The last of the year's guest conductors, Indonesian-born Jahja Ling, led the NC Symphony on March 27 in Durham's Carolina Theater and on March 28 and 29 in Raleigh's Meymandi Concert Hall. I heard the first of the Raleigh performances. His was an interestingly built program, beginning with John Adams' short 1986 fanfare "Tromba lontana." This is not your standard, brassy, brash, bright piece of the variety that I prefer to hear out of doors, intended to awaken you and grab your attention; it is pleasantly subdued and almost hypnotizing with repetitive chime-like percussion and soft trumpets stationed on either side of the stage playing over hushed strings and woodwinds. Ling showed immediately his skill in controlling dynamics and in getting precision playing from the musicians. It was a very effective opener.
Pianist Garrick Ohlsson joined the musicians next for a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 37, dating from 1803-4, and the demonstration of precise playing and impressive control of dynamics continued from all involved. Ohlsson is a huge man, towering over Ling, himself by no means short, yet he played with incredible delicacy in the portions of the score where that was called for. As with Ling, there were no flamboyant or exaggerated mannerisms, Ling's nodding of his head to the beat in the solo piano portions where the orchestra is silent notwithstanding - he can be forgiven since he is a world-class pianist himself. They made a fabulous pair, striking excellent balance between orchestra and soloist when playing together as well as in responsive sections, and giving as fine a performance of the work as anyone could hope to hear. There was superb solo work from various individual NC Symphony players, especially among the woodwinds, as well. There was even some spontaneous although not sustained applause after the first movement, so much was the audience impressed.
After intermission, instead of a single full-length major work, we heard two dance suites. First up were the 1960 Symphonic Dances from West Side Story , by Leonard Bernstein. This is not simply an assemblage of music from the Broadway musical, but a reworking of the material into a unified whole. The melodies are readily recognizable, but they are treated to musical development different from that in the stage version in a definitely orchestral mode. Again we heard some fine solo work by individual musicians - Hugh Partridge's viola line springs to mind - and Ling turned to the audience to get some vocal participation in the "Mambo" movement. The rendition was anything but a staid, cold, distant display, having started with syncopated finger snapping by the musicians and proceeding from there, and it was impressive, leaving the audience breathless and hushed on more that one occasion, as it had been numerous times during the Beethoven.
This was followed by the three-movement Suite No. 2 from Ravel's "symphonie choréographique" Daphnis et Chloé , which proved to be the culmination of the evening's display of talent. Its opening movement, "Lever du jour" ("Daybreak") made for an incredible change of mood from the Bernstein and allowed for some more impressionistic delicacy. The closing movement, "Danse générale," brought the evening to a jubilant, vibrant celebratory close, which brought the audience rapidly to its feet with prolonged applause, fewer of its members than usual seeking a rapid escape. Indeed, fewer appeared to have escaped at intermission, too.
Ling's conducting style is very diverse, at times almost free-wheeling, even to the point of occasional clowning, varied according to the work, its mood and emotions, and quite active, although he does not work himself up into a sweat and appears in many ways very relaxed. He is very strong in cueing soloists and sections and in indicating expression with gestures and body language, yet without any excess or flamboyance. He makes it very clear what he wants, and he gets it from the players. He had scores on the stand for all works, but his eyes were in no way glued to them. At the end of the performance, I wondered if anyone had ever gotten quite so much from our fine musicians in a single evening before. The whole was astounding. Here is someone who could take our orchestra to the next level, as they say. We hope he enjoyed his experience with our orchestra as much as we enjoyed hearing and watching it.
An insert in the program announced a new CD featuring the NCS under the baton of its soon-to-be-emeritus director, Gerhardt Zimmermann, in live performances recorded in Meymandi Concert Hall of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, Op. 36 (April 2002), and Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 (October 2001). It is available for $18, tax included and postage paid, from the NCS.