The N.C. Symphony’s all-Russian concert Friday night showcased the orchestra, conductor and guest cellist at their considerable best.
The evening at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts began on a somber note. Violinist Jess Isaiah Levin, an orchestra member for three decades, died suddenly last week. After each player entered, dropping flowers in a basket on an empty chair, music director Grant Llewellyn led the orchestra in the “Nimrod” section of Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” a fitting, moving tribute.
The official program’s first half was pops-like, with three short, colorful works. Borodin’s Overture to “Prince Igor” conjures armies on horseback and exotic palace dancers; his “In the Steppes of Central Asia” vividly portrays vast landscapes and arctic cold (Llewellyn joked that the current weather would help the audience appreciate the piece). Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter” Overture evokes incense-infused rituals and glittering processionals, a rousing finale for the first half.
In all three pieces, Llewellyn held tight reins on tempos and rhythms, urging the orchestra to play with crisp energy and exciting brio.
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The single work on the second half, Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante for Cello and Orchestra, was a complete change of mood and style. The 40-minute piece demands full audience commitment to mine its riches.
It’s a diffuse, episodic piece, often changing course and taking divergent paths before moving on. Although not programmatic, the work brings to mind one person’s traversal of a long, dark night. The first movement is ruminative and regretful; the second a frightening and frenzied fever dream; the third a clear-eyed awakening full of hope and determination.
Soloist Zuill Bailey confidently knitted the disparate sections together, his serious, soulful approach and obvious deep connection providing a guiding beacon. In several sections of virtuosic display, Bailey dazzled with fast fingering and fierce bowing. Llewellyn provided perfect support in Prokofiev’s sometimes coolly dissonant, sometimes lushly melodic orchestrations.
Those who missed this performance will have another chance to hear it when the live recording is issued on CD, the second from this fortunate pairing of soloist and orchestra.