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Making a virtue out of necessity, Charlotte Symphony has temporarily vacated their customary Belk Theater venue so that Matthew Bourne's new Sleeping Beauty can be staged there. For their third Classics Series concert of the 2013-14 season, the orchestra has moved to the smaller Knight Theater in the Levine Center for the Arts and expanded their usual run of two concerts to three. By a stroke of good fortune, the belatedly-changed program was a relatively soft one, headlined by Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony No. 6, which was preceded by Mozart's Elvira Madigan Piano Concerto (No. 21), with guest soloist Finghin Collins, and the orchestra's first performances of George Butterworth's "The Banks of Green Willow."
Compared with the Belk, acoustically the best concert hall I know of in North Carolina, the Knight actually holds its own in softer repertoire. When solo or orchestral passages edge toward fortissimo, as they inevitably must even in this graciously poetic program, the Belk maintains its superiority. In the opening of the Mozart, the brass and the timpani sounded tubbier at the Knight, no better than the Meymandi shoebox in Raleigh, and with Collins attacking his first utterances in the Allegro maestoso, the pellucid clarity we're accustomed to at the Belk was partially supplanted by a fuzzy resonance. When his accompaniment became more hushed, Collins sounded far more attuned to the hall, and his brilliance was unalloyed as he zestfully lit into the climactic cadenza, subsiding elegantly before reasserting himself in the concluding restatement of the theme.
Short of full volume, the strings were magnificent all evening, nowhere more so than in Mozart's magical Andante. Collins was no less affecting with his delicacy – so delicate that I hardly heard his first bass note from my front-row balcony seat – while oboist Erica Cice, who had excelled with flutist Amy Orsinger Whitehead in rolling out the opening movement, smoothly lurked in the background. Trumpets and timpani once again rocked the house with their curiously altered sound at the start of the closing Allegro vivace, so it was the strings that were most congenial in nimbly rolling out the theme and providing Collins with his launching pad. Often appearing dreamy and transported in the previous movements, Collins unveiled a touch of theatrical flair as he turned from his keyboard to the orchestra and back again during the giddy dialogue. This carefree attitude preceded his total immersion in the most virtuosic cadenza in the concerto. For his well-deserved encore, Collins educated and delighted us with John Field's Nocturne No. 5, informing us – with a touch of Irish pride – that Field (1782-1837) was the first composer to affix the nocturne title to a solo piano work.
Leading up to the Mozart, Butterworth's "Banks of the Green" was a tranquil ice-breaker with nice little showcases for principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and principal hornist Frank Portone at the top of the score. Ulaky and Orsinger had the sweet spots in the middle of the piece, while Portone waited until near the end for a mellow duet with concertmaster Calin Lupanu just before the exquisite fadeout. All was not placid and pastoral at Green Willow, for the work sported a beautiful outpouring from the strings along the way, spiked with a touch of patriotic fervor. If Butterworth hadn't died young in 1916, it's not inconceivable that a trove of fine film music might have burst from his imagination.
Just as intermission was concluding, the music stand was whisked away from the podium, a sure harbinger of Charlotte Symphony maestro Christopher Warren-Green's deep knowledge of Beethoven's most programmatic score and his affinity with it. Violins began the "Arrival in the Country" movement as sweetly as you could possibly wish, but the full ensemble emitted a telltale tubbiness, as if the ground were rumbling beneath their feet. The flutes pierced through nevertheless, as they should, and a beautiful cathedral-like resonance developed toward the end. Keeping the momentum going pleasantly in the ensuing "Scene at the Brook" is a stiffer challenge, and Warren-Green was more than equal to it. Smooth winds and ethereal strings marked the earliest stage of the movement with principal flutist Elizabeth Landon and principal clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo contributing outstanding spots. Later on, when vitality can flag, Warren-Green's light hand kept a gently mesmerizing sway in the serene 3/4 passages.
Nor was there any letdown in the final three movements, which are played without pause. Ulaky's oboe was deftly integrated with the French horns, and Portone had the loveliest of the solos preceding the big festive tune in the "Merry Gather of the Peasants." The ensemble achieved a nice busy feel with a cheery brightness crowned by the trumpets. Here was a zesty tune to eagerly anticipate and, after the typical Beethoven diversions, Ulaky, Portone, and Kavadlo helped whet our appetites for its satisfying return. CSO's double-basses were somehow nearly as percussive as the timpani at the onset of the "Storm," and the violins came on with a fury, triggering the whiplash energy of the full cataclysm and the ultimate terror of Leonard Soto's timpani. The aftermath of the storm, blooming into the "Shepherd's Song" of thanksgiving, had that wondrous feel of a total reawakening and revitalization. There's an uplifting swirl of violins midway through the movement that flung its way skyward in 3/4 meter before subsiding into the final meditation. An eloquently simple statement from the cellos prepared the way for the hushed, solemn ending, beautifully glistening in the light of subdued trumpets. As airy and rich as the CSO's previous "Pastoral" was with Christof Perick in 2007, this new one reached a new level of refinement without sacrificing any of its vivid colors.
Note: Bios of Charlotte Symphony musicians are linked from here.
This program will be repeated on Friday and Saturday, November 8 and 9, in the same venue. For detail, see the sidebar.