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We so often see and hear Ara Gregorian as part of a trio, quartet or quintet, playing either violin or viola, during his Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival concerts, that it was a bit unusual to see him as soloist with a symphony orchestra. But there he was, front and center, with the East Carolina University Symphony Orchestra behind him, as he gave a splendid performance of Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, with none other than his father, Leon Gregorian, conducting.
Many consider this piece to be one of the Big Five among violin concerti, along with those by Beethoven, Bruch (his Concerto No. 1), Brahms and Tchaikovsky, but the music is so engaging, so thrilling that rarely does the luster diminish with repeated hearing. And Gregorian fils did himself and the music quite well, bringing passion, emotion and great technical skill to the playing.
Gregorian's tone was fine from start to finish. The highest pitches were soft yet firm without sounding dry, and the lowest pitches were substantial without growling. The blazing fast fingering seemed to cause Gregorian no difficulties at all, from the lengthy cadenza (by Mendelssohn) in the opening Allegro molto appassionato movement to the joyful and lively combined lines of violin and reeds in the closing Allegretto non troppo-Allegro molto vivace movement. In between, the lovely andante melody was simply beautiful, and his frequent double-stopped passages were executed quite well. The orchestra, especially the strings, gave good support throughout the concerto, in the Andante movement in particular, but also in the outer movements as well.
The concert at Wright Auditorium began with the world premiere of "Release," a new composition by ECU faculty member Edward Jacobs, and ended with Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 7 (FS 16). The two works represented much more modern scoring than the Mendelssohn concerto, although the Danish-born Nielsen's work was firmly in the late European Romantic era (completed in 1892), and the Jacobs' work is firmly in the contemporary idiom.
Nielsen was 27 when he completed his first symphony, and while it is not as overtly melodic as, say, symphonies by countryman Niels Gade (who was one of Nielsen's teachers), it has a likable, listenable quality, by turns vigorous, thrilling and grand, and the ECU Symphony, again under the elder Gregorian's direction, performed well.
Several sections of the orchestra had occasion to shine throughout the symphony, and the reeds and winds played with special skill in exposed parts. The reeds were notable in the opening Allegro orgoglioso movement (how often does one see this term – it means proud – when describing an allegro?), and the strings gave a fine reading to the gently rocking Andante movement, which also had moments of drama and tension. The low brasses formed a nice choir in the third Allegro comodo-Andante sostenuto movement, and the reeds again played well in the closing Fnale-Allegro con fuoco movement.
For listeners perhaps not that familiar with the work, the impression that this symphony creates is one of several shorter bursts of energy and melody, instead of longer, more sustained melody lines. Not a bad thing, mind you, and all that is required to warm up to the music at hand is more than one hearing, which will show that Nielsen can be appreciated for something other than his better-known Symphony No. 4, the "Inextinguishable." And while the players might not have been that familiar with the work either, they provided a fine account under Gregorian's conducting, and one would welcome further exploration of Neilsen's compositions at future concerts.
Jacobs' composition is one of those pieces that tends to meander from theme to theme, with several shorter sections of interesting and accessible scoring but with little in the way of connecting elements to help tie things together. The scoring is notable for the use of percussion, especially a range of drums from snare to kettle, and piano, ably handled by Dr. Catherine Garner of the ECU faculty. Some parts of the composition conjure up impressions of sci-fi film music. Jacobs, who heads the annual North Carolina NewMusic Initiative at ECU, shows his affinity for contemporary compositional styles with "Release." The difficulty in evaluating such a performance, of course, is that, not having heard the work before, one never quite knows whether the orchestra is "getting it right." But Jacobs seemed pleased at the conclusion of the piece, smiling and shaking hands with the concertmistress and first violist, who had nice solo passages.