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Symphony blasts off with sonic songs

By Lawrence Toppman
Lawrence Toppman
Lawrence Toppman is a theater critic and culture writer with The Charlotte Observer.

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  • Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

    The CSO plays Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (with Lukas Vondracek as soloist) and Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.”

    WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday.

    WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

    TICKETS: $19.50-$83.50.

    DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or

When you hear an orchestra begin an evening with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” you’re likely to get fireworks before the night is over. They came fast and often in the Charlotte Symphony’s concert at Belk Theater Friday, the first in its Classics Series.

The concert opened with Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” the most famous 20th-century set of variations on a theme – in this case, a striding motto Henry Purcell composed for the play “Abdelazar” – and followed with Franz Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto, where the composer and Czech pianist Lukas Vondracek reminded us the piano is indeed a percussion instrument.

The thunder rolled again in the martial opening to “The Planets,” justly famous for inspiring John Williams’ themes for “Star Wars.” But as soon as conductor Christopher Warren-Green got to “Venus,” the sensuous second section of Gustav Holst’s astrological suite, he turned the volume down without reducing the emotional temperature. From there, the musicians alternated shouts and whispers, until the women of the Oratorio Singers wafted us to mystical Neptune and beyond.

Actually, all three pieces demand orchestral virtuosity. Unlike Liszt’s First Concerto, where a powerhouse pianist can and should dominate his accompaniment, the second integrates the soloist and orchestra more consistently. It’s kin to Liszt’s big symphonic poems, partly because the orchestra carries most of the themes: The piano sometimes seems like it’s responding to the massive brass outbursts.

The 26-year-old at the keyboard wrung high drama out of all of it. Goblins seemed to dance in the quiet parts, demons in the loud ones. His clangorous bass notes rolled out like funeral bells, and the mood of coiled-spring intensity never changed. (Now I’d like to hear him play something where it did.)

Before the first downbeat, symphony executive director Robert Stickler dedicated the evening to bassist Ivan Zugelj, killed by pneumonia before he could begin his 40th season with the CSO. (A chair with flowers stood unobtrusively at the edge of the stage.) Zugelj might especially have enjoyed playing the Britten, where his section (like all the others) gets a moment in the spotlight. Warren-Green cleverly served up an encore of Purcell’s original “Abdelazar” rondeau, played by reduced strings and one drum.

Yet for the first time in memory, this tradition of a short final piece seemed like an imposition, because it followed the most staggering performance of “The Planets” I’ve ever heard live. (Or, in some respects, anywhere.)

Warren-Green played the piece three years ago in the KnightSounds series with reduced forces. The splendor of the full orchestra Friday reminded us why certain pieces absolutely must be heard live, even if you have audiophiles’ ears and James Cameron’s home sound system.

At home, you wouldn’t have seen the huge grin on timpanist Leonardo Soto’s face as he added to the thrilling din of the opening “Mars” section. It would have been easy to underrate Calin Lupanu’s violin, as he caressed the serene melody of “Venus,” or Emily Jarrell Urbanek’s celeste as it skittered through “Mercury.”

The freezing strings at the beginning of “Saturn” reminded us that time brings all of us to the same unavoidable end, and the offstage women of the Oratorio Singers provided an ethereal, dying fall to the final “Neptune” movement that was mystical indeed. Sometimes you have to see music as well as hear it – or in the case of these women, not see it – for it to fully work its magic.

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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