The North Carolina Symphony's 2002-03 season, dedicated to the search for a new conductor, is shaping up as a lesson in conducting styles. In the first concert, two weeks ago, Peter Oundjian's conducting was elegant, if somewhat tentative and restrained, while last night we got the full emotional treatment from Nicaraguan-born Giancarlo Guerrero, Associate Conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra.
The program opened with a work clearly close to the conductor's heart, the tone poem Sensemayá by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940). In 1934 the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén published a collection of poems titled West Indies Ltd. One of the poems was Sensemayá , subtitled "Chant for killing a snake," whose main feature is the insistent repetition of certain words and phrases, the refrain " Mayombe-bombe-mayombe ," resembling a ritual incantation. In 1937-38 Revueltas used the poem as the inspiration for his tone poem, transforming the chant into a rhythmic musical phrase in 7/8 time. The persistent mesmerizing rhythm drives the work, which requires seven percussionists. It is a work that could not have been written without Stravinsky's Rite of Spring . Guerrero literally choreographed the music with his body language and the orchestra responded with no-holds-barred exciting playing.
In Sergey Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No.2, composed in 1935, Guerrero showed great finesse in balancing the orchestra with violinist Julian Rachlin, Lithuania-born and a resident of Austria. Rachlin has established a considerable reputation around the world. His performance was very well thought out in the first movement, bringing out the contrasting moods of the two themes. In the second movement, which opens with a cantilena on the violin soaring over two clarinets and pizzicato on the strings, Rachlin was much less convincing, although the balance with the orchestra continued to be excellent.
The third movement begins with a percussive attack on the G string, which broke under Rachlin's assault. The mishap may have broken the soloist's spell, for after the repairs he gave a lackluster performance that emphasized his mastery of the technical difficulties without giving the music soul. Prokofiev wrote this Concerto for a Madrid premiere, adding touches of Iberian dance rhythms to this movement and including a pair of castanets in the orchestration to add a touch of Spanish flavor. But the dancing quality never came through with conviction.
Over the last two decades we have become used to a somewhat restrained approach to highly emotional works, such as Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, the "Pathetique." Guerrero had no such inhibitions. Especially in the highly emotional first and fourth movements he milked Tchaikovsky of every ounce of Tchaikovsky and then some. Unfortunately, the orchestral balance was poor and the orchestra had some problems, with a ragged entrance in the violas in the introduction, and the woodwinds overly loud in the elegant waltz second movement as well as the finale.
But it is unfair to judge a conductor on points of balance when he is unfamiliar with the orchestra and hall alike. The night before they performed the same program in Chapel Hill Bible Church, an acoustically totally different venue, and Meymandi Hall itself sounds different when voiced with or without an audience.