The passionate rhythms of Latin America, a composer's revenge and a work of a manic depressive genius made for a pretty intense evening under guest conductor Fabio Mechetti with violinist Anne Akiko Meyers. But it sure worked.
Mechetti, who was born in Brazil, introduced the orchestra and audience to the Suite from Alberto Ginastera's Estancia (The Ranch). The ballet describes a single day on a large ranch and tells of a city boy's romance with a ranch girl, the exuberance of the gauchos and the beauty of the landscape. Each movement has its own characteristic rhythm and the music suggests a blend of Stravinsky and De Falla. Mechetti managed to evoke both passion and precision from the orchestra, with its souped up percussion section. But that was only a warm up.
In early 1939, Samuel Barber was commissioned by Samuel Fels, a wealthy Philadelphia soap manufacturer, to write a violin concerto for his protégé and adopted son, the young violinist Iso Briselli. This was Barber's first major commission, and he immediately set out to fulfill it. But commissions can carry their own risk. By the end of the summer he sent the first two movements, written in a conservative lyrical and romantic style, to Briselli, who considered them "too simple and not brilliant enough" and refused to accept them. Barber got his revenge by making the third movement fiendishly difficult. When he resubmitted it, Briselli declared it unplayable, and Fels wanted a refund of his advance on the commission. Clearly Briselli was not made of the stuff of Meyers.*
A powerful violinist with an instrument to match, Meyers gave a dazzling performance. Unlike most violin concerti, Barber's features the lower register of the instrument and Meyers was superb in her ability to control when to make it sing and when to scrape. Her intensely romantic rendition of the first two movements of Barber's Concerto were well coordinated with the orchestra, with Mechetti controlling the dynamics to keep good balance with the soloist. Perhaps Briselli didn't like the magical tension of denying the violin a full rendition of the second movement theme until the very end, but it's extremely effective. Meyers's and the orchestra's pianissimo ending of the movement was nerve-tingling.
Then came the third movement, a terse and fiery Presto in moto perpetuo - one of the few virtually non-stop movements in the violin concerto literature - in which the soloist has to bow every note at a breathless tempo for 110 measures without interruption. Meyers transformed herself into a tornado setting the music on fire with a stunning technical display. It's no picnic for the rest of the strings either, and Mechetti pulled everything he could out of them. The audience went wild - or at least as wild as it ever gets around here. We really wish the standing ovation would mean something around here.
Intermission provided a much need respite to prepare for the next emotional onslaught. Berlioz's The Symphonie fantastique used to be a real staple on concert programs of mid decades of the last century but has since fallen in the charts. It got a superb re-airing under Mechetti, who milked it for all its romantic and emotional excesses, the large and rapid shifts in mood, tempo and dynamics.
We tend to forget today how groundbreaking Berlioz's music was. He composed his Symphonie fantastique in 1830, just three years after Beethoven's death. The combination of a severely bipolar personality, drugs and creativity affected his music, rendering it sometimes truly bizarre for its time. Nevertheless, he methodically and thoroughly transformed orchestration: he freed and expanded the brass, making it the equal of the other orchestral sections; he introduced with new instruments, such as the bass clarinet and the valve trumpet and, most spectacularly, the English Horn; he was the first to use divided strings, col legno bowing and deliberately distort instrumental sonorities for effect (as in the clarinet solo in the final movement).
The orchestra attacked it with relish, especially the first chairs and the brass who really get to shine. It was an exhilarating display of orchestral talent. Outstanding performances were put in by principal oboist Melanie Wilsden, English horn player Michael Schultz and principal timpanist John Feddersen, aided by the NCSO's librarian/percussionist Deborah Nelson, whose solos frame the third movement, and to clarinetist Michael Cyzewski for his art in transforming fixated romantic passion into hideous grotesquerie.
*Updated 8/3/06: As usual, there are two sides for every story, and it is the question of one side's word against the other. Since all the protagonists in this saga are deceased, we'll probably never know exactly what happened. But Briselli, some forty years later, told a different story. According to him, he liked the first two movements and was very enthusiastic about them, but found the third too lightweight and suggested that Barber expand it. The composer refused and the two agreed to differ. We will probably never know for sure what really happened.