Review: Dona Nobis Pacem at Belk Theater
By Perry Tannenbaum
March 12, 2022, Charlotte, NC – When 57 musicians gathered at the Carolina Theatre on Tryon Street to present the inaugural Charlotte Symphony concert on March 20, 1932, none of them could have possibly predicted how the orchestra’s 90th anniversary would be celebrated in 2022. Three of the five pieces that Christopher Warren-Green conducted, nearing the end of his distinguished tenure as Symphony’s music director, hadn’t been written yet, and one of the composers hadn’t been born. Even last May, when CSO’s 2021-22 season was announced, Warren-Green himself couldn’t have predicted how grimly appropriate Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem would be for the occasion. As originally conceived, the program was an olive branch from England to America, three British composers conducted by one of the Crown’s finest, two of the pieces paying homage to Walt Whitman, our greatest poet.
A small dent in the all-English lineup turned up when Symphony’s Australian second trombone, Thomas Burge, finished enough of his to-be-continued “Charlotte Symphony Fanfare” for it to serve as a preamble to the orchestra’s celebration. What truly turned the tone of the anniversary festivities upside-down was Vladimir Putin’s horrific invasion of Ukraine, lending Dona Nobis Pacem – “Grant us peace” – unforeseen pertinence and meaning. With St. Patrick’s Day weekend revelers teeming along the sidewalks and spilling over onto Tryon and Fifth Streets, there was a dramatic contrast for concertgoers who became pedestrians shortly after hearing Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and the Dona Nobis at Belk Theater on Saturday night. The most festive of the night’s festivities were outside the hall.
Burge’s new composition will no doubt impress more when it takes its intended place at the launch of a future Symphony’s classics season and the composer’s showy post-pandemic staging can be realized: three brass choirs spread out across the Belk balcony. For the 90th, the brass battalion was confined behind the masked string sections, but the peep we had into the work-in-progress was sunny and glorious. Gustav Holst’s Walt Whitman Overture, a youthful piece completed in 1899 when the composer would turn 25, was arguably the most sustained celebration of the evening, though it might be somewhat deflating to learn that Holst had been dead for over 48 years when the piece was first performed in 1982. The transparent violins at the beginning, hovering over churning basses and cellos before flutes and brass peeped in, struck me more like Schubert than any American or British music. When the brass first broke through, however, there may have been a glint of Sousa, and the final swell of the piece was in a grand Victorian vein.
The Four Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), premiered in 1957, were clearly the most winsome offering of the evening, shuttling between slow and fast tempos – not only between dances but sometimes within them. Inspired by Louis Armstrong more strongly than by Whitman, Arnold’s music displayed a more American élan, geniality, and broad humor than the other Brits’. If your head wasn’t spinning from the abrupt acceleration that Warren-Green called forth in the opening “Strathspey Pesante,” which ended with a pedestrian “shave and a haircut” phrase, then the slowdown in the ensuing Vivace (Reel), initiated by Joshua Hood galumphing on his bassoon, would certainly have caught your ear. And if that weren’t sufficient mischief, Warren-Green’s hambone slacking and slouching at the podium added a visual cue. Perish the thought that Maestro Warren-Green’s predecessor, Christof Perick, would ever have tainted himself with such levity.
After these pranks, which reminded me of the Western merriment in Copland’s folksier pieces, the work of principal harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell, principal flutist Victor Wang, and oboist Erica Cice was sublime in the penultimate “Hebridean Song,” shining through the shimmer of the strings. The concluding “Highland Fling” had as much Scottish flavor as the “Pesante,” rushing at us unabated with sudden shifts in volume, the tweedling of the high woodwinds answered by onrushes of orchestra colored with fiery alarms from the trombones.
If the customary programming conventions for galas were being observed, I’d strongly question the wisdom of delaying the comparatively solemn and serene Tallis Fantasia until after Arnold’s suite, which would have sent us off to intermission in a lighter mood. But Symphony president David Fisk had already solemnized the occasion by dedicating the concert “to Ukraine and the courage, strength, and resilience of its people,” a theme that would subsequently be echoed in the digital program and by Warren-Green, when he prefaced his performance of the Dona Nobis. By coincidence surely, Vaughan-Williams composed his 1910 Fantasia very similarly to Burge’s spanking new “Fanfare,” dividing his aggregation of strings into three parts, two string orchestras with a string quartet within the larger orchestra. Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu had the last and most eloquent solo among those doled out to the four principal string players, but kudos should also go to principal violist Benjamin Geller, whose solo launched the memorable quartet episode.
What will stand out for me, however, was the extraordinary alchemy of this performance. Whether it has always been baked into Vaughan-Williams’ orchestration, maybe something special that Warren-Green was able to elicit from his musicians, or whether it was the unprecedented high placement of the small string orchestra on the platform where the Charlotte Master Chorale would soon sing, flush against the upstage vestigial pipes at the Belk… I could have sworn that there was a softly playing organ in the orchestral mix. Needless to say: amazing.
Those organ pipes were more verifiably involved in the culminating performance of the Dona Nobis Pacem, after more than 40 Master choristers filed in, followed by our two guest soloists: soprano Christina Pier and, in his Charlotte debut, bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch. It was then that Warren-Green dedicated this piece to the valiant, freedom-loving people of Ukraine. Between the moment that the maestro turned away from us and Symphony began to play, those silvery pipes, illuminated until then entirely in blue light, suddenly became halved into stripes of gleaming blue and yellow gold, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. A proud moment for us all.
Whether prescribed by COVID protocols, Warren-Green’s decree, or the unmasked singers’ personal preferences, Pier and Okulitch sat further apart than the vocal soloists we usually encounter at Symphony concerts. With Pier mostly singing the “Agnus Dei” refrain that contains the Latin title, and Okulitch confining himself in the middle movements in Walt Whitman’s English – and Old Testament translations in the Finale – the separation between the singers wasn’t awkward at all.
Pier tended to sing with the orchestra and the choir, but there was an extended stretch where Okulitch, standing to Warren-Green’s right, was accompanied solely by Lupanu, seated to his left. So the tableau enhanced the intimacy of their duet. What was really unfortunate and compromising for us were the vast stretches of incomprehensible text from the chorus that Vaughan-Williams had scored so splendidly. If there had been supertitles above the stage or printed programs in our hands, the experience would have been even more powerful. Those of us who were able to download the digital program were adequately equipped, but the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center has had repeated problems with transmitting these copious, colorful, and informative materials.
In future performances where we’re expecting to follow along at the Belk, I will try to download the digital materials before I leave home. Clearest of all was the chorus’s mighty “Beat! Beat! Drums!” refrain from one of Whitman’s most metrical Civil War compositions. Even when we might be lost in the less familiar words of other war poems by the Good Gray Poet (“Reconciliation” and “Dirge for Two Veterans”), the music, the voices, and the colors of the fighting Ukrainians’ flag landed on us forcefully. It was thrilling.