The North Carolina Symphony played a concert encompassing the musical gamut, with the rather imaginative theme of musical connections to the word "fire." This took place at Wilmington's splendid new Humanities and Fine Arts Center at Cape Fear Community College. The performance was conducted by the orchestra’s music director, Grant Llewellyn; this was the first full concert he has led at the new hall.
The first piece, starting the program with full Baroque pomp, was the Royal Fireworks Music by Handel. This was played with brilliant brass contrasted effectively in dynamics with the strings and winds. The layering and balance of sonorities showcased the quality of both the sections of the orchestra and the Fine Arts Center's acoustics. Unexpectedly, the last couple of minutes of the overture were cut, taking out the marvelous dramatic shift to the French Overture style following an exciting climax in the brass.
The following short bourrée was appropriately perky. The pastoral "La Paix" (Peace – the work was commissioned to celebrate the end of a war) is one of Handel's most beautiful creations. Here it offered sensitive phrasing and finely shaped lines. The following "La Réjouissance" (Rejoicing) brought back an upbeat spirit and more excellent contrasts of sonority. The two courtly minuets brought the work to an impressive imperial ending.
Next was Haydn's Symphony No. 59 carrying – for reasons not fully certain – the subtitle "Fire." The first movement certainly has that character, and was played with rhythmic vigor. At the same time, the tone of the strings was light, well-suited to this music. Haydn, like Handel before him, could be an effective musical dramatist: the ending fadeout of this movement was executed with a surprising and almost humorous suddenness.
The second movement was appealingly lyrical, with a full tone in the stately walking bass. The lovely moment where the winds enter also carried a fine full tone. The vigor and grace of the third movement were captured well. The last movement is delightful and featured exciting playing from the two horns.
After intermission came a work that was premiered barely four years ago: Blue Blazes by Sean Shepherd. At 36, Shepherd has already made a mark with his orchestral music, having received performances by the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony, among others. The present work was commissioned by the National Symphony and its eminent conductor Christoph Eschenbach.
Blue Blazes is a colorful piece, displaying much imagination in its sonorities. It opens quietly with a pussy-footing bass and quirky percussion. These give way to a section of jazzy sounds and rhythm, which in turn segues to a panoply of colors and shifting rhythms. Rhythmic complexity is a leading characteristic of the piece, along with timbral richness. The orchestra played this challenging music with seeming aplomb. Line and phrase were sustained through the disparate rhythms and material, giving the piece coherence and conviction. Llewellyn seemed primarily focused on maintaining the accuracy of the rhythm. His normally expressive conducting style was rather beat-oriented here, showing less of the musical gestures than were in fact coming out successfully in the playing.
The eight-minute concert overture left this listener wanting more following a section of lyricism, a brief return to the opening idea and a striding, march-like growth to a sudden ending cutoff. Llewellyn deserves great appreciation for taking on the challenges of recent music and bringing such quality works to the symphony's audiences. Listeners are the richer for it, and we certainly hope that such imaginative programming will continue.
The concluding work was a 20th century classic: the Suite from Stravinsky's Firebird. This is music for large orchestra guaranteed to show off the acoustics of the hall and the impressive quality of the orchestra itself. It began with immediate effect, as the ominous character of the opening was put forth in whisper soft dynamics, followed by magical tones in the wind solos. The music of the Firebird had all the glitter one might hope for. The "Round Dance of the Princesses" was most tender, with beautiful tracery of wind lines and a standout oboe solo; the winds overall were wonderful here. The ending of this movement caught a fabulous hush. The following famous "Infernal Dance" was amply intense and rhythmically precise; the brass played powerfully. The "Berceuse" was equally intense in its quiet way, and haunting; the bassoon solo was bewitching, as was the soaring of the strings to the upper register. A gripping transition led to the beautiful entrance of the horn for the finale. The following crescendo was graded perfectly to climax the celebratory ending with its triumphant final chord.