The North Carolina Symphony visited Wilmington with an upbeat program of music for the season. The concert was a cross between light classics and (mostly) Christmas tunes. The popularity of this annual event is well-established, and the audience was the largest this writer has seen for the symphony this fall. Many were decked out in red, and the orchestra's violas sported red tassels which bobbed gently back and forth during the entire program.
The festivities began brightly with "Adeste Fidelis," known in English as "O Come All Ye Faithful." As with pieces played later, the key to the appeal of a familiar Christmas carol played by a fine symphony orchestra was the arrangement. This one featured alternating wind and string choirs, with a grandiose ending for the full ensemble.
Next were two excerpts from the second Wand of Youth Suite by Elgar. The conductor, William Henry Curry, spoke briefly about the music, mentioning that the tunes were written by Elgar when he was a boy. Much later, Elgar set them for full orchestra. The first piece, "The Little Bells" was cheery, with running strings and winds, a more pensive middle section, and a touch of Elgar's characteristically lush strings. The second, "The Wild Bears," was an energetic, bouncy dance. These were played attractively. Mr. Curry, here and elsewhere, drew crisp and precise playing from the orchestra.
This was followed by a nod to the Jewish festival also occurring in December: part of the Chanukkah Suite by Terry Mizesko. Mizesko is a long-time member of the orchestra, as well as a composer. His piece was redolent of klezmer music, partly through the tunes, and also due to the prominence of characteristic klezmer instruments, the clarinet and violin. Jewish songs, even the happy ones, are typically in the minor mode, and that was the case here too. One section was virtually equivalent to the klezmer-like passage in the third movement of Mahler's 1st symphony. Perhaps this was a deliberate homage. The orchestra's playing was by turns lyrical and dance-like, with the needed flexible rhythm.
William Walton's arrangement of Bach's magnificent aria, "Sheep may safely graze," (Schafe können sicher weiden) from the cantata BWV 208 – one of Bach's few secular cantatas – was the only other reflective music on the program. Bach's music is suffused with pastoral beauty. The arrangement was lush and romanticized, with the use of harp lending it a sound quite distant from its baroque roots. Despite some broad ritards, the performance was gentle and delicate, with a finely-phrased duet between oboe and violin mirroring the recorders of Bach's original.
The "waltz king," Johann Strauss Jr., was heard next, in his well-known "Treasure Waltz." It is festive music, ideal for a program such as this. It was certainly enjoyable, but lacked the idiomatic Viennese waltz rhythm, with the characteristic shift in the second and third beats. As a result, the performance could not fully capture that quintessentially Viennese lilt and charm. The closing number of the half was "A Christmas Overture" by Nigel Hess. This clothed Christmas tunes in film-score-like harmonies and timbres, gracing them with syncopations, inner lines, chromatic shifts, and even a fugal section on "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."
The second half opened with a return to the gaiety of Vienna, and a jaunty, energetic reading of the von Suppé overture to The Beautiful Galatea – a Viennese operetta meant to answer the success of Offenbach. The wind choir and upper strings played beautifully. The rest of the program was given over to Christmas tunes, including a five-song sing-along for the audience. These familiar and favorite melodies were openly enjoyed by the large crowd, bringing the evening to an entertaining and spirited close.