The North Carolina Symphony, which I have said before, and will say again, is perhaps THE cultural treasure of our state, continues to go from strength to strength in its novel and innovative programming in early 2012. The latest example was an unforgettable performance of a masterwork that we all thought was familiar, preceded by an educational moment which served to take the patina of the years from this piece – the Symphony No. 9 in E minor of Dvorák, “From the New World.” The preamble, written and produced by Joseph Horowitz, re-introduced the audience to the context of Dvorák’s stay in the United States at the National Conservatory of Music, to which he had been invited by founder Jeannette Thurber at the close of the nineteenth century. This context included the composer’s exposure to the culture of both African-Americans and Native Americans; both had significant effects on the “American” works he produced while here.
After the NCS and Llewellyn had briefly set the scene with material from the “American” Suite (op. 98b) of Dvorák and the Symphony No. 1 of Paine (was this the first time that this work had been heard, even in excerpt, from the NCS?), the eminent African-American baritone Kevin Deas showed in song how skillfully Dvorák produced his own “spriritual,” "Going Home," arranged by a student from material in the Largo of the "New World Symphony." Closing the educational moment was an imaginative work in which Michael Beckerman and Joseph Horowitz created a melodrama of excerpts from Longfellow’s Hiawatha with material from the "New World," accompanied by projected visuals by Peter Bogdanoff. Kevin Deas shone here, putting the material across magisterially, declaiming the text with a deeply-rooted resonance that was utterly convincing. This was evidence that Deas has the capability to join the ranks of the great artists of the spoken word (think James Earl Jones), as well as the sung line. I hope that Llewellyn and the NCS will find an appropriate vehicle in which to invite Deas back, and soon. The melodrama shed a very new light on this music that is so well known.
Although the program listed an intermission, as soon as Deas had taken his bow, Llewellyn launched into the symphony. All the expression seemed heightened, perhaps especially the accents of the winds. The Largo was taken very slowly, as slowly as possible, perhaps, and the result was absolutely sublime – a vast and moving expanse, a deep spiritual journey, and the public, having been told earlier that each movement had been applauded at the premiere, took a deep breadth at its conclusion, and applauded warmly. In contrast, Llewellyn took the closing Allegro con fuoco plenty fast, and the music was full of power. By the time the movement arrived at its bracing conclusion, this listener was almost overcome with emotion, and the audience responded with a standing ovation.
North Carolina can be happy that the standard that the NCS sets for itself is very high; but the combination of flawless execution and inspired direction heard here meant that this memorable moment will be difficult to equal. Bravo!