In the New Bern Riverfront Convention Center, the NC Symphony and Grant Llewellyn, the orchestra's Music Director and Conductor, were joined by Benjamin Grosvenor, piano, in a hefty evening of all-French music.
The program opened with the great piece of program music, Paul Dukas' "Sorcerer's Apprentice." This sinister piece is a perfect Halloween overture for a town awash in the excesses of the Ghost Walk. Of particular note were the harp playing and the excellence of the very demanding oboe part. There was a lot of good bassoon work, too. I also noticed with favor the poignant viola solo, played in a way to bring to mind the operatic vocal style of the nineteenth century, in which "every note is a sob." The powerful effect of the orchestra's presence in the room served to remind once again that live music, like local food, is thousands of miles fresher.
Hearing this music without the distraction of the Disney images demonstrates just how powerful and horribly noir Dukas' imagery is. If the story were not known to us, what invented story would be ghastly enough for this music?
As I listened to Grosvenor and the orchestra in the Chopin Piano Concerto 1 in E minor, Op. 11, I was writing my review a little in my head. It was my intention at that time (and my preference now) not to mention that Benjamin Grosvenor is fifteen years old. But I need to state his age in order to explain why such a pleasantly large number of young piano students were in the audience on scholarship from a NCS media sponsor, the New Bern Sun Journal. The young lady in front of me listened attentively to Grosvenor, applauded vigorously at the appropriate time, and moved to the aisle to see him better during his bows. It is very good to see that young people are still being encouraged to make music using some instrument other than an iPod.
The reason I would prefer not to mention Grosvenor's age is that it's simply not a part of the equation. It's clear that his appeal is not that he can play the piano at all but that he plays it well, and to the standard demanded by the music. He inspired me to think, "He's good!" and not, "He's not bad for 15."
Having said his age doesn't matter; it's nice to be able to report that he came on stage with teenage aplomb, not teenage swagger. May that gentle gift go with him his whole life long!
Chopin is early enough not to be contaminated by the Russian school but to have served as their inspiration. In the first movement, an allegro maestoso, the violins sang deliciously in the part before the piano enters for the first time. Grosvenor exploited the piano with great skill and competence. He is able to play well from ppp to FFF and everywhere in between.
In the second movement, Romanze: larghetto, the hall's acoustics allowed even the softest of Grosvenor's notes to be completely audible. His touch can be light, delicate, and yet fully intentional. He is equally at home when using the piano as a violent percussion instrument. Llewellyn and Grosvenor maintained excellent eye contact at all times, with the easy intimacy of two equals chatting over the teacups. In the third movement, Rondo: vivace, early on Grosvenor seemed to ask for a faster pace than Llewellyn had begun with, and Llewellyn immediately obliged, somewhat to the exigency of the orchestra. In spite of the pace, Grosvenor executed the long runs flawlessly.
To the obvious delight of the audience, Grosvenor played two encores and received a total of three standing ovations. After intermission, Maestro Llewellyn kindly identified the encores: the last movement from Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals in a "devilish arrangement by some Frenchman" and Gershwin's "Love Walked In" in an arrangement by an early friend of the NCS, Percy Grainger.
There was an extremely long intermission while the Steinway was being moved off stage. I am not sure what unspoken rule of nineteenth-century concert etiquette requires that the piano go away; other instruments stay on stage — there was a French horn (or a spittoon stood on edge) that stayed on the back of the stage through the entire concert.
The final piece of the evening, César Franck's Symphony in D Minor, was long and loud. Taken as choreography, Maestro Llewellyn's conducting style is prosaic to say the least, but the results he achieves with the orchestra leave nothing, absolutely nothing, to be desired. The NCS played the Franck even better than perhaps it deserved. In the second movement, the lament of the oboe was appropriately played in what I would call an "intentionally rough" style, quite in contrast to (for example) the "quacking duck" style needed in Brandenburg I. The strings were especially effective in the pizzicato passages.
During his tenure, Maestro Llewellyn has worked wonders with the NCS. A huge debt of gratitude is due the local New Bern sponsors for helping bring this good live music to eastern North Carolina.