RALEIGH — “Capricious” best describes the N.C. Symphony concert Friday – based on the nature of the compositions as well as their selection and organization.
Conductor Grant Llewellyn used the term when he told the audience that, because the pieces were personal favorites, he had tried finding connections among them after choosing them. The six short works, most from the first half of the 20th century, made for intriguing listening, one rivetingly so.
Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is a much sunnier work than his earlier two. He worked on the piece in Asheville, trying to alleviate the ravages of leukemia, likely accounting for its spiky clarity, birdsong imitations and vigorous rushes of energy.
Pianist Peter Serkin confidently illuminated every measure, alternating forceful, precise chords with hushed, gentle phrasings. In the hymn-like second movement, Serkin mesmerized with his quiet intensity. Llewellyn was an equal partner in charting the subtle changes in dynamics and moods.
Serkin returned in the second half for Igor Stravinsky’s “Capriccio,” a three-movement concerto more astringent and prickly than the Bartók. The work doesn’t draw the listener in until the wild frenzy of the last moment, where Serkin’s stunning blaze of runs and cross-hand dexterity drew a standing ovation.
Before that came Stravinsky’s “Ragtime,” a piece for 11 disparate instruments, including cornet and cimbalom. Llewellyn revealed all the quirky outbursts but didn’t convey the cheeky fun in the piece. The cimbalom was the connection for including Claude Debussy’s “La plus que lente,” a dreamily swirling waltz evoking ballrooms on the Riviera .
The concert began appropriately with Antonín Dvorák’s 1883 “Scherzo capriccioso,” a slight tone poem of romantic folk tunes and bracing brass fanfares. It ended with Maurice Ravel’s over-exposed but still beloved “Boléro,” a piece that allows many wonderful solo turns form the orchestra’s musicians as they trade off the work’s hypnotically repeating melody. Llewellyn built the long crescendo astutely, starting with a languid, relaxed atmosphere, slowly increasing the tension to the finale’s fevered ecstasy.
The eclectic programming was appealingly unconventional and worth the admission price for the Bartók alone.