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Copland and Barber didn’t draw a huge crowd to Belk Theater for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra concert showcasing their music – even with a Mozart concerto sandwiched in-between. But the American composers, along with guest conductor Michael Stern at the podium for his Queen City debut, certainly sparked some superb playing from the ensemble. An earlier concert this season, celebrating the centennial of visual artist Romare Bearden at Knight Theater, should have signaled music lovers that there would be much to enjoy in Copland’s Symphony No. 3, for the composer’s "Fanfare for the Common Man," a clear audience favorite in the post-concert balloting, is the main theme of the symphony’s final movement. The remainder of that KnightSounds event amply demonstrated something else via works by Mason Bates, Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein, and Barber: this orchestra consistently excels in American rep.
Unlike his dreary Adagio for Strings, Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal palpitates with vitality and delights with sudden shifts in tempo and dynamics. Not only did the orchestra capture the brash éclat of the opening, they rode the thrusting élan of the main melody. Wind soloists Terry Maskin on English horn, Hollis Ulaky on oboe, and Eugene Kavadlo on clarinet guided us smoothly across the placid patches, while the brass were wallopingly good with Barber’s rambunctious blasts. There was plenty of pliancy from the strings to keep the overall fabric from fraying under the stress of the composer’s sudden twists. In short, this exhilarating ride embodied all that is so gloriously eccentric in American classical music – and all that is so steadfastly avoided by the hundreds of defectors among Symphony subscribers.
Making his Charlotte debut with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17, Jean Louis Steuerman certainly didn’t seem overeager to forge a strong first impression. Stern and the orchestra, on the other hand, instantly alerted us that they would not be relegated to the background. Zestfully, they opened the dialogue with frolicking buoyancy and textural transparency, the crispness of the strings nicely complemented by the brightness of the winds and horns. Steuerman’s response in the opening Allegro had some sparkle, but it lacked distinction and involvement – or the gravity and urgency he layered onto his second solo. The interaction between the pianist and the orchestra became more satisfying from that point forward, once you accepted that Steuerman wished to emphasize the simplicity of Mozart’s writing as much as its exquisiteness. This approach worked especially well in the middle Andante, where simplicity went hand-in-hand with profundity after the lovely, languid intro that showcased Erica Cice on oboe, Amy Whitehead on flute, and Lori Tiberio on bassoon. Cice and Tiberio also made worthy contributions to the concluding Allegretto, where Steuerman, leaning forward into the keyboard, became more intently involved, finishing his phrases with snappy flourishes. Keyed by the French horns, the concerto’s final orchestral onrush brimmed with merriment.
Weighed against the delicate and wispy Appalachian Spring, which the CSO presents more frequently, Copland’s Symphony No. 3 is far more sinewy and substantial. With Stern riding shotgun, the orchestra brought a darker tinge to the opening Molto moderato. There was more kinship between Copland’s opus (composed 1944-46) and Shostakovich’s wartime symphonies than you’ll find in Bernstein’s recording with his New York Philharmonic, yet there were gleams of sunshine breaking through and no lack of vernal divinity. And the sweet small-town aura that ends the movement? Nobody weaves that spell better than Copland, and the CSO treated it tenderly. Timpani and brass were truly startling in the ensuing Allegro molto as Copland whipped his music into a Western mode. Again there was a lot to like – and for absent subscribers, to miss – in this multi-colored scherzo, which climaxes with urban cacophony and military percussion. Before that climax, there were numerous cute bits from piano, celesta, and two piccolos after a duet by principals Hollis Ulaky on oboe and Elizabeth Landon on flute, all ably executed.
Before the winsome heraldry of the finale, Stern and the ensemble had to keep us on board with the difficult, richly textured Andantino, which weaves a variety of moods and tempos into its intricate fabric. First violins, high and poignant, spun the first delicate threads, joined by the second violins, more solemn and mournful. The whole movement was admirably cohesive, with the whistling first violins returning eerily near the end, dissolving into the single strand of concertmaster Calin Lupanu playing softly. Without pause, flutes and clarinets sweetly announced the big tune before the five trumpeters brought us the customary magnificence of the "Common Man" fanfare over Leonardo Soto’s timpani. Plenty more brashness lay in reserve from the brass, with three trombones and a tuba climbing aboard. Principal Erinn Frechette on piccolo triggered the birdlike twitterings of the wind section in the long concluding build, giving the final triumphal entrance of the brass a joyous and peaceful foundation.