Lawrence Toppman

Charlotte Symphony: A wild night in central Europe

Benedetto Lupo makes Liszt sound top-notch with the Charlotte Symphony.
Benedetto Lupo makes Liszt sound top-notch with the Charlotte Symphony. Courtesy of Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

Forgive me if I spend the first half of this review on the last 12 minutes of Friday’s Charlotte Symphony concert.

I had never heard György Ligeti’s “Concert Romanesc” played live. The piece energized me, guest conductor Michael Christie and the CSO musicians: The face of concertmaster Calin Lupanu (who was playing music from his Romanian homeland) split in a huge grin, as he fiddled frantically through the quasi-gypsy melodies.

Ligeti was one of Stanley Kubrick’s favorite composers; four ethereal and less accessible pieces appear in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and smaller bits can be heard in “Eyes Wide Shut” and “The Shining.” But this tonal concerto for orchestra, written by the 28-year-old Transylvanian when he was still finding a personal style, sounds like something Bartok might have bequeathed.

The composer drew from both Romanian folk music in the late 1940s, which he recorded, and music of the Romany people (sometimes called gypsies). He made those his own with unusual combinations of instruments and a whirling series of melodies, the last of which sounded like birdsong. Patrons who scuttled away after the previous double helping of Liszt, perhaps frightened by the idea of “new” music – music written circa 1950 – missed a treat.

To be fair, they’d already had a pretty full meal. Christie began with a smoothed-out version of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. He chose reasonable tempos and kept things flowing, but the rudeness and humor in the piece found no place in this staid interpretation.

He and the orchestra caught fire in the second half, when Italian pianist Benedetto Lupo came out to play Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and “Totentanz.”

Lupo’s aware that Chopin and Liszt were born one year apart and knew each other’s music. So he alternated poetry and potency, even amid the clamor of “Totentanz” (variations on the Dies Irae, the musical theme associated with the biblical Day of Wrath).

The symphony lowered a screen to show images taken by a camera pointing down at the keyboard. You could watch Lupo’s hands fly through Liszt’s pyrotechnics; at one point, he played a long double trill that made you marvel at his concentration. This might have been distracting in great music, but here it was mostly like getting a closeup of explosions at a Fourth of July show.

Perhaps that camera also honored Van Cliburn. Lupo, who won the bronze medal at the 1989 Cliburn competition, was playing the Steinway Model D that Cliburn often used onstage – a tribute to another artist who found more than fireworks in Liszt.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

The concert will be repeated Saturday at 8 p.m. in Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St. The program offers Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, Liszt’s “Totentanz” and Piano Concerto No. 1, and Ligeti’s “Concert Romanesc.” $27-$93. 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org.

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