Beethoven's sketchbooks reveal that both the serene motive that opens the Fourth Piano Concerto and the heaven-storming opening of the Fifth Piano Concerto are derived from the same thought. While I yield to no one in my admiration of the "Emperor" Concerto, I confess my heart belongs to the more profound Fourth, so its appearance on a May 23 program as the vehicle for the NC School of the Arts' Concerto Competition winner led to eager anticipation. The Stevens Center stage held a good portion of the c.80-member NCSA Symphony Orchestra, and there was a fine turnout of students and parents as well as discerning music lovers. Music Director Serge Zehnacker provided beautifully balanced and stylishly phrased accompaniment that fitted the confident soloist, Yoon-Sun Song*, like a glove. Her Steinway was precisely tuned but rather bright. No allowances needed to be made for the level of playing of either the soloist or the alert student musicians in the orchestra. Zehnacker secured a rich string sound with good tight ensemble. The dynamic choices were superb, and there was wonderful playing by the woodwinds. Song brought out the pensive quality of the first movement, starting with the hushed notes that open the concerto and continuing into the cadenza-like passage where the piano rejoins the orchestra. She also made fine musical sense of both cadenzas in the concerto. Principal Horn Clark Matthews brought glorious tone to his soaring solo near the end. Song was at her best in the slow movement, bringing out the profound melancholy of the dialogue between soloist and orchestra. Other than a few dropped notes, Song handled the showy finale as well as she did the first movement. A favorite moment was when the entire viola section played a brief phrase set against Song's gentle line in the treble. The horns were resplendent in the triumphant presto .
The concert ended with the most probing and thought provoking live interpretation of the massive Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68, that I have ever heard. Over some thirty years of concert going, I have heard coarse approximations as well as a number that were within a received standard consensus. Zehnacker's carefully phrased essay made me really listen anew. The full rich string sound was splendid, solidly anchored by six doublebasses, ten cellos and ten violas (filled out with the only non-student, John Pruett). Principal Timpanist Robert Crutchfield was outstanding in providing an implacable rhythmic center. The pizzicatos were magnificent and so together! The conductor had Principal Oboe Anna Lodico, Principal Horn Matthews, and Concertmistress Carla Rincon stand for their sterling efforts; fine playing was also heard from Principal Clarinet Erin Simmons. The woodwinds were excellent, and the cellos glowed in their many opportunities to shine.
*Song is a master's candidate and student of Clifton Matthews at the NCSA.