The North Carolina Symphony performance on Friday, April 29, in Meymandi Concert Hall, was a collection of bright gems that sparkled long after the last note of the concert ended.
The guest soloist was cellist Lynn Harrell, who was marvelous. Harrell was born in New York to musician parents. He began his studies in Dallas and proceeded to the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute. He has had a rich career as performer, conductor, and educator and has appeared with many of the greatest orchestras around the world. For my money, his recording of the Bach Solo Cello Suites, on Harmonia Mundi, is one of the best of the many currently available.
The first gem that was lifted out the treasure chest was composed by Terry Mizesko, the orchestra's long-time bass trombonist. The piece, Sketches from Pinehurst, is the composer's attempt to describe, in musical terms, the spirit and history of this unique North Carolina destination. On a grander scale, the piece relates, in Mizesko's words, "What can be made better...." It is a five-movement suite of very pleasant and high-quality movie music – - I would say certainly on a par (note the clever golfing allusion!) with John Williams with a touch of Aaron Copland, and much of it reminiscent of Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon and Mississippi River suites. "Part I. The Dream" is a pastoral image set with soft strings, warm harmonies, and a cor anglais solo that suggests the dream of Pinehurst founder James Walker Tufts. "Part II. Building the Community" is the longest and most developed of the movements. Mizesko's use of a variety of instrumental groups, solos, and full orchestra provided a sense of heroism in the climaxes and nicely accomplishes the goal the title implies. "Part III. Intermezzo: The Golden Years" defines the achievement and recognition the community has received. "Part IV. Rumble on the Back Nine" is as creative as its title implies, filled with rollicking good humor, lively and complex rhythms, and a sense of pure fun. This kind of music sounds natural and easy but belies the difficult challenge the composer faces in making it work. The last movement – "Part V. Lament and Finale" – recalls the rape of the land in the past, when the area was stripped bare of its pine trees for turpentine, tar, and timber, but the closing also reaffirms what can be accomplished with thoughtful nurturing – "What can be made better." The nominal premiere of this fine work by Mizesko (it was also presented the previous evening in Pinehurst and repeated in Raleigh on April 30) received fine work from the orchestra and Maestro Grant Llewellyn.*
Harrell's first selection, the Adagio in E, K.261, is one of those Mozart gems that seems to come out of nowhere and develops as naturally and as perfectly as a flower blooming or the sun rising on an early spring day. Harrell's solo, hovering above muted strings, made the gem sparkle with warmth and brilliance.
Ernest Bloch's "Schelomo, Hebraic Rhapsody," for cello and orchestra, grew out of sketches made for a setting of the Book of Ecclesiastes when the composer met cellist Alexander Barjansky. He decided the cello might speak vaster and deeper than any verbal language to express the complexity and wonder of the Jewish soul. What he produced is a detailed and splendid composition expressing pathos, anger, sensuality, a hint of hope, and Solomon's own poetic conclusion, "Vanity of Vanities, all is Vanity!" With fascinating harmonic language and very elaborate orchestration, Bloch weaves his tale as the cello bewails the fate of his people. Though filled with some stunning orchestral highlights and brilliant cello passages, the work ends on a dark note – not quite despair, but close to it. It was some fifteen years later that Bloch took a fragment from his sketches and created his Sacred Service (Avodath Hakodesh) – a work full of assurance and confidence and a fervent prayer that, in his words, "One day men will know their brotherhood, and live in harmony and peace." Harrell's powerful performance was filled with understanding and exuded communication. His instrument and his spirit were in just the right place.
After intermission, more gems were put on display. Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" must be one of the most exquisite jewels in the string orchestra repertoire. The strings of the NCS glowed with silken warmth and brilliant aura. The solos by the principals were so sweet as to bring tears to warriors' eyes. The chamber ensemble, using muted strings and sitting at the back of the stage, was like an echo heard in an alpine valley. The total effect was almost overwhelming. Such music and such fine playing... – wow!
But there was more. Benjamin Britten's "Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell," Op. 34 (also known as "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra"), was the perfect prize jewel to conclude the concert. It showcased every section of the orchestra and many individual instrumentalists, and they did brilliantly. Britten, a superb craftsman, states Purcell's original theme for full orchestra and then passes clever variations from brass to woodwinds to percussion to strings to harp and so on, and then, beginning with a piccolo solo, he develops a masterful fugue for the work's exciting conclusion.
All of these gems sparkled all the way home. Interestingly, just as we left the parking deck, Elmo Scoggins, host of WCPE's Music in the Night, introduced Vaughan Williams' "Tallis Fantasia," so we got to hear those luxurious strains again, but it was not like being in the hall. There is nothing like being there and hearing music live, especially when music like this is available right here, in the Triangle. The NCS's "Grant from Wales" took us on a royal ride and left us still more treasures.
This concert will be broadcast at 8 p.m. 6/6 on WCPE (89.7 FM) and at 8 p.m. 6/27 on WUNC (91.5 FM).
*An interview with Mizesko and Llewellyn, originally aired 4/28 on WUNC's The State of Things, is available online at http://www.ibiblio.org/wunc_archives/sot/index.php?p=222 [inactive 2/09].