The North Carolina Symphony displayed a collective sound of burnished gold for a splendid reading of Johannes Brahms’ First Symphony (Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68) in a concert of gorgeous melody from start to finish at Memorial Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina. The concert was to be repeated in Fayetteville, New Bern and Wilmington through October 13.
Brahms didn’t dash off his first symphony — he began it in 1855 at age 22 and didn’t present it until 1876, worried that glowing praise from Robert Schumann would not be matched by his first effort at symphonic composition. Never mind that he already had finished his German Requiem and a piano concerto. He wanted the symphony to be good — and he succeeded. And the North Carolina Symphony showed why this is such an enduring work.
From the stately opening, highlighted by the throbbing timpani that underpinned the first several bars, this was a performance to savor. All sections of strings radiated warmth, and the winds and brass added necessary elegance and weight. Under the spirited direction of resident conductor William Henry Curry, the attacks were crisp, the entrances and cutoffs precise, and the blend of instruments, the ensemble sound, was engaging. Especially noteworthy was Curry’s sense of pace and tempo, with the opening un poco sostenuto-allegro movement coming to a slower, more gradual conclusion than one might be used to, for example. The same sense of leisurely pace — not dragging or sluggish — opened the second andante sostenuto movement and closed the third un poco allegretto e grazioso movement. This intensified the drama in the score. He did not pull back on the energy needed in the more up-tempo sections, but he did not rush, either.
The symphony included some nice solo moments, too. Principal oboist Melanie Wilsden offered some lovely playing throughout, notably in the second and third movements. Concertmaster Brian Reagin and principal French horn player Rebekah Daley had a nice duet near the end of the second movement, and Reagin played such a delicate line to bring the movement to a close. Wilsden and Sandra Posch engaged in a nice oboe duet near the close of the symphony, and the entire brass section, especially the lower horns, provided a wonderful sonic foundation, particularly in the lead-in to the grandly elegant theme of the fourth movement, one of the best themes in all symphonic literature.
The first half of the program featured works by Mozart, Berlioz and Weber, and the “Love Scene” from Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, Op. 17, was especially notable for its spotlight on a section of the orchestra not always fully appreciated — the violas. These lower strings carried the piece, which note-for-note is one of the most beautiful in the Romantic repertoire, right up there with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. This gorgeous piece, seemingly written about 50 years before its time, is full of emotion and passion and received an emotional and passionate reading by the orchestra. The eight-note figure in the scene’s main theme comes around several times, and the final statement near the end is intensely beautiful before fading to the softest possible conclusion.
The concert opened with a spirited reading of Mozart’s ever-popular overture to The Marriage of Figaro, and the orchestra offered a lively reading without being too brash or over-the-top. The sunny theme was well played by the strings.
Less well known, but every bit as satisfying as the other selections in the concert, was Carl Maria von Weber’s overture to Der Freischutz, and the ensemble sound of the orchestra gave a good preview of the Brahms to come. The brass players, after a slightly hesitant opening, carried their parts quite well, providing a rich, full sound at several points. The contrast between brass and the cushion of strings was especially notable. Curry showed his appreciation for the drama of the piece, bringing the slow, somber cello passage to an end with a noticeable moment of silence before leading his forces into a rousing, energetic climax.