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Face it: in the wake of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and COVID-19, we've entered a complex cultural transition. The Charlotte Symphony, never the most daring nor the most timid of orchestras in their programming, serves as a useful barometer. Their current program, with works by Emilie Mayer and William Grant Still, is even more impressively diverse – judging strictly by the playing times of these pieces – than their season opener, spotlighting the music of Valerie Coleman and The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by two modern Chinese composers, Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. But in 2023, these are not yet household names, or even widely known among CSO subscribers. Accordingly, the season opening concert was titled "Beethoven's Eroica Symphony No. 3" and the current offering is billed as "Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2," pragmatically restoring balance and marketability. We haven't reached the Promised Land in claiming our full musical heritage, but we're definitely beginning to cross the Jordan.
As recently as 12 years ago, when I purchased The Gramophone Classical Music Guide for the last time, there was no mention of Mayer (1812-1883) in that doorstop nor in the Penguin Guide, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, or The NPR Listener's Encyclopedia of Classical Music – all upstanding residents on my bookshelves. Indeed, the earliest recording of Mayer's work that can found on Spotify, Apple, or Amazon was released in 2000, and the earliest that can be streamed came out in 2010, seven years before the first recording completely devoted to her compositions – pretty remarkable for a 19th century German composer who wrote eight symphonies, six of which have now been recorded. We had a nice taste of Mayer's handiwork in her Faust Overture with resident conductor Christopher James Lees on the Knight Theater podium.
Recorded twice in the past two years and topmost among suggestions when I type the composer's name in a Google search, the work has unmistakable gravitas, build, and power, welling up in the strings and releasing from its somber Adagio opening with a tattoo from the timpani that shifts us more lightheartedly into an Allegro colored by the wind section and easing into waltz tempo. Of the two name-brand pieces lurking in the program, Chopin's Concerto and Antonín Dvořák's The Noonday Witch, the Faust pairs best with Dvořák and his storytelling. Mayer's work became more volatile and episodic past the halfway mark, a palpable struggle between good and evil as Sturm und Drang sections alternated with milder retorts from the winds, which gradually became more assertive, with more sinew, before the antagonists merged majestically in the climax. Lees' tempos and dynamics could have been more restless and spasmodic, but none of the walloping power was lost.
My last sightings of pianist Orli Shaham were at Spirit Square in 2002 at the Brightstar Music Festival, so I had no live experience of her full voltage beyond her exploits in a Brahms Piano Quintet, a Prokofiev flute sonata, and a Poulenc trio. Any doubts that Shaham and the CSO had the muscle and finesse needed for an optimum Chopin 2 vanished by the time the pianist finished her first kaleidoscopic turn in the opening Maestoso, after a spirited orchestral intro. Shaham's delicacy, already convincingly established in this epic opening, became even more ethereal – and personal – in the sublime larghetto that followed. Neither Shaham nor CSO was as captivating as the winsome 1999 recording by Christian Zacharias, where both the pianist and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra honed in on the lilt of the waltzing rhythms that are so emblematic in Chopin's work. But there are plenty of other flavors to Chopin, as the many master recordings of this concerto readily attest, and Shaham merely chose a different journey, rousing enough to trigger an ovation that demanded an encore.
When Lees picked up a microphone after intermission, it was to summarize the story of Polednice, the Czech poem by Karel Jaromír Erben, for the maestro maintained that Dvořák's The Noonday Witch – one of four tone poems set to Erben's ballads – followed the story bar-by-bar. Whether or not Lees' claim can be verified, the piece offered Erica Cice, in her first outing as CSO's acting principal oboist, a swift opportunity to shine just 13 days after her predecessor, Hollis Ulaky, made her farewell appearance in the Eroica. Here the oboe represented the misbehaving boy who was threatened with a visit from the fearsome Noon Witch by his frustrated mom in repeated attempts to quiet him – until she loses it and issues her fatal summons. Enter Allan Rosenfeld with his bass clarinet as the wicked visitor, who surprises and alarms both mother and son with her arrival. Much orchestral tumult ensues as the witch implacably chases her prey – until the tubular bells chime 12 times and the witch disappears at noon. Ah, but the story isn't quite finished, with more orchestral turbulence on the horizon.
With a brief paragraph in the Oxford Dictionary and a more respectful entry in the NPR Encyclopedia, we can't tout Still (1895-1978) as newly-discovered. As Lees hinted in his intro, however, the "Dean of African-American Composers" has been unconscionably neglected. The appearance of this work in the clean-up spot on the program, where mighty orchestral works by brand-name Europeans usually dwell, may be unprecedented. With all of CSO's artistry and enthusiasm behind it, Still's "Afro-American" Symphony No. 1 proved worthy of its esteemed position on the bill, even after Shaham dazzled us. In the bluesy opening movement of this 1930 work, "Longing," you may actually catch a violinist or two smiling as she plays. You might have the same reaction. The middle movements "Sorrow" and "Humor" retain a residue of blues flavoring, but here it's less a part of the mix with traditional orchestral writing – all-American strike-up-the-band jubilation. The sheer majesty of the closing "Aspiration" movement took me by surprise, for I'd never heard it before in live performance. America is very much carved into this closing, encompassing the swagger of our cities, the grandeur of our mountains, the serenity of our prairies, and maybe a few echoes of Native Americans we took it all from.
This program repeats Sunday, October 22 at 3 pm. See our sidebar for details.