If the turbulent weather changes the past few weeks was any symbolic indication, the closing programs of the North Carolina Symphony's season promise to be a bit less inconsistent. The program, "A Day in Paris," was set against the rainy backdrop of a Friday matinee performance in downtown Raleigh. The program will continue in New Bern on Sunday evening. Music director Grant Llewellyn led the NCS in this performance as he will in New Bern.
"A Day in Paris" resembled less of a bouncy walk through the Paris of Gertrude Stein writings and more of the quiet, wistful strolls the citizens took in Gustave Caillebotte or Manet paintings. Bizet turns up for an appearance, as does Saint-Saëns, and Franz von Suppé.
It is Suppé's rousing "Light Cavalry Overture" that heralded the program to its attention. The piece, no doubt a standard in the symphony's rep as familiar to them as the Candide overture, was played with the exceptional quality you'd expect from an orchestra who has played it many times. Though even in the familiarity heard, the overture still sounds exciting and rousing. What struck me upon hearing it, with Maestro Llewellyn's upbeat tempos throughout, was the way Suppé teases at solemn, dramatic moments in the work before reminding us of the commedia to come. Those comedic reminders come in the form of the recurring trumpet and French horn tune, typically found accompanying Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd.
After a start promising a more cosmopolitan day in the city of lights, the program was catapulted into the excitement of Saint-Saëns' Concerto No. 3 in B minor for Violin and Orchestra, performed with intensely passionate dexterity by Angelo Xiang Yu.
Yu captured the imagination of Saint-Saëns' writing, which paints vividly realized soundscapes of Parisian lifestyle that holds, at its center, the human heart in wonderment and battle with itself. Yu passionately played the second movement, where his bowing echoed the clarinet so that the sound from both sounded like a distant pipe organ. The notes grew farther and farther apart as though the romantic artist clings to a muse that is already halfway out the door. Yu's nuanced playing brought on such idealistic thinking. How rare it is an artist can engage one's imagination to the lengths he did with this piece.
Following a brief pause after Yu's performance, Llewellyn and the NCS played the rarely performed Symphony No. 1 in C by George Bizet. The composer, not yet of Carmen fame, wrote the piece when he was 19 years old. It was considered lost for a length of time and not played until the 1930s. As a symphonic work, it broke no new ground in pushing the musical form forward, although he did defy the notion that every movement must, in some form or motif, sound like the previous one. Here, his movements could very much stand alone as individual accomplishments. When heard together, there may, at first, seem to be a lack of consistency. But then, how consistent were you at 19 years old?
It is still a major accomplishment for a composer of his early bloom that, no doubt, promised quite the talent to come. The experimentation with certain styles (dances, laments) can be heard in this work. Those attending today's performance who were aficionados or fans of Carmen heard the early workings of a master melodist at work. For all others, it was a piece to cherish for the accomplishment of its creator's place in life.
While NCS's program did not promise the can-can of Offenbach or a Michel Legrand piece, the offerings of these French giants were satisfying. Perhaps they are saving their energy for the Mahler 7 in the weeks to come. Until then, "A Day in Paris" was enjoyable enough to want to return again.
For information on the repeat performance in New Bern, please see the sidebar.