The North Carolina Symphony and Basset Clarinet soloist Michael Collins, conducted by Grant Llewellyn, Music Director, offered what is arguably the best concert of the season to an enthusiastic audience in Meymandi Hall. All the music on the program was superb, but the most exciting pieces were the two concertos featuring Collins, whose great skill and unquestioned musicianship we do not encounter very frequently.
The concert opened and closed with well-beloved works by Felix Mendelssohn. His Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21, a magical portrayal of the characters of Shakespeare’s play, brings them to life in exquisite orchestral music that makes each one stand out unforgettably. Llewellyn and the Symphony were in top form, evoking all the characters, from the elves with delicate string playing to the braying of the donkey in the low brasses, and enjoying every minute of it.
The last piece in the program was Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 (“Italian”), which, like the Overture is as universally appreciated by music lovers today as it was in the composer’s day. This work evokes the sights and sounds of Rome and Naples that fed the musical inspiration of the young Mendelssohn during his tour of Italy in 1831. In performing this work, the Symphony and its conductor seemed to have been just as inspired by Mendelssohn’s music as he was by the events of his tour. The playing of the first movement, with its sparkling theme suggesting so vividly the sunny skies of Italy; the andante second movement, with its suggestion of a religious procession; the airy dance of the scherzo, highlighted by the theme stated in horns and bassoons; and the finale, with its brilliant march and dance, showed the North Carolina Symphony at its best.
Although these two works were in themselves a delight, they served as a frame for two even more stunning orchestral performances, highlighted by the incomparable skill and musicianship of Michael Collins and his Basset Clarinet. This beautiful instrument, with its added length permitting it to reach deep into the bass register at the same time retaining the upper range of the shorter more familiar B-flat clarinet, has a more mellow tone, more power, and to my ear a more commanding ring to its ornaments than does its smaller relative.
This clarinet was the instrument for which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote a number of his instrumental works, perhaps the loveliest being one of his late compositions, the Clarinet Concerto in A, K. 622. The audience was held spellbound by Collins’ superb solo work supported by equally beautiful orchestral playing by the North Carolina Symphony. There is no doubt that the great musical affinity between Collins and Llewellyn is responsible for the unity of expression between soloist and orchestra. The brilliant first movement of this concerto is a very brisk allegro requiring the soloist to play phrases frequently connecting both registers of the Basset Clarinet in an unbroken musical line that demonstrated his great technical skill, his musicianship, and his understanding of the composer’s intentions. Collins’ virtuosity was also revealed in his seemingly effortless ability to play seamless, apparently unending lines of dizzying rapid scale passages which are often legato and just as often characterized by a detached, clearly articulated touch. This ability was clearly exemplified in the magnificent cadenza and ornaments ending the first movement. The beauty of Collins’ legato, richly expressive playing in the andante movement filled a house so still that one could almost hear his neighbor breathe. The allegro final movement, unbelievably, was even more brilliant and demanded even more from the soloist than did the first movement, for Mozart in his understanding and deep appreciation of the sonic color and the capabilities of the Basset Clarinet gave the soloist every opportunity to display his virtuosity. Even more numerous than in the opening movement were the stunning long lines in which the instrument’s low notes and powerful high notes were connected in unbroken lines, and the great scale passages, culminating in trills increasing in volume as well as length at important cadences. This performance was the best part of a wonderful evening of music.
Ornamental Air for Basset Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra, the second piece on the program featuring Michael Collins, was a triumph for its composer, Elena Kats-Chernin, who was present for the concert and joined Collins and a jubilant Llewellyn on stage after a performance which brought the audience to its feet in a loud, well-deserved standing ovation. Kats-Chernin, like Mozart, was impressed with the great flexibility and rich tonal color of the Basset Clarinet and wrote music designed to focus on these qualities. The first movement of this work allowed ample opportunity for Collins to play arpeggios and long scales — many of them — displaying the great range of the instrument and its ability by a master player to sing long lines extending from one end to the other. In the second movement the Basset Clarinet showed a more meditative side as it sang with the greatest expressivity a lengthy legato melody requiring the master player’s utmost control. The third movement returned again to the rapid pace of the first, and the Basset Clarinet once more showed its virtuosic side as Collins played many short but rapid masterful phrases that brought the piece to a satisfying conclusion.
The City of London Sinfonia, the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and the North Carolina Symphony commissioned Ornamental Air for Basset Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra.