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It has now been one year since the great financial disaster of 2008 hit all of us, and it seems that the always struggling arts organizations, from the most modest to the largest, were affected disproportionately. The North Carolina Symphony, despite some significant changes in their programming and guest artists, has taken a “glass is half-full” approach and is doing just fine. This weekend’s program was led by William Henry Curry, the Resident Conductor, who was given a relatively rare opportunity to conduct a program on their Duke Medicine Classical Series and presented a thoughtful, exciting and fun evening of music at Meymandi Hall.
Maestro Curry, a passionate advocate of American music of all genres, loaded the first half of the program with a condensed evolutionary voyage from the near beginnings to the near present. The rousing curtain raiser was "Jubilee," the opener of the four movement work Symphonic Sketches for Orchestra by George Whitefield Chadwick. Within these eight minutes of music you have a microcosm of the state of the infant genre of American concert music of the late 19th century. Brash, loud and fast gestures alternate with the quiet yearning of spirituals. It is ironic that it took a displaced Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák, to really mine the treasures of indigenous American music but that should not take away from this worthy yet underplayed work. The orchestra was sharply focused from the opening fanfare and effectively switched to portray great poignancy during the meditative moments.
John Adams has ascended to the apex of contemporary composers and it is perhaps his violin concerto, premiered in New York City in 1995, that is most representative of his greatness and contribution to contemporary music. While there are still some elements of that overused label of “minimalism” that he helped develop, this concerto is a monumental work that defies pedestrian characterization. The soloist was Leila Josefowicz, an enormously talented powerhouse who gave an introduction to the work. It is not uncommon for modern composers to use very old forms in their music, and Adams chose the Baroque chaconne as the basis for the first movement. Long, sensuous lines were spun out by the soloist before she erupted into a quasi-improvisatory ball of energy that knocks you backwards. We hear some familiar minimalist cells from both orchestra and soloist before Adams abandons them as if to say “I’m more than that, we’ve all had enough of it.” The finale brings in two electronic synthesizers but uses them quite discreetly and merely just another section of the orchestral fabric. Curry kept the orchestra rhythmically tight yet loose enough to sparkle and convey great confidence in this very difficult score. Josefowicz was stunning in her ability to express elegant, long lines and then turn like a coiled snake with a burst of energy that at times reminded you of the descriptions of the alleged demonic demeanor of Paganini’s playing.
Speaking of diabolical music, in conjunction with upcoming Halloween, one of the greatest orchestral works that can invoke shivers down the spine is Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz. This doesn’t just go for the chilling Dies Irae theme so powerfully introduced by tubist David Lewis or the "Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath" fifth movement, but the psychological terror of unrequited love – the basis of this work. Berlioz was one of the first to expand the use of a theme or motive usually confined to transformation within a single movement, into an idée fixe that serves as a thread throughout the entire symphony. From opium-induced trances to a musical depiction of a decapitation, this is an orchestral roller coaster that can probably best be described by the very dated term “trippy.” This was a vibrant and emotive performance that was at times appropriately dreamy and lethargic and then propelled into rambunctious and flashy brilliance, particularly a great fugal section leading into the finale. As a cautious endnote and example of “be careful what you wish for,” Berlioz did end up marrying his seemingly unattainable love and impetus for this masterpiece, only to end up in divorce several years hence.
Following in the footsteps of the increasingly popular “instrument petting zoos” as an attempt to bring audiences closer to the workings of an orchestra, this weekend the North Carolina Symphony started the “ask a musician” program. Two members from the orchestra are alternately chosen to stand out in the lobby during intermission with their instruments and be available to answer questions from the audience. I watched Associate Principal Violist David Marschall answer some very astute questions as well as deftly and politely respond to some quite the opposite.