Review: Music for a Royal Celebration
By Perry Tannenbaum
Charlotte isn’t known as a city that treasures its heritage, so it was gratifying to see that Charlotte Symphony was dedicating its Music for a Royal Celebration concert to the 250th anniversary of the Queen City’s founding. Presumably, the audience that filled Knight Theater knew what all the celebration was about. If they didn’t, nobody was going to fill them in from the podium, although we had an able emissary from the Crown onstage in Charlotte Symphony maestro Christopher Warren-Green, who conducted at Their Majesties’ last two Royal Weddings in his native UK.
Warren-Green regaled us, instead, with anecdotes about programming Sir William Walton’s “Crown Imperial March” at the most recent Royal Wedding and the fire emergency that marred the premiere of George Frederic Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks in 1749. This was the latest of the three Handel works that Symphony performed, including “Zadok the Priest” (1727) and excerpts from the Water Music (1717) – and the only one written during Queen Charlotte’s lifetime (1744-1818). She wouldn’t become queen until 1761, however, seven years before her eponymous Charlotte Town was incorporated.
If you’ve ever heard “Zadok the Priest” performed, you’ll realize that the Charlotte Symphony Chorus had to be part of the celebration. Composed for the coronation of King George II, Handel loosely adapted a couple of verses from the opening chapter of Kings I that fit the occasion, the first of his four Coronation Anthems. With the strings pumping quiet arpeggios, this piece didn’t immediately sound anthemic, but after about a minute-and-a-half, Warren-Green had stirred a keen enough sense of expectancy for the powerful onslaught of the Chorus to feel inevitable, soon reinforced by the brass.
Solomon reigned for 40 years over Ancient Israel, yet the sounds of hosanna and hallelujah that Handel devised to replicate the spirit of his coronation weren’t altogether different from the “Hallelujah Chorus” he would compose in Messiah for the King who shall live forever. As a matter of fact, Handel took the liberty of urging his new King to “live for ever,” too. More reason for the Symphony Chorus to fire up their parts with a gusto that signaled their awareness of the kinship of these kingly compositions. And this was just the concert opener!
As the program booklet seemed to hint – and Warren-Green reemphasized – you can play the three suites of the Water Music in any order you choose. Maestro chose not only to have Suite II and Suite III shift places but also to give far more play to the third suite than the second. The strings sounded rich and resonant plunging into the Overture of the first suite, but their fleet and nimble pace was even more impressive. Principal oboist Hollis Ulaky smoothly cued the ensuing Adagio with hardly a pause and closed it poignantly, a perfect setup for the French horns kicking up the liveliness and tempo in the Allegro. The Bourree found Ulaky combining with Symphony’s new principal bassoon, Olivia Oh, in response to the chirping strings.
Slated to headline Symphony’s upcoming February concert, when he’ll play Michael Daugherty’s Trail of Tears, principal flutist Victor Wang stepped forward during Suite III to acquaint us with some of his virtuosity. Principals from the four string sections formed a quiet little quartet behind Wang in the opening Sarabande before the full sections showed their nimbleness in a fleet Rigaudon. No less virtuosic – but a lot more surprising – Wang picked up a piccolo to front the final Minuet and Gigue, speeding up effortlessly for the latter movement.
Warren-Green’s arrangement of Handel’s score trimmed the movements in Suite II that Symphony performed to a pair, but it was easy to see why he held off presenting them when two trumpets joined the ensemble, including acting principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn. They wasted no time in making an impact, trading spirited volleys with the horns in the Allegro – and then in the rousing Hornpipe, the most familiar movement in all of the Water Music. With the Royal Fireworks still looming after intermission, the loudest outburst of percussion so far sent us off to the break with a foretaste of the thunder to come.
Wilborn and a battery of heavy percussion asserted themselves quickly in Hubert Parry’s “I was Glad,” another choral coronation piece – first detonated in 1902 for Edward VII and Queen Alexandra – that offered the Symphony Chorus another opportunity to loudly proclaim Old Testament scripture, this time adapted from Psalm 122. Instead of obliging the singers to sit through the remainder of the concert, Warren-Green used their departure as an opportunity to deliver his tasty intro to the Royal Fireworks, which we would hear in their entirety.
Written to celebrate the triumphant conclusion of the War of Austrian Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the Music for the Royal Fireworks bursts with imperial pride and colonial ambition, an affirmation that Brits ruled a goodly chunk of the planet in 1749. Especially mighty were the outer movements, an epic Ouverture to start, and the sequence of three movements that climaxed the work, “La Réjouissance” and two Menuets, finishing with a majestic deceleration. There are many recorded examples of Royal Fireworks, but only the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performance comes close to capturing the thrill of hearing Charlotte Symphony’s brass playing it live. Nothing I’ve sampled comes close to replicating the full conquering thunder Warren-Green drew from his orchestra when the trumpets’ roar combined with the pounding drums.
The reposeful movements in the middle of Royal Fireworks, the Bourrée and “La Paix,” were accorded their due as the orchestra – especially the brass – primed themselves for their final blasts. Walton’s “Crown Imperial March,” though more benign than Handel’s closing salvos, wasn’t at all an anticlimax. There was still lively percussion, yet the opening had a sleekness to it from the strings, and the mod harmonies reminded us that we had indeed transitioned from 1749 to 1937. Every recorded performance of this piece doesn’t pause for a moment, as Warren-Green did, before the music truly explodes into its vigorous march – try Andrew Litton’s version with the Bournemouth Symphony to approximate the sensation at Symphony’s celebration. It was carried off so naturally that it felt like all of us onstage and throughout Knight Theater were collectively holding our breaths.