RALEIGH — An Italian theme ran through Friday’s N.C. Symphony program, with works by an Italian composer, an Argentinian composer of Italian descent, and a Russian composer enamored of Italian subjects.
The concert centered on violinist Lara St. John, who has made a specialty of both Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and Astor Piazzolla’s “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.” For this concert, she played a set of “seasons” made from two movements from each composer’s work.
Any reluctance to hear Vivaldi’s over-exposed music again was immediately dispelled by St. John’s mesmerizing intensity and highly individual interpretation, making the music sound new. “Spring” had a crisp freshness, the solo lines breezily wafting over the small ensemble of strings and harpsichord. St. John put palpable emotion into the slow second movement, making it something quite modern.
In Vivaldi’s “Winter,” St. John’s opening notes were sharply icy, while later phrases were bowed with visible “shivering.” Subtle contrasts of tempos and dynamics drew the listener in, especially in the third movement, where St. John alternated wild frenzy with deep introspection. In both movements she turned toward individual ensemble members when they had solo lines, challenging them to musical duels.
The two Piazzolla movements employed the same musical forces and even quoted parts of Vivaldi’s composition. But Piazzolla’s music runs to jazzy syncopations, tango-tinged rhythms and percussive bow tappings. In “Summer,” St. John sassily slurred phrases and slid down notes, while in “Autumn” she alternated buzzing frenzy with quiet sensuousness. In both, she confidently altered her technique to fit Piazzolla’s particular sound world.
Throughout, conductor Grant Llewellyn matched St. John’s intensity and individuality with tightly sprung rhythms and sensitive responses to each changing mood.
Llewellyn opened and closed the concert with Tchaikovsky tone poems that utilized the full orchestra. “Francesca da Rimini” depicts a tragic love affair as told by Dante in his “Inferno.” Llewellyn ably whipped up the ominous drama and made the love theme suitably melancholic but missed an overall sweep that would have connected the disparate parts. More successful was “Capriccio italien,” the jaunty melodies and huge brass fanfares expertly rendered.