That must have been some halftime speech. You've all probably seen games like that. Your favorite excellent team was totally ineffective in the first half and was getting trounced. These aren't the players I'm used to watching. What in the world is happening? Out they come and there they are again – pumped up, energized, and playing with brilliant execution and finesse. We won one for the Gipper. OK, enough with the sports analogy although it is quite apropos.
On Friday evening, September 30, I attended one of the more curious concerts by the North Carolina Symphony that I have yet seen and heard. They had just performed the previous night in their return to their Chapel Hill home – the newly renovated Memorial Hall on the UNC campus. Maestro Grant Llewellyn was on the podium in Meymandi Concert Hall, and an up-and-coming cellist was playing a well-loved concerto. All was right with the world. The orchestra then proceeded to sleepwalk through the first two works.
This concert was Part II of a two-program series entitled "Crossing the Atlantic: The Groundbreakers." Each concert featured both American and British composers in works that while perhaps not revolutionary, were influential and best exemplify their English or U.S. traits. The evening began with a very reduced orchestra flanked by two trumpet players up in the balconies on both sides of the stage. Henry Purcell is often lauded as having taken the baton from John Dowland as "the" great British composer before they got off the track, for all practical purposes, until the 20th century. The Fairie Queen, written in 1692, is one of Purcell's most memorable works, and many of its sections have been transcribed for a diverse array of instruments. We heard the Overture from Act I and a slow-fast-slow-fast "Symphony" from Act IV. Antiphonally placed trumpets were staples of Gabrielli and others. The physical separation and acoustics require great care in coordination between the away and home teams. This was not present in this performance. Entrances were ragged between the tutti strings and trumpet soloists. Adding to the problem was the fact that these sections of the work were uninspiring: they were not things you'd search out to hear again. I suspect that most of the players felt the same since it was a flat, affect-less reading.
Almost forty years have passed, but any cellist who comes before the public to play Edward Elgar's E minor cello concerto must deal with the inevitable comparison with the legendary live performances and recordings of this work by the late Jacqueline du Pré. This is really unfortunate, since no one player truly "owns" a work, as some would suggest. Cellist Zuill Bailey was last heard here as a member of the Perlman/Schmidt/Bailey piano trio. His return was highly anticipated as he is viewed as one of the rising stars of the cello world. Early on it became clear that this anticipation was premature. There must have been a lethargy virus spreading throughout the hall that evening as this concerto was played as a correct and precise etude, rather than one of the most passionate works ever written. There were also very glaring and painful intonation problems as the violas introduced the glorious main theme of the first movement. This is not a sound that should emerge from a string section that is part of an ensemble proclaiming itself "America's next great orchestra."
Bailey had a uniformly middle-of-the-road tone and was not able to produce a sound sufficient to rise above the orchestra, especially in any tutti passages at mezzo-forte or louder. I have heard five or six cello soloists in Meymandi and this is not an acoustical deficiency in the hall. Llewellyn was obsessively attentive to Bailey's rubatos and rhythmic license almost to the point of neglecting to gather the opposing forces into an organic unit. For the most part, Bailey played with excellent intonation and facility, but there was a detached quality to his playing – and consequently, the orchestra's – that left me with an unsatisfied feeling that there was no there there. "The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day," but then a Jewish, Brooklyn-born "cowboy" composer came to the rescue.
Aaron Copland's Third Symphony is his crowning achievement. Its accessibility, "American" sound, and the familiar "Fanfare for the Common Man" opening of the last movement make it immediately identifiable. What isn't readily apparent when listening to recordings is the staggering virtuosity and cohesiveness needed to perform this symphony. Llewellyn and the orchestra delivered a performance so overpowering and majestic that it certainly ranks as one of their greatest moments. They were cooking like they had not eaten for weeks. The brass and percussion couldn't ask for better parts, and they were infused with the spirit of this magnificent composition. From barely inaudible pianissimos to ear-splitting outbursts, Maestro Llewellyn was masterful in shaping, building, and bringing forth a great performance second to none.
Accompanying the orchestra were some crickets that somehow found their way into the hall – perhaps looking for moisture in our rain-deprived region. Llewellyn even acknowledged the critters, and at times they seemed to become an intended part of the texture.
When the orchestra rose to accept the standing ovation of the audience, something seemed different but at first I couldn't quite figure out what it was. But then it became obvious. They were all facing completely forward – and smiling! This is not the usual behavior of an orchestra. Nice touch. Nicely redeemed.