March 14, 2014

Hough, Charlotte Symphony take new look at old classics

Pianist and conductor Warren-Green make us hear beloved pieces with fresh ears.

The eighth concert of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s Classics Series offered three outpourings of joy.

It began with a loving tribute from one British master to another, Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of a chacony by Henry Purcell. Then came Robert Schumann’s piano concerto, which he began the year after he married his adored Clara Wieck (1841) and finished four years later, as he was recovering from the depression and ill health that had plagued him.

The night finished with Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, the most jovial of his nine. It begins with a lyrical flow of good humor and ends 40 minutes later in riotous brass whoops. If you weren’t happy after that outpouring of high spirits, music probably couldn’t have cheered you up Friday night.

This was also a night for reappraisal. Britten’s reworking of Purcell used the older composer’s theme for a set of variations that were stately but never stuffy. Then Hough made us hear the concerto anew, blowing dust off decades of tradition.

Most pianists go for a consistent strain of quiet poetry here, interrupted once in a while by a grand utterance that sinks back into introversion. Hough thinks hard about everything he plays and never seems bound by familiar ideas, and he played in an extroverted style: The end of the first movement sounded like Tchaikovsky before Tchaikovsky. Though Hough didn’t lack poetry, he wanted us to hear the ideas of a still-vigorous composer in his early 30s who was deeply in love with the great pianist who premiered his works.

The intermezzo was playful rather than reflective, and the final movement provided grandeur instead of buoyant fun. Hough took a similar approach to his encore, a big-boned Chopin waltz with muscle as well as melody. (The waltz is not a dance for weaklings.) Many pianists put heart into Schumann and Chopin; Hough adds spine.

When Christopher Warren-Green swept into the first movement of the Dvorak, the surprise was its beefy string tone. The CSO’s strings sometimes sound thin – this is the result of budgetary restrictions, not players’ skill – yet the big melodies Friday night had rare richness and robustness.

Warren-Green took the piece to extremes. That works pretty well with the “English Symphony,” so named because Dvorak’s German publisher offered too little money, and he took it to an English firm. (The breathless approach worked less well in the encore, the first of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances.)

After lyrical openings, both the first and fourth movements of the symphony took off like rockets: The conductor literally went airborne in each one during a couple of upbeats. He lingered over the slow movement until it came almost to a halt, then gently perked it up again. And every movement demonstrated why you have to see classical music: This symphony is full of lovely solos, including a gentle moment for solo violin, that may not emerge from the textures of a recording.

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