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Programming a concert is like creating a well-balanced yet interesting meal. Too much of an exquisite taste can often leave an incomplete feeling. The concert presented by the North Carolina Symphony (NCS) on Tax Day 2004 at Durham's Carolina Theatre was the perfect blend of orchestral masterpieces from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, in that order. From the classical elegance and purity of Mozart to a virtuoso romantic piano showcase by Grieg to a monumental 20th century Bartók creation, this was an evening that had something for everyone.
The guest conductor for the weekend's concerts (the program was repeated on Friday and Saturday at Meymandi Concert Hall) was Roberto Minczuk, co-Artistic Director of the São Paulo State Symphony of Brazil and, since the 2002-3 season, Associate Conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Maestro Minczuk appeared with the NCS in January 2003 and was invited to return as one of the finalists in the hunt for the new music director. The early decision going to Grant Llewellyn gave the other finalists the chance to opt out of their return commitments, but Minczuk graciously - and fortunately for us - followed through on his engagement.
I chose to spend the first half of the evening in the front row of the balcony, allowing a full view of the orchestra, something lacking on the main floor. Mozart's Symphony No. 35, nicknamed the "Haffner," is a lighthearted and breezy work that is in character with its genesis. A six-movement serenade was written for Sigmund Haffner on his elevation to the nobility in 1782. Barely six months later, Mozart took this work, enriched some of the orchestration, edited it down to the standard four-movement symphonic form, and presented his newest symphony to great critical and popular acclaim. Minczuk directed this work without a score and led the slightly reduced orchestra in a beautifully-controlled example of classical purity.
There are several examples of memorable openings of musical works that even people who aren't very familiar with concert music can identify. The opening motif of Beethoven's 5th Symphony is one, and the incredible buildup of Richard Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra, known primarily from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, is another. While perhaps not quite as familiar as these two examples, the opening measures of Edvard Grieg's only Piano Concerto certainly have great impact that immediately gets your attention and stays imprinted on your memory. This in-your-face opening belies the great tranquility and lyricism that is to come. The soloist was the remarkable 24-year-old pianist Stewart Goodyear. At this tender age, Goodyear, a native of Toronto, Canada, has already amassed a resume that consists of engagements with most of the great orchestras of the world as well as a reputation as a composer of some note. The concerto, originally given the blessing of Franz Liszt, is a wonderful example of the combination of virtuoso aspects of a solo showcase with a beautifully-crafted score for the orchestra. You never feel the "star against the supporting role" sense that can quickly wear thin in the most flashy concertos. Minczuk was careful to sculpt this shared role, and the result was more along the line of a sensitively played chamber work than a big romantic war-horse.
Despite being nearly broke and dying of leukemia, Béla Bartók was adamant about not compromising his artistic vision by composing less "difficult" works or accepting "charity." It is a hard picture to conjure up: a frail, almost destitute man in a hospital bed finally accepting the paltry sum of $500 down and $500 at completion to compose what was to become universally acknowledged as one of the greatest musical compositions of the 20th century. It was only because the commission came from Serge Koussevitzky, then conductor of the Boston Symphony and a champion of new music, that Bartók agreed to compose his final and perhaps greatest work, the Concerto for Orchestra. Although it has been played by the NCS (under William Henry Curry) and by the GSO, the relatively infrequent programming of this work by groups other than orchestras of the highest level is an indication of the technical and artistic difficulties contained within the score. The NCS has certainly arrived at this upper echelon of orchestras, and this performance further solidified its elevated status. While most definitely not compromising his musical vision, this work is, curiously, much more accessible to listeners than Bartók's string quartets, for example. There is playfulness in the second movement that hearkens back to his wonderful violin duos. Minczuk led the orchestra through this technical thicket without even a hint of strain or fear at what is a display of virtuosity for every section, at one time or another. This goes down in my book as one of an increasing number of truly memorable performances by our top-tier orchestra.