Lawrence Toppman

A brisk breeze of Mendelssohn, beatific Elgar – and bagpipes

Nancy Tunnicliffe, who’s playing Peter Maxwell Davies’ “An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise” with the Charlotte Symphony this weekend, often plays with orchestras. Here she performs Peter Taussig’s Bagpipe Concerto with the Michigan Philharmonic.
Nancy Tunnicliffe, who’s playing Peter Maxwell Davies’ “An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise” with the Charlotte Symphony this weekend, often plays with orchestras. Here she performs Peter Taussig’s Bagpipe Concerto with the Michigan Philharmonic. Courtesy of Nancy Tunnicliffe

“Max loved to write music falling apart,” music director Christopher Warren-Green told the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra audience Friday night at Belk Theater.

What he didn’t say was that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies – whose “An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise” he was about to conduct – also liked to write music where things come splendidly together. The following 15 minutes went from laugh-out-loud silliness to a nobility provided by Nancy Tunnicliffe’s bagpipes.

The tickets proclaimed this to be the night of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony. I suppose “stuff Warren-Green loves” sounded too vague, but that’s just what we got.

He opened with Edward Elgar’s “Serenade for Strings,” a piece he recorded with his London Chamber Orchestra. He grew up on John Barbirolli’s iconic 1960s disc, one of his favorite records as a student, and his elegant version Friday hearkened back to it.

He closed with a vigorous reading of Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony, including an adagio that flowed purposefully along. The horns produced rumbustious whoops in the second movement that almost sounded like the natural (i.e. valveless) horns Mendelssohn would’ve heard, and their jubilant tones in the finale blew us across the finish line with gusto.

Yet each Classical Series concert this year holds one lesser-known piece likely to be a highlight, and “Orkney Wedding” fit the bill.

Warren-Green recalled his last visit to Sir Peter, who lived on a remote Scottish island and died of leukemia last March. Violinist Rosemary Furniss (Warren-Green’s wife) had played in Fires of London, a chamber group devoted especially to his work.

The couple came home with a fresh fiddle tune written for the CSO’s educational purposes and a copy of the score to “Orkney Wedding,” with advice about whiskey in the composer’s handwriting: “Think about Highland Park or Scapa (MY favourite!) before lifting the baton – & afterwards, down a FEW most generous glasses!”

The piece itself has a tipsy flair, depicting as it does a wedding in the Scottish north where guests and musicians insulate themselves against the cold with many a deoch an doris. Scottish reels start strongly, then devolve into chaos created by reeling Scots. Concertmaster Calin Lupanu, who stands in for the fiddler at the ceremony, plays a solo that gets boozier and woozier.

Then comes sunrise, in the form of piper Tunnicliffe in full regalia. (She played the world premiere of the piece in 1984, with John Williams conducting the Boston Pops.)

Her contribution lasts perhaps three glorious minutes, restoring order and bringing a sense of stately grandeur to the wild proceedings. She must have the shortest part of any soloist the symphony has imported, but she makes every poignant note count.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

The program repeats tonight at 8 p.m. in Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St. Tickets are $34 to $127. charlottesymphony.org.

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