was to add some time to the ends of phrases, little ritardandi that enabled the music to breathe a bit more than usual, without letting melodrama creep in. He also seemed to emphasize left-hand, lower-register harmonies more than right-hand, upper-register melodies in several sections, which added some weight to the music.
Several passages sparkled — the opening dialog between piano and clarinet in the first movement, the piano-cello theme in the second movement, the precision of the strings in the march and fugue in the final allegro vivace movement.
Llewellyn kept the orchestra in perfect synch with the soloist throughout the piece, checking frequently over his shoulder to Goldstein.
In all, the soloist and orchestra approached the concerto with a lighter touch than one might be accustomed to hearing. The effect was quite satisfying, and Goldstein’s liquid sound at the end was especially nice. This piece can quickly go over the top, and both soloist and conductor made sure that didn’t happen.
The concert closed with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 54. This “pastoral” work is one of the rare five-movement symphonies in the standard repertoire (along with Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3), but when done well, the listener develops no inclination to search for an exit while wondering when the piece will be over. In fact, as performed by the North Carolina Symphony, the final three movements were played almost as one extended section.
This piece perhaps more so than the other two on the program, showed the problems with the hall, its carpeted floor and thickly padded seats. Here, the orchestral sound tended to be thin, with little or no lingering resonance, or at least an incomplete resonance. The players hit all the right notes — some passages were simply gorgeous, others merely wonderful — but one wished for a fuller, richer sound than the hall would permit. As it was, Llewellyn and the orchestra approached this piece with a lighter touch, too, completely absent any heavy-handedness, and perhaps this was the symphony’s way of dealing with the acoustic shortcomings of the venue.
The wind players especially showed their considerable skills throughout the piece, particularly clarinet, flute and oboe soloists. Both in solo passages (such as the bird representations in the second movement) and in small ensembles, these instruments shimmered and shone.
Llewellyn had the most fun with the dances in the third movement, themes both light-hearted and rambunctious, and he led a seamless transition into the famous storm passage in the fourth movement. This is one of Beethoven’s most evocative compositions and one of the best musical storms in all the literature, right up there with Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite” and Strauss’s “Alpine Symphony.”
The finale, an allegretto that expresses “joyful, thankful feelings after the storm,” is almost hymn-like in sound, as the theme passes from cellos to violas to winds to violins. The “Pastoral Symphony” doesn’t end with a crash, as many often do, but with a feeling of grandeur, eloquence and serenity, and the North Carolina Symphony musicians provided the audience with a sense of musical contentment and satisfaction.