The main thing about any Charlotte Symphony Orchestra concert is usually a what or a who: the program and the soloist or guest conductor. On occasions, such as the launching of KnightSounds in a venue other than Belk Theater, it’s a where. But the rare thing about this week’s pairing of Beethoven and Richard Strauss is a when.
The concert debuted on Thursday night at the Belk, in an experiment to see whether people who want to use weekends for other pursuits would attend on a weekday. Orchestra President Bob Stickler says patrons often ask for that opportunity. In the 1980s, the CSO played on Wednesdays in Ovens Auditorium.
This gig may not have been a fair trial: The Panthers were playing a sold-out game nearby, and the Mint Museum held a reception for a new exhibit. So a sparse crowd, all coming on single-ticket sales, showed up for the early 7:30 curtain.
What it heard in the second half was the orchestra at its biggest this year – 88 players for Strauss’ “A Hero’s Life” – and close to its best.
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The night began fizzingly, with Wagner’s third-act prelude to “Lohengrin.” Then pianist Abdel Rahman El Bacha gave a monochromatic rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto, playing all three movements with precise dignity. The tenderness of the adagio and dancelike joy of the rondo never emerged.
But music director Christopher Warren-Green cut loose on “Ein Heldenleben,” a cut-loosable piece if ever Strauss composed one.
He wrote it about himself, not entirely in jest, and the players got all of it: glorious vulgarity, good-humored self-aggrandizement, half-teasing and half-affectionate attitude toward his wife (embodied sweetly and capriciously in solos by concertmaster Calin Lupanu) and finally elegiac warmth.
Strauss celebrates his past masterpieces in musical quotations and tweaks critics with woodwinds that chirp and bleat. The audience luxuriated in the big sound – five trumpets, eight horns, massed strings – and the musicians played as if a full house were listening.
Management will re-test the waters in late April with a Chopin/Sibelius concert. Unfortunately, that one opens on a Thursday against Charlotte Ballet’s last production, so the timing might skew the figures again. But this will be a grand idea when the CSO gets the logistics right.