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Brilliant Pianist Stephen Hough Joins the N.C. Symphony for Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2

The N.C. Symphony’s performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 features pianist Stephen Hough

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This review was prepared with assistance from Ian Von Wald.— DRL

Grant Llewellyn and the North Carolina Symphony’s latest gift to the classical music lovers of the Triangle is billed as the perennial favorite, Piano Concerto No. 2 by Johannes Brahms (1833-97), but it’s much more than that. It’s an evening with a trio of pieces written by composers who all lived and worked during the mid-19th century. With pieces by Louise Farrenc (1804-75) and Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and a guest appearance from world-renowned pianist Stephen Hough, the evening is a full and exciting one.

The evening opens with Louise Farrenc’s Overture No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 23. A Parisian who came from a family of creatives, Farrenc was the first female in an all-male composition class at the Conservatoire Conservatoire in 1819, at the tender age of 15. Hers is one of the more interesting stories in classical music, because she broke many boundaries in her lifetime. She both taught and toured in Paris as a virtuoso pianist, then became a serious composer.

Throughout her life, Farrenc battled for equality; and, ultimately, she won. She was one of the most famous female musicians of her time and died in Paris in 1875.

The overture begins somberly, almost like a march, but then lightens up; and an oboe solo teases forth images of spring, yet throughout the piece, there remains a balance of seriousness and light. Grant Llewellyn guides his musicians to a gradual buildup of dramatic tension achieved with the layering of drums that lead to a flourished finish.

Following the Farrenc overture, a more recognizable composer, Franz Schubert, and his Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, D. 417, “Tragic”. The symphony is one of the seven he wrote during his life. Schubert was nearing the end of his life when Farrenc was firing up her own career, and one wonders whether she was influenced by his music.

Several times in the early moments of the first movement (the Adagio motto-Allegro vivace) of Schubert’s symphony, the swells reach a high pitch, then settle down, digging deep to recreate that musical emotion, and stretching to an even higher level of intensity than what was already achieved. It’s that type of ocean-like pull that connects an audience to the emotional weight of the music, separating the average composer from masters, such as the three on the North Carolina Symphony’s bill.

During the Andante (second movement), the cellos definitely add some color to the sounds and woodwinds create lighter tones. For a while, the strings are not center stage, taking all the responsibility. At one point, there’s a type of call-and-response between the strings and the woodwinds, a soft and delicate moment that ends this section of the symphony.

The Menuetto — Allegro vivace presents with a lively opening that uses the orchestra’s deeper sounds. Though the strings are employed well throughout the piece, it ends rather abruptly.

Moving right into the Allegro, the pace is fast and smooth with a brightness not heard in previous pieces, upbeat and dense. Grant Llewellyn’s body quivers, his silver hair shaking like his colleague’s, Leonard Bernstein (1918-90), as he leads the orchestra through the hills and valleys of this portion of the work. He teases out the individual orchestral sounds like a weaver creating a gold filigree quilt.

The star of the evening is the title piece: Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83, however, and the appearance of guest pianist Stephen Hough brings a round of applause from the audience. This piece is not performed often, because of the level of difficulty for both piano and orchestra, so it’s a work one looks forward to hearing.

Both pianist and conductor wear stunning Nehru jackets, and it’s apparent from the moment they cross the stage that they have a respect for each other and the music they are about to create.

The beginning of the first movement, the recognizable Allegro non troppo of the concerto, evokes a melancholy quality with a single oboe and the piano. The strings join in, and Hough turns up the heat with a triumphant opening full of passion and his statement of intention.

The swell of string powers the emotional impact, then the piano takes over again, stately and controlled, powerful and passionate. Llewellyn coaxes the strings through a tender response only to open space for Hough to once again fill it with purpose. He gives all of his concentration to the almost violent passages, pounding the keys so hard that one can almost feel the strings’ vibration midway through the audience. Hough brings a playfulness to the piece, though he gets bogged down in a sea of notes several times. The piano is truly the orchestral leader of this movement and the ending makes one shiver.

The second movement, the Allegro impassionato, is. Indeed, impassioned. Hough and his piano are the stars of this movement. The piano and full orchestra work well together, seamlessly weaving together all the details Brahms threw into this concerto to make it work. There’s a clean finish, definitive. Hough remains pretty measured throughout this movement, even though the music is tension-filled.

The Andante, movement number three, begins softly with strings, almost a lullaby; and cello soloist Bonnie Thron offers a warm and sweet texture to the piece. The piano creeps in softly to underline what beauty the orchestra has already produced. The refrain echoes again toward the end of the movement and one realizes what a very different version this is. The measure of stillness and lightness to this movement evoke springtime.

In the the final movement, Allegretto grazioso, Stephen Hough easily transitions from the emotional ending to a brighter refrain that gradually enjoins with the rest of the orchestra. This part of the symphony requires the quickest finger movements of the night. The music flies, and Hough demands that the piano — and the orchestra — keep up with his flying hands. My companion notes that the melody is repeated often during this piece and that Hough has played the entire evening without sheet music. Simply amazing.

Friday night, Stephen Hough, Grant Llewellyn, and the North Carolina Symphony received a much-deserved standing ovation after the triumphant performance. The concert will be repeated again at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 25th, at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh.

SECOND OPINION: Jan. 25th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Geoffrey Simon: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=9704.

The North Carolina Symphony presents Brahms’ PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2, featuring pianist Stephen Hough, at 8 p.m. Jan. 25 in Meymandi Concert Hall in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 East South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.

TICKETS: $20-$103, plus fees.

BOX OFFICE: https://www1.ticketmaster.com/event/2D0056CDD1724DD2.

SHOW: https://www.ncsymphony.org/events/222/brahms-piano-concerto-no-2/, https://www.facebook.com/events/2379439158768702/, and https://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/events/brahms-piano-concerto-no-2-north-carolina-symphony-classical-series.

VIDEO PREVIEWS: https://www.facebook.com/pg/ncsymphony/videos/.

PROGRAM NOTES: https://www.ncsymphony.org/wp-content/uploads/NCS-BRAHMS-NOTES.pdf.

2019-20 SEASON NEWS RELEASE: https://www.ncsymphony.org/wp-content/uploads/2019-20_Season_Announcement.pdf.

PRESENTER: http://www.ncsymphony.org/, https://www.facebook.com/ncsymphony, https://twitter.com/ncsymphony, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Carolina_Symphony.

VENUE: https://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/venues.

DIRECTIONS/MAP: https://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/getting-duke-energy-center.

REVIEWER:

Dawn Reno Langley is the award-winning author of The Mourning Parade, as well as other novels, children’s books, nonfiction books, essays, short stories, poems, and articles. She is the creator of The Writer’s Hand Journals and runs workshops on using journals in every walk of life. A Fulbright Scholar, she holds the MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, and the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Union Institute and University. She lives in Durham with her dog, Izzy. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.

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