A good portion of the Belk Theater audience who attended Charlotte Symphony's Valentine's Day program weren't the usual subscribers and classical enthusiasts. You could see that when the audience showered concertmaster Calin Lupanu with a standing ovation for his performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto – after the rousing first movement Allegro. The orchestra left-footed the audience once again after intermission when maestro Christopher Warren-Green finished serving up his selections from Prokofiev's two Romeo and Juliet Ballet Suites. Not only weren't they premature with their applause during the nine sections on the program, they withheld it even after the concluding "Death of Tybalt," unsure whether the performance was done. Fortunately, Warren-Green had a sprightly little encore up his sleeve, a trinket called "Troika," so the all-Russian program ended with everyone back on stride.
Before Lupanu's heroics, the program began with the obligatory Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy. In Warren-Green's hands, there was nothing at all perfunctory about the ride on Tchaikovsky's warhorse. Details were sharp and clear from the beginning, the harp and pizzicatos beautifully articulated, with solemnity woven into the fabric well in advance of the agitated Montague-Capulet strife. What the turbulence may have lacked in sheer amplitude, the orchestra made up for with vigor and thrust, and once hostilities died down, the violas admirably announced the love theme. With a bass drum fueling the fire and a brass contingent of two trumpets, three trombones, and a tuba sounding the alarm, the repeat of the military motif was more powerful. Then the delicacy of the opening paid renewed dividends as the ensuing cortege, with the wind section particularly affecting in their sadness, harkened back to the solemn foreshadowing we began with, the harp and violins adding a sheen of sublimity.
Lupanu's first entrance in the Concerto wasn't exactly auspicious as the violinist's tone lost some of its fullness during the busiest passages of his first cadenza, but the emotion and the argument were cogently sustained. Nor did the orchestra leave any doubt that the soloist had been building toward a glorious effusion when they took over. There were also tender moments before the frenzied finish of the Allegro Moderato, Lupanu exchanging sweets with principal flutist Elizabeth Landon and the orchestra. Warren-Green wasn't flustered or irritated by the huge ovation, punctuating it with mock pleadings not to swell his concertmaster's head. If anything, the buoyed Lupanu became more commanding in the ensuing Canzonetta, with Landon and principal clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo abetting his lyricism. There was even a touch of mischief as Lupanu wended his way toward the familiar melody of the concluding Allegro Vivacissimo, so when the audience reprised their standing ovation, it was even more deserved.
Unfamiliar as it might have been for the newbies in the audience, the generous snippets from the Prokofiev ballet did not lack for color as a piano, celesta, xylophone, and tenor sax were added to the palette and the bulk of the brass returned after sitting out the concerto – with a third trumpet added for good measure. Timpani and bass drum figured prominently in the clangorous "Montagues and Capulets" section that Warren-Green chose for his opening. As you might expect, xylophone and celesta came into play during the "Child Juliet" section that followed, along with a brace of clarinets and flutes. The mellow reeds infused the "Friar Laurence" section, with principal oboist Hollis Ulaky, principal bassoonist Mary Beth Griglak, and the saxophone all involved in the conspiracy, punctuated by some dreamy string passages. In light of the audience's perplexity at the end, Warren-Green himself might admit that he went slightly too far in juggling the sequence. But aside from the omission of "Juliet's Funeral" and "Juliet's Death" from Act 4 of the ballet (the maestro declared he couldn't bear it in his engaging introductory remarks), the last three segments sequenced quite nicely.
"Masks" was probably the most idiomatic of the pieces with lots of funky clarinet from Kavadlo and a melody that vaguely echoed Prokofiev's popular Peter and the Wolf, with additional solos from Ulaky and acting principal trumpeter Richard Harris. Instrumentation must have seemed mildly surprising in the "Balcony Scene" for those who were actually following the program, with six double basses sawing against the radiance of the violins, but the ending was soft, delicate, and vernal. "Tybalt" certainly didn't go quietly, filled with melodic sweep and clattery percussion with the trombone herd playing a prominent part in the ruckus. A battery of French horns, spearheaded by Principal Frank Portone, was more eloquent than Juliet's bellicose kinsman deserved as the final cortege began. Yes, the sequence cohered well, but after that little post-performance awkwardness in the hall, Warren-Green may save the "Balcony Scene" for last next time around.