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Showcasing works spanning 300 years of composition, the Charlotte Symphony, under guest conductor Jessica Cottis, demonstrated the power of an expertly curated program. With each selection, the program highlighted the influence of popular music within the classical sphere and broadened the conventions of what constitutes a symphonic performance. And without being too programmatic, the concert was in many ways broadly American. Imitations of American folk idioms, French perceptions of jazz, American circus music, and a barbershop quartet all culminated in a soundscape that was relevant and vernacular.
Fresh and positively restless, Jessie Montgomery's "Strum" is a musically appetizing new work. Holding the viola across his body like a guitar, principal violist Benjamin Geller began the piece with an adventurous and steadfast strummed solo. Joined by heedful violin, the two pioneered the silence together. An intrepid, bowed cello solo from principal Alan Black took the lead and emboldened concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu to join in harmony and bolster the endeavor. Originally composed in 2006 for cello quintet, Montgomery's orchestration in the 2012 arrangement for string orchestra recalls the piece's roots in chamber music. Gaining confidence and momentum, the strumming speeds ahead and takes hold of the entire first violin section, launching the ensemble into a gallop. From here on out, the piece rarely ever settles for too long. Lighthearted, hot, and organic, the nature of the work reminded me of the second movement from Ravel's String Quartet in F, Spanish guitar inspirations in Gabriela Lena Frank's Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout, and the orchestral hocketing style of Copland.
A classic fan favorite for many, Ravel's Piano Concerto in G was the most traditional selection of the night. But on a program bookended by nonstandard works, it felt like the concerto had an opportunity to say something new. During the pre-concert talk, Cottis explained how the piano concerto signaled a change in Ravel's style. By the time of the concerto's composition, the singable melodies of Ravel's earlier works had become "fragmented in an exhilarating way." Cottis also mentioned that a tour of the United States inspired Ravel to include jazz elements in the concerto that, to me, resembled the symphonic piano writing of Gershwin. The exhilaration that Cottis spoke of was apparent from the first jolt of slapstick, the frenetic piano surges, and skipping piccolo solo. Piano soloist Stewart Goodyear wowed the audience with his technical prowess and command of color in the first movement, but what really took me was the sensation he cultivated in the second movement. Scaling back from the first movement, the beginning of the Adagio assai is gentle and pensive, and it pulled the audience in with its simplicity. But watching Goodyear's demeanor transform so severely from flashy and virtuosic to private and confessional transformed the room as well. For a moment, the room shrank, the rest of the orchestra faded away, and Goodyear was able to use the piano to talk intimately with the audience. Flute, clarinet, and oboe emerged out of the piano's sound and enlivened it, but the stage remained shrouded in a sense of mistiness. Soliloquys from English horn and piano navigated the fog, always wandering but only sometimes lost. Ending with a whisper, the final movement shocks the audience back into attention with a roaring snare roll and squealing solos from clarinet and piccolo. Much like the Montgomery, the third movement is a never-ending wave of new ideas, always leaping from section to section. Blinding hot on the piano, Goodyear let loose and took the audience on a ride that sprinted to the end without losing an inkling of inertia.
Elephantine is maybe a bit too on the nose to describe the Stravinsky. But after learning that his "Circus Polka" was commissioned by the Barnum and Bailey Circus as ballet music for "50 elephants and 50 dancers in pink tutus," characterizing it as lumbering and inelegant seemed apt. As jaunty and unserious as it is, the winds really put their all into the notes. And although I enjoyed every moment of the absurdity, Stravinsky left the greatest reward of the piece to the French horn section: a spectacular, over-the-top, confetti cannon of a section feature.
The cornerstone of the program was a surprising piece that was completely new to me. Composed in 1933, Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins is a theatrical symphonic work, or "sung ballet" set in a fictional America. Voiced by soprano Lindsay Kesselman, the lead character Anna I (and her alter ego, Anna II) journey through seven American cities on a mission to send back money to her greedy family back home. In each of the seven cities, Anna encounters one of the seven deadly sins. Anna begins her journey bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, optimistic that her experiences will bring her fulfillment and serve her family well, but as expected, the sins that she happens upon wear on her conscience and her sense of self. Anna's family, played in this concert by an all-male barbershop quartet, serve as a Greek chorus of sorts as they narrate, foreshadow, and lecture Anna's choices. Essentially playing two roles at once, Kesselman masterfully emoted the conflict between Anna I and II, and although the lyrics are in German, she expertly convinced the audience of her character's decline. Characters aside, the story features a smorgasbord of musical accompaniments. Words alone are nearly insufficient to account for how CSO's interpretations of foxtrots, banjo and guitar, schmaltzy burlesque, and classical passages all synergized together to realize the fictional world Anna ventures through. The Charlotte Symphony's commitment to the range of expression in Weill's work elevated the relatively obscure work to the status of tour de force.
While it seems like many major orchestras still struggle to program new and underperformed works in a meaningful and serious way, the Charlotte Symphony has excelled. Embracing their role as a major cultural institution in the state, this concert was refreshing, accessible, and adventurous.
This program repeats Saturday, January 29. See our sidebar for details.