Orchestral Music Review



Llewellyn Takes the Baton

September 15, 2004 - Raleigh, NC:


Last evening the North Carolina Symphony's new music director Grant Llewellyn walked on stage and bowed before - as he put it later - "The best turned out crowd I've ever seen at a concert." It was the culmination of a summer of media marketing hoopla introducing "The Llewellyn Era," at which the corporate and political elite from all over the state were wined, dined and serenaded in the hope that they would take to Llewellyn with the same enthusiasm as the NCS search committee, the orchestra and previous audiences.

Among the classical music curmudgeons, there's been a constant grumble about the glitz and especially money spent on marketing Llewellyn, including banners along downtown Raleigh's thoroughfares. But to be fair, orchestras all over the world are hurting - some mortally wounded - desperate for new audiences and willing to do just about anything to make themselves look attractive and cool. The recent annual conventions of the American Symphony Orchestra League have been all about ticket sales and fundraising. What began as a sneak preview for corporate donors was opened up to the general public because of the tremendous rush on tickets for the regular subscription concerts tomorrow and Saturday. Even more impressive: overall subscription sales are up by 1,350 for the various Triangle series, with 726 for the Raleigh Classical Series alone. And, hey, it probably doesn't hurt that the new music director also looks and talks attractive and cool. True, the blitz was pretty hokey, but it does not harm the music. Too many orchestras in a financial squeeze try to lure audiences and money by dumbing down their programs under the banner of "crossover" music. So turn up your noses at marketing all you want - but at your peril.

The curmudgeons are correct, however, in their insistence that ultimately the bottom line is the quality of the orchestra and its new music director. Everybody involved in this enterprise knows it too, from Llewellyn to the last stand extra in the second violins who wouldn't be playing were the orchestra's complement of fiddles what it ought to be. Can Llewellyn, a small-town boy from rural Wales, turn an orchestra from a rural southern state into the "Next Great Orchestra" (the new NCS motto)? Not all by himself, but here are some of the tasks before him: Inspire each and every orchestra member to play his or her best all the time; weed out those who do not meet his exacting standards for the ensemble sound he dreams of;  consistently conceive thoughtful, exacting and creative artistic interpretations of the works he programs; inspire donors - including the state legislature - to fork over the big bucks necessary to build up the orchestra's understaffed sections, particularly the violins; devise programs that can both attract new audiences while ("whilst" to you, Grant) engaging and challenging existing subscribers;  be here as much as possible.

Llewellyn made a symbolic and gutsy choice for his inaugural concert. A specialist in the music of the Baroque and Classical periods from his years as conductor of Boston's Handel and Haydn Society, he chose Haydn's final symphony, No.104, as the concert opener, coupling it with a work he had conducted only once before, as a student of 19, the young Gustav Mahler's Symphony No.1. His idea was to show off his strengths and celebrate the first full orchestra of his very own with a fresh start. Clearly, this maestro is willing to take risks.

Modern orchestra players often do not know how well off they are. In Haydn's day they played standing up - there wasn't a chair on stage except stools for the cellists and keyboard players. The custom went into decline at the turn of the 19th century, as works and concerts became longer and players were no longer servants. But Llewellyn, trying to regain some of the Haydn-era sound in spite of the modern instruments, asked the pared-down orchestra to play standing and for the strings to try to create the "thinner" sound with minimum or no vibrato typical of period instruments. According to concertmaster Brian Reagin, at Llewellyn's second guest appearance last November, performing Haydn's "Oxford" Symphony (No. 92), he tried to get the orchestra to stand. But he did not have the job yet, and the orchestra sat. Now, baton firmly in hand, he gently but firmly imposed his will.

Llewellyn's tempi were flexible and his dynamic shadings delicate. He made the most of the sudden transition from the solemn introduction to the jaunty first movement allegro, and got a lovely flute solo from Anne Whaley Laney in the Andante second movement, although the tempo of the movement was a bit slow. The weak point was in the Minuet third movement, where the oboe sound got lost in the little dialogue with the flute at the end of the minuet. He brought out the Finale's youthfulness (it is marked Spiritoso ), but by then some of the standing musicians were definitely ready to sit down.

While a Haydn symphony demonstrates the more intimate abilities of an orchestra, Mahler's Symphony No.1 is a big, loud and public utterance. To learn more about Llewellyn and his interaction with the musicians, we attended his first rehearsal with the orchestra on Monday morning. He was trying to shape the sound to his concept of the work- Romantic and youthful - but had difficulties with muddiness in the second movement where he tried to contrast the rough-hewn - he called it "manic" - peasant dance of the opening theme with the gentle, even schmaltzy, second theme waltz. But by Wednesday night it all came together, and the movement was crisp and clear, the balance between the sections and internal polyphony excellent and the music moving.

The Third movement, a mock funeral march using the melody of the folk song Frère Jacques , is a parody inspired by a painting of a funeral procession of forest animals carrying a hunter to his grave. Llewellyn performed it with the mock seriousness it deserved. It is a showpiece for several orchestral soloists, including duets that feature the second stand players as well. Everyone involved had their best feet forward. But this movement is also a quixotic piece that requires abrupt changes in mood and color as the orchestra must rapidly transform itself into a klezmer, a beer garden band and back again. Llewellyn managed the movement with panache and humor, letting himself get carried away with the flexibility in tempi the overall mood permitted.

The final movement is always difficult to pull off since it starts off loud, switches to a whisper, and then replays great hunks of the first movement. This last bit constitutes a real trap for conductors. Mahler, of course, changed the orchestration, but it takes more than a remix to make the notes sound fresh and significant. After all, in the first movement, the music represents a sunrise, while in the fourth the culmination and celebration of life. Llewellyn never lost sight of the fact that this was a youthful work, refusing to perform it retroactively from the half bleak, half elegiac perspective of Mahler's Ninth Symphony.

After the conclusion of the Mahler, there was, of course, the Raleigh audience's customary standing ovation - although the shouts and whistles were signs of genuine enthusiasm. Oddly, Llewellyn took a full minute to turn and face the audience; we sensed that he was saying something to his band or perhaps just decompressing. In any case, after the curtain calls and acknowledgement of all the soloists section by section, he returned to briefly address the "well turned out" audience and offer them a "doggy bag" of the original slow movement that Mahler had written for the originally five-movement Symphony. It's a lovely piece, with extensive trumpet and oboe solos played in top form by Paul Randall and Michael Schulz respectively. But it really doesn't fit the Symphony as a whole, and Mahler did well to remove it upon publication.

All in all, it was a lovely wedding. Everybody seems deeply in love, and we'll get to come along on the honeymoon.