Camille Saint-Saens and Peter Tchaikovsky: the first a cheerful composer who joked that he produced music as easily as an apple tree does apples, the second a lifelong neurotic who may have taken his own life nine days after the premiere of his riveting sixth symphony.
There they were on the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra program Friday, the merrymaking Frenchman and the melancholy Slav. Yet they went well together, with the added fillip of Mozart’s overture to the opera “Don Giovanni.”
Violinist Karen Gomyo played Saint-Saens’ Third Concerto as if it were a great piece, with a tone that was muscular whenever the music needed oomph and sweet when it turned sugary. You can see why music director Christopher Warren-Green wants to have her back someday for Benjamin Britten’s concerto, which demands strength and lyricism.
Warren-Green capped the concert with a refreshingly direct view of the Pathetique Symphony, substituting joy and sadness for the hysteria and utter despair you sometimes hear.
Saint-Saens and Tchaikovsky were actually friends, mostly by long distance, for the last 18 years of the latter’s life. They met in Moscow in 1875, when Saint-Saens was on a piano tour; the Frenchman later helped arrange a Paris premiere for his new pal’s “Romeo and Juliet.” They reunited just once, in England during the spring of 1893, when both got honorary degrees from Cambridge. A month before his death, Tchaikovsky was preparing to conduct Saint-Saens’ First Cello Concerto.
If Saint-Saens seemed one shade darker than usual Friday and Tchaikovsky one shade lighter, that suited the music. The fierce allegro outburst in the first movement of the Pathetique sounded like a man jolted by the ugliness of life out of a hopeful reverie, not an outbreak of madness. The waltz had lighthearted zest, the march a brisk dignity untroubled by neurasthenia.
The final movement stressed poignancy, not morbidity – an old-fashioned view of the piece that, after decades of frenzied or overbearing interpretations, was all the more effective.