N.C. Symphony plays Andrew Norman, Beethoven and Brahms
UNC’s Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill
Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016

Of the three pieces on the North Carolina Symphony’s program at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill last Thursday, only two brashly announced themselves as orchestral works. Brahms’ Tragic Overture begins with two lacerating minor chords that hint at some horror that is never fully revealed. Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, on the other hand, opens with a glowing major chord that sports a hint of regal reserve. A flurrying cadenza emerges from the piano as the chord decays.

But Andrew Norman’s Suspend—the middle piece, which arrived just before intermission—starts with silence. We see the pianist striking the keyboard, but no sound emerges. This is no Cagean ploy, even if it did foreground a few coughs and murmurs in the Thursday night audience. (“Are we supposed to hear something?” someone behind me muttered). Eventually, we did hear one hesitant pitch, then another and another. All three works build their logical and dramatic arcs from those opening sonorities, allowing the symphony to conjure an entertaining evening of contrasts.

The Tragic Overture unfolds like a small-scale symphony, packing four movements worth of drama into 15 minutes. The work abounds with typical Brahms gestures: long, falling arpeggios; bounding cross-rhythms; endless syncopations. Brazilian conductor Marcelo Lehninger, making his debut with the N.C. Symphony, emphasized this tension by focusing on textural contrasts. After the opening flurry, when the melody transfers to the oboe, the strings created an unsettled bed of pulsating syncopations. It felt tactile and sticky, as did the dotted rhythms that ran throughout the piece. During particularly moving melodies, Lehninger put down his baton to tease out all the details with just his hands. The tempo was a little on the slow side, but that did allow for bursts of triplets to gnash against the prevailing rhythmic feel.

Those of us who attended the Chapel Hill concert, as opposed to the two Raleigh dates, were lucky enough to hear Andrew Norman introduce his Suspend. Norman is based in Los Angeles and is quickly becoming one of the foremost orchestral composers of his generation. (See this profile by former Indy writer William Robin for more). The work, a kind of anti-piano concerto, takes a very different view of Brahms than the resigned darkness of the Tragic Overture. He built it around Brahms’ musical motto F-A-F, or Frei aber froh—“Free but happy,” Brahms’ way of coming to terms with his solitude. As Norman walked us through a few key moments of the piece, the piano gradually rose up from the pit at the front of the stage. It was a fitting metaphor for the work, which is all about a magical sense of lift, starting with that nearly silent opening.

Through the free-floating opening moments, pianist Inon Barnatan seemed to call the orchestra around him into being. For the first five minutes, the orchestra only existed as a sonic penumbra, subtly extending each note Barnatan struck. Norman’s control of orchestral color is astounding. All the subtle details were riveting: the diaphanous bursts of small gongs, bowed vibraphones and almglocken (an array of tuned cowbells); the ever-shifting subsets of the strings and winds; the almost-not-there extended techniques that add bits of gentle static.

As the piano part became more rhapsodic, Barnatan’s playing became even more limber. As the orchestra finally broke free of the piano, it maintained an ambient core. The piece culminated with the entire orchestra improvising. Other composers would take this to signify menace or a loss of control, but Norman used it for exuberant uplift, as a glowing encapsulation of some ineffable emotion. As the piece wound down, the piano returned to the opening silence, and I swore I could continue to hear the ringing of an F throughout the hall.

After intermission, Barnatan, Lehninger and the orchestra settled in for Beethoven’s mammoth fifth piano concerto, subtitled “Emperor” by Beethoven’s English publisher. It is a definite crowd pleaser, and Barnatan seemed to revel in its intricacies. With its discursive structure, complicated development and imposing size, the opening movement felt like it could stand on its own. It felt odd not to applaud after it ended.

I was less fond of the other two movements. In the second, the piano seemed like the wrong instrument for the soaring, singing lines of Beethoven. And Barnatan’s touch was just a hair too percussive. And the finale was a raucous rondo built around a drinking song that looped back on itself a few too many times.

But who knows, maybe I was just musically spent.