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Some people think that thematic concert programs are gimmicky. Yet, preparing a program in which the three or four works are related in some musical or extra-musical way offers the audience both insights into the individual works themselves, as well as into some aspect of musical or cultural history. In a sense, such programs can provide their own auditory program notes and a true "aha!" experience. On Friday's program, the audience got a chance to learn about the process of re-using pre-existent music, as well as about an unfamiliar side of one of those modern composers people love to hate.
Anton von Webern, one of the pillars of the Second Viennese School, is best known for his incredible economy of musical notes – some of his miniatures lasting only a minute or two yet containing a complex musical structure. Last weekend's NCS program introduced the audience to another side of Webern's musical personality: his sense of connection with the music of another mathematically oriented composer, J. S. Bach. Webern's orchestration of one of classical music's most complex contrapuntal compositions, the six-voice Ricercare from Bach's Musical Offering is a tour de force that fractures the contrapuntal lines and redistributes the bits note-by-note around the orchestra. The combination of superb playing by the orchestra members and Grant Llewellyn's tight control of the different contrapuntal lines rendered what could have easily turned out sounding like a jerky medieval hocket into a flowing unified organism.
A different aspect of how good our orchestra musicians can be, became evident in the second work on the program, when concertmaster Brian Reagin teamed up with principal cellist Bonnie Thron to perform Johannes Brahms' Concerto for Violin and Cello in a minor, Op. 102, his final orchestral work. The performance was warm and romantic with precise teamwork between the soloists. Although Reagin's violin is not one to blast you out of the hall, Llewellyn took pains not to let the orchestra drown out the soloists.
The second half of the concert opened with W. A. Mozart's Adagio and Fugue in c minor, something of an anomaly in the Mozart canon. It was a satisfying comparison to have Webern's transcription programmed together with Mozart's work, which started in 1782 as a duo-piano response to the composer's newly aroused interest in the contrapuntal music of Bach. Mozart transcribed and completed the work six years later with the addition of the somber Adagio introduction (akin to a Bach prelude), recast for string orchestra.
Llewellyn, with tongue in cheek, suggested that Mozart, coming home after taking part as a violist in a performance of the Musical Offering, felt challenged to match Bach's feat and create his own complex fugue. At the time Mozart wrote the Adagio and Fugue, he was also re-orchestrating Handel's Messiah. While resembling the "King's theme" from the Musical Offering, the c minor fugue subject – although not the counter-subject – is closer to the subject of the choral fugue "And with his stripes we are healed." Llewellyn maintained excellent balance in the small ensemble, with superb clarity of the contrapuntal lines.
The program ended in a lively performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 that showed that the old warhorse doesn't need to be sent to the glue factory yet. And, oh yes, the Fifth's c minor-ness was obviously a consideration when creating the program. From the zippy opening bars it was clear how far we have come from the dragging, super-romantic performances of the mid-20th century. Llewellyn kept up the pace leading to a blazing finish. It reminded us again what a shocker it must have been for its first audience some 200 years ago.