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Now that Music Director Christopher Warren-Green has survived the honeymoon and is entering his seventh year with the Charlotte Symphony, it is fair to say that the marriage, judging from this weekend's offering, has been a productive one. The refined playing of the strings and the excellent intonation of the entire ensemble were impressive, and the only balance problem of the occasional horn forte passages overpowering the ensemble can be attributed to my seat in the second box, nearly over the right side of the stage.
The concert opened with the charming and tender Serenade for Strings, Opus 20, by the great British composer, Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), which Maestro Warren-Green conducted with great intimacy and feeling. There were pianissimi passages of unusual delicacy and precision delivered by Charlotte's strings, smaller than expected for such a large stage and hall. Comprising three short movements, refined and rarified in sentiment and far from the boisterous Elgar of Cockaigne, Enigma and Pomp and Circumstance, the Serenade was the perfect opener for a concert centered on the British Isles and eventually focusing on Scotland.
The late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016), a prolific composer and conductor, established his residency in the Orkney Islands, off the northern coast of Scotland, in 1971. In brief pre-performance remarks, Maestro Warren-Green recounted his meeting with "Max" last year in Sanday (Orkney Islands) at which time the composer wrote instructions about which whiskey to drink before performing An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise on the flyleaf of the score! The long and seamless (also breathless!) woodwind solos which open the work eventually yield to shorter and shorter excerpts based on Scottish folk music, until the work degenerates into a musical brawl signifying the drunken state of the guests at the wedding at hand. Musical order is reinstated with the dawn entrance from the back of the audience of the bagpipes, played by Nancy Tunnicliffe, appropriately clad in what appeared to be the Sanday tartan (the residence of the composer). Approaching the stage from the aisle through the audience, she joined the orchestra for an exhilarating climax to the first half of the concert, eliciting a well-deserved standing ovation.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was a child prodigy, which is fortunate given the shortness of his life! The Scottish Symphony, Opus 56, in A minor, the last of the composer's mature symphonies but the third in order of publication, was conceived by Mendelssohn at age 20 when he first beheld the wild countryside and seas of Scotland. However, he didn't actually compose the symphony until over a dozen years later. He asked for the four movements to be played without pause, although each has a distinct beginning and ending.
The original sketch for the introduction to the first movement is important in that the theme figures significantly is several parts of the symphony – after a wild and stormy coda, the first movement closes quietly with a recap of it before yielding to the effervescent scherzo-like second movement with its allusion to the Scottish or Scott's snap, perhaps the only authentically Scottish trait of the work. Kudos to all for outstanding crisp and clear staccato tonguing and bowing!
The romantic third movement, marked Adagio, features the first violins in a magnificent long melody over pizzicati with harmonic interpolations by the lower woodwinds. The strings were gorgeous here, as indeed, throughout the concert. It was interesting to note the conductor's wish to hasten the tempo as the tension and volume increased toward the climax of the movement, a style fallen out of favor in recent times, but reminiscent of the similar crescendi of Willem Mengelberg. The last movement, starting with what the program notes call a "marital outburst," maintains the martial mood until the triumphant major return of the theme from the introduction to the first movement. This was outstanding playing of a very satisfying program. It was a pleasure to watch the Maestro take his time with phrases, allowing them to end without rushing into the next one.
The concert repeats Saturday evening in the Belk Theater of the Blumenthal Center at 7:30 pm. See the sidebar for details.