The N.C. Symphony’s first Raleigh classical concert of the season Friday offered four 20th century works, including two lesser-known pieces played by Grammy-winning saxophonist, Branford Marsalis.
The relatively low-key first half was bolstered by the more engaging performances after intermission.
The evening ended splendidly with the orchestral showpiece “La mer,” Claude Debussy’s marvelous evocation of the ocean. Conductor Grant Llewellyn coaxed vivid images of waves, sunlight and breezes, maintaining an overall shimmer and delicacy but skillfully building a number of glorious climaxes, immensely aided by the superb brass section.
Opening the second half, Marsalis was joined by only the string section in Alexander Glazunov’s 1934 Saxophone Concerto. The quarter-hour work in one movement has no jazz elements but allows the soloist ample opportunity to show off, which Marsalis did easily and confidently.
Throughout the mellow melodic line, he knowingly emphasized each swirl and filigree, bubbling along brightly or conjuring deep, contemplative tone, depending on the music’s mood. Marsalis was particularly impressive in an extended cadenza right before the perky, run-filled finale.
In the piece that closed the first half, Erwin Schulhoff’s 1930 “Jazz Concerto,” Marsalis ably negotiated the sultry, sinuous melodies, employing a burnished tone throughout.
But Llewellyn prodded the orchestra’s winds (plus drum kit and bass) into a thickly massed sound that consistently competed with and often covered Marsalis. In addition, both soloist and conductor seemed determined to round off any angularities and sassiness into a bland, “classical” interpretation. Here, as well as in the Glazunov, Marsalis seemed strangely constrained, as though body language and personality would be out of place.
The concert began with Leonard Bernstein’s “Divertimento,” a 1980 piece with eight brief movements, composed as a specific tribute to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Although filled with catchy echoes of the composer’s notable works, the short sections are too fleeting to settle into, the snappily humorous “Turkey Trot” the only exception. Llewellyn gave each movement appropriate verve and character, but it was difficult to keep engaged with the cursory segments.