Review: Schubert Symphony No. 9 in C Major (“The Great”)
By Perry Tannenbaum
There are members of the Theatre Department at Davidson College who will tell you – off the record, of course – that Duke Family Performance Hall, notwithstanding its fine physical appearance and advanced technical capabilities, presents formidable acoustic challenges for their dramatic and musical productions. It’s difficult for actors to project their voices to the back of the hall and up to the highest balcony, more so when musicians in the orchestra present a further barrier. So it was with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation that I attended my first purely musical event at the Duke. Considering that this was a Side-by-Side concert by the Davidson College Symphony and the Charlotte Symphony, I had to do a double-take when I saw our CVNC listing that specified Tyler-Tallman Hall as the venue. I’d gone to concerts at Tyler-Tallman on numerous occasions and, even with its balcony overhang, the room seats less than 200, hardly ideal for a confluence of two orchestras with 98 musicians listed on the program. So after my double-take, I made sure to double-check.
Now I don’t wish to exaggerate. When Christopher Warren-Green took the stage to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Jurists’ March followed by Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, I never counted more than 91 musicians at one time from the combined ensembles. The Schubert actually thinned out the ranks, for the phalanx of five percussionists for the Tchaikovsky was reduced to one principal from the college ensemble when we reached the symphony. You might think that the dampening effect that bedevils theatrical productions at the Duke might actually benefit such a mighty orchestral armada, but that hypothesis wasn’t tested in my presence. The hall was outfitted with an acoustic shell that prevented sound waves from escaping to the wings of the stage or to the impressively tall fly loft above.
In a hall that hardly seats more than 600, less than a third of the size of Belk Theater in Charlotte, a little more breathing room for the sound would have been welcome. The blare of the nine-piece brass section at various points in the Tchaikovsky could be especially unnerving. Davidson College Symphony director Tara Villa Keith had told us in her opening remarks that the last Side-by-Side rendezvous of the orchestras had been ten years ago, so the Tchaikovsky seemed to turn into an adjustment period for both the musicians and the audience. Compounding those adjustments was the unfamiliarity of the music. With only a single oft-anthologized recording to be found in searches of Spotify and Amazon, it’s unlikely that anyone who wasn’t onstage or in the college’s music department had ever heard of the D Major composition before.
More clarity amid the assaults of percussion would have made this new experience more enjoyable, along with greater precision when the 67 strings played at maximum speed. Along the way, introductions to the main theme and its reprises, sounded very much like similar episodes in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and other ballet suites, and the brass steadied themselves in the latter segments, especially the trombones, so I was encouraged as I became more accustomed to the acoustics. Hopefully, this performance was a tune-up for a future encore at the Belk, where I doubt this march has ever been played.
As the Schubert Ninth (“The Great”) unfolded, I found that I was able to ignore the acoustics for a while. When the passages verged on fortissimo, I found that I’d occasionally recover my objectivity and reaffirm that there was little more warmth or clarity in the music than you might hear on an old broadcast where the radio had been turned up to an unwise volume level. Yet in between those trying fortissimos, Schubert’s grand tapestry contains plenty of passages that allowed individual sections and soloists to shine. That didn’t happen immediately in the Andante section of the opening movement. Violas and cellos were sleek and mellow, but the brasses were collectively smudged and the French horns, so crucial at the very beginning, were somewhat fuzzy. Order prevailed with the first marching episode and hints of the big tune to follow when Schubert would decisively plunge into his Allegro ma non troppo section. Numerous relapses into muddiness plagued the music until the trombones entered with a firm, focused sound. Only one treacherous episode marred the rest: in a work scored for two flutes, the five who played together here – two from Charlotte, three from Davidson – sounded mushy and shrill. The speed-up led by the clarinets helped us forget this discomfort and the reprise of the trombones was even better.
While the ensuing Andante con moto wasn’t all quietude, it wasn’t pocked with the fearsome fortissimos we had to weather up until then, so the performance became rather pleasurable. Early and late in the movement, there were some gorgeous passages delivered by Davidson’s principal oboist Katherine Copenhaver, discreetly backed by principal clarinetist Ava Pomerantz. The tutti were far crisper at reduced volume and the sforzandos, punctuated by principal Davidson timpanist Cole Warlick, struck with a zesty exhilaration. Section work from the French horns and the flutes – only three playing here – snapped into a sharp unison. After a lovely hush, the entrance of the cellos over pizzicato violins propelled us toward a deftly managed resolution. The penultimate Scherzo movement swayed attractively in its 3/4 tempo with occasional detours into gravitas that made the prevailing lightness all the more beguiling. Warren-Green deployed four of the trombones here, one more than specified in the score, and he once again ventured to field five flutes. Everything remained under superb control, and the tutti at the end of the movement was the best so far.
Clarinets and woodwinds had their finest moments igniting the Finale, where Schubert’s valedictory C Major Symphony truly becomes “Great” for me. Copenhaver and Pomerantz had more fine moments here, especially when we arrived at my favorite theme, which always strikes me as having a circus or carnival essence when it gathers its full force. But there is also an exotic beauty to this memorable tune as the woodwinds majestically marshal its pace to full cruising gear. The full brass section was very fine with its answering heraldry, but the trombones, used by Schubert with unprecedented daring, were exemplary – all six of them sharing the spotlight here. The trumpets also shone when their big moment came, just after the oboes signaled for the circus parade one last time.
Exactly half of the musicians listed in the program were from the Davidson College Symphony, so this was truly an equal partnership. Presumably, the Duke is a more convivial venue when this Symphony is 49 members strong instead of 98, but there were likely some hidden benefits to the collaboration process even if more of the rehearsal time should have been spent in Davidson. Early last month, the Charlotte Symphony performed the Schubert Ninth at Belk Theater as part of a larger program that included Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture and the world premiere of Leonard Mark Lewis’ percussion concerto. However intense or organized the college students’ participation in that earlier rehearsal may have been, it surely enriched the overall collaboration in a unique way, a win-win-win for the Charlotte Symphony, the Davidson College Symphony, and all of the devoted patrons who filled the Duke for this Side-by-Side effort.