Local Arts

Review: Charlotte Symphony Orchestra plays two composers, but only one genius

The Charlotte Symphony chorus. Symphony music director Christopher Warren-Green conducted the symphony Friday night during its performance of Mozart’s “Requiem.”
The Charlotte Symphony chorus. Symphony music director Christopher Warren-Green conducted the symphony Friday night during its performance of Mozart’s “Requiem.” Charlotte Symphony

Thomas Edison reportedly said genius is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. If that’s true, you can witness the difference 10 percent makes at Charlotte Symphony Orchestra concerts this weekend.

Go to Belk Theater to hear back-to-back pieces by Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Mozart, rivals and infrequent collaborators in Vienna of the 1780s. Music director Christopher Warren-Green leads Salieri’s symphony “Il Giorno Onomastico” and Mozart’s Requiem in the version finished by his pupil, Franz Sussmayr.

Salieri’s symphony is vigorous, genial, intelligently orchestrated and varied in moods over its four movements. But if I heard it again tomorrow, I wouldn’t recognize a note — except, perhaps, the sighing string motif that opens the second movement, which Salieri works to death because he’s so pleased with it.

Warren-Green introduced what must be the Charlotte premiere of this work by saying Salieri numbered Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt among his pupils. This makes him classical music’s Charlie Lau, a .255 career hitter whose batting instruction boosted George Brett and Carlton Fisk into baseball’s Hall of Fame. I’m glad the CSO played him, though: We need to hear rare works more often, though they may not be masterpieces.

The orchestra began by playing Nkeiru Okoye’s “Charlotte Mecklenburg” for the second time this season. They commissioned it last year to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the city; it was recorded Friday to be part of “A People’s History of Charlotte,” a 3-D projection event at McColl Center for Art + Innovation during the upcoming Charlotte Shout.

I remembered liking it more at the premiere; the beginning, played limply this time, sounded like watered-down Copland. But the piece moved into a higher gear midway through, using a four-note percussion motif and whistles, and it concluded with a high-kicking South American dance number. Even if you don’t know the history behind it — for instance, the percussion phrase reflects the name “Keith Lamont Scott,” victim of a police shooting — the music mostly holds up.

Warren-Green and the players came to life for the mass of death. They made the hairpin turns from the weighty “Requiem aeternam” to the blissful “Kyrie eleison” to the earthquaking warnings about the Day of Judgment. Mozart employs triple trombones instead of a mass of horns, and Tom Burge stood out in his solos during the “Tuba mirum” section.

The Charlotte Symphony Chorus, which leaves the orchestra at the end of the season to perform as Charlotte Master Chorale, sang with precision and vitality. They made even the four fugues in the second half give resounding pleasure. (The symphony plans to hire the chorale, which prepares under conductor Kenney Potter, for future choral concerts.)

I don’t think Sussmayr gets enough credit for trying to finish a work by the greatest composer of his age. I can’t imagine we’d have four fugues in the second half had Mozart lived, but Sussmayr was smart enough to round the work out by returning to Mozart’s musical themes. Two-thirds of a genius is always better than 100 per cent of a mediocrity.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. April 13, 3 p.m. April 14.

WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

TICKETS: $19-$160.

DETAILS: 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org.