Lawrence Toppman

Charlotte Symphony concert is a blast – but in the wrong way

Cicely Parnas plays Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 this weekend at Belk Theater.
Cicely Parnas plays Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 this weekend at Belk Theater. Courtesy of Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

The last time Charlotte Symphony Orchestra audiences saw Han-Na Chang, she was playing the cello solos in Brahms’ Double Concerto 13 years ago, matching violinist Kyoko Takezawa in power and subtlety.

She returned to Belk Theater Friday night at 33, as a guest conductor of a very different kind: Painting entirely in primary colors and pushing the orchestra to extremes that were occasionally rousing but ultimately wearying. She did herself, cello soloist Cicely Parnas and especially composer Jean Sibelius few favors.

She began with a version of Maurice Ravel’s “Valses nobles et sentimentales” that had a strong rhythmic pulse but lacked drama and wit. Then came Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1, which made Chang a classical music star after she recorded it as a cellist in 1996.

Parnas produced a large, beautiful tone from the opening bars, making me want to hear what she would do with something as big as the Dvorak or Elgar concertos. But whether under constraint or by mutual agreement, she blasted through the Saint-Saens at top speed, creating a mood of furious excitement (if you liked it) or hectic superficiality (if you didn’t). The piece has no true slow movement, but the few sections where restraint and elegance might have emerged got glossed over.

Chang whipped the orchestra into another frenzy in Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1. The players gave her everything she demanded in speed and volume with frantic zeal, like swimmers trying to reach land before they drowned.

Sibelius wrote this symphony – one of the greatest of the late 19th century – partly to stir national pride in his countrymen, who were chafing under restrictions from Russian Tsar Nicholas II. (Russia treated Finland as a Grand Duchy until World War I.) The music requires a guide willing to take us up Sibelius’ mountains and down into adjacent valleys, but Chang scarcely stopped to consider the full range of emotions.

She conducted entirely in extremes, leading fast sections at breakneck pace and drawing out slower ones for artificial contrast. She provided robustness without reflection, energy without mystery, giddiness without grandeur – something I can’t imagine from her in the days before she traded her bow for a baton.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

Tickets: $25.50-$89.50.

Details: 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org.

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