When Felix Mendelssohn was 20 years old, he took a break from being a musical wunderkind and paid a visit to Scotland. A rocky cavern, a decaying palace and other vistas inspired in him a "misty Scottish mood," as he called it, that he turned into music - paving the way for the Charlotte Symphony to take its audience on a sonic trip to Scotland this weekend.
Mendelssohn may have been on vacation when he took in the sights, but the music that resulted is no holiday for an orchestra. The "Fingal's Cave" overture and "Scottish" Symphony are as intricate as they are dramatic. The other main piece on the bill this weekend, Max Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy" - based on glowing and catchy folk tunes - is no trifle, either. The orchestra has to be lush and lusty without drowning out the violin soloist.
All that's a lot to expect. But the orchestra played Mendelssohn with spirit and Bruch with warmth Friday, even though Mendelssohn's more delicate spots demanded more refinement than the orchestra had.
Conductor Christopher Warren-Green obviously wants nothing to do with some people's misconception that Mendelssohn's music is pretty but innocuous. When the waves surged around Fingal's Cave and when the "Scottish" Symphony turned stormy, he drove the players to dig in. Especially in the "Scottish," the orchestra sometimes cut loose to the point of being rowdy - not the height of polish, but in the zesty finale, not necessarily bad, either. The French horns' stout-hearted cries galvanized the big finish.
But Warren-Green also led the violins to caress the sweet, trademark-Mendelssohn tune in the symphony's slow movement. The winds playing in the background couldn't equal the delicacy, though: They sounded heavy by comparison. In the murmuring start of "Fingal's Cave," the orchestra went a little far in the opposite direction. Sometimes it was downright thin.
But the lush textures of the "Scottish Fantasy" gave the orchestra more to hang onto, and it made Bruch's music resonant and lively. It also scaled back to make way for teenaged violinist Caroline Goulding, a winner of the Young Concert Artists International Auditions. She gave the music ardor, fullness and a rhapsodic sweep.
But the show was almost stolen by even younger violinists: budding players in a string program the orchestra backs at Winterfield Elementary in east Charlotte. They stepped out front and delivered a line of harmony as the orchestra played "Farewell to Stromness," a melodious piece by Peter Maxwell Davies - the only Scots composer on the bill. The audience responded resoundingly as soon as the kids appeared - and even more so when they finished.