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The parade of visiting conductors, candidates for the NCS's top artistic position, continued this weekend with the appearance of Grant Llewellyn, Artistic Director of the Handel & Haydn Society and one of the current crop of peripatetic conductors jetting around the world. The concert featured two soloists, pianist Christopher O'Riley and the NCS's own oboist and English horn player Michael Schultz.
Schultz is one of the NCS's best members and we all are familiar with his wonderful solo voice in works such as Dvoràk's From the New World and at the previous concert in Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. Unfortunately solo concertos for this instrument are rare. For the opening of the concert Llewellyn chose The World's Ransoming: A Concertante Work for Cor anglais and Orchestra by the contemporary British composer James MacMillan (b.1959). This work is one of a triptych of Passion concerti, the first is for Maundy Thursday and the remaining two - one a cello concerto, the other a symphony - commemorating Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The title, The World's Ransoming , comes from the hymn "Pange lingua," by St. Thomas Aquinas, which is sung during the Catholic liturgy for Good Friday. According to the composer, the underlying inspiration for The World's Ransoming is Jesus' exhortation to his disciples on Maundy Thursday to love one another. MacMillan uses fragments of the chant thematically, as well as one of the J. S. Bach settings of the Lutheran hymn "Ach, wie nichtig." The music itself is closely tied to the religious symbolism, depicting Jesus and his harsh surroundings. Therefore, the English horn had a lot to do but was often deliberately (?) drowned out.
Schultz had little opportunity to show his wonderful technique, except for the cadenza near the end. Not having seen the score, we found it difficult to determine whether MacMillan intended the orchestra to swallow the soloist (for symbolic reasons) or whether Llewellyn just had difficulty balancing the often harsh orchestral sound with the inherently mournful gentleness of the English horn.
Problems of balance plagued the next work as well. Pianist Christopher O'Riley joined the orchestra in Camille Saint-Saëns's Piano Concerto No.2. This work, with its endless runs of scales going up, scales going down, must be the nightmare of any aspiring pianist. Unfortunately, try as one may to convey deep emotional content, there is little in it except the technical bravura. In the last, presto movement, a frantic tarantella, O'Riley often pushed the beat, blurring some of the rapid finger-work in the process. Llewellyn's accompaniment showed little dynamic gradation. He seems to love fortissimo and forgets to balance it with the appropriate pianissimo.
The second half of the program consisted of Sergey Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, which fared better but still lacked dynamic subtlety. Last week was the 50th anniversary of Prokofiev's death of, and it was appropriate to program this Symphony, his most ambitious and successful orchestral work. By the time of his death, Prokofiev was shunned and ignored in his native country, one of many victims of Stalin's witch hunts of the late 1940s. To add insult to injury, he died within hours of his nemesis, Stalin, so that even in death he was practically ignored.
The Fifth Symphony was composed in much better times, towards the end of 1944, with victory over Germany in the air. And while it has its dark moments, especially in the first movement, the overall tone is bright, especially in the second movement and finale. Somehow the NCS and Llewellyn brought out the majestic but not the dark, brooding side of the first and third movements. In the first movement in particular, the woodwinds were ragged whenever they were not drowned out by the brass. Llewellyn did better with the faster second and final movements, where the build-up in excitement is clearly written into the score. We suspect that the unfamiliar work by MacMillan took up too much of the available rehearsal time, shortchanging the Prokofiev Symphony.
The N. C. Symphony is planning to continue its search for a new music director into next season and will invite back its top candidates from this season. While this was a fairly good performance, it excited neither of us. So far, we have heard at least two prospects for the music director's plum that we'd rank ahead of Llewellyn.