Guest conductors are lucky to stand before such a responsive, experienced orchestra as the N. C. Symphony, and when both parties really connect, the results can be exquisite and exciting.
That was the case Friday night with Andrew Grams, whose sensitive approach to the all-French program made lesser-known works come alive and old favorites take on new luster.
The concert opened with Claude Debussy’s “Six Épigraphes antiques,” orchestrated by contemporary composer Alan Fletcher from Debussy’s original piano versions. These brief “inscriptions” masterfully evoke the rush of summer wind, the deep gloom of a tomb and the glisten of morning rain. Grams treated each miniature with delicate precision.
The audience reaction to these was muted, but not for Debussy’s familiar “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” The strong applause was for Grams’ complete control of the languorous sections (greatly aided by principal flutist Anne Whaley Laney) as well as the fervid moments, all tightly knit into a color-filled representation of nymph and satyr.
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The first half ended with a big compositional shift. César Franck’s works were greatly influenced by Richard Wagner’s music, evident in Franck’s eight-part “Psyché,” about the mythical beauty who enchants the god Eros. The two parts programmed here depict the gardens of Eros’ palace with lush eruptions of wild abandon and the lovers’ rapturous rushes of passion. Grams whipped the orchestra into huge walls of sound that were never bombastic and always beautifully sculpted. The audience rewarded him with warm approval.
Subtlety and drama
For many, the concert’s main attraction was the ever-popular Organ Symphony by Camille Saint-Saëns. This melodious music falls somewhere between Debussy and Franck, sometimes fleetly bubbling, sometimes grandly thrilling. Only by seeing the piece live is it possible to fully appreciate the many quick changes of dynamics, rhythm and mood that must be cued and propelled by a thoroughly prepared conductor. Grams confidently led the players, urging them to greater and greater intensity while maintaining gorgeous clarity.
David Jernigan, organist for Raleigh’s Christ Church, made the most of his part on an electronic instrument, subtle or dramatic as needed, with only the final descending chords drowned out by an orchestra in full cry.
The long, loud applause for Grams afterward signaled the satisfying finish to an evening of fine conducting and splendid playing.
If you want to go
What: N.C. Symphony with guest conductor Andrew Grams
Where: Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 27
Info: 919-733-2750 or ncsymphony.org