Tag Archives: Victor Wang

New Al Fresco Series Delivers Fine Sound, Gorgeous Music, and a More Personal View of Symphony’s Musicians

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Al Fresco Concerts

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’ve learned so much about our nation’s leadership in the past few months – and perhaps even more about ourselves. Much of what we’ve seen has been disheartening and infuriating. Aside from the horrifying death and economic devastation, sweeping the globe and becoming so intense here in North Carolina, I’m most heartbroken by the spectacle of what has happened to arts and education. Vitally important to our quality-of-life and our future, both arts and education have been forced to retreat into self-imposed isolation while politicians and citizens have so catastrophically bungled our response to COVID-19. Virtuality has often been our refuge, a poor substitute for so many plans we made. One by one in May, my mom’s 100th birthday, Spoleto Festival USA, and a class reunion dropped off my event planner, so like many of you, I’ve had revelatory experiences in recent months coping with the quirks of ZOOM meetings and discovering new frontiers in streaming. Neither of these comes close to matching the benefits of live meetings and performances, but they do offer consolation.

Occasionally, the necessities of confinement and social distancing have mothered some worthwhile inventions. Celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday in April, the Chickspeare theatre company began with a fairly common 24-hour new play format, issuing a prompt to a select group of playwrights and expecting original 10-minute plays by each of them to be written, cast, rehearsed, and presented 24 hours later. Instead of the community projects I’d seen in past incarnations of this format, the new works were household creations – written, acted, and recorded by small groups of people, usually pairs, who were quarantining together. The results showed that these writers, actors .and stage directors were also quite adept at filming and wielding video editing software. Chickspeare had broken into an entirely new medium.

Charlotte Symphony’s new Al Fresco series of chamber music concerts has been similarly revelatory. The webcasts began steaming weekly on Wednesday nights on June 10, in a more relaxed environment than Belk or Knight Theater, where Symphony’s classics series is presented, and on a more intimate scale. Not surprisingly, the Al Fresco series is the brainchild of principal cellist Alan Black, a longtime catalyst for chamber music programming in the Charlotte area, beginning with a monthly series at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church back in the ‘90s and continuing with more acoustically pleasing seasons of Sunday afternoon concerts at Tyler-Tallman Hall on the Davidson College campus. The new series, subtitled “changing venues for changing times,” is performed outdoors in the backyard of Black’s bosky Davidson home.

Fortunately, while choosing his programming and recruiting personnel, Black brought French hornist Bob Rydel into the process for a set of wind quintets by Josef Haydn and Robert Muczynski. As Black tells us during the “Winds in the Woods” program, first streamed on June 24, his original concept called for recording the concerts with an iPhone or two, tools we have seen so very often behind the scenes at ZOOM meetings and guerilla theatre productions. Operating the Acoustic Mobility remote recording service, Rydel has been able to bring his engineering expertise to the task with state-of-the-art microphones, digital recording, and editing equipment. Video production has been a tack-sharp as the audio, boasting HD quality, with at least three cameras superbly integrated in the editing mix.

Before tuning in to “Viennese Serenades,” I had caught up on the previous Al Fresco concerts at their convenient webpage [https://www.charlottesymphony.org/csoalfresco/], playing the first three concerts through my home theatre system on the YouTube channel with a Chromecast streamer. This “Viennese” concert was already posted when I looked in on the site on Tuesday, so I was able to set a reminder at YouTube that worked perfectly, counting down the minutes to showtime. At exactly 7:30, a two-minute timer flashed colorfully onto my TV monitor, with jazzier old-style movie graphics counting down the final 10 seconds. In a rather elegant touch, you hear wind chimes when the opening title flashes on the screen.

The atmosphere is relaxed and informal, with Black invariably dressed in jeans, already sitting as our show begins. One or two other musicians are also seated on the small stage, which is still sufficiently large to devoutly maintain social distancing. They will talk before they play. In an earlier show, Black explained how he has chosen to deal with masks: if one of the musicians wishes to don a mask, all must. Only wind instrument players draw an exemption, so on a previous “Music in the Time of Mozart” webcast, flutist Victor Wang played the lead in Mozart’s Flute Quartet without a mask while the string players were all masked. Interestingly, Wang had a special appliance attached to his instrument, a Wind Defender. The device was originally designed to help flute players to perform outdoors, but in his conversation with Black, Wang said he was finding that it was useful during the COVID-19 crisis in minimizing the spread of airborne droplets as he blew across the instrument.

Black’s conversations with his guests frequently veer toward the players’ experiences in performing the music rather than sticking with the customary descriptions of the music and how it came to be written. More intriguing, Black doesn’t stick to the convention of talking about the music before it’s performed. We might see an interview that was recorded after a performance shown to us before the music begins – or Black and Rydel might edit the webcast so that an interview segment airs between movements.

Altering the focus and chronology was particularly insightful when, prior to airing Haydn’s Divertimento No. 12, Black interviewed his “Viennese Serenades” guests, violinists Jenny Topilow and Lenora Leggatt, and asked them point-blank what it had been like playing their music with masks on. Leggatt was almost exclusively concerned with the heat that wearing a mask dictated and its cumulative oppressiveness, but both Topilow and Black cited multiple challenges and annoyances that illuminated physical aspects of playing stringed instruments and the added communication needs of chamber music performance that go beyond playing in an orchestra.

After revealing that the neck of her violin collided unpleasantly with the part of her mask covering her chin and jaw, Topilow went on to describe how visibility, breathing, communication, and cuing were affected. Black confided that he hoped that a portion of his performance, when the fingers of his left hand got stuck momentarily in his mask, would be edited out of the final cut. Visibility and breathing were linked problems for Black, who customarily wears glasses when he plays the cello. Because his glasses repeatedly fog up in performance, Black finds that he needs to time his breathing as he plays! He also finds that he needs to listen more intently when seeing is so spotty. For her part, Topilow finds it startling to realize how much she normally uses her face for communicating in a chamber music setting, yet she vows to continue wearing a mask when Charlotte Symphony resumes live performances. Next month? Hope so.

The individuality of the musicians’ conversations carries over to their musicmaking. Uniform dress codes have been discarded for this series, so the players can be showy and comfortable at the same time. Topilow and Leggatt were the first guests so far to opt for standing as they played their violins in Stamitz’s Trio in G, and while I can remember Topilow rocking a splotch of blue hair at the Belk, I’m sure that I’ve never previously glimpsed her tattoo. Facing each other from opposite corners across the front of the cozy stage, the two violinists blended exquisitely in the opening Allegro moderato while Black, seated upstage between them, added a rich undercurrent as the tempo never quickened far beyond andante.

The mellow sound of the ensuing Andante made the best case for earlier remarks emphasizing how much both Stamitz and Haydn reflected their era. Although we could see fronds and leaves swaying throughout this concert – and multiple clips holding Topilow’s score in place – the sound maintained a studio-quality presence without a hint of wind even in the quietest moments. In the concluding Rondo-Allegretto, I found the most persuasive proof that both violinists revel in playing fast. Topilow remained the lead voice, but Leggatt kept pace beautifully with the harmony. I wasn’t completely pleased with the way Stamitz abruptly transitioned to the slow section of this movement, where Black shifted to a suddenly somber pizzicato, but the slowdown at the end of this section and the accelerating return to jollity were very satisfying.

What I wrote about Black’s series of St. Peter’s concerts in the ‘90s, that they show off the virtuosity of Charlotte Symphony’s musicians more fully, remains true today. But now that this new series is actually a part of Symphony’s programming, I can further observe that it offers the opportunity to venture beyond the composers who figure most prominently in the orchestra’s rotation of classics. Beside the likes of Stamitz, Muczynski, and Ignaz Pleyel, whose music has already been featured in Al Fresco, we can add Haydn to the roster of the neglected, for only two of his symphonies – and none of his concertos – have been presented in the classics series since 2015, and none are on tap in the already-announced 2020-21 lineup. And how many of us have heard of Haydn’s Divertimentos – or knew that they were chamber music? My 11-CD set of Mozart Divertimenti on Phillips certainly didn’t prepare me for anything as small as the string trio configuration of Haydn’s No. 12, the second to be featured in this series.

It’s a beautiful piece from the start, a soulful Adagio that was more serious and tender than the Stamitz, with a yearning undertow from Topilow’s lyrical lead. Hardly a leaf was stirring as she wove her spell, yet Haydn brightened the tone and quickened the pace to andante in a more genial midsection of this movement. Topilow was most fully in the spotlight when she leapt into the ensuing Allegro, sawing away with plenty of verve. The weather wasn’t quite as tranquil where I was watching, but it only stressed the transmission here once. What looked and sounded like a split-second edit disappeared when I subsequently replayed the movement – twice to be sure. The final movement, Tempo di Menuet, seemed to be a misstep at its somewhat plodding start. Once the 3/4 rhythm was established, however, Haydn loosened the reins, and Topilow had ample opportunity to show off her dexterity and Papa’s joie de vivre.

The concerts, the conversations, and Black’s hosting style are all winners for Symphony’s new Al Fresco. I’m hoping for more sinewy music, like a Beethoven string quartet, if the series reprises after the traditionally lighthearted summer season, and I’d love to see programs at least as long as the 75-minute noonday concerts that are traditional at Spoleto Festival USA. But what’s so nice about the Al Fresco format and its webpage is that you can replay multiple concerts one after another. More than enough for an evening out – or in – is now very handsomely at our disposal.

Barefoot in Carnegie Hall, Conqueror at the Knight

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Review: Charlotte Symphony and Conrad Tao Perform Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto

By Perry Tannenbaum

Celebrations of Ludwig van Beethoven don’t really need to lean on a convenient excuse. Just before celebrations broke out worldwide on January 1, 2020, commemorating the great composer’s 250th birthday, New York City’s WQXR played out 2019 with their traditional New Year’s Eve countdown of their audience’s top 100 favorites, culminating in a marathon tribute to Beethoven. Not only did Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony No. 9 take the top spot yet again at the flagship classical FM station, six works by Beethoven were in WQXR’s top 10, including the top three. Charlotte Symphony certainly wasn’t standing in back of the line of orchestras poised for celebration as the new decade began.

Returning to Knight Theater from a tour of Southeast Asia with the London Chamber Orchestra, maestro Christopher Warren-Green capped the first full week of 2020 with a double-dose of the birthday boy’s compositions, the “Leonore Overture No. 3” and the “Emperor” Concerto No. 5, which finished No. 10 in the latest WQXR popularity poll. In between, we heard the Symphony No. 7 in C by Jean Sibelius, perhaps the first time that the Finnish composer’s final symphony has been performed in Charlotte. Pianist and composer Conrad Tao made his Charlotte debut with the orchestra.

We don’t have too many instances of rewrites among Beethoven’s published works, but his lone opera, Fidelio, and its overture are prominent exceptions. The three Leonore overtures (plus a “Fidelio Overture”!) testify that Beethoven not only fussed over the music for his opera, he also fussed over the title. Leonore, Creatures of Prometheus, and Coriolan are the overtures most favored as fillers on CD collections of the symphonies, and Warren-Green programmed Coriolan in an all-Beethoven concert in 2012. As far back as I can trace, this is the first time Symphony has separated the “Leonore Overture” from Fidelio, but our musicians likely recalled rehearsing it for an opera-in-concert version conducted by Christof Perick in 2004 and when Opera Carolina offered us a fully-staged Fidelio in 2015.

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Musicians were perhaps too amped-up for the celebration as the Overture kicked off the concert. The opening sforzando over a timpani beat and the mysterious fadeaway that follows that burst were beautifully played. Woodwinds blended effectively and the flutes had a wonderful rapport before forebodings of the big tune rippled through the lower strings. But the crisp delivery and sleekly calibrated dynamics we have come to expect from this orchestra were missing on the first pass through the main theme, and there was no room left to dramatically turn up the volume later when the big tune repeated twice more. Thankfully, the ensemble steadied immediately afterwards – for the entire evening – sharpening their focus. Winds and horns remained tightly knit, principal flutist Victor Wang continued to charm, and principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn, deployed deep in the balcony, brought us forlorn pathos before concertmaster Calin Lupanu, playing fervidly, triggered the final galloping reprise and climax.

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Other than interpolating how exhausted he still was after conducting the Leonore, Warren-Green was all about Sibelius when he picked up his mic for the first time in 2020, pointing out that the Finn was battling two illnesses as he wrote the piece over a 10-year stretch: depression and alcoholism. He also drew our attention to the trombone solos with insights gleaned from the original 1924 manuscript. The winds and strings, particularly the violins, drew a sweetness from the music that I hadn’t found on either of the CDs in my collection, and there were definite hints in the darkest passages, where the violins played low in their range, of the illnesses that afflicted the composer – and possible promptings for the way Shostakovich would register WW2 in his symphonies. Only the flow and the full grandeur of my Ashkenazy recording with the London Philharmonia were missing in Warren-Green’s reading. As for principal trombonist John Bartlett, the orchestral wreath surrounding his contributions – along with the embroidery Sibelius weaves with the winds – might cause you to overlook his unquestionable excellence.

No such danger threatened Tao as he emerged in his colorful attire. Only later admitting that he had begun the new year by packing negligently and forgetting his formal attire, Tao attacked his opening cadenzas with swashbuckling panache, and his phrasing proved to be no less audacious and individual than his attire and attack. Clearly, Tao has heard this soaring masterwork in his own way – but without perversely differing with traditional interpretations or seeking to draw undue attention away from the composer. Warren-Green and the orchestra responded vigorously to the young soloist, as much in the forefront of the epic opening Allegro movement as the piano. Of course, Tao impressed us more in the softer passages than the accompaniment here, but Symphony was certainly an equal partner in the magical Adagio that followed. The upper strings, delicately supported by pizzicatos from the lower strings, solemnly and lyrically cleared the way for Tao’s ethereal entrance – with a clarity that I’ve never heard on a recording. A bit of subtlety and nuance eluded Tao here and there in his phrasing, but Warren-Green and his ensemble remained marvelously simpatico in sustaining the sublimity.

For those of us who love this piece, Tao’s way with the ingenious transition between the Adagio and the Rondo finale likely sparked the most controversy and admiration. He certainly took his time, not playing the ending quite as softly as the usual pianissimos I’ve heard, but the sforzando burst to launch the concluding movement still had a satisfying snap and éclat. Symphony was as zestful as ever in its response, and Tao parleyed a playfulness and a muscular power we had not seen from him earlier, conclusively proving he could punish a keyboard.

Two more Beethoven masterworks, his Missa Solemnis and “Pastoral” Symphony, highlight the remainder of the 2019-20 mainstage classics series, the latter to be led by JoAnn Falletta. Symphony certainly had the appeal of their Tao program nicely gauged, scheduling an extra Sunday matinee after the usual pair of performances. Of course, Tao may have been kidding us when he spoke of forgetting his formalwear. In his enthusiastic New York Times review of Tao’s Carnegie Hall debut back in November, critic Anthony Tommasini couldn’t help noting that the pianist was clad in black slacks, a black jacket, a black T-shirt… and barefoot!

CSO and Graf Make Debussy’s “Faun” a Dynamic Prelude

Review:  Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Slipping out of town for Charlotte Symphony’s Firebird concert back in October, maestro Christopher Warren-Green has orchestrated a nice little three-month vacation for himself, but so far, the music director’s pinch-hitters on the podium haven’t let him or us down. Christopher James Lees was best when he lit into the Stravinsky that subscribers came for, and last week in his Queen City debut, German-born guest conductor Hans Graf demonstrated his mastery at Knight Theater on works by Brahms, Mozart, and the evening’s headliner, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

The CSO rarely leads off their programs with their marquee piece, but L’Après-midi was the shortest on the bill, so its position wasn’t shocking. The last time the piece was played as part of a Classics Series in 2003, the beloved tone poem actually launched Symphony’s season after musicians went on strike over pay cuts. Since that momentous “French Masters” program conducted by Christof Perick at Belk Theater, Warren-Green has presented L’Après-midi at UNC Charlotte in a most unusual concert – scientifically proving that, after an Allegro from Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, a little Debussy will bring your blood pressure back down.

A medicinal effect wasn’t Graf’s aim at all, scorning the notion that L’Après-midi is all about casting a misty, hypnotic spell. There were actually pauses in the performance, like you’ll hear in recorded accounts conducted by Herbert von Karajan and Bernard Haitink. You could actually imagine Debussy conceiving his interpretation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s symbolist poem as a series of scenes and reveries. When the orchestra swelled, the dynamic range was as robust as Simon Rattle’s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, reminding me how unaccustomed I was to sitting so close to the ensemble at Knight Theater. Yet the woodwinds blended piquantly where they should, and principal flutist Victor Wang exquisitely led us into the enchanted glade.

In another auspicious debut, Chinese-born Angelo Xiang Yu gave a showy, ebullient account of Mozart’s “Turkish” Violin Concerto No. 5, sparking outbursts of audience applause after the opening Allegro aperto movement and after the less-familiar middle Adagio. Yu forcefully produced a gleaming, golden tone from his 290-year-old Stradivarius and seemed to be having fun even in the slow movement. Like Graf, Yu relished changing tempos and dynamics, approaches that yield happier results with Mozart than with Debussy’s concupiscent Faun. A little puckish mischief was mixed with the fun during the final Rondeau, making the joy even more contagious. More gusto from the lower strings during the “Turkish” section of the finale would have added some agreeable lagniappe.

Yu never did hide his delight in performing, so it wasn’t surprising that he could be coaxed into an encore. Yu probably wasn’t punning when he said he had first heard his little Piazzolla tango on YouTube a couple of days earlier – and still hadn’t been able to acquire the sheet music. Maybe it’s in the mail, since it sounded to me like the Tango Etude No. 3 that I was able to find on Spotify in a couple of versions.

Likely judging that audiences will always enjoy Brahms Symphony No. 2, especially its concluding Allegro con spirito, CSO has now programmed it three times during the last six years. Outside the Classics Series rotation, that final movement last popped up at a 2015 Bachtoberfest at the Knight. Until we reached that rousing spirito at the full 2014 performance, Warren-Green and the orchestra had sounded rather spiritless. Continuing to emphasize dynamic contrasts, yet still vigilant with detail, Graf drew more excitement from his musicians and more energy from Brahms.

The opening Allegro non troppo was especially freshened with sharper shaping, eloquent violins, and a new hint of sadness from the cellos. Yet Graf kept his finger more persistently on the slower middle movements, where languor has won out in the past. The Allegro con spirito now hearkened back to the opening of the Mozart, where Symphony and Yu initially lulled us with a deceptive sense of calm. On both occasions, Graf had the orchestra exploding brilliantly, and with trumpets blaring and principal timpanist Ariel Zaviezo unleashed, the evening ended giddily, like a triumphant military march just slightly out of control.

CSO Takes Flight With Stravinsky “Firebird”

Review: Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite

By Perry Tannenbaum

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If you think The Donald is in cahoots with the Russians, take a look at the Charlotte Symphony. They began their 2019-20 Classics season with an all-Tchaikovsky program late last month and continued with another all-Russian bill last weekend featuring music by Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Glazunov, and Anatoly Liadov before climaxing with the Igor Stravinsky Firebird. Are the musicians of Charlotte Symphony and their conductors, first music director Christopher Warren-Green and now resident conductor Christopher James Lees, leading us into the arms of Vladimir Putin?

Or just maybe… they’re following their audience’s inclinations in melting into the bosom of Mother Russia!

Principal flutist Victor Wang started off the evening with his introductory remarks, citing a previous experience with Lees, when he led Symphony in the pivotal “Infernal Dance” from The Firebird, as emblematic of the special enthusiasm that he brings to the podium. But Lees would first need to conquer Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain in the fearsome arrangement by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Under Warren-Green’s baton, CSO had failed in its two previous assaults on the Mountain – in 2009, when the British conductor was auditioning for his Charlotte post, and in 2016.

Strangely, it’s the most familiar part of the tone poem – the macabre, witches’ sabbath part – that eluded Warren-Green on both occasions. All the chaotic, nocturnal terror of the piece was drained from the 2009 performance, though the tolling of the bells and the onset of morning at the end of the piece were gorgeous. The more recent performance three years ago attempted to restore the original snap and crackle of the piece, pushing the tempo from the violins, turning up the volume from the brass, and unleashing more sforzando crispness from the percussion. A bit over-the-top, I thought, and not convincing – until the bells sounded, more glorious than ever because of the heightened contrast.

The 2019 version glowed even more fabulously with the dawn as Wang, principal clarinetist Taylor Marino, and principal harpist Andrea Mumm worked their magic. The calm resolution was nearly as impressive as the diablerie that preceded it – so overall, I was still disappointed with our nighttime sojourn. Lees certainly brought all the percussive razor sharpness you could want on the Bald Mountain, and the brass were excellent, with full-bodied trombones rocking the house. Violins were note-perfect quailing before the onset of the brass and astringent in reacting.

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Trouble was, Lees eased off the pedal in pushing tempo. Nothing about the witches’ sabbath was ever maniacal or threatening to lurch out of control, and the interplay between the violins and the brass, particularly when the strings were asked to suddenly pounce, was lacking in visceral excitement. Listen to how electric it can be on the Naxos recording by Theodor Kuchar and the Ukraine National Symphony.

While you’re there, you can also listen to Mussorgsky’s original orchestration. You’ll likely reach the same conclusion I have: it was Rimsky-Korsakov who was being “modest” if he termed the work we know today an orchestration or even an arrangement. Only six of the familiar notes from the fearsome brass theme were written by Mussorgsky. The next nine add-ons were Rimsky’s invention – and all of the concluding dawn episode was his as well. Joint attribution is very much warranted for Bald Mountain, and Ken Meltzer needs to go back to the drawing board with his program notes.

Once Lees and the CSO had exorcised the Halloween – or St. John’s Night – demons haunting them on Bald Mountain with Rimsky-Korsakov’s original music, they continued to warrant Wang’s praise. Glazunov’s Stenka Razin was delightfully contoured, though the Cossack rebel’s bellicose episodes could have been more turbulent and his dalliance with a Persian princess would have benefited from another splash of Rimsky, namely Scheherezade. The recurring theme, an old Russian folksong known as the “Song of the Volga Boatmen” on recordings by Glenn Miller and Paul Robeson, was handsomely passed back and forth from the brass to the French horns, and Mumm and Marino were again a beguiling combo on harp and clarinet.

Lees continued to be at a loss about creating maximum drama in Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake (listen to Vassily Sinaisky’s account on Chandos with the Slovak Phil to hear what I mean). But there was no lack of atmosphere here as tremolos from the strings vividly simulated Liadov’s lake. Nor was there a dearth of enchantment as the woodwinds made telling contributions and Mumm again excelled, even on the smallest strings of her harp.

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With the 1919 Suite from The Firebird, the most-frequently heard of the three suites that Stravinsky distilled from his 1910 ballet score, Symphony achieved lift-off, playing with their most admirably controlled fury. Lees not only captured the bacchanalian abandon of the “Infernal Dance of King Kastchei” as Wang had predicted, he and the orchestra brought orgiastic celebration to the Finale, where Prince Igor weds his chosen Princess after freeing her from Kastchei’s captivity, using the Firebird’s magical feather.

Amid the collective sparkle and might of The Firebird, there were individual exploits to magnify the triumph. Principal oboist Hollis Ulaky had lovely spots in the opening “Introduction and Dance of the Firebird” and later in the tender “Berceuse,” where principal bassoonist Olivia Oh spread additional nocturnal wonder. Principal cellist Alan Black and concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu were both eloquent in the “Dance of the Princesses,” but none of the principals made a more memorable impression than Byron Johns, launching the Finale with his beautiful work on the French horn. The forlorn splendor of it gave the fireworks that followed added impact and an onrush of drama.

Christopher Warren-Green Expands Symphony’s “Titan” Concert to Rousing Effect

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Mahler 1

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Charlotte Symphony’s season announcements and brochures were issued last July, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 “The Titan” stood alone on the program for their concert coinciding with semifinals of the ACC basketball tournament at the nearby Spectrum Center. Whether there were second thoughts on the length of that program or worries about automobile traffic inconveniencing concertgoers, two additional works – and an intermission – were added to the evening. Mahler’s Symphonic Movement: Blumine seemed a natural add-on, since it was part of an earlier draft of the symphony, which premiered in 1889 as a five-movement piece titled “Symphonic Poem in Two Parts.”

Adding a piece by Strauss wouldn’t appear much less apt – if it were Richard Strauss, not quite four years younger than Mahler and very much his contemporary. But Johann Strauss, Jr., the renowned “Waltz King”? Picking up a microphone as soon as he appeared onstage at Belk Theater, music director Christopher Warren-Green immediately cleared things up. Far from a grotesque contrast, parts of Strauss II’s Emperor Waltzes were actually echoed in the second movement of “The Titan.” And since Blumine was the second movement in the original “Symphonic Poem” before Mahler excised it, the whole grouping had an elegant logic to it.

Implicit in Warren-Green’s intro were dual assignments – with dual effects. We were subtly being asked to catalogue the musical and melodic content of the Emperor Waltzes and retain our findings until after intermission. Then we were to identify an undisclosed fragment of what we had heard when it was echoed in “The Titan.” Listeners were thus encouraged to take Strauss’s work a little more seriously in searching for enduring substance and to realize that Mahler’s music, with its fun-loving Viennese influences, wasn’t as ponderous and forbidding as they might have believed. Whether such attitude adjustments actually factored into the audience’s enthusiasm for the performances, they certainly sounded like fruitful approaches for the musicians to take as they played.

Unburdened of the worry that they were tossing off light fare, the orchestra played the Emperor Waltzes with infectious zest. Principal percussionist Brice Burton’s snare drum caught my attention first, before the woodwinds announced the idiomatic Strauss sound. Principal cellist Alan Black and principal timpanist Ariel Zaviezo kindled our anticipation as the most familiar of the melodies drew near. Weighted toward the trombones, the brass episode was impressive, and as the piece climaxed, four percussionists were on their feet, as cymbals and a bass drum joined the fray.

Logical choice or not, Blumine was a fairly odd piece to send us off to intermission with, for it conformed to the relative quietude we expect of second movements in large orchestral works. Surprisingly, this andante sounded nothing like the sort of derivative apprentice work you might expect a major composer to discard upon mature reflection. As performed by Warren-Green and his players, Blumine had some of the ethereal flavor we might associate with Mahler’s middle symphonies, especially at the end of the piece, where the playing of the strings, lightly tinged with Andrea Mumm Trammell’s harp, was quite exquisite. Yet it was principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn who made the deepest imprint on the performance, playing his serenading episodes with a mellow and magnificent softness. Principals Victor Wang on flute and Taylor Marino on clarinet had gleaming moments of their own, but principal Hollis Ulaky drew the best solo wind passages and played them flawlessly on her oboe.

None of the recordings of “The Titan” that I looked up reach the length of a full hour except for that of Seiji Ozawa with the Boston Symphony, who just ekes past the 60-minute mark after restoring Blumine as his second movement. So I heartily endorse Warren-Green’s decision to fortify and vary the originally-announced program with judiciously selected appetizers, but you just needed to look at the Belk Theater stage to see that “The Titan” was the evening’s main dish. At the outset of the “Langsam” (Slow) portion of the opening movement, a phalanx of eight French hornists was seated in front of the battery of percussion, which included two sets of timpani drums.

More brass lurked offstage. After softly churning strings, reminiscent of Wagner’s famed evocation of the Rhine River, played under mournful woodwinds – with just a glint of piccolo – a trio of distant trumpets was heard, triggering a response from the horns. Then as the trumpeters entered from offstage, the cellos steered us toward echoes of Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” bringing us the springtime awakening of nature promised in Mahler’s 1893 program notes. When the winds reached their bright, full-throated twittering, the season burst into blossom. But with solo spots from Wang’s flute, Marino’s clarinet, a soft tattoo on the bass drum, and more fine section work from the French horns, there was ample space for reflection afterwards.

Echoes of Strauss II were readily apparent in the “Kräftig bewegt” (Forceful animated) movement that followed, not subtle at all once we had been alerted to them; and in the trio section that followed, the waltzing spirit of the orchestra became more contagious. After timpani and percussion had engaged, there was a nice simple spotlight for Byron Johns and his French horn. The other middle movement, “Feirlich und gemessen” (Solemn and measured), lost its power to intimidate as soon as the listener realized that the fugal figure was a slowed-down, macabre mutation of the familiar “Frère Jacques” nursery song. Initiating the round, principal Kurt Riecken had the rare opportunity to offer us a sampling of his solo handiwork on the double bass, with oboe and clarinet taking us to higher frequencies. Cellos and violas initiated another round before the clarinets lightened the gloom with a klezmer-like interlude.

Aside from the cresting of the opening movement, there was nothing titanic about “The Titan” until we reached the “Stürmisch bewegt” (Stormy animated) finale. Here is where the double-duty barrage of timpani was detonated, though there also was some finesse from the lyrical violins in the early stages. With the entrance of the trombones, the horns, the woodwinds, and the trumpets, the strings throbbed with more urgency. Increasing the final drama, Mahler circled back to the calm, the distant heraldry, and even some of the vernal twittering of the opening movement, and Warren-Green obviously reveled in quietly setting up his final explosion. The entire phalanx of eight French horns stood up, punctuating the majesty and the showmanship of the climax. Programming Mahler yielded some vacant patches down in the orchestra seats – and a totally empty upper balcony – but the Belk Theater audience responded to “The Titan” with a lusty standing ovation that was as enthusiastic as any I’ve seen there. Ultimately, they bought into the whole “Mahler Lite” concept as completely as the musicians.

 

Cherokee Anguish Upstages “Sleeping Beauty” in Symphony Concert

Review:  Sleeping Beauty

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’ve had a copious amount of Russian music from Charlotte Symphony this year. Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade headlined the first two classics concerts of 2019, and Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty suite is continuing the trend. Even after Symphony emerged from their annual retreat in the Belk Theater pit with Charlotte Ballet’s production of Nutcracker, subscribers do not seem to tire of this steady Russian diet.

The presumption may be that we’ll see better attendance if the featured piece is Russian rather than American, old-style rather than new. Sleeping Beauty wasn’t as long as Michael Daugherty’s Trail of Tears concerto or as new as Aaron Copland’s more familiar Billy the Kid suite, which kicked off the evening. Nor was it played with the same verve at Knight Theater under the baton of guest conductor Joseph Young, who actually has educational, vocational and family ties in the Carolinas.

Principal flutist Victor Wang stepped downstage to play the solos in Daugherty’s concerto, deftly flutter-tonguing, overblowing, and producing multiphonics and glissandos – upstaging the marquee ballet suite that followed after intermission. In the context of the forced Cherokee migration carried out by the U.S. Army in 1838-39, pursuant to Indian Removal Act of 1830, the chord-like multiphonics and glissandos sounded like laments or nostalgic reflections, the overblowing sounded somber and contemplative like a Japanese shakuhachi flute, and the flutter-tonguing had a range of emotional connotations, submission one moment and terror at other times.

There was so much more to admire in Wang’s playing beyond the special effects, particularly in the lyrical middle movement “incantation” that followed the longer, more turbulent “where the wind blew free” section. You might wonder why the concluding “sun dance,” starting off so lightly, becomes as turbulent as the opening movement. Daugherty gives us a moving explanation in his program notes, reminding us that the religious dance ceremony of the Plains Indians was banned for a full century by the U.S. government.

While Wang had a clear path, consistently giving voice to the soul and anguish of Native Americans, Young had a more jagged course steering the orchestra. The delicate early percussion at the start of the outer movements – xylophone, harp, and piano – was obviously consonant with the flute, but the drums sent different signals. In the opening “wind blew free” movement, the snares cued the Trail of Tears march, taking on the role of the Army tormentors, but in the closing “dance,” the timpani were unmistakably tom-toms. Strings could also be mellow or suddenly abrasive as Young navigated this fascinating, bumpy trail.

Notwithstanding the timings provided in Symphony’s program booklet, the Sleeping Beauty suite was actually the shortest piece on the program. But there’s nothing at all sleepy about the opening episode of its opening movement. It should sound like we’ve been improbably dropped into the raucous section of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture where the composer simulates the strife between the Montagues and the Capulets. Instead of medieval Verona or ancient fairyland, the orchestra sounded more like contemporary Vegas – or a carryover of Daugherty’s prairie.

When the music becalmed the brass bloomed, and the Tchaikovsky ballet style became recognizable, but rarely with the charm that Symphony radiates every December in Nutcracker. The grandeur of the Pas d’action didn’t quite wake up, and though I love the eerie foreboding sound of the Puss and Boots sketch, this performance didn’t deliver the predatory snap that should make it memorable. The shimmering magic of the “Panorama” section was mostly moribund until principal harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell gracefully soloed to close it out.

Symphony recovered its swagger to close the evening with the familiar Sleeping Beauty waltz, but this wasn’t the sort of piece that Peter Ilyich intended to climax an evening of ballet, let alone an evening of orchestral music. A lead-off spot would have been more appropriate. As it turned out, Copland’s Billy the Kid suite vied with Trail of Tears as the best performance on this night.

Amy Orsinger Whitehead ably took over the flute chair while Wang waited in the wings, leading a volley of wind solos sounding Copland’s recurring “Open Prairie” theme, followed by principal clarinet Taylor Marino, principal oboe Hollis Ulaky, and French hornist Byron Johns. Pounding the timpani, acting principal Ariel Zaviezo Arriagada signaled the onset of the “Gun Battle,” but this dark episode didn’t eclipse the sunny impression made by Erinn Frechette, merrily playing the piccolo solo when we reached Copland’s “Frontier Town.”

With players of this caliber – and the zest that Young brought to this repertoire – I daresay that even Symphony’s stodgy subscribers would have been better pleased by an All-American evening. Whether they would have attended is a different question.

Charlotte Symphony Concertmaster Spearheads a Devastating “Scheherazade”

Review:  Scheherazade

By Perry Tannenbaum

Among over 100 versions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade that you can find on Spotify, the name of the violinist who plays the title role, in rare instances, will appear on the album cover. Given the enduring popularity of this Arabian Nights suite and the challenges it presents for our narrator, you can probably assume that the part of Scheherazade would be a prime arrow for an aspiring concertmaster to have in his or her quiver. Charlotte Symphony’s ace violinist, Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, proved once again that he had it. Unlike his previous triumph at Belk Theater as the spellbinding Arabian in 2009, Lupanu didn’t upstage conductor Christopher Warren-Green, who was then auditioning for the music directorship he now holds. No, this triumph could be credited to the entire orchestra, a redemption that was lifted even higher with a sense of renewal as Symphony’s new principal clarinetist Taylor Marino and their new principal bassoonist Olivia Oh made auspicious Belk Theater debuts. The program was also more propitiously supplemented, with the prelude to Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel launching the evening and Richard Strauss’s youthful Don Juan bringing us to intermission.

If you were expecting that lineup to be altogether spirited, lyrical, and upbeat, Humperdinck’s “Prelude” would have been a surprise. After Warren-Green dedicated the evening to the late Wolfgang Roth, Symphony’s former principal second violin, the soft and soothing choir of French horns set an appropriate tone and the sheen of the violins added soulfulness to the dedication. In the uptempo section that followed, Warren-Green banished all Wagnerian influences, so the piece became summery and bucolic. When the music crested and became rather grand for a children’s fairytale, the mood we arrived at was jubilation rather than conquest.

Maybe the Warren-Green dedication, assuring us that Herr Roth was listening, was the reason that everybody in the orchestra brought their A-game. Not only did Symphony eclipse their previous Scheherazade of 2009, they bettered their Don Juan performance of 2005 under the able baton Christof Perick. Lupanu gave us foretastes of things to come, sparkling in his early exchange with the glockenspiel and getting in on more of the storytelling late in Strauss’s tone poem with principal harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell, another harbinger of sweets to come. But it was the horn section and principal Frank Portone who atoned most mightily for the blemishes of yesteryear, announcing the Don’s heroic theme and keying a thrilling climax before the timpani and brass piled on. Warren-Green not only measured up to Perick’s Strauss expertise, he provided a useful explication, in his introductory remarks, of the full stop at the climax of the piece and drew our attention to the beautiful love song that principal oboist Hollis Ulaky would play. She did not disappoint.

All across Scheherazade, Lupanu and Trammell renewed their gorgeous partnership, stitching the narrative together, but it was Lupanu who reveled in the most virtuosic opportunities. In the opening “Sea and Sinbad” movement, Lupanu played so softly that Trammell’s harp actually sounded louder at times. He was commanding in one of the passages I most look forward to, the speed-up that cues the full orchestra’s build to the full epic, oceanic majesty of Rimsky’s symphony. Oh emerged impressively at the forefront for the bassoon’s graceful statement of the “Kalendar Prince” theme, and Marino was scintillating in the lyrical “Young Prince and the Young Prince” movement, first in the magical run after the gorgeous theme and later in the accelerated waltz section, dancing with the two flutes. Yet Lupanu reasserted his dominion with a narration that included some ricochet bowing before the orchestral repeat of the waltz and a delicate fadeout.

Lupanu’s double-bowed intro to the eventful finale – “Carnival,” “Sea,” shipwreck, “Bronze Warrior” – moodily contrasted with the busy tumult to come, beautifully dispelled by flutists Amy Orsinger Whitehead and principal Victor Wang as we arrived at the boisterousness of Baghdad. It had seemed that Warren-Green and Symphony couldn’t surpass the power and majesty of the opening movement, but they had not peaked too soon. There was a phantasmagorical speed and madness to the festival that broke dramatically into the “Sea” section with muscular brass and towering grandeur. Not an easy episode to follow, but Lupanu saved his most devastating eloquence for his final cadenza, sustaining a cluster of long high harmonics over the harp.

Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony Upstaged by Epic Paganini Concerto

Review:  Italian Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

Last week’s Symphony concert at Knight Theater, Italian Symphony, was a bit of a double entendre. Yes, the featured work on the program was Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, also known as the “Italian,” but all the other pieces on the bill had something Italian about them, even if the composers hailed from cooler climes. Other than Mendelssohn, we heard from Parisian maestro Hector Berlioz, whose musical marinara, gleaned from his poorly-received Benvenuto Cellini opera, was discreetly called “Roman Carnival Overture.”

In between these two non-Italians, we heard from Luciano Berio and the virtuosic Niccolò Paganini. Our guest conductor, Milan native Roberto Abbado, sustained the Italian connection. Only our guest soloist, Muscovite violinist Sergej Krylov, broke the Italian mold – unless we also consider the Charlotte Symphony musicians.

The last time Symphony played the “Roman Carnival Overture” in 2012, we were also at Knight Theater, but maestro Christopher Warren-Green had to battle the embryonic acoustics of the stage, which swallowed much of sonic details before they reached the audience. With the handsome wood-grained shell that now encloses the orchestra, strings sounded mellower and more immediate, the thrumming percussion that prodded the tempo had a far more audible and visceral effect, and the whole piece was livelier, with trombones asserting themselves in the final build.

Abbado seized upon the intro to Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 – its precipitous pauses, hairpin tempo changes, sudden thunderous outcries, and outbreaks of joyous melody – and brought out its kinship with Rossini’s overtures. The pause before Krylov’s bravura entrance was so emphatic that the intro might rightly be looked upon as an overture. As for Krylov, while he isn’t Italian, his pedigree for the Paganini concerto can hardly be bettered, for he studied under the renowned Salvatore Accardo, arguably the greatest living exponent of the entire Paganini violin repertoire. Accardo’s six-CD collection; including six concertos, the famed Caprices, and more; is calling out loudly to everybody at Knight Theater who sampled the goodies.

Of course, seeing this music performed live surpasses what you can merely hear. The speed, the exquisite harmonics, the double bowing, and the ricochet bowing heighten the drama when you watch them executed with such energy, deftness, and excitement. In the heat of the opening Allegro maestoso movement, you could see concertmaster Calin Lupanu and principal cellist Alan Black craning their necks to see around Abbado and fully savor what Krylov was doing. Not only was it epic enough to draw their smiles, most of the audience jumped up and gave the violinist a rousing ovation – forcing him, somewhat sheepishly, to remind us that there were two more movements to come.

The middle Adagio movement really required the audience to quiet down if it were to be heard, an oasis of tranquility before another onset of dazzle and fireworks. Anyone who had overlooked the purity of Krylov’s tone, particularly on the low notes and midrange of his instrument, could savor it here. Where the movement builds in volume and passion, both the soloist and the orchestra were up to the drama. The final Rondo: Allegro was shorter than the epic opening, but with some bodacious pizzicato work sprinkled amidst more frequent ricochet episodes, Krylov was no less spectacular, sparring a little with acting principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn along the way.

For those of us who love Luigi Boccherini’s guitar quintets, it bordered on criminal that credit to Luigi as the original creator of “La ritirata di Madrid” was deferred to the program notes on Berio in Symphony’s program booklet instead of in the main concert listing. All the guitar quintets are delightful, but the named pieces, the “Fandango” and “La ritirata,” are the stunners. Both take their names from their fourth and final movements, where Boccherini stretches the limits of his ensemble – string quartet plus guitar – by adding percussion effects. In the “Fandango,” he sneaks in a pair of castanets while the guitarist forcefully strums, but in the “Ritirata,” the strumming of the guitar simulates the fanfare of a full marching band, supplying all the percussion as the platoon moves through town and retires quietly to its barracks.

With principal Andrea Mumm Trammell sweetly plucking her harp, Berio’s orchestration of the arrival could be even quieter and stealthier. Nor did Berio deprive us of the services of traditional percussion – plus trumpets – where Boccherini had brought his quintet to a full roar. It was quite obvious that Abbado and Symphony relished their opportunity to bring orchestral power to this chamber music classic, and the fadeaway finish was absolutely adorable.

If Krylov’s pedigree was optimal for the Paganini, then no less can be said for Abbado’s with the Mendelssohn. Many regard the recordings by Claudio Abbado, Roberto’s uncle, as the most definitive traversal of Mendelssohn’s five symphonies. The nephew stamped his authority on the “Italian” in the opening measures of the most familiar movement, the vibrant Allegro vivace. Unlike the metronomic statement of the long melody line that we heard from Warren-Green and the ensemble in 2013, Abbado had a freer feel for the opening movement, the violins setting an exuberant pace and the winds injecting softer replies.

While the middle movements were mellow and satisfyingly cohesive, contrasting effectively with the bracing beginning, Abbado seemed to allow the lull to have a lingering effect on the Saltarello: Presto finale. The two flutists, Amy Orsinger Whitehead and principal Victor Wang, led a spirited charge into the breech, but when the strings answered back, it was merely with their former exuberance and not with a new ferocity or fire. Instead of Mozart bumping into Beethoven, it was more like Mozart flowing into Mozart, insufficiently bolstered by the timpani and brass. The flutes’ charge should have ignited more magic.

Charlotte Symphony’s “Royal Celebration” Delivers Brassy, Breathtaking Music

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.

Beethoven’s Fifth Recaptures Its Elemental Fire

Review:  Beethoven’s Fifth

By Perry Tannenbaum

Meeting an anticipated demand, Charlotte Symphony is programming their 2018-19 season opener, Beethoven’s Fifth, for three concerts instead of the usual two – and meeting subscribers’ hopes, they’re playing it beautifully. Leading off their season with an all-Beethoven program, music director Christopher Warren-Green and his ensemble weren’t exactly blazing new trails.

Last fall, Symphony also led off all-Beethoven, playing his mighty Ninth, and followed that program with more Beethoven in two of the next three concerts. So if anything, Symphony is tapering off on their Beethoven offerings this year – but not ignoring their audience’s rabid enthusiasm for his music. What’s impressive is that the musicians have maintained their enthusiasm as well.

A surprisingly small contingent, less than 50 players by my count, came out and played the “Overture to The Ruins of Athens,” one of Beethoven’s less familiar orchestral works, before guest soloist Garrick Ohlsson came out to perform the Piano Concerto No. 4. I couldn’t detect much desolation in The Ruins after its slightly gloomy intro. The first oboe statement was like a dewy sunrise, triggering a burst of orchestral merriment that drew a festive rejoinder from the oboe and jollity from the two flutes fluttering over the bassoons.

Such a charming appetizer! Then a big video screen descended from the Belk Theater proscenium, and the Steinway was wheeled to centerstage.

Ohlsson’s last appearance with Symphony was back in the early ‘90s, long before an overhead shot of the keyboard could disclose the size of this man’s hands for all to see as he attacked the keyboard. Those prodigious digits didn’t quite stop moving long enough for a conclusive measurement, but it sure looked like his pinkies were as large as the black keys. With that view, what was perhaps most impressive about Ohlsson in the first two movements was his delicacy and grace.

The opening Allegro moderato shuttled between swift, powerful passages and soft lyrical episodes. Ohlsson played both admirably, effortlessly, trilling with both hands simultaneously and, in the dramatic cadenza, clearly articulating its counterpoint. Warren-Green asserted himself more noticeably in the middle Andante con moto movement, so that it became a dreamy dialogue.

Every note of the concerto sounded fresh and new – until we slid into the familiar final movement with hardly a pause. Everyone onstage lit into it with gusto, the swift finger work at the start of this Rondo presenting no difficulty at all for Ohlsson, who proved that he was holding his full power in reserve for this celebratory climax. Ebb and flow weren’t so much about tempo here as they were about dynamics. Ohlsson and Warren-Green meshed beautifully to sculpt the loud and soft moments in a most satisfying way.

As the program notes on the concerto pointed out, it was especially fitting that Symphony had paired Piano No. 4 with the Fifth Symphony, for they were both premiered on the same December evening in 1808 – at a concert in Vienna, where Beethoven played and conducted. That marathon event also unveiled the Sixth Symphony, the Choral Fantasy, four movements of the Mass in C, and the “Ah! Perfido” aria for soprano. Although Warren-Green didn’t mention this historic landmark, when Beethoven would play for the last time in public due to approaching deafness, you can bet he was aware of it.

Six years ago, when Warren-Green conducted the concerto for the first time at Belk Theater, he paired it with Symphony No. 4, also in an all-Beethoven concert that launched the season. On that occasion, Warren-Green did mention that the very first time Beethoven performed the piece in a private concert at the palace of his patron Prince Joseph Lobkowitz in March 1807, he also conducted his Fourth Symphony.

This time around, Maestro called our attention to the fateful opening of Symphony No. 5, “the most famous four notes in the history of music,” saying that this was also the most familiar instance of Beethoven utilizing the music of the French Revolution, something he did throughout his career. Well, that pungent insight illuminated the entire symphony for me. Partly because of Warren-Green’s remarks, a piece that I had come to regard – and describe – as the most perfect ever written became freshly infused with its revolutionary spirit and elemental fire. Repeated hearings of recorded performance, I realized, had dimmed that fire for me.

Even in the relatively quiescent third movement, mostly notable for its 3/4 time and exquisite pizzicatos, there are brief outbreaks of revolutionary marching spirit, and afterwards, a gentle thrumming of the seething timpani as the whole simmering string section comes majestically to a boil and explodes – with a mighty entrance of trumpets – into the joyous, triumphant finale.

From the outset, Warren-Green spikes the sforzandos with terrific force, but the opening Allegro also features fine spots by principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and the French hornist to mellow the brew. It’s the trumpets that ignite the revolutionary fervor at the beginning of second movement Andante, exactly the kind of march that Warren-Green’s prefatory remarks suggested, but you’ll also hit a heavenly patch from the cellos that struck me as a foretaste of Wagner’s Rhein at this listen. Wonderful hushes of strings here hit me as one of the underappreciated reasons why we adore Beethoven. Some exquisite work lightly showered from flutists Amy Orsinger Whitehead and principal Victor Wang.

Maybe Erinn Frechette as well. From my vantage point up in the Grand Tier, I didn’t notice her until I heard her amid the tutti of the final Allegro, when she picked up her Little David of instruments, the piccolo. There she was, perfectly obscured in my line of sight behind Warren-Green! By contrast, I had noticed the elephantine contrabassoon lying neglected on its stand all evening. Only when the whole orchestra was wailing underneath Frechette in the symphony’s full-throated climax did I realize that Lori Tiberio had picked up her lumbering Goliath and was playing with everyone else. Why Beethoven had bothered with her and her contrabassoon I couldn’t say, for I cannot claim to have heard a single note.

I’m sure it was there. But I’ll stop short of making another claim, for I’d likely be surrendering a chunk of my judicial credibility if I told you that Beethoven not only wrote more stirring movements than the immortal “Da-da-da-DAA,” but that one of them is just a short distance down the road in the same Fifth Symphony. That’s one key reason why you need to experience this orchestra playing this music in live performance at the Belk.