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The extortion-like cost of gas vs. a seven second reverberation and a soupy aural morass. This was a choice that had to be made when deciding whether to attend the North Carolina Symphony’s latest concert in the Gothic splendor of Duke Chapel or their cozy, much acoustically superior home at Meymandi Hall in Raleigh. With a defiant “I’ll do anything for my art” attitude, plus the fact that my lovely wife volunteered to do the driving, I chose the latter.
While certainly far from a rarity, the opportunity to hear a live performance of Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony by a top-notch orchestra is something that should be grabbed onto and savored. With Grant Llewellyn as music director, the North Carolina Symphony (NCS) plays as well as any other so it was with great anticipation that audiences flocked to hear the Welsh maestro conduct this iconic work.
The programming surrounding an evening that features “the ninth” can be problematic. Running anywhere from 60-70 minutes and towering in stature, playing time and temperament play into what, if anything will precede it. The appetizer for this concert was the violin concerto of Czech-born composer Karel Husa. Written in 1992 on a commission from the New York Philharmonic in observance of its 150th anniversary, it was premiered by Glenn Dicterow, the orchestra’s concertmaster. The soloist in this performance was the 25 year old Ilya Gringolts, making his second appearance with the North Carolina Symphony.
Like previous violin concerti, that at the time they were written were often deemed unplayable but are now standard repertoire, Husa’s concerto is at such a stratospheric technical level that it seems impossible — except that we witnessed its performance by someone who looks barely old enough to drive. This is a work that at times is so aggressive and savage that it is a marvel that a wooden box held together by glue did not shatter into a thousand pieces. The accompanying orchestration is sparse but highly effective and Llewellyn proved adept at controlling the rhythmic and ensemble intricacies of a highly complex contemporary composition. Gringolts breezed past intricate bowings and rapid-fire double-stop scales with ease and assurance. The composer (who bears a remarkable physical resemblance to Robert Ward) was in attendance and he received a huge ovation from audience and performers alike.
Ah, the joys of live performance and audience behavior. During the Husa performance, and of course at the quietest moments, someone in the first row was coughing up both lungs, eliciting looks from the soloist and as it turns was sitting right next to Mr. Husa! Just as Llewellyn had his arms raised and all instruments were poised to start Beethoven’s Ninth, someone dropped their keys and proceeded to noisily place it back in her purse resulting in a false start. Finally, the opening horns, tremulous strings and mysterious-sounding descending intervals got this remarkable artistic creation started. The combined voices of the Choral Society of Durham Chamber Choir and the North Carolina Master Chorale were seated in the three-sided choir lofts above the stage. We were spared the often uncomfortable spectacle of four soloists sitting motionless in chairs staring out at the audience as they wait 55 minutes to get up and sing. They would not enter the stage until the start of the final movement.
For anyone who has heard the NCS since Grant Llewellyn took over, it is no secret that he favors the zippy side of tempos. However, he, and the players, executed the difficult feat of retaining beautiful long phrases and letting the music breathe, while imbuing the performance with forward propulsion and excitement. This was evident in the scherzo and even in the soul-stirring adagio. It was during this profound and lovingly played slow movement that a woman behind me, with great anxiety, said to her partner “when are we going to hear the song?”
The soloists emerged and we soon got to hear “the song” or the "Ode to Joy," the poem by Friedrich Schiller that has become the defining moment of this symphony for the general public. The opening recitative played by the low strings was poorly followed by bass Nathan Berg who had trouble finding the correct intervals. The chorus was uniform, nicely blended, rhythmically precise and articulate. Jane Jennings, soprano, Stacey Rishoi, mezzo-soprano and Richard Clement, tenor along with bass Berg were excellent in the enormously difficult vocal quartet sections. Despite the “choral” designation of this movement, it was the magnificent fugal section that is rivaled perhaps only by the composer’s Grosse Fugue in difficulty and intensity, that was the highlight of the finale for me. At the center of it all was Llewellyn — brimming with vitality, excitement, a clear beat and a childlike joy in the music.