Lawrence Toppman

Charlotte Symphony’s ‘Don Quixote:’ Young hands, old head

People who believe in reincarnation talk about old souls in young bodies – and if they’re right, cellist Julian Schwarz has been around a few times. He got a bachelor’s degree from Juilliard last spring, but he embodied aged Don Quixote in Richard Strauss’ tone poem Friday as if he’d spent three times as long on Earth.

The hero of this “Don Quixote” began as a vigorous madman, tilting at windmills he’d mistaken for giants. He passed through nobility into melancholy and ended in resignation, though he refused to go tamely down to death.

Schwarz, playing alone or with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra throughout the 40-minute piece, captured all these moods, saving his warmest utterances for the last moments. CSO principal violist Benjamin Geller stepped out as Sancho Panza, giving rustic folksiness and a hint of lyricism to the lowly squire.

Meanwhile, guest conductor Gerard Schwarz exploited all the grotesque elements of the score, as the orchestra depicted a combat with musicians, a voyage in an enchanted boat and a battle with sheep. (Hmmm ... the sheep sound a lot like music critics depicted in Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben.”)

Gerard Schwarz had prepared us for the final piece by leading slightly unusual performances of two potboilers: the overture to Rossini’s opera “William Tell,” too seldom heard in the concert hall, and Liszt’s tone poem “Les Preludes.”

The overture had tenderness and gravity, especially in the opening cello section, as well as exuberance. (I doubt the CSO strings could have played the finale so cleanly at this pace a decade ago.) “Preludes” had as much dignity as bombast when taken at a slow tempo.

But the reason to hear this concert – and to see it, noticing how Strauss tossed effects from section to section – is “Don Quixote.” Technique and understanding can be instilled, but Julian Schwarz (Gerard’s son) played with a spirit that must come from within.

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