Forgive me if I devote most of a review to the shortest piece on the Charlotte Symphony program this weekend.
Guest conductor Robert Moody handled Hector Berlioz’s huge “Symphonie Fantastique” with vigor and precision. Guest soprano Sarah Jane McMahon sang Samuel Barber’s dreamlike “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” with warmth and emotion. But how often do you get to hear this orchestra play a piece it has never done?
The CSO commissioned Dan Locklair’s 20-minute “Prism of Life” in 1982 for its 50th anniversary season. Since then, his tonal music has bucked trends (or perhaps simply outlasted them), and “Phoenix” provided 10 solid minutes of pleasure.
The Charlotte native created “Phoenix” for organ, brass and percussion in 1985. Moody, who lives in Cornelius and conducts the Winston-Salem Symphony, asked Locklair to orchestrate it in 2007 and led that premiere, so he knows how to get to the heart of the work.
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A brass choir in the grand tier opened with the fanfare, tossing the theme to the brass onstage. Jaunty percussion and strings join them, until the strings take up a lyrical theme that suggests Barber in his mellower moments. The work takes on a stately processional mood for a while, until the brass upstairs take over again. The music is bold, then delicate, then builds to a bouncy brass and percussion segment that ends with a suitably rousing finish. Locklair has judged the length and pacing well.
Next came “Knoxville,” where McMahon might have been a mother recalling girlhood in a bedtime speech to a child. James Agee’s text seems self-consciously “poetic” and awkward to me, but Barber’s gently nostalgic mood suits and improves it. She and Moody didn’t linger over sentimental parts or rush through the passionate moments.
Whether you consider “Symphonie Fantastique” a fascinating fever dream or an hour of bombast, it demands crisp playing. Except for the third movement, where Moody dawdled in the countryside among the sheep, he consistently found refinement and excitement in the work.
The finale, where twin tubas thunder the Dies Irae theme while a percussionist whangs a gong, really took off; Moody delighted in its vulgarity without overplaying it. As a patron remarked on the way out, “You can’t go wrong with two sets of kettledrums!” Enough said.