“Where I come from,” said maestro Christopher Warren-Green, holding up a yellow card, “when a referee holds up one of these, you’re in trouble. And when he holds up one of these” – now he was brandishing a red card just like a World Cup ref – “you’re out of the game.” Not the usual patter from a Charlotte Symphony musical director, but the premiere of Symphony’s KnightSounds Series at the new Knight Theater was anything but the usual concert experience. The cards that Warren-Green thrust forward were actually parts of the concert program! Yellow was the choice for the third movement of Gustav Holst’s The Planets, “Mercury, The Winged Messenger,” while the red card was inevitably chosen for the opening movement, “Mars, The Bringer of War.”
Between movements, the “Planets!” concert was narrated by Steve Udelson, chief meteorologist at WSOC-TV, and above the orchestra, NASA films and animations of the heavenly bodies, their terrain, and their moons were projected on a large screen as the orchestra played. That was far from all as the event spilled over into the adjoining Bechtler Museum of Modern Art before the concert and out into the street afterwards. Over in the Bechtler lobby, a portable mini-planetarium from Discovery Place showed concertgoers our own moon and the constellations in complete darkness, while below in the Wells-Fargo lecture hall, there were informative talks on the planets from mythic, astronomical, and musical perspectives, generously augmented by sonic and visual aids. If you weren’t there to be educated – a legendary war-cry by a former Symphony board member – then your ticket included a buffet of hors d’oeuvres in Knight Theater, with a coupon for one free drink. The warm items on the buffet table, little meatballs in a slightly brandied cream sauce, were thematically connected to the evening’s spherical headliners. And if you were willing to stand in line and schmooze with Warren-Green, you could stay for a close encounter with Jupiter after the music. In single file, concertgoers took turns ogling the Bringer of Jollity through a telescope aimed in his direction.
Every available seat at the Knight was sold out if you were wondering why Symphony would stage such a circus. Curiosity for the serious music lover was more narrowly focused on how well Warren-Green might continue to work with his new ensemble on British repertory and how well the Knight would sound in its first orchestral event. Warren-Green was clearly excited about the new venue, proclaiming it the most extraordinary opening in his 30 years of experience. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm hadn’t been shared by former executive director Richard Early, who spurned the hall in its early development stages. Had the current Jonathan Martin regime been in charge back then, there might be more than three performances at the Knight during the 2010-11 Season, nearly a year after the venue first opened. Better yet, building plans might have included an acoustic shell to keep the stage loft and wings from demolishing the warmth of the orchestra. Apparently, a portable planetarium is easier to come by.
With strings swirling, brass raging, and a climactic stampede showcasing three trombones, a tuba, and a sousaphone, the opening Mars section exposed the acoustic limitations of a naked Knight fairly swiftly, although Warren-Green had the orchestra playing with admirable thrust and energy. The brasses maintained their shape, perhaps muffled slightly by the overhanging screen, but the fortissimo strings were disheveled to a degree that I’ve never encountered at the Belk Theater. While the size of the Knight is markedly smaller than the Belk, the full blast of the orchestra was only marginally louder – but the scrabbly sound of the strings probably magnified that difference for most subscribers. Certainly the tranquility of “Venus: The Bringer of Peace” was enhanced by the clangor that had preceded, and Warren-Green has consistently excelled in sculpting the softer passages of the music he has conducted – even in an otherwise execrable rendition of Moussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain when he was auditioning for Symphony’s directorship. Soloists in the gossamer tone poem pointed up the enduring strength of Symphony’s principals, in this case, Alan Black on cello, Hollis Ulaky on oboe, and concertmaster Calin Lupanu.
Yet the Venus section also underscored how radically at cross-purposes the NASA visuals could be with the Holst score. We zoomed into the molten fire of the planet as Warren-Green and his musicians delicately explored a mentholated calm. Ensuing planetary voyages didn’t clash nearly as radically with the mood of the music, but the various colored orbs, moonscapes, valleys, mountains, and volcanoes induced a cumulative tedium as we repeatedly zoomed in and out of planets behind a wee space probe. Of course, most other concertgoers may not have followed NASA’s explorations of the solar system as diligently as I have, and younger audience members, likely viewing the animations for the first time, were clearly mesmerized. The buzz was all positive, all glowing as we left the hall.
Coordination of the NASA footage, produced by Mark Hatch, and the Symphony performance under Warren-Green’s baton was exemplary. There were no lengthy overlaps of either the music or the animation, no abrupt cut-offs of the video. The ending of “Saturn: The Bringer of Old Age” and the accompanying film seemed to end on the exact same beat. Naturally, the fade-out at the end of “Neptune: The Mystic,” beautifully performed by the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte under the direction of Scott Allen Jarrett, was wonderfully coupled with the last zoom-out from the outermost planet, leaving an ideal aftertaste. If the acoustics at the Knight without a bandshell were dodgy, production values were impressively polished as the total event lived up to its “multimedia spectacular” hype. Nor is “Planets!” destined to be the last KnightSounds presentation to creatively mix music, food, and a neighboring museum. Pre-concert cocktails will be served up throughout the series an hour before the concerts, mingling with musicians is also an idée fixe, and drink coupons dispensed with “Planets!” tickets can be redeemed at all three KnightSounds events. Next in February is “Tangos and Tapas,” with a post-concert salsa dance party scheduled across the street at new Mint Museum Uptown.