Make no mistake: big screens are a big deal. Metropolitan Opera's matinee series, The Met Live in HD, has become a cash cow, drawing revenues from 54 countries with nearly three million tickets expected to be sold during the current season; and the LA Philharmonic has followed the same trail, wielding the charismatic Gustavo Dudamel as its conductor/host. With its latest All-Tchaikovsky concert, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra brought in a big screen, fed by four video cameras, to its live performances, drawing a sensational response. A full-color photo of Friday night's concert appeared on the front page of The Charlotte Observer the next morning – above the fold. At Belk Theater, maestro Christopher Warren-Green, his ensemble, and guest soloist Joshua Roman shattered the company record for standing ovations in a single evening. I'd never seen more than two in my years of covering the Symphony, but this video-enhanced concert tallied three before intermission on Saturday night – after the excerpts from Swan Lake, the Rococo Variations, and Roman's improvised encore. Two more followed after the break when the orchestra performed Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 and an encore chosen by the audience via texting and tweeting.
Questions have been raised about the relative merits of experiencing music live in the concert hall versus the benefits of viewing the performances through the lenses of multiple cameras. For me, Warren-Green and the CSO have decisively settled the concert hall-big screen debate. Both are far better than either one, for I've never seen a classical music audience react this enthusiastically in any type of venue before.
But a certain amount of the credit belongs to Tchaikovsky, subject of the first month-long Ulysses Festival of the Arts across Charlotte. The Russian master certainly knew how to whip up his musical compositions into rousing climaxes. The Act IV finale of Swan Lake, building from an accelerated repeat of the forlorn Swan theme by principal oboist Hollis Ulaky to an all-guns-blazing recap of that same theme is more than adequately equipped to catapult audiences to their feet. There was exquisite work preceding that in the ravishing Andante "Dance of the White Swan," reprised from the CSO's concert at Knight Theatre the previous week, and the spicy "Danse espagnole," pungently programmed immediately afterwards. Sitting in the orchestra at the Knight, I hadn't been able to see or ID the harpist who contributed so beautifully to the "White Swan" pas de deux along with concertmaster Calin Lupanu and principal cellist Alan Black. The cameras at the Belk, however, lingered long on the countenance of principal harpist Andrea Mumm and her instrument, zooming in on the delicate conspiracy between her fingers and the strings. Similarly, we had a screen-filling shot of the castanets as they triggered the enticing rhythm of the "Espagnole." Everyone could now see what would otherwise have been indistinct or totally obscured.
As usual, I brought a pair of compact binoculars with me to the grand tier, so I could identify back-row soloists in the orchestra and closely study the technique and expression of the guest virtuoso. With the cameras doing their work, I may have called upon them twice during the Rococo Variations to scrutinize Roman, while my wife didn't ask for them once, although the 28-year-old is fairly good-looking. The big screen not only showed us views of the soloist that we were accustomed to seeing through binoculars, they zoomed in close enough for us to discern the woodgrain of Roman's cello and the wee gap between his fingers and the bowstrings when he played the high notes at the end of the exquisite Andante sixth variation. Roman seemed a bit nervous presenting the theme, and while his tone was gilded and smooth in the first variation, his dexterity would only become fully assured during his lyrical embrace of the third Andante sostenuto variation, ending with the first of those high treble passages. The stratospheric flights that followed at a quicker pace in the Andante grazioso were a delight to hear and behold. After some deft work from principal flutist Elizabeth Landon and oboist Erica Cice, Roman was thoroughly in command of the Variation V cadenza. The best was yet to come in the last – and fastest – of the seven variations, where the soloist achieved the requisite controlled frenzy of the score.
After fomenting the evening's second standing ovation, Roman sparked a third with a most unusual encore that began with some finger picking on the neck of the cello that sounded very much like a guitar. Some rather bodacious sawing on the instrument followed before Roman drifted into a melodic mode, stirring in the theme from Swan Lake and the Rococo Theme before finishing with a flourish. That's entertainment! And the hits kept coming after intermission with the brass and French horns even more impressive heralding the opening movement of Symphony No. 4 than they had been during the Swan Lake excerpts. There were a couple of surprisingly flaccid passages when the roar evaporated and we transitioned into what should be refreshing quietudes in waltz time. Warren-Green has done much to enhance the Symphony's sensitivity in softer sections of the repertoire, but here he let the tempos and dynamics go too slack. The delicacy Warren-Green imposed on the quiescent sections of the first movement was far better suited to the ensuing Andantino, where Ulaky excelled in the intro, the cellos responded warmly, and principal bassoonist Mary Beth Griglak had the last word after an eloquent solo. Cameras certainly heightened the jollity of the opening Pizzicato episode of the Scherzo, splashing the smiles of the string players onto the big screen, but they somehow managed to miss the better part of Erin Frechette's exploits chirruping fiercely on the piccolo in the Allegro section. The éclat of percussion, launching the Finale, was nothing short of electrifying. Again and again in the Sousa-like tutti, the playing was crisp, precise, and swift, with sudden silences that made me catch my breath.
We almost made it through the evening without encountering the downside of all the electronics enhancing our concertgoing experience. During the final hush before the concluding build, a cell phone went off in the grand tier. Perhaps that subscriber had inadvertently forgotten to turn it off after participating in the polling for the evening's encore. All of us who came properly outfitted with smartphones had been encouraged to text or tweet our choices for the evening's encore, typing "Trepak" if we wished to hear the "Russian Dance" from The Nutcracker or "Polonaise" if we wished to hear that dance from Eugene Onegin. In a shameless, inexcusable attempt to stuff the ballot box, I texted and then tweeted my vote for the eventual winner, the "Polonaise." Normally, Charlotte Symphony audiences refrain from according standing O's to encores, presumably fearful that another might follow. Under the spell of the big screen, however, they surrendered to the impulse, twice. It does make a difference – a huge difference – for everyone in the hall.