The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra continued its 75th anniversary season at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center with a program entitled “Hungarian Rhapsody.” A more appropriate name would have been the “French Connection,” as all of the composers featured were in some way tied to France, whereas only two had anything to do with Hungary. Franz Liszt was born in Hungary but spent a great deal of time in Paris and never even learned to speak Hungarian. Camille Saint-Saëns and Olivier Messiaen were obviously proud Frenchmen, and Zoltan Kodály, the only true Hungarian on the program, had a deep appreciation for French music, especially that of Claude Debussy. Questionable appellation aside, the evening promised to bring what Conductor Gregory Vajda called a “tossed salad” of musical styles and cultures.
The program opened with Liszt’s Symphonic Poem, “Les Preludes.” Based on the poetry of French poet Alphonse de Lamartine (yet another Frenchman) it is a work of sizable proportion and typical Lisztian fire. The orchestra was in good form after a rocky introduction in which there were balance problems and the tempo scampered along a little too quickly. The group had been rehearsing with Vajda for a few weeks by this time and seemed to be comfortable with his demeanor and style. He liked to pull at inner voices, which was at once refreshing and annoying. While one could hear new elements in an oft-heard score, the themes which one recognizes and looks for were sometimes obscured. Nevertheless, the performance was fiery and well received by the near capacity crowd.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (I don’t suppose I need to tell you his nationality) joined the CSO for a stirring performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 22 No. 2. Thibaudet is lauded the world over for his performances of the French masters as well as his diverse style including a recording of the music of jazz pianist Duke Ellington. He shone brightly in this warhorse concerto by demonstrating effortless virtuosity and panache. This piece is not Beethoven or Mozart where long orchestral passages make one forget that it is, in fact, a piano concerto. It is quite the opposite, but, even still, the CSO played such a muted role that it almost sounded like a solo piano sonata. Whereas Thibaudet’s playing was breathtaking, the relationship to the orchestra was non-existent causing a lackluster appearance of the whole. After long applause, the pianist treated the crowd to an encore, Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9 No. 2. This piece is overplayed and over sentimentalized, but I love it and was not disappointed; sweet sugary nectar dripped from the piano.
After intermission Vajda and the CSO performed Messiaen’s “Un Sourire” (A Smile). Written in 1989 as homage to Mozart, it is composed in Messiaen’s inimitable style, including block chords and birdcalls. Most audiences still are not ready for this composer and this was the case in this concert. The masses are much more polite than they were a hundred years ago, but when they don’t like a piece there are still telltale signs. Two minutes into the piece the same people who would rupture a blood vessel to avoid coughing during Beethoven start hacking freely. After four minutes passed everyone joined; it becomes a symphony of coughs. Then come the whispers, first about the music, then about dinner tonight. Finally, loud whispers everywhere and some light bantering. Even though it wasn’t hard to tell this was not a crowd pleaser, the CSO did a fine job, especially the percussion section with the task of imitating various birdcalls.
Finally, the Hungarian: Zoltàn Kodály’s Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, “The Peacock,” is perhaps the composer’s best known work. Consisting of a theme, sixteen variations and a finale, the piece was so controversial when written (1939) that it was banned by the Nazi regime in Germany. Vajda was at home in this work, not only because he is Hungarian, but also because his conciseness fits the structure of the work. His penchant for inner voices was put to good use and it yielded a vibrant, lush tonal experience. The gypsy dances were particularly appealing and the finale brought the house to its feet closing this exciting, albeit nationalistically confusing, evening.