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Two of Christof Perick’s most conspicuous achievements during his nine-year tenure with the Charlotte Symphony were the lilt of his Mozart and the sonorous sweep of his Strauss. So it wasn’t too surprising that, during his first full season as music director after Perick’s departure, Christopher Warren-Green steered away from those two titans as he sought to put his own stamp on the Symphony and its audience. But of course, it would be foolhardy for any new maestro to allow the strengths already established in his orchestra to languish, so it’s equally understandable that both Mozart and Strauss are back in the classics rotation for Warren-Green’s sophomore season. In fact, Warren-Green programmed the same exact Mozart pairing, the “Jupiter” Symphony and the Requiem in D minor, almost exactly seven years after Perick performed it at Belk Theater. For longtime subscribers with fairly long memories, it made for a fascinating study of how a conductor alters the personality of an orchestra.
Intriguing differences appeared almost instantly in the “Jupiter.” Some of the Viennese grace and overall cohesion that Perick had cultivated were gone in the Allegro vivace, replaced by more radical contrasts in dynamics and driven by Warren-Green at a more urgent pace, with dramatic full stops before the sforzandos. It was as if Mozart were a student of Beethoven rather than the other way around. I found myself straining to hear the softer passages, perhaps because the musicians were more closely bunched together to accommodate the chorus that would be arriving during the intermission. Thankfully, there was nothing under-projected about the sweet Andante cantabile. A pleasant pulsing of the winds lurked behind the melodious higher strings with a brooding undertow from the double basses. The lone flute chimed in soothingly as the movement ended.
Warren-Green’s slightly accelerated tempos were probably best suited to the penultimate Allegretto movement and its 3/4-time Menuetto lilt. The dancing quality of this genial music was infectious, if all too brief, and made for an effective lead-in to the closing Allegro molto. Here Warren-Green’s approach to the score sounded more natural and convincing than in the opening movement: shuttling between loud and soft passages sounded more visceral, less cerebral, and the orchestra’s sure navigation of the near-presto pace enhanced the excitement.
Appraising the strengths of the Charlotte Symphony, Warren-Green seems noticeably more inclined toward emphasizing the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte than his predecessor, who performed with them once a year and otherwise consigned choral activities to Scott Allen Jarrett. Last season, the Oratorios appeared twice in the Classics Series, with Jarrett conducting Haydn’s Creation in the fall and Warren-Green including them this past spring in an all-Brahms program. But Warren-Green had been in attendance at a community concert back in February, where Jarrett led a performance of Herbert Howells’ Requiem and offered a foretaste of Brahms’s Nänie with a piano-only accompaniment. This season, the new maestro is slated to be on the podium for both of the choral concerts, concluding the Classics Series with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis next May.
His approach to Mozart, pointing up dynamic contrasts and prodding the tempos, worked even better with the Requiem than the “Jupiter.” The Oratorio Singers’ entrance on the “Rex tremendae” powerfully conveyed the King’s awful majesty, yet moments later, there was sugary softness to the “salve me,” pleading for salvation from the fount of pity. Similarly, when the choir evoked the flames of hell in the “Confutatis” section, the sound of the male choristers was terrifying in its urgency – moments before the women entered antiphonally with their “Oro supplex” supplications of contrition. Somehow these elements of fear and pleading merged in the ensuing “Lacrimosa” as the full chorus asked for divine mercy on the day of weeping.
Two of the four solo vocalists were making their Charlotte debuts. Most auspicious were the first impressions made by tenor Thomas Cooley in the “Tuba mirum,” where he decisively upstaged baritone Christòpheren Nomura and mezzo Amanda Crider. Soprano Christina Pier, appearing with the Symphony after a two-year hiatus, was nearly as delightful as Cooley, giving us her best in the concluding “Lux aeterna.” Tastefully, Warren-Green eschewed his customary encore at the end of the concert. More unusual, he strode over to trombonist Thomas Burge and gave him a hug, presumably for his obbligato in the “Tuba mirum.” It was richly deserved.