Sibelius, Strauss anchor Charlotte Symphony’s 2014-’15 season

02/08/2014 12:00 AM

02/10/2014 2:46 PM

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s 2014-15 season first took shape 150 years ago in a sleepy Finnish city, in a cultured German capital and on the bloody battlefields of the United States of America.

The town of Hämeenlinna produced Jean Sibelius, whose towering Fifth Symphony and seductive Violin Concerto will be highlights in the Classics Series. Munich nurtured young Richard Strauss; his exuberant “Ein Heldenleben,” dramatic “Don Quixote” and boisterous “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” also anchor programs.

And the CSO will celebrate the 1865 end of the Civil War with Aaron Copland’s moving “Lincoln Portrait,” building an all-American program of Barber and Bernstein around it for the citywide Ulysses Festival in spring 2015. (Hmmm. Maybe it should be renamed the Ulysses S. Grant Festival.)

The season brings key changes. Three of the 10 Classics concerts in Belk Theater will be played on Thursdays, as well as the usual Fridays and Saturdays. Every performance will feature an imported soloist, though concertmaster Calin Lupanu will have an elevated role.

Yet the most unusual element is the soloist on the second program: Wu Man will play a pipa concerto by Zhao Jiping, the Chinese composer who wrote scores for Zhang Yimou’s films (“Raise the Red Lantern”).

The pipa is a four-stringed instrument with a pear-shaped body, sort of a Chinese lute that makes “extremely accessible music,” says music director Christopher Warren-Green, who’ll cede the podium that night to Mei-Ann Chen. “There has been more of a lockdown with men being conductors, and I wanted us to have a rising female star to conduct. She’ll also do Mozart and Schubert, so the program is mainstream enough for people to take a risk on a piece they don’t know. It’s about the audience trusting us to find things they’ll want to hear.”

The 2014-15 season makes inroads in that area, both with unfamiliar soloists – pianists Abdel Rahman El Bacha and Yulianna Avdeeva, violinist Pekka Kuusisto – and works CSO concertgoers may not have heard so often. The Strauss and Sibelius sesquicentennials fit in there.

“I wanted to put Sibelius into every season, though this is just the second time I’ve programmed a symphony,” says Warren-Green. “There’s a real kinship between the Scandinavians and the British; I’m convinced it has to do with the Vikings. My feelings for this music go back to the beginnings of my career in a youth orchestra; I’d play a Sibelius cycle if I got the chance.”

Warren-Green, himself once a concertmaster and violin soloist, has an understandable fondness for the violin-happy Strauss. Though Lupanu will get his big moment playing Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, he’ll play a key role in “Ein Heldenleben.” The teasing title translates to “A Hero’s Life,” with the composer representing himself and wife Paulina in music.

“We start the season with real heroism in (Beethoven’s) Eroica Symphony, and then we have this (mock) heroism in Strauss,” says Warren-Green. “I have a whole lot of repertoire I can’t live without, and Strauss is a big part of it. In fact, I’m furious I gave Gerry Schwarz ‘Don Quixote’!” He laughs. “But I hope audiences will hear this and think, ‘This is something we’ve missed.’ ” (Gerard Schwarz, the other guest conductor on the season, will lead “Quixote” with son Julian Schwarz as cello soloist.)

The CSO did so well with a Mother’s Day matinee in 2013 that it’ll cap the 2014-15 season with three performances of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto (Natasha Paremski soloing) and Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. But the more significant addition may be Thursday nights for two concerts.

“I always want to do more concerts,” says Warren-Green. “How many people do we lose because they go away on weekends or don’t want to come? In London, people go down to the country on weekends, so my London orchestra plays Wednesday and Thursday concerts.

“I’d like to play matinees, too, (because) a lot of people don’t want to go out at night. We got 200 people at the first KnightSounds brown-bag, with people bringing their lunches. In London, we also started with 200 people at the first matinee – and then ended up selling out two years later.”

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