Before the arrival of Christopher Warren-Green as the new maestro, you could legitimately accuse the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra of parsimonious programming in its classical series. You could always count the number of selections on the fingers of one hand – and no, we're not including your thumb. But times have changed. We hear encores at the classics series at Belk Theater. The hipper, trendier KnightSounds series at the smaller Knight Theater might go over the four-piece limit without encores or intermissions – and it might adjourn to an alternate venue for more music after the program ostensibly concludes. So now, as the 2012-13 season nears its conclusion, CSO has delivered two consecutive concerts where audiences were treated to more than five pieces. The Ravel-Debussy concert at the beginning of the month at the Belk offered two works by each of those composers plus Erik Satie encores before and after intermission. Then in the final KnightSounds concert, with associate conductor Jacomo Rafael Bairos at the podium, the orchestra's lineup for the American Music Masters & Pioneers program included works by seven different American composers, five of them still living. There was so much on the personable Bairos' plate, between conducting and introducing the music, that he nearly forgot one of the pieces.
Chiming in with the technology theme of the Ulysses Festival of the Arts, this KnightSounds program offered good reason to bring a smartphone, for there was a QR code to scan for each of the works on the program – plus additional codes for Bairos, featured timpani soloist Leonardo Soto, and the musicians of the CSO. What came up when you scanned Adam Schoenberg's code for the Rondo from his American Symphony was pretty much what you would expect, a two-page summary/analysis of the five-movement piece. Studded with busy percussion, peppy brass, and a rhythmic pulse influenced by electronica, the music was exactly as described by the Bairos and the monograph. Paul Dooley's Point Blank was the composer's effort to see what music composed by a computer program would sound like when musicians playing acoustic instruments confronted sounds of electronic digital origin. The QR code, when scanned, was no less high-tech, taking audience members to a YouTube interview that Bairos filmed last summer at the Aspen Music Festival with the composer. It's a fairly sophisticated production, with clips of Dooley's musical score and stills of cutting-edge concert halls intercut with the interview video while the audio continued as a voice-over. The music was also more vivid, beginning quietly before giving way to jolting dynamic shifts. After a relatively predictable trains-and-traffic section, we came to some jazzy and shuffling riffs. The cacophony before the resolution was a little too protracted for my taste, but it certainly made the circling back to quietude soothing.
For novelty and unintended humor, Mason Bates's "Warehouse Medicine from The B-Sides" was a standout among the lesser-known composers. In his program notes, magically conjured up by his QR code, Bates confirms that B-Sides is a term exhumed from the days on vinyl singles, revealing that Michael Tilson Thomas challenged him to write a new piece in the vein of Arnold Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra. "The B-Sides offers brief landings on a variety of different planets," Bates writes, "unified by a focus on fluorescent orchestral sonorities and the morphing rhythms of electronica." With "Warehouse Medicine," we learned how B-Sides ends, in an out-of-tune homage to the empty Detroit warehouses that were the birthplace of techno. The standout element of the piece was the funky pre-composed backbeat, played on Bairos' laptop by one of the orchestra musicians. When a technical glitch occurred, the conductor had to briefly leave the podium and assume the role of instrumentalist, getting his laptop to launch the piece. There was a kind of poetic justice in what Bairos did – not to mention some comedy – for the laptop largely usurped the maestro's timekeeping role, setting down an infectious shuffle. As for the orchestra, by this time in the concert, it was clear that they not only accepted the challenges of these difficult pieces, they embraced them. In fact, I'd say that, if the CSO is destined to gain wider recognition and respect, it is likeliest to occur in this realm of modern and contemporary American music, where they invariably excel.
With Copland, Adams, and Gershwin to follow, the main event of the evening was, unexpectedly enough, Michael Daugherty's timpani concerto, Raise the Roof. Knowing the two major Daugherty opuses that the CSO has presented before, I braced myself for a wild percussive onslaught. But unlike his Deus ex Machina piano concerto, which was inspired by the mighty locomotive, or his Metropolis symphony, inspired by the mightier Superman, Daugherty's Raise the Roof has a surprisingly soft core. Armed with a battery of mallets with different pairs of tips, Soto began the piece by literally stirring up a soft wave of sound from an inverted cymbal with one of them. Then he turned to his tuned timpani (extending their variety with foot pedals), wielding his softest mallets under a lonely French horn, followed by a flute over the strings. Soto's first solo actually spotlighted the melodic capabilities of his drum set, keeping its rhythmic assets reserved for the climax. Flute and winds took up the theme as the music remained agreeably placid until Soto switched to less muffled mallets, accelerated the tempo, and strengthened the beat. Trumpet and brass joined the fray as the composition suddenly took on a Latin flavor. Now with puffier mallets, Soto transitioned us to the last soft oasis of the piece, dispensing with mallets altogether and playing with his bare hands before giving way to a piano solo echoed by the winds. Soto returned with his most aggressive armament, mallets with blue tips that reminded me of Tinker Toy cookies. His last frenetic solo fully explored the rhythmic capabilities of the timpani, with a jazziness and precision worthy of Max Roach. Declamations and sforzandos from the orchestra built to a sudden tumultuous stop. With pieces like the ones CSO has played, Daugherty is seriously in danger of becoming recognized by his last name alone.
Family names were all that were necessary for the rest of the concert, including Copland's El Salon Mexico, Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and Gershwin's An American in Paris. The beginning of the Copland actually sounded somewhat anemic in the wake of the Daugherty, but when we eased into the "Catch a Falling Star" section, the orchestra found the tropical groove unerringly, so that the return to the opening flourish theme was perfectly impactful. As the tempo increased toward the end, there were tasty bits from clarinetist Drucilla DeVan and principal trumpeter Brian Winegardner before Soto had the last word. After this brief departure from technology-related fare came Adams' sleek and mercifully short Machine – the piece Bairos almost forgot – with the orchestra zestfully skirting all the tedium, ungainliness, and ugliness that this style of music can evoke. The performance and its enthusiastic reception actually underscored how far Charlotte has come with its Symphony and its classical audience. Once we had ingested our last dose of minimalism with such overt grace and appreciation, we were rewarded with Gershwin's jauntiness, jazziness, lyricism, and Parisian taxi horns – along with fresh helpings of trumpet and clarinet. With exuberant confidence, the orchestra leaned into all its lighthearted delights and all its sweet nostalgia, The flutes, the violins, and concertmaster Calin Lupanu all glimmered briefly amid the brassy bustle.