A strange chemistry pervaded Belk Theater as the Charlotte Symphony rambunctiously tore into their third Classics Series concert of 2015. Music director Christopher Warren-Green, usually the model of flowing grace on the podium, gave the most jagged downbeat I've ever seen from him, launching the program with Mikhail Glinka's Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila. Urgency is apt in this perennial favorite, since it reaches a presto pace faster than a Porsche. The strings accepted the challenge of the furiously galloping melody – and they reveled in it. When the trombones weren't tooting a bassline, they were adding heft to the zippy trumpets over Leonardo Soto's pounding timpani. The effect was at least as rousing as the last time the orchestra played the Glinka at the Belk, in the penultimate concert of Christof Perick's directorship, near the end of the 2009-10 season. But of course, the five-minute romp was merely an appetizer – and not at all the strangest phenomenon of this Friday the 13th event. Each of the more substantial works, the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky's "Little Russian" Symphony, presented a different set of problems for Warren-Green, the orchestra, and guest soloist Pekka Kuusisto.
The audience had no problems at all with the performances, but they were a feisty bunch. Applause rang out after every movement of the Sibelius concerto, even the middle Adagio, a phenomenon I'd never experienced at the Belk. More of the same followed after intermission, with applause punctuating each of the three breaks in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2. Just as Warren-Green was on the verge of resuming with the Scherzo after the applause subsided, a ringtone broke the silence from up in the grand tier. A beat or two afterwards, a voice saying "Okay, here's what I think" emanated from the same cell phone. Things reverted to the altered Friday-the-13th normal when play resumed. Oddly enough, the standing ovation at the end of the concert wasn't protracted enough to bring Warren-Green back to the stage for a second time.
His work certainly warranted more lusty appreciation when it was over. Aside from accommodating the interruptions, there was nothing effortful from the podium or from the ensemble. In fact, when Kuusisto strode forth to make his Charlotte debut, Warren-Green was sufficiently confident in the ensemble to allow his principal trumpeter, flutist, clarinetist, and oboist to take breathers backstage. The last time I can recall a performance of the Sibelius concerto at the Belk was in 2006, when the then-13-year-old Shannon Lee was hyped for a "Prodigy Plays Sibelius" concert. Kuusisto is nearly three times that age, and his maturity manifested itself from the outset in his ravishing pianissimos, his flawless double-bowing, and his fearless attack. When Kuusisto performs Sibelius, it's a meeting of the Finns. So total was Kuusisto's virtuosity and mastery that I tried in vain to catch him gazing at his fingers, the strings, or even his bow as he played. String sections behind him were darkly tinged by the double-basses in the opening Allegro moderato, and the brass held impressively firm. Clarinetists Allan Rosenfeld and Druciila DeVan ably opened the Adagio di molto, but it was mostly Kuusisto's show, beautifully building his cadenza to a climax before achingly fading out. Strings and brass had a dramatic answer over Soto's timpani, but Kuusisto's finish was even more exquisite than his entrance. As inevitable as the audience's applause had been for the opening fast movement, I was not greatly surprised when they broke with custom and applauded for the slow movement as well.
Obviously buoyed by the reception he was getting, Kuusisto boldly dug into the most familiar of the movements, the concluding Allegro ma non tanto. Dashingly dressed, Kuusisto cut quite a figure throughout the concerto, and the bulk of the audience – who had held their fire during the moderate interstitial ovations – seemed all the more eager to stand for him when the last of his bravura was done. Kuusisto then broke with custom in his own charming way, bringing principal bassist Kurt Riecken downstage with him for an accompanied encore. The violinist shredded his bowstrings a little more, performing a Finnish lullaby, "Guardian Angel," yet there was more to his act. Kuusisto whistled the last phrases of the folk tune while strumming his 1752 Guadagnini fiddle as if he were a Gypsy troubadour.
All the principals and acting principals returned as the program made its U-turn back to Mother Russia. The symphony gets its nickname from the Ukraine, affectionately known as "Little Russia" under the Czars and the source of the folk materials Tchaikovsky worked with. It's also the shortest of the Russian's seven symphonies (the Manfred Symphony plus the six numbered works), so the title isn't altogether misleading. But anyone who dismisses the work as minor apprentice work, as many critics do, would do well to listen to what Warren-Green and the Charlotte Symphony make of it. Frank Portone, French horn, and Mary Beth Griglak, bassoon, were eloquent, sounding the theme of the opening Andante sostenuto and reprising their eloquence as the movement quietly concluded. In between, there were brooding winds, turbulent strings, and slashing brass over thumping timpani in the Allegro vivo section of the movement, foreshadowing the battlefield action of the ensuing Andantino marziale.
Part of Warren-Green's strategy for bringing out the cohesiveness of the middle movements was to contrast the army of brass and strings with the peacefulness of the winds, particularly flutists Amy Whitehead and Erinn Frechette and principal clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo, who went deep down into his instrument's range in the opening episode of the martial movement. The orchestra excerpted the Finale of this symphony as recently as 2013 during its Summer Parks Concerts, and they certainly remembered how to charge up an audience with this rousing music. Indoors at the Belk, where the initial heraldry of the brass couldn't escape into the open air, the effect had to be even more thrilling. Again the orchestra deftly established a dialectic as Soto's timpani brought the initial declamation to a halt. When the brass assembled for a new assault, the French horns finessed the fadeout. Cymbals and bass drum accompanied the next onslaught, heightening the thunder. Clarinets and flutes cooled things down before joining the final muster of all orchestral forces for the loudest charge, accelerating to a satisfying finish.
This program will be repeated on Saturday, March 14. For details, see the sidebar.