There's a new enthusiasm at the Charlotte Symphony in Christopher Warren-Green's first season as musical director, evident in the spirit of their performances, the fresh nuances emerging at slower tempos, and the zesty little extras added onto their programs. After guest soloist Alison Balsom took her bows for the Hummel Trumpet Concerto, she encored with Astor Piazzola's "Libertango" before releasing us into the Belk Theater lobby for intermission, where she signed CDs – and plenty of them. Back in the regime of Christof Perick, a concert resuming with Beethoven's Seventh Symphony would have been considered a sufficient high for subscribers, but Warren-Green tacked on a second encore to cap the evening, the overture to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro.
We started off with the intriguing terrain of Carl Maria von Weber's Overture to Oberon, Frank Portone's lachrymose French horn counterpoised against the playful flutes of Amy Orsinger Whitehead and Principal Elizabeth Landon. Warren-Green had a lively grasp of the piece's architecture and dramatic contrast, but while the violas were nicely textured in the softer section, the tutti was scrappy in the sudden accelerando-crescendo. If the ensuing fast section was nimbly played with lusty accenting, ensemble sharpness gave way to mushiness as the pace quickened.
The orchestra was far more consistent as Balsom strode forward in her strapless red dress. While the initial thrust of the ensemble felt somewhat constricted, the sound of the winds and the violins bloomed delicately, and oboist Erica Cice had a nice fill during the first trumpet display. If Maurice André or Wynton Marsalis had been your reference point for how Hummel's concerto should sound, it was quite obvious – and refreshing – that Balsom had different ideas. There is no lack of warmth or heraldic thrill, not to mention virtuosity, on the André and Marsalis recordings of the opening Allegro con spirito, but neither of these men evidenced Balsom's interest in playing softly. Widening the dynamic range, Balsom also widened the Allegro's expressive range. Her breath control was particularly impressive in the ensuing Andante at a treacherously low volume, where she skillfully bent the dynamics of the long silken notes, never sacrificing their melodious lyricism and building gradually, gracefully to the sweetly impassioned swells. Any doubts of Balsom's heraldic snap were dispelled as she romped through the concluding Rondo, loud passages bursting jubilantly from a mezzo-forte haze while maintaining her gleaming tone. The Piazzola encore, from Balsom's Caprice album (curiously absent from the lobby inventory afterwards), saw Balsom playing muted trumpet before the first orchestral response. A bagatelle, to be sure, but the smoothly pulsating ensemble helped to sell it.
Warren-Green prefaced his Beethoven 7 with a charming little ramble that catalogued the notables who performed and witnessed the original 1813 premiere before arriving at his point: an apologia for recruiting contrabassoonist Lori Tiberio to shore up the double basses. Beethoven himself made a similar adjustment to his orchestration at the premiere. Nonetheless, Charlotte Symphony's Seventh sounded rather light and effervescent once we moved into the vivace portion of the opening movement, not the freight train you often encounter. As far as the preceding Poco sostenuto, the sforzando attacks were husky instead of crisp, momentum was bereft of processional majesty, and the sustained notes were inelegant in their lingerings and their fadeouts. On the other hand, the Wagnerian violas had a somber richness in the funereal Allegretto, soft passages were beautifully propelled for all their delicacy, and the crests of the movement were crowned by a lustrous pair of trumpets. The Presto was light and springy at first with just a little too much machined rigor when the volume peaked, but the 3/4 second subject contrasted nicely, moving with a nice liquescent sway. In the closing Allegro, Warren-Green recaptured the drive and effervescence of the opening movement, but somehow he harnessed the ensemble more securely so that it attained the freight train forcefulness that had been missing earlier.
The finale triggered an ovation that equaled Balsom's, so a second encore was fully appropriate. Warren-Green presented the Figaro overture to all those who "didn’t need to catch a bus," adding, after further reflection, "We rehearsed it!" Strangely, the madcap tempo sounded like an effort to accommodate all those who did have a bus to catch, making the question of rehearsal rather moot. The overheated Mozart didn't seem to dampen the approving buzz I heard leaving the hall. A subscriber who had boycotted one of Perick's final seasons blurted out, "This is fun again!" Warren-Green’s Mozart hasn't matched his predecessor's, but his enthusiasm for the music and his musicians is far more readily apparent – and contagious.