Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Wagner, Mozart, and Brahms
By Perry Tannenbaum
Holding our collective breaths, subscribers can hope that the current Charlotte Symphony program represents the last retreats from the fare originally announced for the 2021-22 season. Although Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll replaced Zoltan Kodály’s Dances of Galánta and Johannes Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 replaced his Symphony No. 3, we still had guest conductor Roderick Cox and guest soloist Benjamin Beilman, though Beilman needed to be as flexible as the orchestra, switching from the Charlotte premiere of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto to Mozart’s “Turkish” Violin Concerto No. 5. Of course, Brahms himself might have laughed out loud at the hasty substitution, since he had been so famously averse to attempting a symphony while Beethoven’s shadow still loomed so large. Compounding the hilarity, the Serenade No. 2 may have been historic, possibly the first closing piece at a Symphony Classics Series concert to be played without violins onstage.
Written for his wife, Cosima, in 1870 and later dedicated to their son upon publication, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll isn’t extracted from any of his operas, though the music sometimes smacks of themes from The Ring cycle, especially Siegfried. It begins intimately enough, with a quiet string quartet, comprised of principals from the string sections, with concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu unmistakably the lead voice. So audience members at Knight Theater could easily imagine the romantic story of the music’s informal premiere, when Wagner stealthily placed his little orchestra (just 13 on that morning) on the stairway leading to Cosima’s bedroom while she was still sleeping – gradually awakening her as the music swelled. A couple of French horns and a trumpet eventually added force and volume to the composition, and principal oboist Hollis Ulaky played memorably in numerous spots.
Beilman seemed to be even better matched with the Mozart than he had been with the Beethoven in his 2017 Charlotte debut. Hearing a live performance at this level was more rewarding than listening to my favorite recordings by Arthur Grumiaux, David Oistrakh, and Julia Fischer. By this time, it was quite obvious that Cox had taken the eleventh-hour changes in programming totally in stride, for the introductory orchestral passages of first two movements of the Mozart, an Allegro aperto followed by an Adagio, had a bloom that rivaled the most sublime passages in the Wagner, with no less polish. Beilman’s highest notes had admirable muscle, his pianissimos in that stratosphere were ethereal, and his midrange was as burnished as I had remembered from the Beethoven. The closing Rondeau showed us how truly ingratiating Beilman can be as he genially swayed us in a waltzing 3/4 tempo – then suddenly jerked us out of our comfort zone as he and Cox conspired, nearly halfway in, to bring extra drama to the sudden lurch into the “Turkish” section of this movement and its lively duple tempo. Try counting this section any other way than 1-2, 1-2, 1-2… I couldn’t.
Unlike so many of the serenades inflicted on us – there, I’ve said it! – during the pandemic, Brahms didn’t limit either of his to strings alone. The Serenade No. 2 includes a full complement of woodwinds and a pair of French horns. Bassoonists Joshua Hood and Naho Zhu were unusually prominent in the reedy opening measures of the Allegro moderato, with flutists Victor Wang and Amy Orsinger Whitehead soon afterwards coming to the forefront. Violins over plucked cellos and basses heightened the intensity and made a pathway for Ulaky on oboe to shine again. Rigidly on-the-beat handling his stick, Cox made the ensuing Scherzo: Vivace more march-like than the acclaimed Michael Tilson Thomas recording, but the rhythmic thrust and liveliness remained unmistakable.
Audience members should have noticed by this time that Brahms intended his clarinetists to switch between A, C, and B-flat clarinets over the course of this Serenade. Churning lower strings (remember, there weren’t any violins) ushered in the middle Adagio non troppo movement, but principal woodwind players had sufficient time to leave their imprints, including Ulaky, Wang, and – far in the treble – clarinetist Taylor Marino. With Cox taking a notably sprightly take, the penultimate Quasi menuetto was more of a trinket than the Scherzo had been, Ulaky and Wang excelling once again. Discarding all remaining restraint and tenderness that we might have expected from a Serenade, Cox and Symphony made the closing Rondo a rollicking romp from the first bars, clearly taking aim at compensating for the lack of a symphony on the program. Oboes, clarinets, and horns led the charge, with the low strings high-stepping right behind them. Erinn Frechette finally had chances to tweedle on her piccolo as the winds reached their maximum effervescence, but the congregation of strings eventually had their say, building to a satisfying ending.