He easily won over the audience with his boyish Welsh charm and lovely accent before he even lifted the baton. Grant Llewellyn is on the short list of candidates for the position of Music Director of the North Carolina Symphony. He made a return engagement at the helm of our state's orchestra this past weekend, and I got to hear him conduct the band on Thursday evening, November 20, in Chapel Hill. Llewellyn, Music Director and Principal Conductor of Boston's Handel and Haydn Society, is a very colorful and articulate leader who has an impeccable musical pedigree and a long and distinguished resume that includes conducting stints with many of the world's great orchestras. It would be quite a coup if the NCS were able to convince him to make his primary commitment to this orchestra.
Before the first downbeat, Llewellyn turned to the audience and began to tell about the orchestra's configuration for the opening work, Haydn's "Oxford" Symphony (No. 92). Normally the second violin section is beside the first violins on the same side, but for this work, the seconds were opposite the firsts, on the other side of the stage. As if to justify this, Llewellyn proceeded to read from Haydn's notes of the concert where he was to receive an honorary doctorate in music from Oxford University. Llewellyn also read directly from a book detailing other aspects of the premiere of this symphony. It was clear that the audience liked this sort of familiar interplay. However, this would be empty pandering if he did not have what should be the main criteria for hiring a music director - leadership, ability to convey musical ideas, and rapport with the musicians. From the first few phrases of the opening movement of this symphony, it was clear that this was the whole package. Having played this work before, I was amazed at the subtleties and nuances that were revealed to me for the first time. Especially in the Adagio movement - in Haydn symphonies, the slow movements can often get bogged down and lethargic - Llewellyn brought out an inner energy and verve that are quite difficult to attain. There was a quality to the orchestra's playing that I had not heard before.
The concert took place at the Chapel Hill Bible Church, the site of the Chapel Hill series until renovations of UNC's Memorial Hall are complete. I have heard that it is expected to be ready in January 2005, but having recently seen the completely gutted and exposed shell of that auditorium, that date seems doubtful. While the sound at the church isn't too bad, the very poor sight lines and flat floor make attending a concert there visually frustrating.
The evening's soloist was cellist Mark Kosower, a remarkable talent who has won numerous awards and competitions and performs all over the world. Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme has an interesting history involving revisions made by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, the cellist who played the premiere in 1877. Kosower played the "Fitzenhagen" version with a breathtaking combination of rich, beautiful sound and effortless virtuosity. His style of playing is such that he almost always looks straight out into the audience, not at his instrument. The only exception was in the final variation, which involves an octave passage that is one of the most treacherous in the entire cello literature. In an unusual bit of programming, Kosower returned to start the second half by playing the lovely "Elegy" by Gabriel Fauré, originally for cello and piano and then orchestrated by the composer. Kosower sensitively portrayed the contrasting themes and gave a passionate performance. Llewellyn displayed great attention to the soloist's nuances while serving as an accompanist, not leader, for these works.
I had not heard Claude Debussy's masterpiece "La Mer" in concert before, but I knew that regardless of how great a recording or stereo system you have, nothing compares with hearing it live with a great orchestra. I was right. Although not named a "symphony," this is as close as Debussy gets to that form. This three-movement programmatic depiction of the sea is a milestone in symphonic literature every bit as much as Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." If you look at the score of this work and watch the players, you realize the incredible difficulty of having to play what needs to sound as natural and easy as the wind and waves. Singling out any player or section would not only risk leaving someone out, but would also diminish the importance of the orchestra sounding as one entity. The earlier Haydn symphony was impressive enough, but the NCS' performance of "La Mer" was magical. There was a grace and elegance that showcased the spirit of one of the great musical masterpieces. Since these are basically the same musicians we have often heard before, it is a logical jump to say that this rise to a new level can be attributed to the direction of Grant Llewellyn. Let's hope that we have not seen the last of this conductor.