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Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Satisfies Subscribers' Tchaikovsky Hunger With Rousing Season Opener

Sep 27, 2019

By Perry Tannenbaum

Extra formality customarily adorns the opening concert of the season. Aside from maestro Warren-Green leading his musicians and his audience in the National Anthem, there is often a tribute to a retiring or long-serving member of the ensemble. This year, the occasion was touching and predictable, since former music director Leo Driehuys, the transformative figure who elevated CSO to professional status and strongly advocated for Charlotte's Performing Arts Center, had died on August 14 at the age of 87. Double bassist Jeffrey Ferdon was given ample time to summarize the Dutchman's personal accomplishments and community contributions. Driehuys served as music director from 1977 to 1993 and last performed with his orchestra in a special "Return of the Maestros" celebration of Symphony's 75th anniversary in 2006.

The excitement set the bar high for Barnatan when he appeared, yet the Israeli pianist did not disappoint. Barnatan was up to the pounding thunder of the concerto's opening bars, and Warren-Green had the orchestra embracing the grandeur of their role. Yet the interpretation never devolved into a gladiatorial joust. On the contrary, Barnatan took every opportunity in the Allegro non troppo to sound responsive to the orchestral statements and to end his instrumental utterances in such a way that invited dialogue rather than demanding combat. Further, Barnatan emphasized Tchaikovsky's dialectic within the piano solos and cadenzas, tamping down the composer's showmanship just enough to reveal his sensitivity. All this was done without slowing the pace or descending into sentimentality. There were moments, in fact, when Barnatan delighted in prodding the tempo and brandishing hands of steel. In the middle Andantino semplice, principal flutist Victor Wang poignantly set the tone with a slightly thinned timbre that deliciously paired with principal oboist Hollis Ulaky's lyricism. It was in the outer movements, however, that Barnatan made his freshest findings and lasting impressions. There were moments in the Finale where Barnatan's impishness or modernistic syncopations contrasted with the rhapsodic sounds or clangor of the orchestral pronouncements. But there were also moments, particularly in the setup for the concerto's rousing conclusion, when Barnatan's bravura and volcanic power meshed perfectly with the orchestra's majesty. Virile and raw-boned, this rendition by Barnatan and the Charlotte Symphony had thoughtful contours to it that might make you reconsider if you've previously concluded that this masterwork was overloaded with bombast. There was no palliative letup in Barnatan's encore as he gave an incendiary account of the concluding Precipitato movement of Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 7.

While I must say that I was far more captivated by Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 when the Czech Philharmonic played it under the baton of Semyon Bychkov on September 17, I must also interject that they had a better audience. Not only did a larger proportion of ticketholders return after intermission, they also had better control of their drinks. The opening Andante was punctuated by an epic cup drop in the rear orchestra that seemed to bounce on every step in the aisle before coming to a rest, and a gentleman sitting two seats away from me had no qualms about adding the crackle of ice in his plastic cup to the percussive effects that the composer had already provided. Principals and sections played beautifully on the Knight stage. Clarinetist Taylor Marino was outstanding in establishing the somber mood of the opening Andante and exquisitely poignant at the conclusion of the ensuing Andante cantabile, its memorable theme beautifully introduced by acting principal French hornist Byron Johns. French horns blended admirably in the opening movement and the flutes charmed me in the penultimate Valse. But the ebb and flow of Tchaikovsky's overall tapestry, convincingly rendered in that Cantabile, tended to unravel elsewhere, leaving us with beautifully played fragments that didn't quite cohere. Although Symphony's Valse was abundantly danceable, the build at the end of the opening movement didn't remind me of the grand pas de deux in Nutcracker as vividly as it had in Prague. Even if I didn't hear the same inevitability connecting the Andante maestoso with the Allegro vivace of the Finale or any frantic energy midway through the movement Warren-Green and CSO found the thread in time to deliver a satisfying ending, gloriously burnished with timpani and brass.

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