RALEIGH — The theme of the N.C. Symphony’s program Friday in Meymandi Concert Hall could have been “Looking Outward, Looking Inward,” its first half was so full of vivid sound pictures and its second brimming with deep contemplation. Each offered many engaging moments while also challenging some expectations.
Those familiar with Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ most popular works – the grandly dimensioned Symphony No. 2 and the coolly virtuosic violin concerto – might be surprised by his sunny, smaller-scaled Symphony No. 3. It conjures striking scenes of summer, from the first movement’s romp in a meadow full of birds and breezes, to the second’s dreamy float along a riverbank and the third’s impressive view of rain clouds rising.
The piece is episodic, focusing on lovely little moments instead of building bold structures and imposing themes. Conductor William Henry Curry led an energetically paced, warmly characterized performance by bringing out the accented rhythms and accommodating the sudden tempo changes.
Curry expertly confronted Sibelius’ familiar epic side in “Lemminkäinen’s Return,” a short-tone poem that opened the concert. The dramatic journey of a mythic hero is cinematically depicted, but the work’s episodic nature was similar enough to the succeeding symphony to make the first half rather unvarying.
Continuing a Finnish theme, Helsinki-born Olli Mustonen was soloist for Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1. Mustonen has built his concert and recording career on very personalized, often iconoclastic interpretations. Here, with Curry as cohort, he re-imagined Brahms’ richly romantic, passionately intense piece as a coolly introspective, emotionally-controlled chamber work.
Mustonen’s approach offered some astonishingly modern phrasing; his clear articulation and delicate touch often highlighted familiar sections while also revealing insights. And when so disposed, he could ramp up intensity with frenzied runs and massive chords.
But Mustonen seemed too determined to be different, with some sections so relaxed and slow that the piece was almost unrecognizable. His talent and vision were evident, though, so listeners’ reactions depended on their expectations and ability to accept alternatives.
Four additional area concerts in the coming week feature a tone-poem suite composed by Mustonen, along with his playing of the concerto, conducted by music director Grant Llewellyn.