Charlotte Symphony’s LolliPops was already an exemplary family concert series when it resided at Belk Theater, time-sharing with the orchestra’s classics subscription. The small fry seemed to need a large venue even more than the adults because there was only one performance of each LolliPops program and because the wondrous pre-show spilled out into the upstairs and street-level lobbies. Pre-shows crackled with as much excitement as the main events, with little prelude concerts by orchestra musicians, games and craft projects for the squirmiest toddlers, and the mighty instrumental “Petting Zoo” that enabled parents to mix-and-match the various brass, woodwind, string, and percussion instruments with their children’s temperaments. No doubt encouraged by the success of the KnightSounds series tailored for young urban professionals, the Symphony began to transplant their LolliPops series last spring so it could take advantage of the special synergy between the Knight Theater and the adjoining Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. The most recent LolliPops, “Dancin’, Rockin’, and Hip-Hoppin’” with Project Trio, completed the relocation by utilizing a new acoustic shell, customized for the Knight, for the first time.
The electricity of the Knight was completely unforeseen by the Symphony’s former maestro, Christof Perick, and managing director Richard Early. With its innovative approach to concertgoing, the success of the KnightSound concerts very likely outstripped the optimism of Christopher Warren-Green, the incoming maestro who put them in place. But the Symphony’s former indifference to the venue meant that the Knight opened without an acoustic shell that was suitable for the orchestra’s use. Escaping into the wings and lofts, the sounds of the ensemble had less than optimum impact on the audience. The acoustic shell, formerly slashed from the Knight’s budget, was suddenly fast-tracked. So with the unveiling of the acoustic shell, just over three years after the venue was opened, the Knight was finally optimized for orchestral performance. The LolliPops concert began just 15 hours after the unveiling of the Symphony’s new sonic cocoon in a Pops tribute concert to Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper.
But before I satisfied my excitement and curiosity about the new shell, I made sure to scout the Knight lobby to see how the pre-show had fared. Years after my last LolliPops at the Belk, I wasn’t sure whether the pre-show and the “Petting Zoo” were dramatically downsized, but they definitely felt more cramped even though the crowds are significantly smaller at the Knight. In the recesses of the upstairs and downstairs lobbies, lighting is less copious and cheerful, but I didn’t find children’s or parents’ spirits dampened by the altered atmosphere. If the front-loaded part of the LolliPops experience has been dimmed by the move to the Knight, I’d count the move an overall upgrade when we factor in the aftershow. For now, the little people can roam freely into the Bechtler next door, which is suitably braced for their arrival, while their parents can gain admittance for a mere $4.
My first experience with the new shell was also my first experience sitting upstairs in the grand tier. The view is rather impressive, with the shell’s slatted design beautifully echoing the balcony’s wood façade. Kids’ show or not, we probably had a greater variety of music for judging the new acoustics. What better selection could you wish for than the Overture to Bernstein’s Candide to hear whether the Symphony’s percussion yields greater éclat and sharpness in their newly enclosed playground? The whole orchestra massed together in thundering sforzandos to further test the shell with an arrangement of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5. Nor was that all. Though I wished to throttle the Project Trio for taking away the familiar heraldry from the trumpet, their arrangement of Rossini’s William Tell Overture gave ample opportunity for the brass section – two trumpets and three trombones – to demonstrate their power and tightness. Lastly, after being rocked in hit disco style, the opening Allegro con brio of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony turned on its own special electricity.
There was no further suspense about the acoustics at the Knight when the music began. Within a few sweeps of his baton, associate conductor Jacomo Rafael Bairos and the Symphony firmly established that the Knight is now one of the best concert halls in town, vying for supremacy with the Belk. Bairos always injects an infectious zest into uptempo pieces, relishing their color, and as his previous stints at the podium for the KnightSounds concerts attest, his exuberance and charm carry over to his hosting chores. Both the Bernstein and the Brahms sparkled, and his introduction of Project Trio was personable with a touch of humor. For their part, Project Trio appeared to be even more at home with the schoolkids – and a hit with the Symphony management, since they had guested at the first LolliPops foray into the Knight last spring. Flutist Greg Pattillo, cellist Eric Stephenson, and bassist Peter Seymour all proved adept at emceeing. What’s more, their approach to programming is eclectic, creating bridges between rock, jazz, hip-hop, and the classics. They began by exhuming a piece that Pattillo generously conceded the kids’ parents might remember (so might their grandparents!), the Jethro Tull rock version of Bach’s Bourrée (from the E minor Suite, BWV 996) as played by flutist Ian Anderson. Pattillo went fairly wild, flutter-tonguing and whatnot, nearly as psychedelic as Anderson in his approach, blending jazz and beatbox elements into his soloing.
A couple of Project Trio originals followed. The first of them, “Cherry Blossoms,” was perilously pretty and tranquil. Predictably, there was some fidgeting among the youngfolk amid this onslaught of quietude, but the Trio was wise enough to keep it short. In their remaining originals, “Bodega” and “Dr. Nick,” Project Trio emphasized rhythm and audience participation. Seymour taught the crowd a 3-2 syncopation before beating and bowing on his bass, and Stephenson showered a cascade of spirited glissandos on “Dr. Nick” before Pattillo journeyed back to the wilds of Andersonville. The final warhorses were not interactive, but each one was unique. Pattillo not only replaced the trumpet call in the "William Tell" with his flute, he interpolated some jazz-rock riffs into the ensuing orchestral gallop. Then after their disco Beethoven episode, the Trio melted into their appropriate places within the orchestra. That made their return to the front of the stage all the more majestic as they shared the final bows.
As always, ushers in the lobby had pails full of lollipops after the concert. Adults as well as kids dug into the sweets, very much as they had all dug into the music.