With its enterprising KnightSounds series, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra has perfected the art of transforming colorful concerts into popular evening-long social events. Pre-concert mingling for the latest “Bolero Comes Alive!” included finger foods in the Knight Theater lobby, accompanied by a variety of libations – with a ticket for one free drink included in the price of admission. If you scooted over next door to the Mint Museum with your ticket stub, you could view an exhibit of works by Matthew Weinstein, the animator who was commissioned by the Charlotte Symphony to produce a new piece that would be screened while the orchestra played Maurice Ravel’s best-known work. Weinstein himself appeared polka-dotted sport jacket and all, for a post-concert Q&A moderated by CSO associate conductor Jacomo Rafael Bairos. Animation fans could then adjourn to a block party outside the Knight on the Levine Avenue of the Arts, where they could sample tacos, ice cream, and assorted sandwiches and novelties from street vendors while being entertained by a woman in Mardi Gras attire on stilts, a gilt human statue who broke out of his frozen attitudes to dance or to pose for photos with spectators, a juggler, and a three-piece ensemble.
So much was made of Weinstein’s world premiere that CSO succumbed to its own publicity, scrapping the concert’s original title, “Joie de vivre – A Night in Paris,” to narrow the focus to Ravel and Weinstein. What Symphony didn’t scrap, however, were the 10-inch-tall cut-outs of the Eiffel Tower that served as the handy-dandy programs for the evening. True to the strategy of attracting a new generation to classical music, the programming wasn’t nearly as adventurous as the formatting. Berlioz and Fauré had been announced for the Paris concert when season brochures were first circulated, and maestro Christopher Warren-Green selected an ingratiating work by each composer that hadn’t been aired in a while: the Roman Carnival Overture, which had become somewhat over-worn with repeated playings in 2006 and 2008, and Fauré’s Pavane, which I hadn’t heard the orchestra play since a neighborhood concert in 2004. On the other hand, Bolero might be called this season’s theme song at Knight Theatre, since NC Dance Theatre reprised Mark Diamond’s sultry setting of the piece back in October. So it was gratifying to find the program rounded out with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, with Louis Schwizgabel making his Charlotte debut at the keyboard.
Musically, the concerto and Schwizgabel’s performance were the highlights of the evening. The Swiss pianist, of Chinese-Swiss extraction, was most impressive in the closing Presto, mastering the cross-handed fingerings, the piquant chromaticism, and the ragtime feel with perhaps more élan and individuality than Jean-Yves Thibaudet when he guested in 2005. Schwizgabel also held his own on the opening Allegramente and the middle movement Adagio assai, complemented by the silken work by principal harpist Andrea Mumm to enrich the atmosphere of the opening and the lyricism of principal flutist Elizabeth Landon in both these movements.
Right before the concerto, Landon made perhaps the biggest difference between the stiff, torpid rendition of Fauré’s Pavane in 2004 and the beguiling gossamer account we heard at the Knight, but there was additional sublimity when she and fellow flutist Amy Whitehead harmonized. Fine solo work was predictably the hallmark of Berlioz’ Roman Carnival with English hornist Terry Maskin replicating the flawless work he had turned in for Henry Janiec and afterwards, in a far better overall orchestral performance, with Andrew Grams at the podium. Warren-Green was equally deft with the tricky opening, aggressive but never overbearing in leading the orchestra, yielding vivid results in a hall where the acoustics can be stifling. He also gave us a very entertaining intro to the piece, getting the concert off to a personable start.
After patiently waiting, the robust Knight Theatre crowd received Weinstein’s animation enthusiastically, a fascinating and fortunate circumstance. Ravel’s music really doesn’t need Weinstein’s animation to come alive as much as Weinstein’s animation needs the familiar score, but a curious alchemy occurs when the lights go down and they merge. The great symphonic work becomes a film score, with the animated scenario by Weinstein absorbing our primary attention. All of a sudden, it was natural and permissible for a classical music audience to laugh in a concert hall. On this night, that was a godsend because both the clarinet and trombone soloists fell victim to embouchure and/or equipment problems, producing sounds we don’t ordinarily hear from those instruments.
Inspired by Disney’s Fantasia and what he had learned from Warren-Green about the genesis of Bolero, Weinstein’s animation is an intriguing amalgam of mechanized and natural elements. As the drumbeat and the first iterations of the theme weave their spell, Weinstein introduces us to a precisely-machined golden coil that is slowly spinning beneath a slowly turning cog that is descending into the coil as we gradually zoom in. Inanimate objects, such as branches in a vase, are slowly ascending the coil until we suddenly meet a cocktail koi – and discover that all this action is occurring in a liquid medium. The koi, a decorative carp found swimming in Japanese gardens, is a recurring figure in Weinstein’s artwork, a temptress who usually sings torch songs in his animations. Having to remain silent after jumping out of her risqué martini glass, Weinstein confided, made the koi angry, which became quite evident as Bolero reached its cacophonous climax – when the koi, apparently escaping her liquid confines, torched a castle. Until that last breathless ascent and conflagration, the koi commingled and flirted with golden skeletons, another of Weinstein’s favorite devices, pausing coquettishly and submitting to applications of eye shadow, lipstick, and rouge. It wasn’t quite as torrid or sensual as Diamond’s choreography, but it had similar urges. Most importantly, the Ravel-Weinstein concoction struck a chord with most of the audience. How deep is hard to say.