RALEIGH — The symphony is a musical form that has been a concert staple for over three centuries. Examples from two influential composers, Franz Joseph Haydn and Gustav Mahler, were on the N.C. Symphony program Friday night, worked into an informative lesson about the form by conductor Grant Llewellyn.
Haydn is known as “the father of the symphony” for shaping and regularizing its structure. Friday’s program opened with one of his earliest, Symphony No. 7, “Le Midi” (“Noon”), part of a trio of “Day” symphonies composed in 1761 (the others being “Morning” and “Night”). For “Noon,” Haydn used the Baroque concerto grosso format (in which a group of soloists within the orchestra alternate with the rest of the players), adapting it into the familiar four-movement symphony.
Llewellyn led an extremely engaging account of the piece, full of sprightly rhythms, high energy and crisp precision. The instrumental solos traced lovely patterns against the full orchestra, especially in the operatic second movement, in which concertmaster Brian Reagin played a dramatic mini-concerto, later joined by cellist Bonnie Thron in a vigorous duet. Leonid Finkelshteyn’s lovely double bass solos graced the third movement and flutist Mary E. Boone supplied the butterfly flutterings of the fourth, given sunny insouciance by Llewellyn.
The longer second half offered Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”), his 1908 composition with vocal soloists that is a symphony in everything but name. The six parts are settings of verses by eighth-century Chinese poets that speak to the man’s short stay on earth. Llewellyn proved his understanding of Mahler’s lush, exotic and wide-ranging sound world, giving full value to the soul-searching meanderings and playful jaunts the music takes but keeping the momentum firmly moving.
Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, a North Carolina native with Metropolitan Opera and Grammy credits, sang out with clarity and beauty of tone, especially in the quieter sections, although his highest notes were tightly pushed. Mezzo Susan Platts projected warmth and richness, but under pressure the voice hollowed out and became vibrato-laden. Llewellyn allowed the orchestra to overwhelm the soloists at first but soon adjusted the balance, allowing Mahler’s unique way with song setting to make its full effect.