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Launching its 82nd season, there was enough on the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's program to satisfy subscribers' appetites for familiar fare while working a fresh piece into the repertoire. The first two works, in fact, had been audience-tested in other CSO series within the past three seasons, Gustav Holst's The Planets serving as a cornerstone event in the yuppie-oriented KnightSounds series in 2010, festooned with apropos NASA animations, and Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra getting play in the LolliPops series for kids during the 2011-12 season, with the personable Jacomo Rafael Bairos at the podium. Making his first Charlotte appearance, Lukáš Vondráček was at the keyboard for the orchestra's first-ever performance of Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2. Belatedly taking his cue from Holst's subtitle "Suite for Large Orchestra," music director Christopher Warren-Green revisited the piece with a noticeably larger ensemble at Belk Theater, swelled by stringers, than had played at the smaller Knight Theater venue three years ago.
The fortified forces were already evident when Warren-Green launched into the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell that comprise Britten's Young People's Guide. In the statement of the Theme and in the climaxes of the closing Fugue, the barrages of brass and percussion were majestic and formidable, seeming to bring the Belk Theater's vestigial organ pipes to life. But the 13 variations in between were more successful in meeting the piece's educational objectives than in conveying the composer's artistry – more successful in displaying the musicians' proficiency than in presenting the string of instrumental showcases as a cohesive whole. It is easy enough to praise the interaction between Erica Cice and Terry Maskin in the oboe variation, the puckishness of Eugene Kavadlo's playing in the clarinet variation, the vivacious dash of the violins when the music took a sudden Iberian turn, the somber hush of the violas, and the ardor of the cellos; but the connecting fabric, gradually fraying to that point, fell apart as the double basses' monologue was followed by stints from the harp, the horns, the brass, and the percussion. My London Symphony recording is probably the most cohesive performance I've heard, but the Berlin Philharmonic's video archives also contain a superior version if you subscribe to their streaming service. It was quite a relief when Erinn Frechette's piccolo touched off the final fugue as section after section layered on and the whole Charlotte ensemble regained its footing.
Neither of the recordings I have of Liszt's A Major concerto, with György Cziffra and Krystian Zimerman at the keyboard, prepared me for the mad, jagged, fiercely driven, and demonically charged entrance by Vondráček, particularly after the deceptively mellow work by the clarinets and oboe. As the opening movement transitioned into the Allegro moderato, Vondráček's initial ferocity proved quite affecting when he relented and veered chromatically into sensitivity, eloquently answered by Alan Black's cello. Cice also soloed nicely before the brass crashed in to start the Allegro deciso with a Wagnerian edge of foreboding. In these middle movements and in the Allegro animato finale, Vondráček's take on the piece became more conventional in its lyricism and his fevered exchanges with the brass, yet even in the concluding fireworks, his compelling performance retained a memorable aftertaste of neurosis, an insistence that Liszt's romanticism was imbued with anguish.
While those NASA animations delighted back in October 2010, the CSO's previous performance of The Planets exposed the acoustic shortcomings of Knight Theater. Lacking the acoustic shell that was added less than a year ago, the Knight stage compounded the underpowered results from the underpowered ensemble by dispersing much of the sound to the wings and aloft. At the Belk, Warren-Green was obviously determined to make amends. With the added power of the added musicians, there was no diminution of sharpness and clarity. On the contrary, each of the seven sections sounded more finely sculpted, more vividly characterized. About the only way Warren-Green could have increased the battlefield clangor of the opening "Mars, the Bringer of War" would have been to install the house organ that has been MIA since the Belk first opened 21 years ago with its 100 purely decorative organ pipes. As it was, with an outboard electric organ augmenting the blare of the brass and the pounding of the timpani, the whole building was already shaking, so when we abruptly cut to "Venus, the Bringer of Peace," the onset of instrumental color was no less spectacular. Frank Portone's wan French horn solo gave way to concertmaster Calin Lupanu's ethereal ascent, accompanied by the four harmonizing flutes demanded by the score. "Mercury, the Winged Messenger" had all the swiftness and lightness of a Debussy tone poem, with a skittering celesta skimming its surface.
If this performance were executed as a studio recording, all would have been pronounced perfection except for the familiar "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity," where the impressive evening's work by the horns and trumpets was slightly marred. Nevertheless, the orchestra shifted moods in the 3/4 tempo of "Jupiter" with agile grace from frolicsome to anthemic. "Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age" was poignantly lugubrious, building to suffering and terror before giving way to a cloud of harps hovering over the double-basses, implacably followed by chiming tubular bells over the throb of the organ – hinting that Saturn was also the King of the Underworld. "Uranus, the Magician" was suffused with circus eccentricity and surprise, gradually adding an aura of mystery. "Neptune, the Mystic" sustained the mood with the superbly hushed flute corps, amplified by the women choristers of the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte, who injected their heavenly infusions from offstage. It was an ending that sent our imaginations gliding further outwards into infinite space and eternal myth.
The Charlotte Symphony's season continues with a pops concert on October 5. For details, see our calendar.