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Seldom are classical programming and performance so fortuitously wed as they were for the season-opening concert of the Charlotte Symphony, heard in Belk Theater on September 17. Music Director Christof Perick opened and closed with Romantic German musical responses to comedies by William Shakespeare – The Merry Wives of Windsor and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Both evoke the world of Faerie, "real" or imagined. These works sandwiched Mozart's Sinfonia concertante, K.364/320d, for violin and viola, aptly described by Edward Downes (in The New York Philharmonic Guide to the Symphony) as "one of the most ravishingly beautiful works of (the composer's) maturity." All three works demand agile and light touches combined with flawless intonation and chamber music-like ensemble. There was no sign of lethargy lingering from the summer hiatus.
Perick's sensitivity to subtle nuances of dynamics and phrasing was evident in every bar of the Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor, Otto Nicolai's best-known Singspiel. Hushed violins ushered in the well-paced build-up in dynamics to a rousing forte for the full orchestra. In this and the Mozart, the horn section cultivated a wonderfully rustic "hunting horn" timbre that was most welcome. Within the Overture there are parallels to Mendelsssohn – a fleet scherzo and a rambunctious syncopated sequence. The oboe section glowed, and the themes really sang, throughout.
Perick chose two superb rising musicians as soloists for Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante. Violinist Tai Murray's musical individuality was impressive when CVNC reviewed her May 6, 2004, concert with Dmitry Sitkovetsky and the Greensboro Symphony. Violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama, an audience favorite and fine chamber musician for a number of seasons on the popular Dock Street Series at the Spoleto Festival USA, was reviewed extensively in our 2001 coverage. The soloists – and their instruments – made a finely-contrasted pair. Murray seemed to be a tigress, ever alert to her colleague and conductor, her energy barely contained. Ngwenyama seemed relaxed, often playing with half-closed eyes but clearly listening closely to her colleagues. Murray's sweet-toned violin made the perfect foil for the dusky, lyric baritone sound of Ngwenyama's viola. When called for, they matched each other's phrasing and bowing perfectly; elsewhere, their solo lines were strongly characterized. With the violist's sensitive application of vibrato giving full value to tender emotions, the slow movement was achingly beautiful. Because of its natural acoustics, the viola is easily covered, but Perick provided some of the most sensitive accompaniment I have ever heard. Without losing the substance and color of the orchestral sections, he held the dynamics perfectly in check, constantly making subtle adjustments to support his soloists throughout the performance. Among the many felicities were the qualities of the horns and woodwinds. A memorable moment came late in the third movement, when Ngwenyama's viola had a brief closely matched "duet" with the low strings alone – the viola, cello, and double bass sections phrased as one. This was just one of dozens of telling details that helped make this performance so special.
Orchestral economics being tight these days, I had expected to hear only an extended selection of purely symphonic excerpts from Felix Mendelssohn's Incidental Music to the play A Midsummer Night's Dream, but Perick expertly prepared a frothy feast! In addition to the beloved Overture, Scherzo, Nocturne, and the infamous or ubiquitous Wedding March, an Intermezzo, the March of the Fairies, and "Dance of the Rustics were added. But most unexpected were two rarely-played episodes – the Song with Chorus that features the line "Ye Spotted Snakes" and the Finale, featuring "Through this House Give Glimmering Light." Perick wisely chose an English-language version, and Director Scott Allen Jarrett had the enunciation exact among the women of the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte. The chorus was arrayed somewhat antiphonally along the sides and back of the stage. This heightened the effect as one part of the chorus called to the other. The solo singers were positioned at the L-like bend of the left half of the choir, and both projected well and clearly. Soprano Jennifer Check has the makings of a fine dramatic soprano. Her voice has a lovely timbre and is evenly supported from its dark, lower range to a brilliant high register. The First Prize winner of the 2005 Young Concert Artists International Auditions wowed us when she sang the solo in Vaughan Williams' "Dona nobis pacem" at the 2004 Spoleto Festival USA; we had heard her rise from the ranks of the Westminster Choir. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Shammash's full rich tone and clear diction were welcome in the other part. All the virtues of orchestral playing and conducting nuances were on full display throughout the filigree-like tapestry of Mendelssohn's magical score. The well-known flight of the solo flute at the end of the Scherzo was marvelous. What an unchecked pleasure this concert was!
Just before the concert, Perick spoke eloquently about the losses and displacements resulting from Hurricane Katrina. He welcomed evacuees who were able to attend the concert and dedicated the performance to those lost or relocated by the storm, including musician-colleagues in the Louisiana Symphony. The National Anthem was lustily played before the concert itself began.