By Perry Tannenbaum
April 28, 2023, Charlotte, NC – It’s time to admit that Charlotte Symphony has flipped the script. After a string of four consecutive concerts that I’ve reviewed in 2023, with four different guest conductors, every one of them immaculately played, I can no longer agree that CSO is in search of a new music director who will take the orchestra to the next level. The virtuosity and consistency are here, the responsiveness to varied composers and conducting styles is here, and the mastery of a multitude of musical styles can no longer be overlooked.
My moment of revelation came after the intermission in this week’s program at Belk Theater with guest conductor Lan Shui. Everything had been wonderful so far: Samuel Barber’s “Overture to The School for Scandal” had been colorful, cohesive, and melodious; the accompaniment of guest pianist Mari Kodama’s scintillating work on Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 had been as robust as the support Canadian soprano Alexandra Smither received on Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations with guest conductor Vinay Parameswaran on the podium.
My moment of realization came as the opening Largo-Allegro movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 came to its finish – epic in its variety, impeccable in its flow, and utterly convincing in its pacing and drama. I had never appreciated how rich and gorgeous this music was. Repeatedly over the years, I have written about the low points in my CSO concertgoing experiences, when I needed to hurry home after performances of Beethoven’s Eroica and Copland’s Appalachian Spring to re-establish, via CDs in my collection, that I actually liked and admired this music. Finding out at Belk Theater what I’d missed on recordings I have heard before at home, as I did last night with Symphony’s Rachmaninoff, was a complete 180-degree turnaround.
Mei-Ann Chen’s exhortations that Charlotte should support their orchestra as much as it deserved weren’t tainted at all with pragmatic flattery as I had thought, it was plain honesty. The only reason she remains the top candidate among those I’ve heard after Shui’s equal triumph is that I still feel Chen will bring more youth and effort to the true tasks at hand – keeping CSO’s performance level at its admirable height, enlarging its numbers, and enhancing its reputation and touring opportunities. Nor should I leave what is implied here unspoken, that Christopher Warren-Green completed his mission of lifting Symphony’s quality to international standards by the time his tenure ended in 2022.
Triggering the lush and playful violins, principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and principal clarinetist Taylor Marino played beguiling solos. Pacing and dynamics were beautifully judged until the cycle repeated, the violins seeming to respond lower in the treble and Marino playing more challenging passages. The Mendelssohn that followed was Molto allegro from the start, Kodama’s febrile attack matched by Symphony’s zesty engagement. When we flowed into quieter interludes the transitions were utterly seamless, with lyricism spontaneous enough to foreshadow an ethereal rapturous treat when we reached the middle movement – so transporting that I need to rouse myself and realize we were already in that dreamy movement and that the orchestra had arrived there without a pause.
Kodama caressed the treble at times with her delicate right hand while cherishing it in her left hand with a closed fist, at other times, she leaned back and gazed almost directly upwards. Shui and the orchestra were far more emphatic in signaling the segue to the finale, a rousing Presto-Molto allegro. Early in the movement, Kodama wasn’t as crystalline in her fingering as Howard Shelley in his recording with the London Mozart Players, and I’m not sure she quite equaled the drama of the manic build at the very end that Stephen Hough achieved with the City of Birmingham Orchestra. Overall, though, the live Kodama-CSO performance matched them both.
As the glory of Symphony’s performance of the Largo-Allegro moderato opening movement flowed so gorgeously from pinnacle to pinnacle, cogent and suffused with seething tension, it occurred to me that the orchestra’s immersions outside their mainstage classical offerings – in big band jazz charts and film scores – has paid off in handsome dividends. From measure to measure, like frame to frame at the movies, connections remained ironclad. Shui’s spoken intro was entertaining and informative, not above repeating some of the information in the digital program booklet, a practice that Warren-Green religiously avoided. He warned us of the hourlong length of the piece and had us on the lookout for Marino’s lovely clarinet spot at the beginning of the Adagio third movement. It emerged unforgettably out of a hush and took sad flight until the strings joined in the restless, aching keening, flowing into work’s biggest tune.
I couldn’t trace any previous CSO performances of this grand piece on my calendar or in my document dating back to 1994, so few if any of the musicians onstage were much more familiar with this gem than those of us in the audience marveling at its beauty. Shui has recorded all the Rachmaninoff symphonies with Singapore Symphony Orchestra, where he was music director from 1997 to 2019, so he has a special affinity for this music. Getting to hear his interpretation of the E minor No. 2 is a special gift for us.