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The idea that Christopher Warren-Green would attempt an all-Beethoven concert seemed dubious when he began his tenure two seasons ago with the Charlotte Symphony and even more unlikely in his 2009 audition for the music directorship, when I advised subscribers to bring a soft pillow to concerts should he win the job. But in his two years of wielding the baton, Warren-Green has been astonishing since his arrival in Charlotte, leading the Symphony into exciting new directions in programming, palpably improving the ensemble’s finesse in softer passagework, and taking on the gusto and exuberance of his newly adopted American homeland. After concluding the 2011-12 Season with a resounding Missa Solemnis, the once improbable seemed like a logical next step as the Charlotte Symphony began its 81st season at Belk Theater. Warren-Green, a master of the pithy intro, pointed out that the pieces he had selected – the Coriolan Overture, Piano Concerto No. 4, and the Symphony No. 4 – replicated a concert that Beethoven himself gave in 1807 at the Viennese palace of patron Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz.
Nothing that followed the Coriolan demonstrated quite so convincingly the new plateau that Warren-Green has attained with his orchestra. The opening crackled with drama, its sforzandos seemingly the inspiration for the famed Perry Mason Theme by the late Fred Steiner. Every turn of phrase, shift in tempo, and change of mood seemed perfectly articulated for maximum effect.
The concerto, with Brazilian soloist Arnaldo Cohen at the keyboard, had nearly that same perfection of utterance, vividly expressing the dialectic Warren-Green had described between piano and orchestra. There was a slight brittleness to Cohen’s tone, reminding me more of recordings I’ve heard of the piece on the 19th Century fortepiano than André Watts performance of this concerto in 2009 – so the piano-orchestra dialogue was as much Mozart-Beethoven as Liszt’s description, Orpheus taming the wild beasts. From the opening of the Allegro moderato on the keyboard, the concerto took on a more contemplative color, with the winds playing more sweetly in response to the pianist’s eloquence. Cohen himself often engorged the whole of Beethoven’s dialectic in the cadenza, rumbling bass so redolent of the revolutionary while the pearlescent treble hearkened back to Beethoven’s forebears. But of course, Liszt was describing the middle Andante movement with his simile, and here Warren-Green made sure that the orchestra’s bellicosity contrasted sharply with Cohen’s soothing and conciliatory pleadings. The final Rondo – Vivace quickened the tempo and heightened the intensity. Cohen brilliantly blended the two lines he was playing, but not so murkily that you missed the separate lines of his left and right hand. Just a pair of trumpets blasted to lift the excitement as we rushed toward a final resolution, making Cohen’s response all the sweeter as his closing cadenza gradually flowed from lyricism to power.
After two such sparkling performances, the B-flat symphony was a disappointment, but not from beginning to end. The solemnities of the Adagio intro to the opening movement were beautifully gauged, ideally setting up the gallop of the ensuing Allegro vivace. Every gesture from the podium showed that Warren-Green and his musicians grasped Beethoven’s argument. Those two trumpets couldn’t have been more perfectly balanced with the rest of the ensemble, adding exactly the right punch. From there, cogency and purposefulness gradually began to disappear. Principal clarinetist Gene Kavadlo and principal bassoonist Mary Beth Griglak played with distinction when called upon to solo in the Adagio, and the ensemble swelled nicely to a dirge toward the end, coalescing in a crisp conclusion. But between Kavadlo’s solos, the ensemble sounded disorganized and inchoate. Again in the Menuetto, Warren-Green and the ensemble seemed to get lost in the quiet patch that followed the impish start, finding refuge in the Allegro vivace section and emerging more cohesively – but not quite convincingly – in the next quiet section. As for the closing Allegro ma non troppo, it was a fairly botched mess, the nimble passages frayed and lacking conviction with the grand moments only partially making up for the helter-skelter.
With six programs in six weeks to launch their season, including three classics, a pops, a KnightSounds lite program, and an opera, the Charlotte Symphony simply sounded under-rehearsed in the final three movements of Beethoven’s No. 4. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain why the soft, delicate sections of the score, a CSO strength under Warren-Green’s tenure, had suddenly become a glaring weakness. I was encouraged to believe that the woes that suddenly afflicted the orchestra after intermission were merely an aberration when Warren-Green returned to lead the encore, a beautifully polished rendition of Mascagni’s intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana. No lack of sensitivity or finesse there.