Once again, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra presented us with a compact chunk of musical history Friday at Belk Theater. Only 47 years separated Johannes Brahms Third Symphony (1883) from Joseph Canteloubes Songs of the Auvergne (1923-30) but what years they were.
Brahms wrote amid the prosperity that made Vienna a 19th-century capital. Maurice Ravel composed La Valse, often described as the death knell of the Viennese waltz, just after the degrading violence of World War I. Canteloube evoked the pastoral calm and beauty of rural France, which would be disturbed by Nazi jackboots a decade later.
Guest conductor Larry Rachleff steered the orchestra through these three pieces with a deliberate hand, asking the players to catch fire only near the end of the Brahms and Ravel. His slow, flowing tempos best suited the sun-dappled Auvergne songs, which soprano Susan Lorette Dunn (his wife) sang warmly.
How bucolic was that selection? All six songs were about searching for love in the countryside, tending sheep or searching for love in the countryside while tending sheep. In Rachleff and Dunns hands, the narrator was not a young and slightly risqué girl speaking of fresh experiences but a mature woman, who reflected on her youth with a smile.
The well-articulated Ravel caught the elegance and grandeur the composer inserted in the beginning of the piece perhaps mockingly and built to a vivid climax, but none of the neurotic energy Ravel wanted came through. He asked for a whirling, almost hallucinatory ecstasy; what we heard was played with vigorous exactness but no feelings of a dancer spinning out of control.
In its way, the Ravel followed the pattern Rachleff had established with Brahms symphony. People toss the word autumnal automatically in front of that composers name, as if hed been born 50 years old and never played piano in dance halls (or, perhaps, houses of ill repute).
The third symphony, tersest and potentially most tempestuous of his four, begins with an up-thrusting F-A flat-F sequence, as if Brahms were scaling a peak. That theme which allegedly represents his personal motto, Frei aber froh (Free but happy) reappears throughout the piece in different ways.
From that beginning, Rachleff molded his monochromatic interpretation, which could be read as gently meditative (if it worked for you) or languid (if it didnt). This approach suggested the quiet parts of the sixth symphony of Beethoven (whom Brahms admired hugely) or some slower movements by Schumann, Brahms friend and mentor.
Rachleff seldom sought drama, except for a short burst in the first movement (an allegro played with hardly any brio) and a longer one in the finale. In between came an amble in the woods with Brahms, without a hint of a storm on the horizon.
P.S. Symphony management shared happy news before the opening downbeat: Katherine McKay Belk-Cook and the CSO have named the principal cello chair in memory of her mother, Kate Whitner McKay. (Alan Black sits in it now.) The name recognizes Belk-Cooks recent leadership gift to the symphony and celebrates her moms lifelong love of music. May others feel so inspired!
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