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Even back in the early '90s, when Charlotte Symphony struggled to sustain respectable mediocrity, the valedictory concert led by Leo Driehuys in 1993 proved that the orchestra could always rise to the occasion when called upon to perform Beethoven's thrilling Ninth Symphony. Having heard the same ensemble bludgeon Beethoven's "Eroica" to blandness just months earlier, it was hard for me to believe that the inspiration came solely from the composer. I struggled with the answer to this anomaly until I interviewed Driehuys's successor, Peter McCoppin, shortly before his final season at the end of the millennium. Not referencing Beethoven at all, but explaining why he enjoyed his years in Charlotte so thoroughly, McCoppin observed that the Queen City is incredibly fertile ground for choristers and choruses. You just had to count the churches around town to see his point. Not only had the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte brought extra spark to Beethoven's "Choral Symphony," they had also arguably sparked the Charlotte Symphony musicians they were partnering with.
The Oratorios have undergone numerous metamorphoses during the past three decades, at discreet intervals absorbed into Symphony, renamed the Charlotte Symphony Chorus, and eventually set free to seek their own gigs, rebranded once again as the Charlotte Master Chorale. Yet each time it was necessary to muster the instrumental and vocal artillery needed for Beethoven's masterwork - indeed, classical music's masterwork - the Chorale has admirably answered the call. In a recent interview prefacing his valedictory concert as Symphony's music director after 12 fruitful seasons, Christopher Warren-Green revealed that the chorus had been "one of the big incentives for me to come to Charlotte because of the great repertoire that was written for orchestra and chorus." Little wonder, then, that Maestro Warren-Green has chosen to conclude his tenure by including the Master Chorale in his final "Ode to Joy" concert - or that he has already announced that, when he returns this coming December as Symphony's music advisor and conductor laureate, the choir will be in the mix once more as he conducts Handel's Messiah at Knight Theater.
There always seem to be extra layers of drama and excitement when the "Choral Symphony" returns to Belk Theater, never more than when Christof Perick made his 2001 debut as music director just 10 days after 9/11. Fast forward to the fourth Ninth that CSO has programmed since then, and there was still a palpable sense of a special occasion in the hall. Symphony president and CEO David Fisk saluted Warren-Green before he made his grand entrance, greeted with a lusty standing ovation. Maestro then pooh-poohed all of Fisk's accolades, paid tribute to four newly retired orchestra musicians, and - prior to a nifty and brief exit - exhorted the audience to keep supporting the CSO "or I'll never forgive you."
That was the last laugh of the evening as Warren-Green returned to the podium, signaled the Chorale to be seated, and presided over the orchestra as Beethoven brought them to a boil, quicker than a microwave oven, in his opening Allegro ma non troppo. Warren-Green's Ninth would be a turbulent one, far more timely than timeless, discarding many chances for liquid lyricism in favor of alert and spirited rigor - almost militant but never quite lapsing into rigidity with the onset of its rousing quicker tempos. The incisiveness of Jacob Lipham's timpani came upon us quickly, never allowing us to rest for long, while the affecting woodwinds and the lively strings offered eloquent counterweights.
When we reached the Molto vivace second movement, with its industrious bustle and perpetual overlapping, Warren-Green enabled us to hear early foreshadowing of the teeming humanity we'd find in the epic fourth movement, struggling toward togetherness and brotherhood. Excitement in the overlaps between various sections of the orchestra was increased dramatically by spasmodic boosts in dynamics and the sharp whacks of the timpani. Also pushing against the flow of the violins and the warmth of the cellos were the percolating winds and the moaning French horns.
Between the second and third movements, the last true pause in this symphony, the guest soloists entered and took their seats at center stage: bass baritone Jordan Bisch, tenor Sean Panikkar, soprano Alicia Russell Tagert, and (substituting for Briana Hunter) mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen. The two little girls seated in front of my mom and me perked up expectantly at this point, only to be let down by the relatively tranquil Adagio molto e cantabile. The little girls weren't as restless or fidgety during this lovely movement as you might expect, but their attentiveness waned noticeably - despite the sweetness of the first violins, the affecting violas and second violins, and the mellifluous woodwinds and horns. Their adorable decorum was threatened most by the beautiful confluence between clarinet, horn, and flute as the penultimate movement faded into the concluding Presto.
Having this glorious score in front of you, with its magnificent build-up to the signature fireworks waiting to explode, must be so gratifying and fulfilling as a musical conductor stands on the podium, heading into the homestretch of his 12-year tenure. Surely the musicians and choristers sensed the excitement and shared an eagerness to deliver. The first violins were certainly ardent and rich over the churning violas and second violins as the build-up began, yet as the gradual gravitation toward the brotherhood theme was beginning, I noticed that Warren-Green was doing something different and new. Instead of seating his cellos and double basses to our right, they were now spread in a long row, starting in front of the podium and reaching to the left edge of the stage in nearly a straight line.
So there was a little more than the usual edge as the journey to the brotherhood theme launched, continuing with dogged inevitability after the woodwinds mischievously flashed back to the agitations of the second movement. Violas layered onto the cellos and basses, adding to the smoldering sensation, and the violins accelerated the familiar strains until the brass made them soar. The little girls in front of us were completely re-engaged ahead of the next magnificent build. Bisch sounded stronger and more robust in his opening declaration, "O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! (Oh friends, not these sounds!)," culminating in the announcement of his Joy agenda ("Freude!"), than he did reprising the brotherhood refrain as he plunged into Friedrich Schiller's "An die Freude (Ode to Joy)." More than a couple of bass baritones who have recorded these passages have fared the same. Perhaps that was Beethoven's design, for ample reinforcements will emphatically arrive on the scene, first the soloists and then the phalanxes of choristers who were elevated over everyone upstage, ably representing Schiller's millions.
At least a couple of regatherings follow, as all of us who love the Ninth well know. There's a grand, brassy military march while the vocalists inhale for awhile and hold their fire, and then there are those sublime audible inhalations as Schiller's lyrics, helpfully translated in supertitles above the Belk stage, took us "above the canopy of stars" in an ethereally protracted chord. When the Master Chorale reached peak tempo in the concluding Allegro assai vivace, like a herd of horses urged by Warren-Green to full gallop, one of the little girls turned to the other with an OMG expression on her face that her mom would have treasured until her dying day if she had seen it. At this moment, the greatest pleasure in watching kids experience this magnificent storm of sound for the first time is being able to say to yourself: "You ain't heard nuthin' yet!"