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Orchestral Music Review Print

Charlotte Symphony: Haydn Cello Concerto and Scheherazade

January 9, 2009 - Charlotte, NC:

When Toscanini’s eyesight began to fail him, he conducted by memory more frequently. When Fürtwängler started conducting without a score, he said it was because Toscanini was doing so. However, Richard Strauss, when asked why he used the score when conducting even his own works, famously replied “because I can read a score!”  Poised and elegantly coiffed guest conductor, Christopher Warren-Green, also certainly can read a score; indeed, he often seemed immersed in it. Choosing the broad gesture over the precise one and avoiding subdividing the beat like it were contagious, he nonetheless led the Charlotte Symphony in a successful tour of mostly Russian music.

Julie Albers was the cello soloist in Haydn’s lovely Concerto in D, (Hob. VIIb:2), one of only two that has survived of an original six. Winner of several international competitions, Ms. Albers is a rising young (28) star with a brilliant future ahead of her. Her choice of this elegant classical concerto, rather that one of the flamboyant works which populate the Romantic era, also speaks volumes about her taste and modesty, although the Rococo Variations (Tchaikovsky) might also have fit very well in this concert. Yet she displayed plenty of virtuosity in the cadenza of the first movement and in the brilliant 6/8 Rondo which closed the concerto. And at all times, her tone was pure and beautiful.

I was disturbed that the entrances of the orchestra seemed hesitant and sometimes downright sloppy, except in the last movement. This is not usually the case with the very fine Charlotte Symphony. The choice of the conductor not to participate actively in the predominant rhythmic pattern added to an appearance of nonchalance. Concern for the balance of the orchestra with the soloist led the visiting maestro to pare down the lower strings to the bare minimum – one cello, one bass. The resulting balance with the soloist was fine, but not between the orchestra’s horn section and the lone cello, who dialogue together several times in the first movement. Many orchestras possess a podium or riser with an open front which tends to augment the sound of the cellist because of the acoustics of the open-ended hollow box. Unfortunately, in this concert, the platform only served to elevate Ms. Albers to a slightly higher prominence above the polished oaken floor. It took the audience several minutes to adjust to the relative softness of her instrument, a cello made by N.F. Vuillaume (the son) in 1872.

Book-ending the Haydn concerto were two works in which Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov played major roles, that of composer in Scheherazade, and that of arranger in Mussorgsky’s popular “Night on Bald Mountain.”  Rimsky-Korsakov had often deplored the unrefined wild nature of Mussorgsky’s scores and tried to “normalize” them, eliminating the awkwardness and irregularities of the originals. This is most obvious in his complete rewriting of Boris Godunov, where he even went so far as to change the order of the scenes and acts. Shostakovich’s rewrite of the same opera (which Mussorgsky had left unfinished at his death) restored much of its naked originality and boldness.

Nonetheless, we must give great thanks to Rimsky-Korsakov for having assembled bits of manuscript into this wonderfully coherent and  powerful orchestral work. The entire orchestra played well in this popular work, and I marveled that the strings could play their several fast “tremolo” passages at the tempo demanded of them!  But I couldn’t help but feel that the polished and suave leadership from the podium was at odds with the potential wildness of the score – after all, this is about a witches’ Sabbath!

The horn (French, by some, whereas not at all French) is one of the most difficult of all instruments to play. Unfortunately, it is one of the instruments audiences (and critics) notice the least when well played, but immediately identify when a single note goes awry. Partly, this is because the horn is, by its physical nature and because of the parts written for it, playing notes ridiculously high in the harmonic series and making it, therefore, susceptible to a myriad of “almost right” notes.

I am happy to report that the performance of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s much beloved Scheherazade was outstanding – the horns had an excellent night, woodwind solos were personalized and impeccably played, brasses executed their quick-tongued passages (single-, double- and triple-tongued) brilliantly, and the strings were on top of their game although somewhat subdued by the acoustics of the hall. But the real heroes of the performance were Calin Ovidiù Lupanu, concertmaster, whose many solos either reflected on the past or set the scene for the action to come, and Alan Black, principal cello, who accompanied many solos and otherwise provided a voice to Sinbad the sailor in this colorful musical encapsulation of the Tales of Arabian Nights.  Lupanu’s tone is as sweet as any seductress’s might be, yet, as in the interlude between the third and fourth movements, as glowering and foreboding as a lover threatening to withhold favors.

The audience gave this performance its merited standing ovation!