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Orchestral Music Review Print

Charlotte Symphony Shines in Hallowed Evening Concerts

November 1, 2008 - Charlotte, NC:

The Charlotte Symphony presented one of the best executed concerts in recent memory, under the direction of Swiss guest conductor Thierry Fischer, a candidate for the position of Music Director of that orchestra. The orchestra was joined by the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte for the first half of the concert in a touching performance of the Requiem by Gabriel Fauré.

By comparison with other better-known requiems, this work is less dramatic and more intimate. Written to be performed in the choir loft of the Madeleine Church in Paris, where Fauré was the organist, the original work had no violins and used the dark and somber tones of the lower strings with the organ. The version heard in the Belk Theater of the Blumenthal Center was re-orchestrated by a student of Fauré but still omits the violins for the first third of the 40-minute work. Even then, there is only one section of violins instead of the usual two, and the otherwise standard complement of winds and brass omits the oboes. The organ dominates as in the original score.

The well-trained chorus (kudos to director Scott Allen Jarrett) sang well throughout the work, tenors sweet and warm in the opening "Introit" and well balanced with the altos in the tandem passages in the "Domine Jesu Christe." The only shadow fell in the concluding "In Paradisum," where the sopranos were consistently on the flat side of the pitch.

Baritone soloist Philip Cutlip has a gorgeous warm and sweet voice with a well-controlled rapid vibrato. But he, too, has a slight pitch problem, singing mostly on the high side of the pitch. Soprano Ilana Davidson, in her Charlotte debut, sang the "Pie Jesu" with the accuracy and emotion the work requires, and with a lovely voice.

Conductor Thierry Fischer has an unusual conducting style: florid, theatrical, with many subdivisions of the beat, especially in the first third of the Requiem. Sometimes flailing exaggeratedly in a forte passage, occasionally ceasing to move and holding the baton as delicately as a fine china cup, he made long silent fermatas at the end of each movement. Finally tired of these histrionics, the audience came crashing in at the conclusion of the Fauré. Despite the strange appearance of his technique, Fischer shaped every phrase with great detail.

The Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14a, by the iconoclastic and innovative French composer Hector Berlioz, filled the second half of this Hallowe'en weekend concert with now-familiar music depicting the dreams of an artist in an altered state of mind. Pursuing his idée fixe or obsession from a ballroom to the alpine countryside, up the stairs to the guillotine and finally to the witches' Sabbath, which closes the symphony, Berlioz uses the orchestra in ways undreamt of by earlier musicians. Indeed, when Mendelssohn met Berlioz in Rome, he liked the man but thought the composer was crazy and totally naïve. "Trills in the double bass? Poor fellow!," he wrote to his sister.

This was an excellent performance! The strings waltzed wonderfully, the oboe and English horn duet was touching in the country scene, and the four bassoons were brilliant in their eighth-note alla breve ("cut time") arpeggios in the fourth movement. I missed the cornet obbligato in the ""Valse" and hoped for more colorful horn glissandi in the introduction to the "March to the Scaffold." (Berlioz specifically asks the horns to play the notes without using their newly-invented valves.) 

The ensemble playing of the whole orchestra was excellent; whether because of – or despite – the conductor is the question. Suffice it to say that I saw more gesturing and cueing by section leaders than I am used to seeing with the Charlotte Symphony. Nonetheless, the standing ovation was genuine – it was a superb performance!