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Grant Llewellyn and the North Carolina Symphony concluded “Postcards of North Carolina,” the series of works commissioned to commemorate the orchestra’s 75th anniversary, in Meymandi Concert Hall with the world premiere of composer Robert Ward’s contribution, “The Beginnings,” as well as a performance of another Ward work by internationally famed piano soloist James Dick. The 89-year-old composer was present at the first performance of a short tone poem created to tell the story of the North Carolina Symphony’s strong start in 1932 under conductor and composer Lamar Stringfield; its failure after Stringfield left the organization in 1935; and the commendable efforts of musicians Benjamin and Maxine Swalin, whose efforts to organize musicians and other supporters of the orchestra resulted in the revival of the North Carolina Symphony. It became the first state-sponsored orchestra in the nation in 1943.
Ward’s light, programmatic setting of this mini-biography plays out in the solo voices chosen to represent its characters: a trumpet fanfare represents Stringfield’s initial support for the group and appears towards its conclusion to signify the orchestra’s success after the mid-1940’s revival. The Swalins — she a pianist and he a violinist and conductor — take over after a brief silence (the orchestra’s demise); gradually, the themes build to a triumphant conclusion. While the relationship between the themes representing the Swalins catches one’s interest straight away, the second half of the piece felt unfinished. Once Ward establishes the personalities of the spotlight characters just enough to pique the listener’s curiosity, he wraps up the tale abruptly with a wash of dull harmonies and pat concluding material — the compositional equivalent of “And they lived happily ever after.”
Ward’s next piece, the two-movement Piano Concerto (1968), was guest soloist James Dick’s contribution to the program. Dick’s long résumé as a performer includes international awards and honors as well as performances with many of the nation’s top orchestras. He also established the International Festival Institute at Round Top, a summer festival for young musicians in Texas, in 1971. However, the Ward piece — a little more dramatic than “The Beginnings” but still rather middle-of-the-road — dragged on during the first movement’s allegro second half. Dick’s treatment of the solo line couldn’t easily be distinguished from the orchestra after the wind section joined in, and his sound lacked significant virtuosity to command attention during solo piano sections. He sounded more confident during the slower, more relaxed second movement ("Grave – Doppio movimento") and that freedom to play more soloistically boosted the impact of the long build to the piece’s conclusion.
But the most exciting part of the evening came after intermission, when the orchestra, under Llewellyn’s agile direction, sank its fangs into Gustav Mahler’s masterful Symphony No. 5. Composed over a decade at the turn of the twentieth century, the mercurial tempos and quickly shifting moods of the five-movement, tripartite work reflect important events in Mahler’s life. He composed and his young wife, Alma, scored the work in the first few years after his 1902 marriage. After a test drive with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1904 proved disastrous, Mahler spent the next several years before his death in 1911 re-orchestrating the piece so the musical and emotionally complex nature of its themes could be heard. Due to its emotional breadth and musical complexity, today the work is considered a benchmark for orchestras and their conductors, and even the world’s top ensembles find themselves stumbling over transitions or making drab concessions for the piece’s fast tempos.
The NC Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s Fifth wasn’t flawless: Llewellyn bounded through some up-tempo sections with the kind of enthusiastic bluster that can camouflage an orchestra’s imperfections, and star hornist Andrew McAfee’s zeal when tackling the pealing, passionate solo in the piece’s marathon third movement occasionally resulted in an almost ostentatious stridence. But overall, the musicians of the NC Symphony proved themselves a strengthening force among second-tier U.S. orchestras with a high level of individual and ensemble execution of Mahler’s explosive themes and dizzying transitions.
The audience gaped at the rapid, mellifluous rasps of the celli and bassi at the beginning of the second movement (“With great vehemence,” indeed!), marveled at McAfee’s larger-than-life fanfares, and followed the movements of the sure-footed Llewellyn’s baton with the kind of palpable fixation usually reserved for double-overtime at the RBC Center. Regardless of rankings, this performance proves that the NC Symphony has transcended technique, no matter how impressive, and has learned to hook its audiences with the kind of numinous quality of musicianship that genuinely inspires and excites audiences. Civic boosters take note: if the NCS continues to develop like this — and with audience support, it will — the hottest ticket in town could be Grant Llewellyn and Brahms, not Rod Brind’Amour and the Carolina Hurricanes.