By Perry Tannenbaum
March 17, 2016, Charlotte, NC – For the first time in nearly two years, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra presented an all-Russian concert. These two programs were elegantly linked by the appearance of CSO concertmaster Calin Lupanu playing one of Sergei Prokofiev’s two violin concertos on each occasion. Or that was the intent, because after conducting Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3, music director Christopher Warren-Green was obliged to pay off a wager he had made in early February, prior to his previous appearance in the orchestra’s classics series. That was the weekend of the Super Bowl, when the Carolina Panthers squared off against the Denver Broncos. Well, since both orchestras are led by Christophers and abbreviate themselves as the CSO, it was natural that the friendly municipal pre-game wagering would not be limited to our mayors. Amid an online exchange of jovial slurs and vaunts, Warren-Green declared that, if the Panthers lost, he would conduct the Broncos’ theme song, Copland’s “Rodeo,” wearing Bronco quarterback Peyton Manning’s iconic No. 18 jersey. Keeping his word, Warren-Green capped an evening that began by intoning the Satanic revels of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” with the sunshine and mirth of the quintessential American composer’s ballet music.
Warren-Green’s prime objective with Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s macabre classic was very much like it was in 2009, when he conducted the piece as part of his audition for the music directorship. Then and now it was quite obvious that Warren-Green felt that the concluding calm of the piece, beginning with the churchly tolling of the tubular bells, was normally undervalued. Fortunately, the orchestra took a more dynamic path this time around than they did seven years ago, when they drained the tone poem’s familiar opening of all its wonder and terror. Now instead of smoothing it over, Warren-Green was exaggerating the contrast, speeding up the tempo of the rampaging strings and calling forth more volume and sforzando snap from the brass and percussion. The effect veered way too far from Bela Lugosi toward video game, but the onset of the bells was far more miraculous this time around. Accompanied by Andrea Mumm’s harp, the violins suddenly sounded mournful and exhausted after the wild Witches’ Sabbath, eventually modulating toward calm and restoration after poignant solos by clarinetist Drucilla DeVan and principal flutist Amy Orsinger.
You could hardly ask for a sweeter opening than Lupanu’s for the Prokofiev Violin Concert No. 2 – even from the justly lauded Maxim Vengerov recording with Rostropovich and the London Symphony. But I wanted more muscle as the tempo speeded up. We occasionally lost the soloist’s line behind the French horns, but the sinew of Lupanu’s playing emerged in the Allegro moderato when the lower string sections moved into the background, very persuasive in the higher passages. Although it couldn’t be confused with Philip Glass’s work, there is intensive repetitiveness at various points of the soloist’s part in Prokofiev’s outer movements, which may explain why Lupanu felt compelled to bring the score with him onto the Belk Theater stage.
Subscribers who are persnickety about such things, expecting their guest artists to memorize their pieces, were probably more pacified by Lupanu’s soulful performance of the Andante assai inner movement. After the stealthy intro from the woodwinds, gently weighted toward the clarinets, Lupanu’s lyricism excelled again in the upper regions. Over a leisurely 3/4 accompaniment, the music swelled to anthemic strength with Lupanu gliding and somersaulting above. Muted trumpets then pulsated, quickening the pace as the soloist broke into a gallop. When the accompaniment resumed its previous repose, Lupanu wove some high filigree and pizzicato work into the fadeout. The jauntiness of the 3/4 tempo was most pronounced in the closing Allegro ben marcato, punctuated by a snare drum, a set of maracas, and the brass pumping a merry oompah behind Lupanu’s lusty fiddling. There was a final burst of intensive churning where Lupanu snuck a glance or two at the score, but he ended admirably with a virtuosic flourish at a blistering tempo.
The CSO program booklet is utterly confused about the orchestra’s only previous performance of the Rachmaninoff A-minor symphony, for the 2009 date ascribed to guest conductor Leslie Dunner was actually the date of Warren-Green’s aforementioned audition with its woeful “Bald Mountain.” No, it was during the twilight of the Clinton Administration, January 1999, when I greeted the only previous performance of Rachmaninoff No. 3 as “turgid, clichéd movie music, grandly entertaining and flamboyantly superficial.” But the allusion to Warren-Green’s is curiously apt because once again, the CSO maestro has improved upon a previous CSO flop.
Where Dunner stumbled in his attempts to “civilize and homogenize” Rachmaninoff’s abrupt shifts of mood and tempo, Warren-Green succeeded brilliantly, rehabbing the music as effectively as my Mariss Jansons recording with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Again the middle Adagio-Allegro movement stood out as when Dunner performed it, with principal French hornist Frank Portone ably caressing the forlorn intro once more. This time, with Lupanu sitting out the second half of the concert, it was Joseph Meyer in the concertmaster’s chair following up so beautifully on the violin. Not only did Warren-Green navigate the rollercoaster shifts of the outer movements more convincingly, he also held the inner logic of the middle movement together more securely. When we circled back to the solos by Portone and Meyer, there was a satisfying sense of an epic circle being completed, crowned by more tasty solo work by Terry Maskin on the English horn and Eugene Kavadlo on the clarinet.