Meymandi Concert Hall was well filled with appreciative music lovers October 6 and they rewarded first solo pianist André-Michel Schub and later a plethora of principal players and the entire North Carolina Symphony with well-earned standing ovations. Scuttlebutt from a trusted musical source was that the October 3 concert in wretched UNC Memorial Hall had jelled in similar fashion while the first Meymandi concert of this latest pair, given after a day off, had fallen short. Such are the realities of true performance art.
Since I first reviewed the NCS in its new Meymandi Concert Hall last spring, I have sampled the hall several times from the first balcony, from the back orchestra center (not under the balcony) and, this time, from an aisle seat (row H, right) in the orchestra. So far, orchestral balances have been fine and things have improved since the risers were added. It was nice to be able to hear both the trombones and the strings in the last movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, Op. 35. Last season, several orchestra subscribers were checking out the balconies. They told me that they felt that the orchestra sounded too loud from their orchestra seating compared to their old Memorial Auditorium experience. I have not been able to confirm that this season. Rather I have been impressed by the rich variety and interplay of soft-to-softest sectional playing. Anything below a very crude mezzo-piano was lost in the old hall. That said, perhaps it was the lingering after-effects of a bad cold, but it seemed that sounds of the lowest strings were still somewhat restricted.
The concert opened with Mozart's Overture to Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), K.620. The chords of the opening slow introduction came off O.K., with the brass appropriately somber. Oboes signaled the beginning of the faster portion, which conductor Gerhardt Zimmermann set at a fast but clearly-articulated pace; there were fine responses from all the string choirs. The oboe solo of Michael Schultz was excellent; his contributions continued throughout the evening. The rest of the woodwinds were bubbling with spirit. Somewhere after the repeat of the three solemn opening chords, Principal Clarinetist Jimmy Gilmore managed a unique sound--perhaps blended with another woodwind--that resembled a high organ or calliope.
One of the greatest musical pleasures that I had during the late 1990s has been the growth of opportunities to hear the superior blend of virtuosity and musicianship on display at a growing number of concerts featuring pianist Schub. Since he became Artistic Director of the Eastern Music Festival, he has increased his appearances with both the Greensboro and NC Symphonies. On the solo side, I still remember a breath-taking reading of Schumann's Carnival during a residency at ECU.
All of the skills of a musical virtuoso were on display in Schub's brilliant performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73 ("The Emperor"). After the opening chord for full orchestra, Schub's fingers were talons of steel for the unusual opening piano cadenza, sweeping all before it. Throughout, his rhetorical flourishes were just right and ably supported by Zimmermann and the orchestra. The horns, led by Principal Andrew McAfee, were consistently outstanding. The beautifully held horn notes at the transition in the third movement were unsurpassed. String articulation was excellent as was balance between the brass and strings and between the orchestra and the piano. When called for, there was no lack of delicate poetry in Schub's most refined contributions. The fuller dynamic spectrum possible in the new hall is still amazing.
After intermission, Zimmermann led the orchestra in a stirring performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's massive and colorful symphonic suite, Scheherazade. His rein was at once tight enough to keep the work firmly on track and loose enough to give all the soloists room to shine. Concertmaster Brian Reagin was brilliant throughout his many exposed solos--now languid, now fiery - with long and stunning high exposed notes in the last movement. Harpist Anita Burroughs-Price made frequent bard-like contributions. Oboist Schultz was outstanding in his many solos in several movements. Principal Cellist Bonnie Thron glowed in her several extended solos. The bassoons, led by John Pederson, were fantastic throughout the second movement. It was a perfect night for the horns, led by McAfee. Principal Flutist Anne Whaley Laney made many fine contributions. The brass section was on its best behavior, especially in the second and last movements. The percussion had plenty to do. Everyone deserved the prolonged standing ovation and individual recognition awarded the principals by Zimmermann.
[Editor's Note: In conjunction with the latest pair of NC Symphony classical concerts (and the pre-Raleigh performance in Chapel Hill on October 3), pianist André-Michel Schub appeared at Peace College at 11:00 a.m. October 6 for the season's first "Informance." These sessions are among the capital's greatest educational and entertainment bargains - attendees get to hear world-class visiting artists speak about their careers and experiences, the remarks are often linked to current performances in the region, and from time to time the guests even play something - as happened at Peace this time; Schub offered a stirring rendition of part of a Beethoven sonata that did not figure in his area concerts, where the "Emperor" Concerto was the primary attraction. (At future Informances, microphones might be considered - neither presenter on this occasion spoke loudly enough to be heard even a third of the way back in the hall.) Some 40 people took in this free event, billed as a "Conversation with the Artist" and expected to have involved Schub and Gerhardt Zimmermann, Music Director and Conductor [of] The North Carolina Symphony (to quote from the event's printed program). At 10:57 a.m., a Symphony staffer was engaged in finding someone to converse with Schub; Peace's new pianist, Milton Laufer, readily accepted the assignment. It seems that Zimmermann had forgotten the commitment - he never did show up. jwl]