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Music lovers learn early that highly marketed "big name" ensembles and performers do not always deliver the goods. There is no substitute for fully engaged musicianship. This truism was once again demonstrated by the results achieved during the third event of the S. Rudolf Alexander Performing Arts Series, heard in East Carolina University's Wright Auditorium on November 8. One of four orchestras based in the Bavarian city, the Munich Symphony Orchestra performed under guest conductor Philippe Entremont. This is the ensemble's first American tour. The renowned pianist is familiar to Triangle music lovers since he was the featured soloist in a "Mozart Mini-Festival" that the NC Symphony presented in three Triangle cities in the 1990s; he also led the New Orleans Philharmonic in two separate programs at UNC Chapel Hill and Duke. The high musical standards he displayed on those occasions meant that his ECU program was eagerly anticipated.
The Munich Symphony Orchestra came into being in the aftermath of WWII, having been founded in 1945 by Kurt Granuke. A few seasoned principals aside, most of the players appear to be fairly young. The orchestra is slightly smaller than our regional and metropolitan orchestras. There were only six cellos, six violas, and four double-basses on stage at Wright. Despite the draining effects of touring, the musicians played with commitment and with close attention to details.
A warm and mellow string sound was evident throughout the opening Overture to Carl Maria von Weber's Oberon. The extended horn solo that begins the work was beautifully controlled and phrased. Entremont secured hushed strings that floated and shimmered. Throughout the concert, his refined control of dynamics paid expressive dividends. There was a fine clarinet solo, and the trombones and trumpets blended marvelously.
The centerpiece of the concert was Entremont's stylish and unsentimental interpretation of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K.467. Possessing one of the composer's most beautiful slow movements, the concerto got widespread popular exposure when the second movement ("Andante") was used extensively in the 1976 Swedish film, Elvira Madigan. The lid of the Steinway was completely removed, and it was positioned with the keyboard facing the audience. When not playing, Entremont was able to turn left or right to cue sections – such as the cellos and violas – to bring out important inner voices. The woodwinds were outstanding, and the brass showed selfless restraint. Mozart's original cadenzas have not come down to us, but the unspecified ones used by Entremont were clearly within the classical style and drew upon themes from the concerto. The tempos were very effective, giving the music room to breathe naturally.
Despite the Munich Symphony's relatively small size, the extra heft more strings might have brought was not missed in Entremont's sensible and straightforward interpretation of Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73. The string ensemble was very tight, and fuller-than-expected sound was generated. Close attention was paid to keeping the rhythms well-sprung, and the lines and forward pulse were never allowed to drag. Among the many fine section solos were those by the French horns, the creamy oboes, and the clarinets.
I could not help but reflect upon the fact that with strong and internationally respected new music directors settled in – Grant Llewellyn with the NC Symphony, Christof Perick with the Charlotte Symphony, and Dmitry Sitkovetsky with the Greensboro Symphony – most of our state's music lovers can regularly hear playing on as high a level as many touring ensembles provide. This is also true of some of our home-grown leaders: the Winston-Salem Symphony sounds promising as it gets used to its new music director, Robert Moody.