You’ve spent a lot of money on tickets, you battle traffic and perhaps spend more on babysitters and parking, then settle into your seat and hear the dreaded announcement: “the part of (your favorite choice) will be replaced by …” While perhaps not as heart stopping as that scenario, the North Carolina Symphony (NCS) pulled the old switcheroo for its opening work, although since they were both unknown contemporary pieces, I doubt that anyone really cared. The piece played was "Overture in Feet and Meters" by Aaron Jay Kernis. An orchestration of the first movement of the composer’s Second String Quartet, this was written to honor the departure of Hugh Wolff as music director of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Since Mr. Wolff was guest conductor, well, you get the connection.
After a few brief words from Mr. Wolff, we heard a rather uninspiring composition and an even more surprisingly lethargic performance. This work is a strung-together set of quasi-Baroque dance movements written to display the considerable expertise of Mr. Kernis’s orchestration skills. On first hearing, it did just that without much else to hang onto and the result sounded like a professionally polished, but lifeless sight-reading session.
There are many great cello concertos, but for now and forever the cello concerto will be the one written by Antonin Dvořák during his stay in America from 1892 – 1895. Upon hearing it for the first time, the story goes, Brahms remarked that if he had known such a piece could be written for solo cello he would have already done it. Tonight’s guest soloist was Daniel Müller-Schott, the young German whose list of prizes and appearances with major orchestras took up two full columns in the program. This is the fourth time I have heard this concerto in Meymandi Hall and it is one of those futile barroom “who is better” arguments to compare performances at such a rarified level. One of the paradoxes of this concerto is that some of the most difficult passages take place during the quietest moments when the cello is more of a supporting player. Müller-Schott was masterful playing quietly but with great intensity and projection, particularly in the ravishing slow movement. Conversely, the more exposed passages where the cello announces or mimics the main themes were often difficult to hear or distinguish from the orchestral forces. It goes without saying that technique was not an issue and Müller-Schott’s long left-hand fingers were lasers of impeccable intonation.
Guest conductors usually tend to keep the orchestral status quo in check ut Hugo Wolff did a major overhaul of the seating arrangements that were immediately noticeable upon entrance into the hall. The string sections were reconfigured, moving clockwise: first violins, celli, violas and second violins. The double basses traveled to the opposite side from their usual home and the brass and woodwinds appeared to be somewhat different – although I was unable to discern the precise changes. These significant alterations had the most pronounced effect on the final work of the evening, Robert Schumann’s second symphony. Written during an especially dismal time in Schumann’s tortured life, his physical and mental ailments made it amazing that he could write anything more than a shopping list. Despite all this, but not unusual for many artists, he managed to produce a sunny, powerful and life-affirming work. Maestro Wolff conducted without a score or music stand before him and at times it seemed he had to restrain himself from walking into the orchestra itself. He is a passionate yet technically precise leader who brings out the meaning and energy behind the notes. For those of us who have heard this orchestra many times, there truly was a different sound with this different formation, especially in the scherzo movement where the dialogue between the first and second violins was more vibrant with those sections being on opposite sides of the stage. This is the sort of “safe” experimentation that can bring a fresh sound and even ignite some re-awakened vigor into some players who may have been in the same spot for decades.