The North Carolina Symphony is justly recognized for its high professionalism, superb technical skill demonstrated in all sections, and its attention to the musical demands of its conductors. All these admirable qualities were much in evidence in this latest concert as the orchestra, under the skilled, vigorous baton of Sarah Hicks, Associate Conductor, presented well-known nineteenth-century music of Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler, and Antonín Dvořák. Guest soloist for the evening was Randall Scarlata, whose rich baritone and ability to access a high range, having some secure tenor qualities, brought to vivid life well-known song cycles by Mahler and Dvořák.
The opening piece on the program was a deeply emotional and instrumentally powerful treatment of Liszt's Les Preludes, one of his most beloved symphonic poems. From the opening to the conclusion of the performance of this work, the players' passion and enthusiasm for the music made clear their enjoyment of it. Liszt's dazzling orchestration and his skillful use of dynamics were completely realized by the NCS players, and the brilliant performances by the principals in all sections of the orchestra got the evening off to a satisfying start.
The next work was Mahler's four-piece song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), which many great mezzo-sopranos have sought to make their own, some of them successfully. This music brought baritone Randall Scarlata to the stage. His vibrant voice of great range, his sensitivity to the emotional meanings and the highly dramatic content of Mahler's poetry, and his admirable ability to achieve the dynamic shifts which the music and the poetry demanded of him, kept me and many others around me deeply involved in every note he sang. The orchestra and its conductor supported Scarlata with delicacy, only occasionally covering some of his high notes, largely because their music called for a lot of sound from the brasses and woodwinds.
The four pieces in this cycle are the composer's depiction of several powerful emotional events in his first love affair, expressed through many orchestral colors, vocal colors, and dynamics which the soloist must produce. Scarlata obviously has acquired a deep understanding of Mahler's artistic intentions, which allowed him to present one of the most deeply sensitive interpretations of the composer's music and poetry I have had the pleasure of hearing. The setting of each poem in the cycle represented Mahler's lost love affair with the fickle soprano Joanna Dichter and the painfully bumpy road down which it led them, from the melancholy expressed in the first piece through occasional lighthearted moments in other pieces during which he recalls the infrequently sweet memories which were a part of their stormy relationship. The weight of depression and angst which Mahler's music and poetry reflected in the orchestral scoring and the evocative performance of the soloist justified the audience's sincere, sustained applause at the conclusion of the cycle.
The music after intermission was all from the pen of Dvořák. Scarlata again was the soloist for the well-known Gypsy Songs composed in 1880 and originally sung in German by the great operatic tenor Gustav Walter. Later Dvořák switched his texts from German to the language of the people of Slovakia, which he knew from a collection of verses by Adolf Hydek, a Czechoslovakian professor. This cycle of ten lieder became the composer's most beloved vocal pieces. Scarlata and the North Carolina Symphony demonstrated why this is so: both the singer and the orchestra conveyed with great warmth and color the composer' s passionate understanding of the Slovakian text, with its emphasis on a people's desire for freedom, love, and tenderness. The fourth song in the cycle, "Songs My Mother Taught to Me," is said to be the favorite of all the composer's beautifully-crafted songs, but to me it has plenty of competition in the other lovely songs in the collection. Scarlata sang all these songs with the same care and total involvement which characterized his performance of the Mahler Lieder.
Hicks and the NCS, with which her volatile style of conducting seemed to work so well, concluded their concert with Dvořák's brilliant, colorful Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88 (1889). Like most of the works of Dvořák to which we are drawn, this symphony is full of warmth, folk melody, and a plethora of beautifully-crafted themes which make the first movement almost too rich in content and color. These themes slip back and forth between major and minor tonalities. The recapitulation is characterized by the opening theme, blazing forth in the brilliant voices of the trumpets; the coda brings the movement to a resounding country dance in the most vigorous playing of which this ensemble is capable. The second movement is quite different from the first: its themes are both purposefully melancholy and hesitant but also shift to more stately well-shaped phrases. The third movement, a colorful version of the Ländler, a very popular Austrian folk dance, led to the final movement, characterized by the building excitement and extremely vivid orchestral color of the grand coda and finale which includes a well-designed theme and variations of sparkling phrases bursting with joyful melody. This work allowed the North Carolina Symphony to reveal its brilliant, rich sound in all sections, the great skills of its principal players, its ability to sustain faultless intonation, and above its superb musicality which throughout the evening was a delight to the ears of all present.