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Charlotte Symphony Ends Its Classics Season with Surefire Rep, Culminating in a Wildly-Received Bolero

May 20, 2019

By Perry Tannenbaum

There is no such thing as "Bolero burnout" in Charlotte. Just three weeks ago, Charlotte Ballet capped its Innovative Works program at Knight Theater by presenting Johan Inger's Walking Mad for the second time in the space of 18 months. That haunting, provocative, and sometimes comical piece is set to a complete recording albeit muffled in spots of Maurice Ravel's most famous composition. Now the Charlotte Symphony is repeating the most repetitive piece in Classical music, again at Knight Theater, and on opening night the house was full and the audience was on their feet cheering when the performance concluded. "Play it again!!" one fellow shouted again and again. Nor was the shift from Belk Theater, the orchestra's largest venue (where they last played Bolero in 2011), to the more intimate Knight a sign that the orchestra had anticipated a smaller, burnt-out crowd. This program fortified with works by Edvard Grieg, Camille Saint-Saëns, Edgar Meyer, and Ravel's Tzigane  is getting three performances instead of the usual two.

Accurately gauging his audience, music director Christopher Warren-Green immediately served up some comfort food, Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1. The lovely, vernal "Morning Mood" and the hearty, meaty "In the Hall of the Mountain King" were likely familiar to everybody in the hall, and the Duke Ellington version of "Anitra's Dance" had been performed at the Knight by Wynton Marsalis and The Future of Jazz Orchestra a mere 15 days earlier. Rest assured that there was no complacency from the orchestra's musicians in playing these chestnuts. On the contrary, the sight of a hall filled to the rafters for the last Classics program of the 2018/19 season seemed to energize the ensemble. Warren-Green's soft touch on "Morning Mood" suffused the silken playing of the strings when the melody lifted off from the delicate glimmers delivered by principal bassoonist Olivia Oh and flutists Victor Wang and Amy Orsinger Whitehead. Lower strings provided grim body to "The Death of Åse" while the upper strings layered on poignancy and grieving. There were zesty volleys back and forth, pizzicato lower strings answered by bowed violins, in "Anitra's Dance," exquisitely punctuated by the pinging triangle. As we traversed the "Hall of the Mountain King," the long crescendo aptly portrayed Peer's peril, and the wildly accelerating tempo at the end beware of tuba! dramatized the bloodlust from the King's mob of trolls.

The next two works, plus an encore, brought concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu to the stage. Originally written for violin and piano, Ravel's orchestral scoring for Tzigane has contours similar to Pablo Sarasate's similarly titled Zigeunerweisen  brooding virtuosic domination by the violinist in the slow Gypsy-flavored opening section and an orgiastic shift to presto tempo when the orchestra joins in. Once or twice, particularly when he gazed up at the ceiling, Lupanu looked or sounded uncomfortable in his solo cadenza, but there was bravura aplenty when he settled in to work. Once the orchestra began to join him near the halfway mark and the music lingered in his instrument's upper registers, the Romanian-born violinist's confidence swelled and we heard some exciting Gypsy fire. In the more familiar Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Lupanu had sweet backing from the orchestra from the beginning, and he showed firmer command throughout, beautifully introducing the big tune and impressing with the feverish pyrotechnics that preceded the subsequent repeats of that rondo theme. Lupanu's encore, accompanied by principal harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell, was an even more familiar bonbon, the "Meditation" from Jules Massenet's Thaïs. Really a charming pairing!

Premiered in Nashville two years ago, Meyer's New Piece for Orchestra was a departure for the composer, his first piece for orchestra that did not feature a soloist or so he glibly maintained. Meyer might have more accurately (and presciently, since newness is transitory) titled his piece "Concerto for Orchestra" since there are numerous beguiling spots where a flutist, an oboist, a bassoonist, and especially a meditative clarinetist can shine. The woodwind and trombone sections also had some tasty bits at the top of this score, and I loved how the cellos triggered the lugubrious episode where exchanges between Oh and Ulaky developed into a wan duet. Unfortunately, much of the orchestral writing seemed calculated to appease his Nashville audience or his modernist composer peers, so the repeated themes had a tincture of Appalachian fiddling or the raucousness of minimalist urban bustle, neither particularly fresh. Principal clarinetist Taylor Marino was probably the most persuasive solo advocate for Meyer's gifts. Contributions by tubist Beth Wiese and acting principal timpanist Ariel Zaviezo Arriagada added oomph and zest to the beehive speedup that launched the last iteration of the main orchestral themes.

Introducing Bolero, Warren-Green reminded us of a couple of things: it was actually inspired by the sounds Ravel heard in factories and, in its original ballet incarnation, it was danced on a table by a single temptress surrounded by adoring men who, heated up by the dancer's sensuous undulations, wound up violently fighting each other. Jokingly, the maestro told us that he had hoped to present the authentic factory version of the piece but was overruled by his musicians. Hollywood it was, underpinned by the superbly-controlled Brice Burton wielding the sticks behind the snare drum. Excitement arrived, but not too soon, as we heard from the flute, the clarinet, the bassoon, and the oboe in relative tranquility. Guest saxophonists began to turn up the heat on their tenor and soprano instruments, but we arrived emphatically in sexual territory when principal trombonist John Bartlett slid and slithered through his departure from the hypnotic main melody, the last of the soloists before various groupings took over the main line. Amid the pandemonium that greeted the orgiastic final measures, there was a moment of comedy when Warren-Green called on Burton to take his well-deserved bows. He was already standing! So were we.

Read the full review here.