The North Carolina Symphony, conducted by William Henry Curry, ended its 2012-13 season in Wilmington with an all-romantic program focused on perennial favorites which also happen to be great works. The result was an evening of exciting music with, however, something of a split personality in the performances themselves.
The opening piece was the overture to La forza del destino by Giuseppe Verdi. It's a gripping number, with portentous intimations of ineluctable fate, ravishing melody, and a high-spirited conclusion that could have ended a comic opera by Rossini. The opening chords were played tightly, with precise releases, which captured the needed air of tension. There was beautifully expressive wind playing, especially with the rolling harp accompaniment of Leonora's melody. The ending was frothy and energetic. Yet in total the performance was not especially exciting.
Music of Richard Wagner followed, with "Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey" from Götterdämmerung. This is an episode with the utmost coloristic and dramatic power. After the subdued introduction, Brünnhilde's gentle melody grew beautifully out of the stately brass motive of Siegfried. The following powerful crescendo was well-drawn, though it was odd to see Mr. Curry beating rhythmically as the orchestra played music of soaring lyricism. The beginning of the "Rhine Journey" gathered some forceful boldness. The best part of the performance was towards the end, in the darkening sounds that portend Siegfried's descent into the world. Here, before the upbeat coda, the playing suddenly, if briefly, gained real atmosphere. Overall one would have wished for more passion and power in this lush, imaginative and evocative music.
The first half ended with pure diversion: the "Triumphal March and Ballet Music" from Verdi's Aïda. In the opera itself these sections are wonderfully-written display pieces. For orchestra alone they give off pomp and fun. The rhythm in the march was sharp and the tone bright, with the single trumpet opening the sound up more than in the previous pieces. The very direct, straightforward character spoke easily. The piccolo had an artful gliding-in entrance. There was fine wind playing in the ballet section. This conventional music spoke perhaps the best in a half which was overall played well but rather routinely.
The second half was taken up entirely with the Symphony No. 6 ("Pathétique") by Tchaikovsky. This 45-minute work was the musical fulcrum of the program. Its passionate performance revealed how much the orchestra had been holding back in the first half, to spend the utmost energy putting forth this valedictory work which for many is the portent of Tchaikovsky's death.
The despair and world-weariness that pervade the symphony came across immediately in the brooding start. The crescendo that brought the first climax was exciting, and equally so, in its quiet beauty, the entrance to the yearning second theme. A feature which came up several times was Mr. Curry's shaping of the movement to and from pauses, which gave them real dramatic weight. Another feature Mr. Curry handled beautifully was fades, including the one into the clarinet solo in this first movement, which was exquisite. The outburst that followed was genuinely jarring. Here, finally, the climaxes attained the power that one had been hoping for in the Wagner. This piece was clearly what the orchestra had been waiting for.
The second movement captured attention with the lilt and lyricism of the outer sections and the related darker sound of the trio. The whole was more gentle and elegiac in this performance than high-spirited. The fade to the end was lovely. The third movement began with an attractive lightness, a scurrying quality which carried the listener along. By the time the march-like peak was reached at the mid-point of the movement, the playing had attained great brilliance and power.
The last movement returned to the somber character which defines the symphony. The opening caught that tone and it never left. The main theme had a beautiful sighing quality, the second theme came with a wonderfully tender entrance. The later crescendo developed with a rich, slow growth, and the dramatic pause leading to a new sound was very effective. After the powerful central climax there was a sighing fade. The symphony expired to an almost inaudible soft in the throbbing coda. It was a performance of compelling intensity. At over ten minutes and with ample repetitions, this movement can feel protracted. Not so here. It carried forward in an unbroken arc. When it ended, Mr. Curry remained facing the orchestra and then signaled them to stand before he himself turned to bow. It was an affecting expression of reverence to the music and those whose artistry brought it to life.
This concert will be repeated in New Bern at the Riverfront Convention Center on Sunday, May 5, at 7:30 p.m. For details, see the sidebar.