Lawrence Toppman

Charlotte Symphony shows a gentler side

There was a time – a brief time, from 1876 through 1914 – when most of Europe wasn’t embroiled in a war. Fifteen small conflicts took place, every one involving Turkey or Romania or the Balkan states. But France, Germany and England were able to enjoy a hard-won and transitory ease.

From that deceptively halcyon period come all three works on this week’s Charlotte Symphony Orchestra concert. All give or reflect upon peace, whether spiritual or physical. Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem celebrates a world yet to come to us in heaven; George Butterworth’s “A Shropshire Lad” celebrates a pastoral world that was already slipping away when he wrote it; Maurice Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite takes place in a fanciful world that never existed.

So if the program at Belk Theater had a gently homogenous quality, nobody could have been surprised. Christopher Warren-Green likes to say that the true test of an orchestra is whether it can play well softly, and that’s also true of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Though both blazed at times in the Fauré, especially in the lone section about the Day of Wrath, both proved they could put across their message with wisps and whispers of sound.

Warren-Green took the microphone after intermission to say the concert had been planned as a tribute to fallen soldiers – and would still be one – but had also been dedicated to all victims of terrorism. Fauré would surely have approved: He directed the Paris Conservatoire (where he taught Ravel, among others) and lived in that great city most of his life.

All three composers were directly affected by World War I, Butterworth most tragically: He died in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. Ravel joined France’s 13th Artillery Regiment as a lorry driver in March 1915, when he was 40; Fauré was briefly stranded in Germany (where he took a retreat from composing) by the declaration of war but managed to get back to France through Switzerland.

The first half of the program gave precedence to strings and winds. Clarinetist Gene Kavadlo and violist Benjamin Geller deservedly took bows, after the orchestra had finished Butterworth’s view of rural life in England. The composer originally set A.E. Housman’s elegaic poems to music; this orchestral view of his own country spoke without words. (The CSO had never played this work before.)

The orchestra gave us a subdued “Mother Goose,” with a mild-mannered Empress of the Pagodas and a Fairy Garden that came quietly to life. (I wished I could have heard the full ballet, which has two extra movements and four interludes. We certainly had time, as the concert barely took 90 minutes.)

The Fauré capped the concert with a heavenly smile. Soprano Christina Pier sang sweetly of Jesus’ mercy in the Pie Jesu section, the heart of the work; baritone Douglas Williams didn’t try to blast us even when singing of the “deep pit” of Hell or the “fear and trembling” before God. And in the end, the chorus eased us into paradise, just as Fauré intended.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday at Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St. Tickets are $25.50-89.50. Details: 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org.

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