Live: The North Carolina Symphony Nods to the Sky and the Earth—and the Electric Violin? | Music
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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Live: The North Carolina Symphony Nods to the Sky and the Earth—and the Electric Violin?

Posted by on Tue, Mar 22, 2016 at 5:07 PM

click to enlarge Karen Strittmatter Galvin with the N.C. Symphony - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NC SYMPHONY
  • Photo Courtesy of the NC Symphony
  • Karen Strittmatter Galvin with the N.C. Symphony
N.C. Symphony: Vivaldi's Four Seasons
Meymandi Concert Hall, Raleigh
Saturday, March 19, 2016


Last weekend’s North Carolina Symphony concert, which the orchestra will reprise tomorrow night in Raleigh, was all about strings and the natural world. The show featured pieces that investigate natural cycles, performed by more violins than you can shake a poorly rendered long-leaf stick at.

The opening moments of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Musica Celestis just simply appear, sublimating out of silence. It’s a good explanation of the piece as a whole, an arrangement of the slow movement of Kernis’s first string quartet, written in 1990. The piece seems to be constantly rising in search of the ineffable. Kernis drew inspiration from visions of singing angels from the twellfth-century mystic Hildegard von Bingen. When the luminous chorales, fluttering rhythmic shards, and scurrying scales get too close to the sun, the cellos and basses reassert gravity, and the process starts again.

Accompanying the performance was a video that seemed to get things backwards. While it started, appropriately enough, with animated images of various nebulae, it became progressively earthbound. At a certain point, we were flying over downtown Raleigh toward the Duke Energy Center. Then we cut to live video of Grant Llewellyn conducting, and the audience started chuckling. It was too cute by half and seemed to have next to nothing to do with anything happening in the music. It would have been better to stay in the stars.

Next came Nico Muhly’s Seeing Is Believing, a concerto for six-string electric violin, performed by N.C. Symphony Assistant Concertmaster Karen Strittmatter Galvin. The instrument itself is totally cool and quite difficult to play. The two extra strings extend the range down by over an octave, and the physical configuration of the instrument is just different enough from a conventional violin to confuse the motion. Galvin navigated the instrument with grace and aplomb, pulling off wild squalls of arpeggios, complicated figurations, and bright melodies with ease.

click to enlarge Karen Stritmatter Galvin and her borrowed electric violin - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NC SYMPHONY
  • Photo Courtesy of the NC Symphony
  • Karen Stritmatter Galvin and her borrowed electric violin
The piece, from 2007, is one of Muhly’s more interesting works, taking advantage of all the possibilities of the electric violin, including some positively devastating low glissandi. He also calls for the soloist to use a looping pedal to create dense webs of sound and off-kilter canons. The effect was a bit marred at the very beginning when members of the audience chuckled after Galvin stopped playing and the sound kept going. (Hey, old people, get off my musical lawn!)

Thankfully, the shock soon passed, and we could focus on the music again, like adults. Muhly’s orchestration gallops along with bursts of Philip Glass-like harmonies and lots of fun details. Galvin’s amplifier should have been turned up just a hair; she sometimes couldn’t quite cut through the full ensemble. That’s a small quibble in what was otherwise a very enjoyable performance.

After intermission, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons arrived. According to the program notes, there were an average of nineteen new recordings of the Four Seasons released per year in the late 1980s. Listening to the Four Seasons in 2016 thus becomes similar to listening to Led Zeppelin's IV: you hear all the stuff that’s been drilled into your brain over and over and over again, and then suddenly you come to “Misty Mountain Hop,” and you say, “Oh right, I forgot about this part.” So it was with this performance, where I was struck by the slithery bass line at the end of Spring, the beautiful slow movements of Spring and Summer, and the shimmering texture straight out of Penderecki that starts Winter.

Otherwise, all the grand melodies that everyone knows sounded just like I remembered, making it hard to form any reasonable judgment about them beyond noting that they happened. The solo parts were suitably brilliant in the hands of Symphony members Elizabeth Phelps, Jacqueline Saed Wolborsky, Rebekah Binford, and Dovid Friedlander. Alongside Seasons came videos celebrating the North Carolina State Parks centennial, showing off so much of the natural beauty in this state. Thankfully, the new state logo made its only appearance in a printed insert to the program.

Again, you have one more chance to hear this performance tomorrow night.

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