Ten years into a relationship is a good time to stop and take stock.
For Grant Llewellyn, who began leading the North Carolina Symphony in January 2004, assessments from the orchestra, audience, critics and the conductor himself all seem to agree: It’s been a roaring success.
That’s a heck of a honeymoon, one that’s likely to continue when Llewellyn opens the 2013-14 season next weekend conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Raleigh and Chapel Hill.
Llewellyn’s affable, down-to-earth personality, combined with his enthusiastic, deeply felt musical interpretations, make him instantly likable. The energetic 52-year-old Welshman is charming and charismatic, whether in TV interviews or speaking from the podium during concerts.
One of 11 candidates for the music director post during the orchestra’s 2002-2003 search, Llewellyn came with fine credentials, including a conducting fellowship at Tanglewood Music Center, where he worked with Leonard Bernstein and André Previn. After an impressive audition concert in March 2003, Llewellyn made a return visit to North Carolina that November, when he became the first of four finalists to conduct a subsequent audition concert. He was even more impressive this time around, and the committee decided to offer him the job immediately without hearing the others.
Jeffry Moyer, a viola player with the orchestra from 1974 to 2011, recalls the transition.
“When Llewellyn came, the atmosphere changed,” Moyer said. “He demanded high standards but was very supportive. The skills and the cohesion of the orchestra have definitely risen during his tenure.”
Audiences noticed the difference, as well.
“I began attending concerts in 1981 and have been amazed at the orchestra’s tremendous, steady improvement every season, culminating in the brilliance of Grant’s leadership,” said Nancy Olson, longtime owner of Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh.
Speaking by phone last month from his home in Wales, where he lives with his wife and four children, Llewellyn reflected on his decade as the North Carolina orchestra’s music director.
“I’ve enjoyed building a relationship with the orchestra and the public,” he said. “The chemistry that goes into that interrelationship is infinitely varied and challenging.”
Llewellyn said he is particularly proud of having challenged the orchestra to elevate its standards.
“I regularly conduct orchestras in the U.K., Scandinavia, Germany and France, and each time I come back here, I can see how prepared and professional the orchestra really is,” Llewellyn said.
Economic realities of the past few years have slowed some of Llewellyn’s original ambitions, but he’s optimistic about getting back on track with new compositions and broadcast and recording work.
In the meantime, the conductor can take heart from evidence he has done his job well.
“It’s hardly safe for me to go out now without being recognized on the street, which is flattering for the whole orchestra. It shows that the general public has an awareness of us and a high regard for our work.”