Creative concert programming can make the difference between the routine and the refreshing. Friday night’s N. C. Symphony offering proved the latter in its unusual ordering and balance of compositions.
Music director Grant Llewellyn paired two well-known orchestral pieces by Beethoven and Richard Strauss with more rarely programmed vocal works from each.
The concert began atypically with a full symphony, Beethoven’s No. 8. Llewellyn joked afterwards that it made a rather nice overture (a typical concert opener), but there was truth in the jest.
This half-hour work moves apace in its sunny, genial way, like a bracing spring walk with rarely a storm cloud. Llewellyn gave it tightly controlled precision and invigorating thrust, mindful of the sudden twists in rhythm and dynamics that Beethoven salts in with a wink. The brass and percussion were more prominent than ideal, but the horn section was heavenly.
Llewellyn opened the second half with Strauss’ popular tone poem, “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks,” a riot of rich colors and surprising outbursts representing the wily adventures of a folktale rogue. Again, Llewellyn conducted with crispness and command, successfully negotiating treacherous shifts and turns while urging the players to shine individually and collectively. There can be more palpable humor in the piece than Llewellyn allowed, but the presentation was thrilling.
Contrasting these upbeat works were two with darker, more contemplative aspects.
Following the Beethoven symphony, soprano Barbara Shirvis sang his concert aria, “Ah! Perfido,” a 15-minute operatic-style scene in which a woman alternately curses and entreats her faithless lover. Shirvis made believable distinctions of the varying emotions, her voice clear and strong, especially appealing in the lower register and in the quieter sections. Some high, intense notes had a breathy lack of center, but overall her performance impressed.
Ending the program, after the Strauss tone poem, was that composer’s gorgeous, melancholic “Four Last Songs” (more atypical programming order). Shirvis interpreted these autumnal musings about the end of life with delicacy and great feeling.
Her voice is not quite the size needed to ride Strauss’ thick, creamy orchestrations, even under Llewellyn’s astute restraint, but the two artists made the wafting, wistful melodies a most satisfying finale.