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When Andrea Quinn came here last season to conduct the NCS, we thought she made an outstanding impression especially with her interpretation of Elgar's Enigma Variations. Her repeat appearance this Friday showed that this was no fluke. She is a conductor that knows instinctively how to control the orchestra without curbing its spirit.
Quinn's complete control and sensitive leading became apparent with the opening bars of Mozart's Symphony No. 38 ("Prague"). By reining in the high voices, especially the first violin section, she brought out the threads of the inner voices - especially the second violins and violas - in a way we seldom hear in this often-heard work. In spite of her tight control, the performance was spirited and lively and, yes, fresh.
The evening's featured soloist, soprano Jessica Jones, tackled Richard Strauss' Vier lezte Lieder (Four Last Songs) for soprano and orchestra, a work which she has performed around the country. To give her the benefit of the doubt, we will only comment that in this performance she must not have achieved her usual standard. By the time Richard Strauss composed Vier lezte Lieder in 1947, he was ill, nearly penniless, full of despair at the destruction of his beloved Europe and resigned to death. The songs - Romantic, nostalgic and pessimistic - were his last utterances that he never lived to hear performed. In spite of the large orchestra Strauss used, he was careful in these songs never to overpower the human voice, but to do them justice requires a singer with maturity, resonant chest tone and great sensitivity to the text. At the most basic level, Jones' voice is not sufficiently resonant, particularly in the middle and lower register, to sustain the intensity of the vocal line. The effect was a kind of fading in and out that obscured both the vocal line and the text. Although we overheard several members of the audience complain that the orchestra was too overpowering, Quinn was scrupulously diligent in keeping it at as low a level as possible under Jones.
And as for Jones' sensitivity to the text, how would anyone know who was not already intimately familiar with the work? Once again, shame on the NCS for not supplying a flyer with both the German text and English translation! (We thought we drove that home in our Creation review last year.) Words are an integral part of vocal music, as the NCS frequently ignores. Strauss was a master of textual nuances in his Lieder settings, and nowhere more so than in these. Since Jones' German enunciation was barely understandable, only those in the audience who knew the text by heart could follow her. For those of us who do, however, she needs to pack in a few more years to project these songs convincingly.
The orchestra, on the other hand, sounded superb. Quinn's control of dynamics, balancing it with Jones, was outstanding. For special praise should come concertmaster Brian Reagin's solo in the third song, "Beim Schlafengehen" (Going to sleep). At the end of the last song, "Im Abendrot" (In the Twilight), the fading sound shimmered and floated through the hall, making you fear to breathe lest your sound interfere.
After intermission, Quinn conducted one of the most sizzling performances of Dvorák's Symphony No. 8 we ever heard. It was a nice bit of programming as well, following the Strauss, since the Symphony begins in a wistful, nostalgic mood, building up to an exuberant finish and sending the audience home in a better mood. Again, Quinn maintained a meticulous balance between the sections, with special attention to the dialogues between winds and strings.
If Andrea Quinn isn't going to make North Carolina her home, we hope that she will be a regular visitor.