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Raleigh, Meymandi Concert Hall, Friday, November 19: One person’s illness can be another’s opportunity. When Resident Conductor William Henry Curry fell ill, Assistant Conductor Kenneth Raskin had to take his place on short notice to conduct the North Carolina Symphony subscription concerts this last weekend. Unfortunately, unless substitute conductors are familiar with the works scheduled, they can do little more than beat time and control the overall dynamics. The result is performance in primary colors, with little shading and nuance.
The concert opened with the Polka and Fugue from the 1927 opera Schwanda the Bagpiper, just about the only work by Czech composer Jaromir Weinberger still performed today. The overture is loud and brassy, and the performance was very loud indeed. As cliché as this opener may be, it has its share of “issues,” the most important of which is controlling the enormously long fugue. Uncharacteristically for the NCS, it seemed as if each section felt the obligation to blast out the fugue subject every time it “got the ball” but never managed to back off when passing it on to another section.
Raskin, however, did better keeping the orchestra appropriately balanced against the star of the evening, the young Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo, a powerful player with impeccable intonation. She performed the Violin Concerto by Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian, a work demanding a tremendous technique, which Gomyo executed with panache. Khachaturian wrote the work for famed violinist David Oistrakh, and was careful to keep the orchestra muted whenever the soloist plays. Raskin was clearly not very familiar with this work and, while he kept the dynamics under control, there was little sensitivity to the Armenian folk rhythms in the work, especially in the lovely second movement. An original touch is the sparkling lovely cadenza in the first movement, in which the violinist has an echo-dialogue with the solo clarinet. Jimmy Gilmore’s dulcet tones blended beautifully with the soloist.
The problems that plagued Schwanda, plagued the second half of the program, Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No.7, as well. While Raskin was decidedly more familiar with this work, he still did not get the subtle gradations of dynamics the work demands. It is probably Dvorák’s most somber orchestral work, but little of this mood was evident in the performance. The brass was far too loud already at the first climax of the first movement, leaving no room for gradual buildup of tension. Overall it was a respectable performance but we’ve heard much better from the NCS and Raskin.