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Charlotte Symphony Gives Moving All-Russian Program

Oct 18, 2019

By Cecilia Whalen

As always, a country's history can be better understood through its music, and the Charlotte Symphony, conducted by Christopher James Lees, allowed its audience to understand some of the Russian experience through its all-Russian program of "phantasmagorical storytelling" on Oct. 18 at the Belk Theater. The CSO presented four pieces featuring Stravinsky's Suite from The Firebird. Each piece revolved around a particular tale or magical theme, recognizing the trials of its time and country whilst remembering to hope and dream.

The concert opened with Modest Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" (1867), the dramatic tone-poem which was made especially popular after its feature in Disney's Fantasia. In Fantasia, "Night on Bald Mountain" narrates the release of all things evil across a village at nightfall. Bold and dark brass emerge from below and woodwinds cackle, accented by running strings and striking percussion. The piece is supposed to be scary: Mussorgsky wrote it to describe a Russian legend of a Witches' Sabbath, including a scene of a praise of Satan (who makes an appearance on the mountain). The CSO did well in its interpretation with eerily dynamic contrast and sharp accents. There were only a few times when musicians did not begin or end notes together, resulting in less crisp transitions.

The CSO was at its height during this final and featured piece, filling up the room with expressivity. Stravinsky's Firebird was created for dance, and it is practically impossible not to move along to it, especially during the accents and breath-taking swells of this magnificent ending. The Suite from The Firebird was captivating through and through; the only things missing were dancers. (It would be wonderful to one day have the Symphony pair with Charlotte Ballet to produce the full production.)

It's clear that each composer of this evening recognized the trials of his generation and thus reflected it in his music: fear and uncertainty linger and evil is evident, even at times dominant. At the same time, not a single one in all of his mystery and darkness forgot to include the beauty and imagination that is equally a part of life, and the hope that is essential. Tolstoy is quoted as saying "there is something in the human spirit that will survive and prevail; there is a tiny and brilliant light burning in the heart of man that will not go out no matter how dark the world becomes." The Charlotte Symphony was able to access both a lingering darkness and this prevailing light in The Firebird and each of its accompanying pieces.

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