The North Carolina Symphony finally had the opportunity to perform its opening concert at the new Humanities and Fine Arts Center at Cape Fear Community College. The concert was originally intended to take place during the opening week of the center in early October, but severe weather forced a postponement.
The leading personnel for this concert was changed. David Glover conducted and Di Wu was the concerto soloist. In addition, the Shostakovich overture originally slated to begin the program was dropped, leaving the concert to consist of two heavyweight works, both of which made a great impact.
This was the first opportunity to hear a full orchestral concert in the new facility, and the acoustics have proved to be wonderful. Lines are clean and transparent. The sections of the orchestra balance and blend. At 1,500 seats and with first-class sound, this is a hall worthy of any major city.
The performance was just as good. The opening piece on this two-work program was Sergei Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra. This is a blockbuster piece in every respect. Written by Rachmaninoff for himself to play on his first tour of America, it is one of the most difficult pieces ever written for the piano – a veritable tour-de-force. It is also filled with long lines and lush harmonies which richly showcase the large Romantic orchestra.
Wu had every bit of the technique and sweep the piece calls for. Just as effective was the beauty of her lyrical playing. She shaped long lines and excelled especially at moments of gentle transition between themes and the evocation of a new moment in the piece. Perhaps with more rubato than usual, she brought forth such highly expressive moments with great tenderness and sensitivity. Such points were the second theme of the first movement, and likewise in a wonderful return to the second theme of the last movement. She certainly had roaring technique, notably in the massive cadenza to the first movement and in the opening of the third. Then there was the glittering finger work in such places as before the first movement coda and at the E-flat cadence in the first section of the last movement. This was altogether an impressive and passionate performance.
The only thing one might have wished for was a more massive piano tone. This may have been due more to the piano itself than the performer. The instrument tends to be somewhat muted in the middle range, not bringing forth the fullest of sound. The Humanities Center, we are told, is slated to receive a new concert grand sometime in the not-too-distant future. Certainly, such a facility should be matched by a piano of the highest quality for soloists – presumably more to come – of international stature.
Glover conducted dependably. His cues were clear and he looked to be in good contact with the orchestra. At various times his beat seemed to mirror more the technical character of the solo part than the longer phrases of the orchestral writing. He also led a great deal with both hands in symmetrical pattern. Perhaps this was to maximize visibility by the soloist.
A fuller impression of Glover emerged after the intermission when he took the limelight to lead the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 in B minor – the "Pathétique." This large work, with its famous brooding outer movements, is a touchstone of the Romantic repertory, and Glover led a compelling performance. He sensitively shaped the long lines in the gloomy opening. The clarinet solo at the end of the exposition was beautiful and was projected in every nuance by the hall's acoustics. In the later climax, the brass issued forth with wonderful brightness.
The second movement offered the cellos an opportunity for rich melody. At the same time, this waltz-like movement had an appealing lilt and the needed gentle swaying quality in the trio. One wondered whether phrases could begin more softly, so as to project the shape more fully. Also, one wished at times that Tchaikovsky's characteristic long groupings of phrases and sequences could show more of a large design, a movement to a central point.
The third movement began with a fine crispness. More variation in the repetitions – Tchaikovsky has many of these – would have been still better. The grand march – triumphal or demonic, depending on how one hears it – was stirring.
The last movement comes back to inward emotion and the resignation which ends the symphony. The transition to the second theme was especially lovely in its yearning quality. The following accumulation was impassioned as was the lovely swell to the return of the first theme. The ending, fading into world-weary resignation, was beautiful.
With this colorful and passionate performance, the North Carolina Symphony has now begun its tenure in its fine new Wilmington home. The Port City has much to anticipate.