The North Carolina Symphony played a program that included two pieces written in the past couple of decades, juxtaposed with an old favorite from 300 years ago. Conducted by the orchestra's music director, Grant Llewellyn, the performance took place in the North Carolina Symphony's wonderful new home while in Wilmington, the Humanities and Fine Arts Center at Cape Fear Community College.
The concert began with Musica Celestis composed in 1990 by Aaron Jay Kernis. Born in 1960, Kernis is on the faculty of the Yale School of Music and has received numerous prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize. Musica Celestis, arranged for string orchestra from a movement of his first string quartet, carries just the atmosphere promised by the title – an often ethereal or otherworldly character focused in the upper registers. This is the tone of the opening, which the orchestra conveyed with a lovingly sustained sound. The piece also has deep, resonant tones. The first drop into this register was followed by an intensifying step-wise rise, which led to a gripping sense of stillness. After a beautifully sensitive melody there was a lush arrival again on lower pitches. An incessantly rising section dissipated suddenly back into the sound of the opening, this time combined with low tones. The otherworldly calm pervaded this part too. From there it rose to its biggest, highest peak and ended in one more section of ethereal calm and a wonderful fade into silence.
The emotional intensity of the piece made a strong impression. Llewellyn excelled at bringing forth the whisper-soft hush of the upper register passages and the playing showed off the high artistry of the orchestra itself.
The second work was Seeing is Believing, by Nico Muhly. A young composer at not quite 35, Muhly works in a variety of styles, from classical to indie rock. He has numerous prestigious commissions to his credit, including from the Metropolitan Opera for his opera Two Boys.
Seeing is Believing is a combination of the old and the modern. It is a violin concerto, that is, written in a genre which has existed for 300 years. However, the solo instrument isn't a traditional violin, but rather an electric violin. In addition to being amplified, it has six strings; the lowest is almost as deep as the lowest string on a cello. Plus the composer explores its ability to create a loop: the playing is recorded in real time and the soloist, using pedals, then cues it to be played back in combination with other musical lines as the piece proceeds.
Muhly uses a chamber orchestra to accompany the soloist. The piece is focused primarily on a variety of sonorities as well as energetic rhythmic cells; the composer has a wonderful ear for the sound potential of the ensemble. However, at 23 minutes this is a long work, and some of the sections felt like they needed more sense of direction. There were exciting points of tension in the piece and also areas of stasis. The ending was lovely, capturing some of the celestial quality heard earlier in the Kernis piece, here in shifting, iridescent tone colors. Karen Strittmatter Galvin was the violin soloist and executed her challenging part with aplomb, both musically and technologically.
The second half of the concert was devoted entirely to Vivaldi's evergreen Four Seasons. Llewellyn led the work almost operatically, with a palpable sense of drama in creating the character of each of the twelve movements.
An unusual – and somewhat distracting – feature was that each 3-movement concerto was performed by a different soloist. As a result, the piece was interrupted three times for substantial applause and the changing of the lead performer. Plus there were naturally differences among the soloists, so that the work suffered some loss of unity. The plus side was that listeners got to individually hear four of the orchestra's very fine musicians.
Elizabeth Phelps was an impeccable soloist in "Spring." The third movement "Pastoral Dance" was especially appealing, and her playing also featured excellent ornamentation.
Jacqueline Saed Wolborsky was equally effective in "Summer." She was highly expressive in the first movement and exciting in the stormy last movement. The orchestra projected strong contrasts, including a dramatic ending to the first movement, and the great delicacy of soft which had also stood out in the Kernis work.
Rebekah Binford performed "Autumn" with exciting virtuoso flair. She also had some wobbles in intonation and even at one point in ensemble. The drunken sleepers of the second movement were portrayed with more exquisitely soft playing.
Dovid Friedlander was superb in the concluding "Winter." He had a great deal of both vigor and expressiveness, and the ending rush of the last movement was blistering. The orchestra made the ice of the first movement nearly palpable, and then shifted to a fine warm tone for the second movement evoking the hearth.
This combination of inventive new works and top quality performances of established music is invigorating. Llewellyn led each piece with obvious engagement and his trademark excellence of musicianship. The large audience in the 1,500-seat Humanities Center greeted the conclusion with much appreciation. The receptiveness of this expanded Wilmington audience was a pleasure to experience.
Listeners who hear the upcoming performances in Raleigh will be greeted by a visual extravaganza as well as fine music. Celebrating the centennial of the North Carolina state parks, the Vivaldi will be accompanied by images of nature from across the state, projected on a video screen above the orchestra. It is hard to imagine a finer way to celebrate both our natural beauties and the great musical evocation Vivaldi brought to his ever-popular masterpiece.