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The North Carolina Symphony's latest candidate for music director, Alastair Willis, took the orchestra and audience through the familiar territory of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. On the whole, this is not a bad way to showcase a candidate; if nothing else, it makes it possible to evaluate his interpretations against those of countless other conductors. The conductor, on the other hand, is faced with the challenge of making the music sound fresh, not only merely comfortable. Willis was clearly aware of the challenge and sought to meet it, sometimes successfully, sometimes decidedly not.
Dmitry Kabalevsky's overture to his opera Colas Breugnon opened the concert with a bang. The work, one of the few compositions of his large output ever performed outside Russia, is usually relegated to easy listening programs, a natural for the Summerfest concerts in Regency Park. We would have preferred a more contemporary work in its place in order to hear how Willis handles more complex music. Nevertheless, he pulled out all the stops for this rousing work and elicited good balance from the orchestra sections and soloists. Most important in this piece, rhythms were snappy.
Pianist Hélène Grimaud was supposed to be the soloist for the evening, but illness forced her to bow out and William Wolfram stepped into the breach, performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.4. Wolfram, who visited here many years ago as a young pianist, has matured and gave a thoughtful performance - in everything but the two cadenzas. The orchestra did less well, especially in the first movement, where Willis' approach at the opening tutti was so laid back that the music lost its drive and definition and sounded like a rehearsal for a "Beautiful Music" CD. He did, however, adapt quite well to Wolfram's tempi. The second movement went much better, and the third suffered from too much haste.
A word about cadenzas. This is not the first time that we have heard unfamiliar cadenzas that simply didn't work. We never know where they come from - perhaps from the pen of the soloists themselves - but more often than not, they sound, as in Wolfram's case, jarringly anachronistic and unmusical. So, if you can't improve on existing cadenzas, leave well enough alone.
Then came Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. Warhorses can get boring - both to play and to listen to - and we appreciate a conductor who tries to put a new face on one. Right from the get-go, Willis went the maudlin route, as if trying to play the work according to the composer's tormented biography rather than his notes. The opening of the first movement was so drawn out and replete with sforzandos, and the pauses so pregnant, as to be frankly schlocky. Even so, the opening A clarinet solo* was played outstandingly, despite strict adherence to Willis' histrionic directions. The tempi and dynamics in the rest of the movement continued to meander all over the map. Willis took the second and third movements in a more straightforward manner, but he rushed the finale so that the lovely short woodwind solos simply got lost in the fray.
We disagreed about Willis' visual appeal. Joe was distracted by too much podium movement and excessive cuing - Willis virtually reached into the orchestra at times as if to physically drag out a solo. Elizabeth didn't mind, believing that clear conducting helps the audience understand the music better, where it comes from and how an interpretation is achieved.
All in all, the Symphony has better prospects.
The NCS's regularly showcases promising young musicians in pre-concert performances in the lobby of Meymandi Hall - some more promising than others. On the Symphony's menu this weekend was Higher Octaves, a violin ensemble led by Welinda Atchley, a string teacher at Meredith College. Ranging in age from eight to sixteen, this accomplished group turns out to have been an ad hoc ensemble that Atchley put together to supply music for her daughter's upcoming wedding this summer. Unfortunately, the festivities were preempted by the groom's posting to Iraq.
Higher Octaves certainly deserves to continue attracting an audience beyond proud parents. Among the selections was the entire Bach Concerto for Two Violins in d minor, arranged for continuo and four violin parts, with the two upper voices playing the solo parts. Good precision and intonation for this challenging performance - incidentally without a conductor - merits an extra kudo.
* Nostra culpa for not checking the score; the Symphony opens with two A clarinets in their lowest range, not a bass clarinet as we originally stated.