The North Carolina Symphony, led by its music director Grant Llewellyn, presented a program titled, “Grant’s Postcards from Home.” This was Mr. Llewellyn’s homage to the composers of his home country, Wales. The four diverse works, all written within the past 25 years, were presented with conviction and strong playing from the orchestra.
The first piece was "Momentum" by Ceiri Torjussen. This short, dissonant piece was percussive in character, using the entire orchestra for patterns of short sounds, with sparse melodic content. The percussion itself took a strong role towards the end, fueling the accumulation of the piece. The orchestra played it with crisp precision.
The second piece was a concerto for harp and orchestra titled Over the Stone by Karl Jenkins, the most likely composer on the concert to be known to audiences. The concerto was in six movements, each a mood portrait focusing on a single character. The work as a whole was tonal and lyrical, easily appealing to listeners. The third movement, “Song of the Bards,” was especially humorous and delightful, with appealing bright colors. The fourth – the only one in a minor key – was somber, with lush sounds in the middle section. The orchestra’s strings were impassioned here. This movement provided the name for the piece as a whole, being based on a Welsh folk song about a warrior returning to his homeland. The last movement, “Vamp Latino,” was full of infectious rhythms and had the most variety of material of the movements.
The solo harpist was Catrin Finch, who served as the first royal harpist to the Prince of Wales in well over 100 years. She played with stylish flair and elegant precision. Her phrasing in the second movement (Eternal Dream) was especially sensitive. The fifth movement, which is entirely a cadenza for the harp, was played sonorously and with a sense of soloistic display which still brought out the lyrical content.
Following the concerto Ms. Finch played a planned encore on the Celtic harp, strolling into the audience as she did so. This was mellifluous and lovely, and in fact quite comparable in sound to what she had just played on the standard harp in the concerto. This ingenious gesture illustrated how well Mr. Llewellyn brings his audience into contact and sympathy even with unfamiliar music.
The works following intermission centered around William Mathias, an esteemed Welsh composer who died prematurely in 1992. The first piece, Gwales by Pwyll ap Siôn, was an homage to Mathias. Based on portions of Mozart’s Requiem, and generally dark in mood, it featured a layering of Mozart’s tonal melodies within a dissonant soundscape. The second section, based on the “Confutatis” section of the Requiem had an almost chaotic growth out of the Mozart melody into dense, tortured dissonance. This could perhaps have been played more vehemently; at a certain point it seemed to lose direction. The third movement ascended from darkness into light, with the string timbre growing and moving upward to stratospheric heights at the end. The orchestra rendered this accumulation effectively.
The final work was by Mathias himself: his Symphony No. 3, written after the discovery of a serious health condition, in the year before his death. There are quite a few passages of light, but overall death seems to stalk the work, which is often dark and ominous, and in the second movement, prevailingly elegaic. It is an imposing piece lasting over a half hour, with much big-orchestra sound and symphonic development and unity of material. Light and darkness are set into opposition, such as in the middle section of the first movement, where diaphanous textures prevail against the heavy power of the surrounding parts. The third movement counterpoises darkness with the bright overlay of the trumpets. This movement also has a lighter section, with winds and pizzicato strings; the middle section, however, seemed to lose the tautness of the rest. Overall the movement had perhaps too many full pauses to fully maintain continuity. The ending, however, was an impressive culmination.
Mr. Llewellyn, who also gave some spoken commentary on the pieces, deserves great credit for presenting a program of contemporary works to listeners accustomed to hearing at most one unfamiliar piece on a program – and for doing so successfully. Though all four works were not equally compelling musically, all were given attentive, convincing readings which called forth justified appreciation from the audience.
This program will be repeated in Raleigh on April 20 and 21.