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It was a hot afternoon, likely above 90°F on the crowded and lighted stage of Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium. Grant Llewellyn, Music Director of the North Carolina Symphony, guest conducted the Brevard Music Center Orchestra in two momentous works: Ludwig von Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. Llewellyn’s concept of coupling these two deeply autobiographical revelations led to a serious and thought-provoking afternoon.
Beethoven’s third piano concerto is in C minor, a key signature that he reserved for some of his most serious works. He wrote drafts of the first movement in 1801 and completed the concerto in 1803 after a period during which he despaired at his growing deafness, may have contemplated suicide, and concluded with a resolve to carry on despite adversities. After this time, many of his works begin heroically, include a troubled middle section and end with an affirmation of life.
Mahler, who revered Beethoven, wrote his Fifth Symphony a century later. A revered conductor of the Vienna State Opera and later the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Mahler spent his summers composing. The resulting compositions were only tolerated by his audiences and not honored until fifty years later. The Fifth Symphony was the work of several summers following a 1901 medical crisis that revealed his serious heart disease. Like Beethoven, Mahler was reaffirming life in the face of his own mortality.
Norman Krieger was the piano soloist for the Beethoven. His scale work, his arpeggios, and his use of space in non-legato passages were commendable. There was some very judicious pedaling in the Largo. His overall approach was highly romantic, with shaped phrases, a good deal of rubato and some declamatory passages that did not always coordinate with the more serious approach that the very large orchestra adopted. Perhaps because there were 71 strings on stage, the orchestra’s playing was often metronomic while Krieger was taking liberties with the tempo. A smaller orchestra might have been more nimble, and could have been molded by Llewellyn to coordinate better with the soloist.
But maybe not. While the orchestra was well prepared and Llewellyn had clearly made good use of rehearsals (where most of a conductor’s influence is exerted), his podium presence was not inspiring. Most of the time, his left hand simply mirrored his right hand. Some gestures toward string sections were not precise enough to qualify as cues.
The large orchestra size was absolutely in order for the Mahler. With nerves of steel, principal trumpet William Campbell delivered the exposed and extended trumpet solo that begins the first movement funeral march. The orchestra entered, and for the most part delivered the goods. There were a few troubled moments. In the first movement, one agitato passage was helter skelter. In both the second and third movements, one student horn player had imperfect intonation, detracting from the horn choir. In one late passage in the final Rondo, the woodwinds were not precisely together. Only the fourth movement Adagietto was above criticism; it was lush and it was sublime. The heart ached.
Sunday was this reviewer’s first exposure to Llewellyn’s conducting. While one concert does not allow final judgments, I have mixed feelings. Cerebrally, the programming was impressive. There were signs of efficient preparation of an orchestra that included many, many student musicians who had never encountered the Mahler before last week. But Llewellyn’s desultory technique on the podium leads me to hypothesize that while I will never experience a bad performance under his baton, I may never experience a memorable one either. I hope that the future proves my hypothesis wrong.