The North Carolina Symphony gave a program of masterpieces which intrigued in part by the unusual order of the works. The subtitle for the concert was borne out by much strong playing of weighty and affecting music.
Tchaikovsky's fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet, more commonly the climactic ending of a half or an entire program, was the opening work. As such, the concert began immediately at high intensity. The performers needed some time to warm up, however, with full passion asserting itself by the end of the fight theme. Through the long, gloomy introduction, the conductor, William Henry Curry, was leading with a rather energetic beat that didn't seem to match the introverted quality of the music. By the end of the fight theme, both conductor and orchestra appeared to have hit stride, and the transition to the love music was beautifully done. The famous love theme itself was finely sustained, with an especially expressive high point in the winds. The powerfully rhythmic peak of the development was gripping – in spite of the dry, unhelpful acoustics of the auditorium and a rather frenetic beat coming from the podium. A strong build up led to the coda, culminating in a truly dramatic pause. The ethereal quality of the ending projected finely. Mr. Curry excels, it seems, in bringing forth colors from the orchestra, and this passage was an example.
The orchestra's principal cellist, Bonnie Thron, was the star of the next piece, the Variations on a Rococo Theme by Tchaikovsky. In the pairing of these pieces, Tchaikovsky was shown in two opposing characters. As much as Romeo and Juliet is passionate and expansive, the variations are graceful and tuneful. They are also a tour-de-force for the cellist. Ms. Thron is an impressive soloist. She commanded the piece, from its fear-inducing high passages to the almost vertiginous display of speed. She also brought a light touch and even humor to her performance, so that the delight of music-making held sway over any technical challenges. The wind refrain was given an almost jocular feel by the orchestra; all together the performance radiated both artistry and joie-de-vivre.
After intermission came Haydn's Symphony No. 49. This work, in the unusual key of F minor, is dark and brooding, fully the dramatic equal of Romeo and Juliet. Mr. Curry led the first movement, an adagio, at a fairly flowing pace, in this respect showing its classical face more than its Sturm und Drang gravitas. On the other hand, the dynamic shifts were strongly characterized, giving it good dramatic effect. The second and third movements would have benefitted either from a lighter execution or fewer strings. Both, especially the minuet, came over sounding rather thick. The minuet, perhaps due in part to Mr. Curry's forceful beat, was missing the elegance – even if gloomy – of the dance. The trio had a lovely tone from the wind contingent. The fourth movement ended the symphony with excitement and drama.
The final piece, a suite from Stravinsky'sFirebird, continued the intensity of the Haydn. This made for an unusual and effective program design in which the only light piece occurred before the intermission. It was here that Mr. Curry and the orchestra turned in a particularly engrossing performance. The dark, meditative introduction set the atmosphere. The beguiling orchestral colors were finely highlighted and dovetailed. The "Dance of the Princesses" featured beautiful wind tracery and a magical ending. The sound and fury of the Infernal Dance may have been held back by the hall, but the colors could not be contained. The Berceuse, one of the most affecting pieces in the literature, captured a wonderfully sustained, thoughtful quality. A hushed transition led to the triumphal, glittering finale – greeted at the end by a standing ovation that seemed like a genuine audience reaction to a splendid peroration.