"And What's More, Baby, I Can Play Pianissimo": Llewellyn Takes On Triangle Youth Philharmonic
by Elizabeth and Joe Kahn
Raleigh, April 30: The news about this concert actually begins two days earlier, before the NC Symphony's Raleigh Classical Series program, at which Grant Llewellyn announced the retirement from the orchestra of its long-standing Principal Viola, Hugh Partridge. The NCS's loss is the Philharmonic Association's gain as Partridge, its founding artistic director, plans to devote most of his time to the three youth orchestras and to music education in general.
Standing in Meymandi Concert Hall's orchestra level foyer on Friday, we listened to four members of TYP – violinists Anne Slaughter and Lucas Wollenzien, violist Hannah Rich and cellist Drew Comstock – perform movements from Haydn and Beethoven string quartets. Partridge, of course, was also there, and we asked him about his plans for the PA now that he could devote his entire energies to it. He pointed to the quartet, informing us that the players, who weren't even section principals, had formed this ad hoc ensemble on their own. Among other things, Partridge hopes to incorporate more such small ensembles into the Philharmonic programs, supplementing the education the Triangle's schools just can't – or won't – provide.
The Triangle Youth Philharmonic's April 30 concert opened with Sundays at Shakleford Banks, a world premiere written for the TYP by the NC Symphony's Principal Bass Trombone, Terry Mizesko. Like Mizesko's other works, Sundays is tonal and lyric – and contains extensive solos for many of the orchestra's first chairs, especially the winds.
The program featured two soloists – cellist Genevieve Norton with the first movement of Camille Saint-Saëns' Cello Concerto No. 1, and percussionist Matthew Morrow playing Alan Hovhaness' Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints for Xylophone and Orchestra – both very challenging. The Saint-Saëns is also a bear for rest of the orchestra, most of whose members have to play the nasty opening lick of the main theme. Norton, a junior at Woods Charter School, put in a skilled and expressive performance, with only a couple of intonation issues on very high pitches.
Morrow, a freshman at Ravenscroft and also a trumpet player, was an important reminder that percussionists do a whole lot more than haul out for affect the occasional crash cymbals, snare drums or triangles. He performed Hovhaness' mini-concerto with precision and fine attention to dynamic nuances.
Elgar's Enigma Variations is a conductor's dream piece. With each variation a character sketch of a person now forgotten, a modern conductor has enormous freedom to paint those musical portraits in his or her own image. Enigma can also be an orchestra's showpiece. But to make the piece come off requires a skilled and disciplined ensemble of musicians who can follow directions through the labyrinth of changes in tempo and dynamics as well as understand and express the conductor's emotional and aesthetic conceptualization. If all these things come together, the resultant performance is a pleasure to musicians, conductor and audience alike. While clearly prepared ahead of time by Partridge, it took the TYP just two rehearsals to internalize and convey Grant Llewellyn's interpretation. Solos, exposed licks and elastic rubati went off without a hitch. Llewellyn must have threatened them with death by cacophony to get them to play softly but expressively. Our MVP award goes to clarinetist Jacqueline Nkuebe for her agonizingly beautiful solo in Variation XIII.
The concert was a tribute to the dedication and skill of the musicians. It took a lot of extracurricular time and work to achieve that level of professionalism. Partridge should be proud. His efforts and dedication fill a gaping black hole in our educational system.
Note: The Philharmonic Association's other two orchestras perform in the same venue on Tuesday, May 2. See our calendar for details.