Music Director Grant Llewellyn presented a rather unusual and yet warmly received program at Meymandi Hall with the North Carolina Symphony, an all-French program of little-known masterworks. Our concert life is so saturated by German and Austrian masters that such a program is indeed a rarity. A glance through the rest of the program booklet, covering September through January, reveals only one other French work (the Symphonie Fantastique) among a plethora of Germanic works (and for that matter, no Italian music, nor anything at all from Latin America).
The evening began with the Symphonic Fragments from Le Festin de l’araignée, Op. 17, by Albert Roussel (1869-1937), a figure perhaps better known a generation or two ago. This is a delightful ballet suite from 1912, miniature in scale due to its subject matter (insects), inhabiting a dynamic range predominantly between mp and pp. The work opens with a solo for the flute accompanied by the strings, masterfully played by the soloist, and with shimmering tone from the violins. Roussel’s understatement in this work, and his capacity for drawing on the wealth of Parisian popular music, made one realize how much the bombast of Germanic composers colors our listening expectations.
Even more French, if that were possible, was the work that followed, the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in D minor by Francis Poulenc. The evening’s soloists, Pascal and Ami Rogé, were welcomed with a standing ovation to acknowledge their generous gesture in playing without fee in view of the financial straits of the orchestra. Poulenc’s work is from only twenty years later (1932), but a world war and a financial crisis separate it from the Roussel. This is a neoclassical work, light, bright, quick, humorous, satirical, witty, gay – far from the usual big-bang piano concerto, and it was presented with brio by Monsieur and Madame Rogé. The manic energy of the first movement, and the quick cuts between one theme and the next, recalled the French silent films by such masters as Méliès (and, truth be told, at times, the coordination of the parts was imperfect, most notable with the out-of-sync castanets). The Larghetto which followed had an ethereal mix of the two soloists in a hypnotic rhythmic pattern. The Finale: allegro molto brought a second ovation for the soloists, three bows, and a two-piano waltz as encore.
The closing work, the Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, by Saint-Saëns, is one familiar to audio buffs for giving the sixties-vintage high-fidelity system a workout, with its addition of a pipe organ to two of the movements. Conveying the boom of a full orchestra plus organ was no easy task for the LP. Nevertheless the work was not and is not frequently heard in concert (and even so, is certainly the most frequently-played of the composer’s symphonies). The entry of the organ in the Poco adagio section of the first movement gives an explicitly religious tone to the proceedings, with the strings singing out a melody over the accompaniment of the organ (with the sort of stops that in church would be expected to signify orchestral strings, a sort of Mobian self-reference). The organ is heard once more at the beginning of the Maestoso conclusion to the work, and if strings and organ in the Poco adagio were perfectly balanced, here the volume of the organ (not a pipe organ, of course, but an electronic golem of one) was far more than called for, a tasteless abuse of the possibilities of amplification, drowning out the orchestra, which was playing at triple forte. Adding to the surreal effect was the fact that this windy blast came from a chain of speakers suspended over the director’s head like the sword of Damocles. Nevertheless, the orchestra gave a compelling reading of the work, and the concluding chord was greeted by tumultuous applause.
A thoroughly satisfactory program in concept and execution. I hope that we can have many more such adventurous evenings with Llewellyn and the NC Symphony.