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Vaccinated, boosted, masked, and carded, we're all starting to feel more comfortable at public events these days. The Charlotte Symphony performed with more than twice the number of musicians onstage at the Knight Theater compared to just a couple of months ago. Social distancing seemed to be an ancient artifact. The stranger who presumed she could safely poach my seat at intermission readily took consolation by poaching the empty seat right next to me. Christopher Warren-Green felt so much at ease that, instead of scrounging for orchestral pieces that could be credibly performed by a reduced number of masked and distanced musicians, he stuck with a program of Mozart, Beethoven, and Prokofiev – returning to brand-name white male composers who have been dead for at least 65 years. And in a show of restraint that was unthinkable at the beginning of CSO's 2021-22 season, subscribers didn't feel obliged to give every piece a standing ovation and every movement applause.
Premiered in 1918, Sergei Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony No. 1 qualifies as an antique. Looking back to Josef Haydn and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for inspiration, with a third-movement Gavotte that the composer reworked for his 1935 Romeo and Juliet, the aim of the "Classical" Symphony was to straddle old and new styles. Warren-Green took a more delicate and reposeful view of the work than the one we find in the acclaimed London Symphony collection of Prokofiev's seven symphonies conducted by Valery Gergiev. The joy of the work was also arguably purer at Knight Theater than that recording, if you find Gergiev's accelerated tempos to be more than slightly manic. There was more than sufficient zest and high-stepping marching spirit in the opening Allegro con brio for the delicate episodes to stand out in relief. Lovely orchestral textures were lavished on the ensuing Larghetto, with principal flute Victor Wang and fellow flutist Amy Orsinger Whitehead peeping through to admirable effect. The CSO made better sense of the Gavotte than either of the recordings in my collection by the National Orchestra of the Ukraine and Gergiev's London Symphony, starting out with a mock grandeur and ending with a stealthy impish exit, which came through better than the usual awkward afterthought. The purity of Warren-Green's concept was especially apt in the joy emanating from the Molto Vivace final movement, where the composer made a special point of avoiding minor chords.
Although Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 is the marquee piece now, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto had top billing when it was last performed at the Knight in 2016 by guest soloist Michael Collins – interestingly enough, paired with selections from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Charlotte native Taylor Marino was the soloist this time around. Maybe that was the reason that Mozart's Concerto surrendered top billing to Beethoven's Symphony, but there was no surrender in quality. In the opening Allegro, Marino quickly demonstrated why he won numerous concerto competitions before joining the Charlotte Symphony as principal clarinetist in 2019. Here there was ample drama from the orchestra behind Marino's virtuosity, maintaining a brisk, effervescent tempo that subsided effectively into a sedate whimper. The lovely Adagio, singled out in the film Amadeus as the quintessence of Mozart's genius, was absolutely exquisite in Marino's hands, answered richly by the lower strings and woodwinds. I can never help reminiscing, when I hear this concerto, about the shining moment in 2004 when I heard it played by Martin Fröst on a basset horn at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, conducted by Ton Koopman. There was no applause or standing ovation here, but a couple of people sitting behind me could be heard marveling. The concluding Rondo: Allegro was only a slight anticlimax after such sublimity, for Marino's virtuosity shone brightly again, and the bassoons added extra punch as we rounded toward intermission.
Between the heroic Symphony No. 3 and the mighty No. 5, Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 can be seen as a merry middleweight. Returning from intermission without a score, Warren-Green wanted us to be in on Ludwig's prank, making the Adagio opening to the first movement extra grave before it broke through to the galloping panache of its dominant Allegro vivace section. Violins snapped off phases with whiplash sharpness, the trumpets added steel, and the flutes frolicked. The languid Adagio never quite lapsed into lullaby as the bumptious trumpets maintained patrol. Restlessness from the lower strings and principal timpanist Jacob Lipham surrounded the principal flute on an island of lyricism. Acting principal bassoonist Joshua Hood earned a subsequent curtain call from Warren-Green in the cheerful Allegro vivace, heckling the cheerleading strings. Yet the violins had the emphatic last word in the closing Allegro ma non troppo, busily sawing when they weren't dominating. The cellos and the double basses only momentarily stole their thunder in preparing us for the ultimate climax.