Guest Conductor Andrew Litton, using sparing but precise cues, got what he wanted from the North Carolina Symphony on Friday night. The program included early and twentieth century Romantic selections and a late Classical Concerto. Litton, in his thirteenth season as Music Director of the Dallas Symphony, is well known through recordings and frequent appearances as conductor at major music festivals in both America and Europe.
The program opened with Mendelssohn's "Ruy Blas" Overture, Op. 95, written at the request of the local Theatrical Pension Fund for a benefit performance of Victor Hugo's play. After a little haggling and some not so subtle pressures, Mendelssohn produced this fine overture for the play that he disliked intensely. In some ways it was the most satisfying piece on the program. The entrances were crisp, the swells and diminuendos beautifully shaped, the orchestra seemed bright and alive and the sound was scintillating. It was as fine as I have heard the symphony sound.
Yefim Bronfman appeared as soloist in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15. Born in the Soviet Union in 1958 he studied at Rubin Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University with pianist Arie Vardi. His exposure to the greats continued at the Julliard School, Marlboro and Curtis Institutes with Rudolf Firkusny, Leon Fleisher and Rudolf Serkin. Now in the prime of his career he is in constant demand as soloist with major orchestras, as a recitalist and in chamber music ensembles.
Beethoven's First Piano Concerto, it must be point out, is widely known and is actually his third effort in the form. The First was never published. The Second, though written some ten years earlier, was published in 1801 as Piano Concerto No. 2. Composed well within the classical rubrics of form and development that he learned from Mozart and Haydn, the First Piano Concerto, like almost everything Beethoven wrote, has elements hinting at greater depth and higher yearning than anything written before. Abrupt harmonic shifts, playing around with forms and theme development demonstrate Beethoven’s unique musical personality. He was soloist in the first performance, which took place in Prague in 1798.
Bronfman's impressive, shimmering pianissimo runs were smooth and balanced whether single note or two. The first movement cadenza was powerful and impassioned. The second movement Largo, though displaying lilting themes, still had elements of Beethoven pathos. It was in the third movement Rondo than we heard Beethoven at his most youthful playfulness. The form is ABACABA. The childlike theme is presented several times by soloist and orchestra. Finally, the music calms down and provides a sharp contrast for the end of the piece, only to be interrupted forcefully by the orchestra with one last vigorous statement. The orchestra entrances, transitions, and style were balanced and supportive, and in perfect partnership with the soloist. Bronfman's technical skill and interpretive insight made for a delightful performance. By the way, his recordings of the Beethoven Concertos with the Tonhalle Orchestra under David Zinman on the Arte Nova label are "must have" recordings for any admirer of these works.
The grand finale was Shostakovitch's Symphony No 5. Much has been written on the political climate in which Shostakovitch composed, and his fear of Stalin and of rejection. He had gotten into severe trouble with his fourth Symphony, in many ways a superior musical work. The Fifth, seen to be formulaic and more heroic to answer his government's demand for more positive and uplifting music, was considered apologetic. It continues to be his most popular and frequently performed and recorded Symphony. It begins with a forte lurching melody in the full string section that is heard later in solo passages more tenderly. At times it seems it is going to break forth into a lyrical exposition but is interrupted by a stern march. The second movement is Shostakovitch at play, a short child's march, raucous at times and at times called back to some order. The third movement is a searching and introspective largo. The brass section is omitted and strings are used divisi. It builds to intense passion and ends with an exquisite harp motive over fading strings. The final movement is an icon of soviet Russian power often used in newsreels in the 1940s, to the point it became as familiar as "Home on the Range." The music bursts forth in a heroic theme to be interrupted in the middle with the more pensive strains echoing back to the third and first movements, only to build again to a blindingly triumphant conclusion.
It was a great concert featuring great artists, and I am not just speaking of the visiting performers. The folks on the stage deserved an ovation.
By the way, your reviewer was seated in the choir loft area almost behind the orchestra. It provided a unique view of the conductor's interaction with the musicians and the hard work that goes on throughout a concert like this. I was impressed and appreciative.