Masterworks of Russian classical music fit into the span of one long human life. Every great concerto, symphony, opera, ballet, choral or chamber work by Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Stravinsky (before he bolted to America) came between the early 1860s and early 1950s.
Yet what variety is there! The tone painting of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” (especially as re-orchestrated by Rimsky), astringent beauty of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and restless romanticism of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 3 take us to wholly different places.
The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra conducted that tour Thursday at Belk Theater, with Christopher Warren-Green conducting and concertmaster Calin Lupanu (who played Prokofiev’s first violin concerto in 2014) as soloist.
The maestro and his players, facing the smallest audience I remember seeing at a mainstage Classics concert, played with the energy they’d give a bigger crowd. (The experiment of Thursday performances will be abandoned next season.)
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The brass in “Bald Mountain” almost seemed to smoke when summoning Satan to a witches’ sabbath. (That’s not just an image from Disney’s “Fantasia”; the composer suggested it.)
The strings, which sounded wan during the Prokofiev, swelled warmly during Rachmaninov’s most discursive symphony. The musicians enjoyed delicate interludes we don’t always hear in his music: a duet for horn and harp in the second movement, a chuckling bassoon and whirling flutes in the third. This is a lighter-hearted piece for people who already love Rachmaninov, less lush than some earlier work but recognizably his.
Like most of Prokofiev’s top-shelf scores, this concerto alternates tense and tender episodes – a little less tense than usual and, in the violin melody that opens the second movement, as tender as any piece of 20th-century music.
Lupanu developed that theme, a quasi-operatic aria of yearning, from a thread of sound that slowly became full-voiced. He doesn’t always cut through the ensemble in louder sections, though he plays well; in softer ones, he’s beguiling.
P.S. Aaron Copland’s “Hoe-Down” was the encore, even though Andrew Grams conducted it here last month. Warren-Green had made a wager with the music director of the Colorado Symphony, promising to do it again if the Panthers lost the Super Bowl.
Copland fit into the overall scheme – this son of Russian immigrants wrote “Rodeo” in 1942 – and Warren-Green conducted with as much dignity as you can muster while wearing an orange-and-white Peyton Manning jersey.