N.C. Symphony: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto
UNC’s Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill
Monday, May 2, 2016

Every orchestra concert is, at some level, about Beethoven. Even when he’s not on the program, the institution is built on and around his veneration. This North Carolina Symphony concert at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill was no different, with one piece by Beethoven—his 1806 violin concerto—and one literally built from Beethoven—John Adams’s 2012 Absolute Jest.

The concert began with the Adams, written for the highly unusual combination of string quartet and orchestra, with the quartet part played by the symphony’s principal players. Adams loosely took inspiration from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, in which Stravinsky reconfigures music by Pergolesi to his own intellectual, detached ends.

What comes across immediately in Absolute Jest, however, is just how much Adams loves Beethoven. He takes bits and pieces from across Beethoven’s oeuvre—rhythms from the 7th symphony, melodies from the opus 16 string quartets, fragments of the Grosse Fuge, and entire passages of the opus 135 string quartet—and combines them with his own predilections to create something completely new. It’s wonderfully weird, like listening to Beethoven’s complete works while on powerful hallucinogens. Different themes clashed through the orchestra. The quartet soloists slashed through virtuosic conflicting lines.

Chimes, piano, and almglocken clanged in background patterns. Walls of brass charged through dissonant chords. And strange arrays of woodwinds picked out oddly thrilling accompaniments. At times, it felt like Adams was using Beethoven as a Trojan Horse to sneak in Mahler, Berio, and Lutosławski, composers known for piling together simultaneous, contrasting themes. It was dizzying, and I suspect it wouldn’t work so well if you couldn’t pick out the bits of Beethoven as they flew by. It was a thrilling ride.

After intermission, Noah Bendix-Balgley strode onstage to play some actual Beethoven. Bendix-Balgley is originally from Asheville and went on to become First Concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic at age thirty-two. The Beethoven violin concerto is not a simple piece. It spends large chunks of time near the top of the instrument’s range with lots of complicated intervals and exposed runs. But in Bendix-Balgley’s hands, the piece simply floated. His tone was always warm and glowing. Even the gritty cadenzas and rustic dances kept that core. Unsurprisingly, he earned a raucous ovation after it was over.

But he wasn’t quite done. For the encore, he offered a nicely witty and similarly copacetic version of the Gavotte from Bach’s third Partita. According to his Facebook page, the encore was dedicated to all members of the LBGT community “who currently do not feel safe or welcome in the state of North Carolina” as a result of HB2. On the Friday night performance, he actually spoke against HB 2 from the stage.

For this show, his sound was enough—warm, welcoming, and inclusive.