The North Carolina Symphony, our state's peripatetic orchestra, became based in Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium in 1975. Besides enduring a wide acoustical mix of gyms and auditoriums while performing its educational mission, the musicians had to endure the very uneven sonic response of a hoary, depression-era, all-purpose facility. It had dead spots, any dynamic below mezzo forte got lost, and musicians could not hear each other across the stage. The orchestra only came into its own with the extraordinary potential for refinement of sound Meymandi Concert Hall presented at its opening in February 2001. Now conductors and players could work on refining interpretations by fully exploiting dynamics, ranging from a pin drop ppp to hall-shaking fortissimo. True balance between strings and brass could be achieved while a wide palette of color and tone could be appreciated.
Before leading the celebratory program, music director Grant Llewellyn recounted his affection for the hall's acoustics and told of a recent incident when he rehearsed famed pianist Lang Lang in the hall without the orchestra. Lang Lang stopped him and said the sound he heard reflected back from the hall reminded him of the Musikverein in Vienna. Meymandi Concert Hall has facilitated the NC Symphony's growth and refinement over the last decade.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) was one of the twentieth century's greatest composers, and two of his very different works were appropriate choices for this celebratory program. His "Festive" Overture in A was composed over three days in 1954 when the Bolshoi's conductor needed a new short work to open a concert. It is a good example of light-weight occasional music such as film scores or patriotic pastiches, composed to supplement his income or to keep in the Communist Party's good graces. It gives the whole orchestra a brilliant workout beginning with full fanfare for the brass, leading to a fast melody in the winds, taken up in turn by the strings. This builds to a four-note climax when a second, more lyrical melody is played by the horns and cellos. Both themes are developed in counterpoint before the brass fanfare is brought back and the overture ends with a rousing finale.
The "Festive" Overture showed off the refinement and strength of each major section of the orchestra. The horn section was terrific. The brass played with superb precision and gorgeous tone, and the trumpets excelled whether playing in the showy fanfare or in some quiet and subtle passages. The trombones firmly anchored the bass end of the spectrum. The string sections' elegance was displayed whether long-breathed melodies were played or fast-paced sections were cleanly articulated.
The Second Piano Concerto in A, Op. 23, by Franz Liszt, is in one continuous movement and makes use of the composer's innovative thematic transformation technique. It was a vehicle for Liszt, the greatest keyboard virtuoso of the nineteenth century, so there is no lack of piano fireworks, but, arguably, there is more musical poetry than in his First Piano Concerto. The basic melody is presented at the beginning by the clarinet, and this is transformed into at least six scenes with contrasted but evocative moods. This dreamy, sensuous melody is developed at a slow tempo leading to a piano cadenza. An agitated, faster second movement leads to another thematic contrast. A highlight is the return of the main theme, a reflective cello solo embellished with the piano's arpeggios. A keyboard cadenza leads to very martial restatement of the theme. Further delicate transformations lead to a flashy finale.
British pianist Peter Donohoe, well-known to record collectors, he has more than enough "chops" to bring off Liszt's powerhouse parts of this concerto. These came off seemingly effortlessly, but even more impressive was his refined playing of the subtle, tender poetry of the composer's quieter passages. The extensive nostalgic cello solo was superbly played by principal cellist Bonnie Thron. The important clarinet solo was very well played by Michael Cyzewski. Llewellyn balanced the orchestra with his soloist perfectly.
The "meat" of this concert was Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953), one of the 20th century's greatest symphonies. The symphony was supposed to be about resistance to war and the dawn of a better world. Composed after the death of Stalin, what ought to have been political pabulum instead was a depiction of the Stalin era, according to the composer in his purported memoir, Testimony. The vast 25-minute opening movement is in an arch form and features much brooding, dark music in the low strings. The first theme is heard in the rumbling low strings. The solo clarinet plays the second theme while the third theme appears near the end in a breathy flute solo in a sardonic waltz-like episode. The brutal second movement portrays Stalin and tyranny. The composer himself is the subject of the allegretto, third movement. Shostakovich's signature musical "initials," "DSCH" in German musical nomenclature, is prominent throughout. An extensive slow introduction leads to an exuberant and festive finale. Dancing on Stalin's grave? The composer allows every listener to form his own opinion.
Conductor Llewellyn shaped the over-all structure of this masterwork superbly, holding it together while allowing his fine musicians interpretive leeway. Each section played with great discipline and unity. The low strings produced a firm full sound in the rumbling opening. The cellos and violas sang with great warmth in long-breathed melodic passages. Violins combined crisp articulation and precision with attractive timbre. It was a pleasure to hear the new principal clarinetist, Andrew Lowy, play the important solo with great refinement and subtlety. The other woodwinds were first-rate, with fine solos given by flutist Anne Laney, piccolo player Elisabeth Lunsford, oboist Melanie Wilsden, and bassoonist John Pederson. The horn section, led by Brian Blanchard, was magnificent, as were the trumpets and trombones. Concertmaster Brian Reagin's solos displayed his usual high standard of interpretative depth. Every musician contributed greatly to a performance of a work worthy of honoring this wonderful hall.
Executive Editor's Note: There was some discussion of the program during its second performance here, given that the celebratory pair of concerts (on February 11 and 12) marked this American orchestra's 10th anniversary in its new hall, built for the NCS by the citizens of Raleigh. The overture and concerto were performed during the inaugural concert in this venue a decade ago. The Shostakovich 10th was last performed in the final concert in Memorial Auditorium, before the move next door. There was no explanation for the absence of an American soloist or a token scrap of music by an American composer. The National Anthem - based of course on a British drinking tune - was also missing from the musical action.