RALEIGH — The last two N.C. Symphony classical series concerts in Raleigh have provided instructive programs on the extremes of the symphony as a musical form. Two weeks ago, the program contrasted symphonies by Haydn and Mahler; Fridays concert paired symphonies by Mozart and Shostakovich.
Both concerts were structured the same: a 20-minute 18th century symphony and a 75-minute 20th century one. This made for awkward early intermission breaks, but the juxtapositions offered dramatic demonstrations of the forms wide-ranging possibilities. Fridays concert could have been titled Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress), as both works had those elements.
Mozarts 1773 Symphony No. 25 in G minor came at the beginning of that literary and musical movement, significantly breaking with the tradition of lightly entertaining symphonies in major keys. The first and last movements are particularly dark and moody, and even the third movement minuet is more forceful than usual.
Guest conductor Carlos Kalmar quickly established a precise control, eliciting sharp attacks and highly-charged tempos, but also pointing up subtle waves of dynamics and rhythmic changes with gestures that guided the players and audience members through the scores various shifts. His was a somber, cool approach that took away some of Mozarts playfulness that still exists underneath the storminess.
Shostakovichs Symphony No. 7 is called the Leningrad because it was a response to Hitlers devastating assault on that city in 1941. Premiered in 1942, the piece vividly portrays the horror of the attack but also the resilience and determination of the citizens.
The nearly half-hour first movement begins in peace but soon gives way to an inexorably repeating melody representing oncoming forces, culminating in an extremely harsh, hall-rattling battle. The second movement is a grim, ghostly dance, the third mostly funereal with flashes of defiance, the forth a huge buildup to a triumphant fighting back.
Kalmar confidently led the expanded forces gathered for this performance, including ten additional brass players arrayed above the orchestra in the choir loft. The orchestra played brilliantly with frightening fervor, especially the seven-member percussion section.
Kalmars approach was clear-eyed and unsentimental, admirably controlling the quick turns and sudden changes dotting the score. Despite some repetitiveness, the scores overwhelming impact turned the evening into a major event.