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The North Carolina Symphony, conducted by William Henry Curry, came to Kenan Auditorium with a program devoted to works by composers from Eastern Europe. The first two of the pieces included national materials from Hungary and Poland, respectively, while the third was by perhaps the most familiar of all Russian composers.
The opening piece was the Dances of Galánta by Zoltán Kodály. This delightful 15-minute essay is built from an introduction and coda, with a series of alternating slow and fast dances in between. Like the more familiar works of Bartók – which it sometimes resembles – Kodály’s piece resets indigenous Hungarian folk tunes as concert music. The opening convincingly introduced the energetic rhythm that continually reappears during the piece. However, the dry Kenan acoustics seemed to attenuate the strings even more than usual. The following clarinet solo featured beautiful tone, heard again in another segment towards the end. The performance in general featured lovely colors but did not always capture the panache in the rhythm that one might hope for. The most successful sections were those featuring rapid alternations of dynamics or rhythms. There the orchestra caught the flair of the music successfully. The coda had an energy suggesting a frenzied village band, with a gripping change of mood in the middle.
The next work was the Andante spianato et grand polonaise brillante by Chopin. The opening andante is gently lyrical and the polonaise – a Polish dance which had strong patriotic overtones for Chopin – is full of bravura. Yet it is one of Chopin’s weakest pieces, with a great deal of repetition and orchestral accompaniment that is all but superfluous. The performance, with the piano solo played by North Carolina native John Noel, was simply overshadowed by the pieces around it.
The second half was devoted to the massive, ever-popular Symphony No. 5 in E minor by Tchaikovsky. This three-quarter hour piece is bound together by the recurrence in each movement of the theme heard at the very beginning. The orchestra conveyed the scope of the work very successfully.
The long, somber introduction was dynamically well-graded and shaped. The first theme conveyed the sense of an implacable march, evoking the forces of adversity that may have inspired the movement. Here the tone of the strings was lush and full. The closing theme brought expansive long lines. The later climax was passionate, with big and bright sound. The march returned with an almost infernal character and fine, tight rhythm; the ending captured darkness and gloom.
The second movement brings forth the lyricism that listeners so prize in Tchaikovsky, and the orchestra rendered it ravishingly in the opening horn solo and the string statement of the same theme. The clarinet also had a very sensitively-played solo. The high points were strong, both in the main material of the movement and the theme that returned from the first movement. The latter was full but, refreshingly, not blaring or stentorian. The second return of that theme gave the effect of an almost demonic interloper in a movement that is otherwise like a love poem. The final fade was beautifully shaped.
The genial third movement waltz was given a gracious reading, with a relaxed tempo which allowed a gentle character to come forth. Perhaps the opening of the trio could have been still lighter. The soft passage towards the end was finely rendered.
The final movement apotheosis, with the first movement’s theme of suffering now recast in the major, began with more lush string tone. Climaxes were strong, punctuated by a breezy development. The final, triumphant return of the theme was appropriately powerful and the coda built momentum and excitement to achieve the grand peroration which concludes the piece.