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A week after playing at the Royal Wedding in Westminster Abbey, Christopher Warren-Green was joined by musical royalty as the Charlotte Symphony maestro returned to the Belk Theater stage to conduct the final concert of the 2010-11 season. In his fifth set of performances in Charlotte (but his first since 2001), the esteemed Stephen Hough performed the Grieg Piano Concerto, and if his forthcoming release of the piece on the Hyperion label is anything like the performance he turned in with Warren-Green, it will be a must-have recording.
We don't need to be eased into the splendor of the Grieg, but it is useful for an audience to delve more deeply into the composer's work. Listening to the Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, subscribers could deepen their appreciation for the melodious Norwegian while reconnecting with two of his most familiar tunes. The orchestra excelled on the softer moments of "Morning Mood," capturing the aubade flavoring at the opening of the suite with gentle filigree from flutists Elizabeth Landon and Amy Whitehead, with oboist Erica Cice in their wake. But the fortissimos of this Allegretto pastorale were harsh and uncontrolled. That raucousness served the music better after the genial opening bars of the fourth section, "In the Hall of the Mountain King," building to a frenzied finish that was startling – surely, there was never any audible dialogue from Ibsen's epic stage hero amid the incidental music if it was played like this! On the other hand, the Andante doloroso marking for "The Death of Åse" was reverently observed, dynamics and blending immaculately controlled in an exquisite finish. More beguiling, the 3/4 rhythm of "Anitra's Dance" spotlighted the violins – and indeed the entire string ensemble – at their supple best.
Hough is noted for the depth and sensitivity of his playing rather than for fire and brimstone, so it was a welcome surprise to hear him attack the heraldic opening with such febrile ferocity. The éclat of the opening was complemented by the propulsive brooding that follows, leading to lyrical passages phrased with revelatory musicality. At times, there were also fresh shadings from the orchestra, as when Mary Beth Griglak's bassoon stood forth with unaccustomed prominence in the massive response to the initial piano outburst. Principal French hornist Frank Portone was notably tender behind Hough as the soloist sculpted his long cadenza, giving equal weight to the rumble and the bloom. Warren-Green picked up the thread of that rumbling to close out the first movement, then went from strength to strength introducing the ensuing Adagio, which featured additional sparring between Hough and Portone, mostly floating exquisitely in the treble with the occasional spasm of turbulence below. The orchestra ascended to peak form in the concluding Allegro moderato, counterbalancing Hough's graceful lyricism with crisp sforzandos in a mighty response to his exposition. Landon beautifully transitioned the movement back to its lyrical mode where we luxuriated until the final build-up. A full pause preceded the return to the movement's opening theme as the orchestra played a finely judged intro to Hough's last cadenza, followed by the majestic entrance of the brass in a stately finish.
The brass section – three trumpets, three trombones, and tuba – earned even more lavish kudos after intermission, anchoring the final three movements of the Symphony No. 2 in D by Jean Sibelius. While the wind section sounded a little dark at the outset of the opening Allegretto, needing more input from the flutes, and the argument grew a little choppy along the way, an effective tension was eventually sustained preceding the onset of the big oceanic theme. A brief fill by trumpeter Richard Harris – and a cameo entrance by all the brasses – hinted at the grandeur to come in the otherwise gentle Andante, which concluded with sounds of mourning, yearning, and mellower sounds of the sea. The third movement, marked Vivacissimo, sounded more like a Beethoven scherzo than the recordings I've heard, but it held together better than the opening movement, thanks in part to the French horns and the hopeful melody from principal oboist Hollis Ulaky. Busy as it was to start, the penultimate movement still fed magnificently and without pause into the triumphal finale. Nor was there a pause between the last bars of the Symphony – regally festooned with the last fanfare of the brass – and the audience's lusty ovation.
As usual, Warren-Green had an encore in hand, a trademark gesture that was especially apt in wrapping up his first season as Charlotte Symphony's music director. It may be arguable whether the orchestra is playing better now than when Christof Perick completed his tenure a year ago, but collectively, they seem indisputably more relaxed and joyful. This seemed obvious in the encore, Karelia, a Sibelius trinket that always seems to have a British bounce. Maybe it was the lingering aura of HRH Prince William and Westminster Abbey, but the piece was especially bouncy and buoyant under Warren-Green's baton as the beaming musicians seemed to be offering equal thanksgivings to their audience and their maestro.