When you hear an orchestra begin an evening with The Star-Spangled Banner, youre likely to get fireworks before the night is over. They came fast and often in the Charlotte Symphonys concert at Belk Theater Friday, the first in its Classics Series.
The concert opened with Benjamin Brittens Young Persons 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 Liszts 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 Holsts 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 Liszts First Concerto, where a powerhouse pianist can and should dominate his accompaniment, the second integrates the soloist and orchestra more consistently. Its kin to Liszts big symphonic poems, partly because the orchestra carries most of the themes: The piano sometimes seems like its 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 Id 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 Purcells 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 Ive 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 Camerons home sound system.
At home, you wouldnt have seen the huge grin on timpanist Leonardo Sotos face as he added to the thrilling din of the opening Mars section. It would have been easy to underrate Calin Lupanus violin, as he caressed the serene melody of Venus, or Emily Jarrell Urbaneks 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.
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