Review: CSO Plays Vivaldi’s Four Seasons
By Perry Tannenbaum
Charlotte Symphony had plenty to celebrate as their 2021-22 Classical Series began: they were playing on the Knight Theater stage for the first time since February 2020, they were beginning what is expected to be their first full season since 2018-19, it’s their 90th season, and it’s maestro Christopher Warren-Green’s farewell season as CSO’s musical director. Happy as Warren-Green and all the musicians appeared to be, there was no hiding that the return was not altogether smooth. The disconnect between what brochures in the lobby said the orchestra would be playing and the reality was fairly dramatic. All three of the selections originally scheduled in the “Russian Masters” program – including a Shostakovich symphony, a Glinka overture, and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, featuring Paul Huang – were dropped. Now we were three-quarters Italian, with works by Ottorino Respighi, Pietro Mascagni, and Heinrich von Biber served up before intermission and Huang switching off to Antonio Vivaldi’s beloved Four Seasons after the break.
When last season belatedly opened back in May at Belk Theater, in front of a socially-distanced audience, I wondered whether Warren-Green would honor Symphony’s tradition of playing our National Anthem to mark the first live concert. He declined then, and it seemed quite possible that he would hold off yet again, since the vaccinated audience, masked but no longer distanced, would be obliged to stand and sing together. But the mood was different now. Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu preceded the maestro to the stage, gesturing so victoriously that you would have thought the orchestra had won the Super Bowl. After Warren-Green told us how glad he and his orchestra were to be playing to a live audience once again, he indeed turned sideways to cue the drumroll for the Anthem. As we stood together singing, rounding into the final eight bars, Warren-Green’s previous hesitance felt justified. For after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the January 6 invasion of the nation’s Capitol, the affirmation that “our flag was still there” was more vivid now in a closely bunched crowd, suddenly fresh and renewed.
All of the pieces that Warren-Green followed up with were musically descriptive in some fashion. Respighi chose three masterworks by Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli for his Trittico botticelliano. The first, “La Primavera (Spring),” offered a tasty comparison with the opening Vivaldi concerto, light and airy with little solo passages that reintroduced us to the orchestra’s worthy principals playing French horn, trumpet, celesta, glockenspiel, flute, and reeds. Beauty and liveliness were nicely counterpoised in the steady, brisk tempo until the strings imposed their serenity. “L’Adorazione dei Magi (The Adoration of the Magi)” belied its expected bustle and ecstasy as it began, dark and solemn as acting principal Joshua Hood began on the bassoon and principal oboist Hollis Ulaky layered on. After some lovely runs by principal flutist Victor Wang, the middle of this movement did become more hectic and dramatic, keyed by harp and percussion, with a gently quickened tempo as the strings asserted themselves. Wang returned to the forefront at the start of the climactic “La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus),” surely Botticelli’s greatest hit, but the slow massing and building of the judiciously trimmed string section, forcefully topped by the violins, was the prime wonder in this satisfying ending.
With unerring instinct, Warren-Green programmed Mascagni’s “Intermezzo from Cavelleria Rusticana” between the more substantial Respighi and Biber compositions so the three-minute piece for strings and harp played like an interlude as originally intended. The throbbing harp gave this lyrical gem a heartbeat, while the singing strings made it affecting like an aria. Now it was time for some fun as Warren-Green reveled in introducing Biber’s Battalia à 10, an eight-part evocation of warfare with some astonishing quirks. Most of these were novel ways that the musicians were called upon to replicate percussion instruments, beginning with the entire ensemble stamping their feet. Fingerboards of the basses and cellos were wrapped in paper and rapped with bows to simulate marching drums in the “Mars” section while Lupanu impersonated the piper on his violin. “Bartók slaps” were inflicted on the basses to mimic canon fire in the climactic “Battle” section, made more bizarre when the cellists turned their instruments sideways like guitars – with added mock drama when the harpsichordist fainted comically over her keyboard. Vying with this spectacle for the most memorable aspect of Battalia – and certainly the most modernistic – was the Bohemian composer’s second movement, “The lusty society of all types of humor.” Evoking the drunkenness of a teeming tavern, Biber split his little ensemble into four parts, each one playing a different song and blithely oblivious to the others. Warren-Green half-turned to us during this unspeakable cacophony and gave a little shrug.
Returning to Charlotte for the first time since his Symphony debut two years ago, when he played the Dvořák Violin Concerto, Huang did not pale at all in comparison with the charismatic Aisslinn Nosky when she played – and conducted – The Four Seasons in 2018, the last time it had been presented here. The magnificent tone Huang achieved on his coveted 1742 “ex-Wieniawski” Guarneri del Gesù instrument was nearly as impressive as his fleet-fingered virtuosity and intensity. Even on normal occasions, recordings do not nearly capture the excitement of a live Four Seasons performance. On opening night, the pent-up hunger of this audience was palpable enough for the soloist, the musicians, and Warren-Green to feed off, and in the most turgid moments of these four familiar concertos, there was a feverish frenzy to the onset of the wind and storms that Vivaldi brings on. After the final notes of “Summer,” the crowd sprang to their feet, either electrified by Huang’s bravura or convinced that nothing could possibly follow what they had just heard. There are 12 movements, after all, so any confusion was easily forgiven – and the string players also joined the ovation, tapping their bows.
Yet there was more to come, including some nifty double bowing from Huang in the first movement of “Autumn” and a sprinkling of “Bartók slaps” from the upright basses in the last. Nor was “Winter” at all anticlimactic as Huang reached hyperintensity once again as Sirocco and Boreas engaged in windy combat. The final standing ovation was no less deserved than the previous outburst, and it lasted longer.