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Grant Llewellyn put his personal stamp on the North Carolina Symphony's traditional New Year's Eve concert in Meymandi Hall this year. Among the expected waltzes, the conductor layered music from a variety of contemporary British composers, injecting new life and spirit into his first turn at this annual event.
Llewellyn, aware that the unfamiliar pieces on the program might cause some concern, gave them all short introductions, infused with great humor and personality. As it turned out, his choices were so well judged that he need not have worried. The audience responded enthusiastically to all of them.
Chief among Llewellyn's contributions were works by Welsh composers, a nod to his homeland. There was the delightful "Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes" by Grace Williams (1906-78), full of tender melodies and crisp rhythms. "Microncerto" for double bass and orchestra by Gareth Glyn (b. 1951) gave NCS principal player Leonid Finkelshteyn the opportunity to show off his range, as the five-minute piece includes virtually every bowing technique and playing method available to the double bass. Its variety of styles and short duration made it easy listening, despite some difficulty hearing the instrument, especially when backed by the full orchestra. (This work had its North American premiere by these same forces in a 2005 Summerfest concert).
Catrin Finch, Royal Harpist to HRH the Prince of Wales, had a reunion of sorts with Llewellyn in their performance of the fourth movement of the harp concerto "Over the Stone" by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (b.1944). Most known for his catchy neo-Baroque music in the De Beers diamond commercial, Jenkins actually has composed a large body of classical works. In 2002, when Prince Charles requested a commissioned work for Finch, she turned to fellow countryman Jenkins. The work, originally for two harps, was premiered by Finch and Elinor Bennett, accompanied by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Llewellyn.
For the New Year's Eve performance, Finch had adapted the fourth movement for one harp. The melody is heartfelt and hushed, first simply stated by the harp, then ornamented as the strings play lushly underneath. Finch's confident, elegantly expressed playing made one eager to hear the whole piece. As an encore, Finch played a solo adaptation of a choral work by Jenkins titled "Hymn." This simple moving tune had the audience holding its collective breath as Finch gave the music great spiritual depth. Finch had already wowed the audience in the first half with a full performance of Debussy's "Danse sacrée et danse profane," in which she caught all the mystery and sensuality of the work, while Llewellyn led his players in beautifully controlled waves of sound underneath.
One of the finest moments on this eclectic program was the vivid performance of the popular work by Peter Maxwell Davies, "An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise."
Llewellyn set the scene with colorful descriptions of the work's storm, wedding ceremony, drunken revelry and final dawning. Those familiar with the piece only from its frequent exposure on classical music radio could not have been prepared for the thrilling moment when the lone bagpiper (Howard Sanford) began playing the wistful morning tune from the back of the hall, processing slowly down the aisle to the stage, a final fillip to the grand time the musicians had, especially Brian Reagin as the drunken fiddler.
After leading the audience in two sing-a-longs – "Danny Boy" and "All Through the Night" (or "Ar Hyd y nos" as it was taught to everyone by Catrin Finch in her native tongue) – Llewellyn ended the formal program with two movements from the Concerto for Pedal Steel Guitar and Orchestra by American composer Michael Levine (b.1954). In the quiet second movement, soloist Allyn Love (currently the Operations Manager for NCS but a past regular on the Grand Ole Opry and on tours with a number of bands) displayed a sensitive touch in the delicate repetitive phrases and in the extended cadenza. For the third movement, Llewellyn brought back Finch and Finkelshteyn and added NCS "fiddler" Jacqueline Saed for the raucous finale with a toe-topping, country-and-western flavor enhanced by Love's easy way with the steel guitar's familiar sliding chording.
Of course there was the traditional clap-along with the "Radetzky March," but for it and for Finch's clever solo transcription of Handel's "Arrival of the Queen of Sheba," Llewellyn turned the clapping into an interactive exercise by giving the audience precise directions as to tempo, dynamics and sudden rests – a lot more fun than rote beating of time. And there was the singing of "Auld Lang Syne" at the end with the traditional balloon drop (many of which had popped prematurely at inopportune moments of the music).
The long program (over two and a half hours, including intermission) also included the Overture to Die Fledermaus, the waltz movement from Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings," "Accelerations Waltz" by J. Strauss, Jr. and an arrangement of Richard Rodgers waltzes by Richard Rodney Bennett. Frankly, these all were perfunctorily executed, obligations to be gotten through. Judging by the audience's complete acceptance of the delightful non-traditional items Llewellyn supplied, the NCS administration should have no qualms about jettisoning the tired "Viennese" tradition of this concert next year and going fully with the wonderful new material Llewellyn has up his sleeve.