There's no holding back now! With the first subscription concert by the NC Symphony, the season's officially upon us, ready or not. The program, heard September 23 in Meymandi Concert Hall, was the also the first offering of the first season said to have been planned in full by Grant Llewellyn. It was a somewhat atypical evening, one that should have appealed – in part, at least – to a recent N&O letter-writer who complained that the new MD was ignoring the pops audiences, because the first half would have fit nicely in the context of such concerts of a generation or so ago, when the fare was "light classics" as opposed to rock or Broadway or Hollywood stuff, done up in orchestral garb.
The place was nearly but not completely full – I mention this because the repeat, scheduled for 9/24, would be well worth hearing, and there's a chance that tickets might still be available. Patrons should not be discouraged by the overall gloom of the exterior of the facility. The marker on the northeast corner still proclaims the "BTI Center" – here's hoping Progress Energy doesn't pull the plug, to borrow a phrase. The fountain is idle, due to the water crisis.... Someone could stand to police the plaza for cigarette butts and other trash. Lighting remains a problem – outside and inside, too.
But once inside the hall, things were truly festive, and there was excitement in the air. It was good to have the evening begin with the National Anthem, given that we're at war and in mourning, too, for our storm-ravaged fellow citizens, and it's good to be able to report that someone has at last come up with a pair of flags for the stage. The pacing was slow – almost funereal – and the singing was...; well, it's a piece that can be realized better by orchestras than by vocalists, amateur or otherwise.
Llewellyn then launched into the frothy Overture to Bernstein's Candide, one of the great works of the 20th century. He whipped up the opening to a fever pitch, making it difficult for his superior musicians to get in all the notes and denying the audience the opportunity to savor the work's wonderful melodies. Things calmed down a bit as it unfolded, and it produced at the end the customary response from the always-enthusiastic Raleigh audience.
Next up was Gershwin's splendid Concerto in F, featuring pianist Joanna MacGregor in her debut with the orchestra. She played it beautifully, bringing to her interpretation wide-ranging dynamics and enjoying altogether admirable support from the conductor, for whom the NCS, in turn, played wonderfully. Can this be the same band that not so long ago routinely swamped guests aside from those who played like elephants dance? There were many impressive solo contributions from among the ranks of the lightly augmented orchestra, too – from the principal trumpet and principal clarinet, from the concertmaster, and from the flutes. The first movement went down easy, like a dose of terpinhydrate (without the codeine, of course), and the second was mostly soft and gentle and hushed. In the finale there was, alas, a return to high-stress, pressed, and rushed playing, as in the concert opener, but for the most part this was a miraculous performance, one that showed the guest artist, Llewellyn, and our orchestra to extremely good advantage.
Incidentally, MacGregor manages to fit some teaching into her hectic schedule – her contributions to a summer school at St. Hilda's College, Oxford, were mentioned in a late-August NY Times article – while she's still learning on her own; it was refreshing to note that she stuck around after the Gershwin, inconspicuously taking a seat in a first-level box to enjoy the second half of the concert....
That second half was devoted to William Walton's Symphony No. 1, which – please note – made this an all-20th-century program. (Wow! Who'd have thunk it possible, given the prevailing conservative image of orchestral marketing departments?) The Symphony – one of only two by the English master of coronation marches, concerti, short oratorios, operas, film music, and "entertainments" – probably enjoyed its local premiere on this occasion. It's less accessible than large-scale orchestral works by Elgar and Vaughan Williams, to cite only two more-or-less-contemporaneous British creators, but it's more ingratiating than some pieces by Britten. It appears to have been a struggle for Walton to bring it to completion, and indeed the first three movements were played in public before the finale was written. It's scored for what one might call a Brahms orchestra, with some added percussion and two timpanists, but it sounds a good deal larger. There's much to admire as the substantial, deftly-written work unfolds. If it's a bit grim and angry here and there, consider when it was created – between the two World Wars. If it suggests movie music of a certain vintage, remember that there was a time when movie music was written by composers who had made their marks in concert halls and opera houses. And if it often sounds like other works by Walton, well, that goes with the territory, too.
Under Llewellyn's watchful eyes, the orchestra played radiantly, realizing the score with an astonishing mixture of brilliance, precision, and sensitivity – and with (for the NCS) almost unbelievable light and shade. Again there were some exceptional solos along the way – one involving the principal cellist, backed by her section playing pizzicato, will long linger in the memory. There were stellar moments for the timpanists and percussionists, the flutes, the horns, etc. The four-movement piece has many "contemporary" accents, not all of them English, but it ends with a glance back, in the form of a short but impressive fugue that manages to bring not only closure but also considerable affirmation. The finale goes on a bit, but Llewellyn kept it lively. At the end, there was hearty applause.
Walton may not be universally viewed as a "groundbreaker," but the Symphony was welcome – and here's hoping we'll hear it again before our recollections of this reading fade into the mists. There's a wonderful old recording by Adrian Boult, and the present concert is supposed to be broadcast hereabouts at some point, although the schedule has yet to be divulged. We'll include a note about it in our calendar if it happens. Meanwhile, the die is cast – Llewellyn's here for now, and he's starting to put his stamp on our musical lives. So far, so good.
PS The marketing hype that marred last season has died down somewhat. The new North Hills symphony store folks had a table set up in the lobby and were hawking various goodies, but they'd forgotten to bring the Grant Bobbleheads – an altogether positive if perhaps transitory sign of progress! (They promised to bring 'em Saturday....)