Christof Perick, music director of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra before Christopher Warren-Green, once told me, “You cannot forever hide from Bruckner.”
Those six words contain two important thoughts. First, an orchestra might want to hide, in case lazy concertgoers think Bruckner will be “difficult” (he isn’t) and decline to buy tickets.
Second, he needs to be heard. His cathedrals of sound satisfy us in a uniquely spiritual way, with a grandeur far different from that of a Richard Wagner or a Richard Strauss – contemporaries who shared the CSO program with him Friday night at Belk Theater.
Warren-Green opened with orchestral chunks from operas: the overture to Wagner’s “Tannhauser” and the first suite extracted from Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier.” After intermission, he turned to Bruckner for two choral works: The briefly blazing setting of Psalm 150 (“Praise ye the Lord”) and the extended but equally fervent “Te Deum” (which has pretty much the same celebratory message).
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The “Tannhauser” began unusually slowly, with a drawn-out French horn solo handled well by Frank Portone. Warren-Green never lost the pulse of the music; he caught the nobility the title character finally achieves, if not the sexual energy he exudes at the beginning. (Yes, these themes are heard in “What’s Opera, Doc?” Enjoy this sample.)
The Strauss excerpts, played with schmaltz in the languorous slow parts – good work by Kurt Riecken on double-bass here – and verve in the brisk ones, captured the flavor of that later opera: linzertorte topped with sour cream.
The choral stuff simply cooked. Kenney Potter, director of choruses for the CSO, will get few chances to prepare Bruckner, and he took advantage of his group’s full-throated skills and ability to hush themselves. (Not that Bruckner asks for the latter very often.)
The tenor gets almost all the solo work in the “Te Deum,” becoming a kind of informal narrator like an evangelist in a Bach passion. He reminds us Jesus “did not abhor the Virgin’s womb” and asks Christ to “help Thy servants whom Thou has redeemed with Thy precious blood.” Paul Appleby sang with clarion tones, cushioned by soprano Georgia Jarman, mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano and bass-baritone Davóne Tines.
Before the psalm, Warren-Green took a moment to quote something Mahler had written on his “Te Deum” score: “For the tongues of angels, chastened hearts and souls purified by the fire.”
A lot of Bruckner’s music inspires that devout, intense feeling, and the audience’s warm response made me hope the Austrian master will turn up again next season. If only the CSO had the money to hire extra musicians for his Eighth Symphony....