Lawrence Toppman

Charlotte Symphony wraps two giants around a jazzy newcomer

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra timpanist Leonardo Soto barely stands still during the world premiere of Leonard Mark Lewis’ concerto “Evolution.”
Charlotte Symphony Orchestra timpanist Leonardo Soto barely stands still during the world premiere of Leonard Mark Lewis’ concerto “Evolution.” Courtesy of Leonardo Soto

Every Charlotte Symphony Orchestra concert uptown involves a series of decisions. Do I want to spend the dough for a ticket or two? Will the pleasure I get from two hours of listening justify the extra hour or more in my car, some of it behind vehicles clogging a parking garage? Do I want to test my ears and patience with works I don’t know?

Variables increase by one this week: Do I brave Snowmageddon? Only you know the level of your driving skills and tread depth of your tires. All things considered, I’d say...think about it.

The overture to Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” a curtain-raiser that caught fire in its second half Friday, is slim justification. Franz Schubert’s Ninth Symphony provides a better reason.

After Beethoven’s death, Schubert briefly became the greatest living European composer, and his last symphony has profound depths. Music director Christopher Warren-Green’s crisply rhythmic rendition acknowledged a debt to Beethoven but suggested other influences: The well-sprung opening movement felt like late Mozart, and scurrying strings in the finale would’ve made Rossini smile. (He was born five years before Schubert, who enjoyed his comic operas and may have been paying a brief homage. By the way, had Mozart lived to 73, he’d have outlived Beethoven and Schubert.)

Yet the best reason to stir after the storm Saturday could be “Evolution,” the new percussion concerto by Winthrop University’s Leonard Mark Lewis. Concertgoers who sloshed to Belk Theater Friday night heard – and, importantly, saw – the world premiere of a piece that glittered and percolated in the hands of Leonardo Soto, the CSO’s timpanist.

Lewis isn’t afraid to combine ideas that don’t commonly complement each other. Strings lay down a warm melody, while the soloist plays propulsively on the marimba or dreamily on the xylophone. (That happens in the first of three movements, played without a defined break but with clear changes in mood.) Jazzy brass drive the beginning of the last section, and the soloist wails on a drum kit – Lewis has roots in jazz, as well as classical music – but those strings go on about more peaceful business.

Soto provides visual as well as audible enjoyment. He rises to the balls of his feet, hands blurring as four mallets skitter over the marimba. He finishes with a long cadenza on timpani (a very long cadenza indeed), swiveling his shoulders left and right as his hands hammer and hush the big drums. When the music swings, he swings.

Yet there’s delicacy, too. During the brief, lovely Meditation, strings and harp play contemplatively. Soto picks up crotales (tiny tuned cymbals) and rubs them with a violin bow, producing a soft, keening sound. He does this while walking across the stage, creating a visual and physical bridge between the two extroverted movements, and he seems to send vibrations up like a quiet message to the cosmos.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

The concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday in Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St. It includes Leonard Mark Lewis’ percussion concerto, “Evolution;” the overture to Beethoven’s “Fidelio;” and Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. There’s a pre-concert talk at 7 and a talkback with the soloist and composer afterward. Tickets cost $29-$109. Details: 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org.

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