Throughout this concert year, the North Carolina Symphony has offered its audiences a musical excellence which has been extremely satisfying. This concert was no exception. The all-American program was a pleasurable mixture of well-loved orchestral music by Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber and two exciting new compositions, one of which, a work commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony, was receiving its first performances in this series of three concerts that began on Thursday in Chapel Hill. Grant Llewellyn, the Symphony's Music Director, was in full command of this performance and drew from the orchestra the best playing of which it is capable. He seemed more deeply involved in the instrumentalists' music-making than I have ever seen him, and his exerted an impressive control over the audience's deeply-felt responses to it.
Aaron Copland's greatly-loved Appalachian Spring, which opened the program, was an exquisite performance, from beginning to end, of a ballet score filled with genuine sweetness and touches of melancholy appropriate to the story told by Martha Graham's choreography. The strongest influence on this music — and on its audience — is its portrayal of the Appalachian mountain country of Pennsylvania in which the events of the ballet take place. Copland's plaintive string melodies evoke in listeners' minds the vision of mountain country filled with beauty but also the promise of a difficult life for the young couple whose wedding the ballet celebrates. The exciting, joyous orchestral setting of a well-known Shaker theme, "Simple Gifts" treated as a roisterous country dance celebrating the wedding, is followed by the return of the soft, plaintive opening music dominated by the strings, which takes the audience to a quietly-voiced conclusion that makes it hold its breath until the conductor slowly lowers his hands.
The second work on the program was the premiere of contemporary composer J. Mark Scearce's Antaeus, a concerto for double bass and orchestra, with Leonid Finkelshteyn, the North Carolina Symphony's principal double-bassist, as soloist. The story on which Scearce bases his music comes from the Greek myth of Antaeus, a Libyan giant and the son of the Earth, to which he is firmly anchored until he gets into a losing wrestling match with Hercules, whose ability to lift the giant from the earth-mother breaks the latter's connection with her and thus causes his death. The double-bass embodies Antaeus, and this certainly seemed appropriate because of the instrument's voice, the deepest of all the string instruments, and its great size. Finkelshteyn, a soloist of great ability, made Antaeus come to life in the profound depth of the instrument's voice as well as in its occasional lighter, warmer tones. Occasionally, however, this listener heard intonation problems, particularly in the double-bass' upper voice.
Scearce's musical treatment of this myth does not treat the events of the tale in the order in which one would expect. The first movement portrays the death of Antaeus, and its music, appropriately in a minor key, is very dark and powerfully elegiac. The giant speaks from the place of the dead, in Hell, in the deep voice of the solo instrument which, under Finkesthteyn's skilled bow and careful fingering, enunciated in a kind of slow-ascending minor melody ostinato the way Antaeus' life ended. The second movement begins in a major key and allows the double-bass to express the Antaeus' relationship with his earth-mother, from whom he receives his believed invincibility. The music is brighter, especially that of the double-bass, which often sang in long musical lines of the rightness of this connection. Even the occasional lapses in intonation did not prevent Finkelshteyn from realizing the beauty of the lines Scaerce created for his instrument. It is the third movement which recounts, in dark minor melody and in anguished-filled music in all sections, Antaeus' fatal encounter in Tunisia with the mighty Hercules and the contest leading up to the giant's death.
All the music of this composition is powerful; it allows a fine double-bassist to reveal his great technical skills, and it permits all the players in the orchestra to participate in the telling of a great story, a universal one: the separation of a mother and a son.*
The emotionally-charged beauty of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings began the second half of the concert. This work of shining beauty showcased the great technical ability of the North Carolina Symphony string players to maintain purity of tone and impeccable intonation and their complete understanding of how to produce the slow lines delineating the increasing passion which Barber develops throughout this work. It is this piece and the opening and conclusion of Appalachian Spring that enabled the Symphony audience to appreciate fully the skill of these superb performers.
The final work of the evening was Jennifer Higdon's exciting Percussion Concerto, composed in 2005, with soloist Colin Currie demonstrating his great skill and versatility as a percussionist as well as his ability to move with rapidity all over the stage. Higdon's composition allowed the audience to appreciate her writing for the soloist as well as her exciting orchestration, which kept all on the edge of their seats throughout the performance. Colin Currie was on his mettle from the rapidly-moving first movement of the work, with his skillful playing of the marimba and xylophone, which brought responses from the orchestra percussionists and timpanists through the second and third movements, which involve more and more of the whole orchestra. As the concerto developed, Currie showed his great virtuosity on the vibraphone and bongo drums as well as the other instruments on which he performed earlier in the concerto. Toward the end of the work, the orchestral percussionists and timpanists joined with Currie in creating a thundering conclusion that brought equally thundering applause from a fully delighted audience.
*For a two-part blog on this score by its composer, see http://ncsymphony.org/blog/index.cfm/2009/3/11/the-commissioned-piece (you may need to scroll to the right to see this article...) & http://ncsymphony.org/blog/index.cfm/2009/3/31/the-commissioned-piece--part-two-working-with-lenny (ditto...).