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While the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra has frequently featured the symphonies and concertos by Brahms, they've hardly considered him the hottest draw for subscribers. On the previous occasion when CSO played Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in 2009, it was actually a prelude on a program that musical director Christof Perick climaxed with Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. Perick's successor, Christopher Warren-Green, obviously takes a different view, flipping the program and making Brahms the main attraction. The hors d'oeuvres preceding this entrée are thus far more delicate items than any Beethoven orchestral work, two French pieces of roughly the same vintage, Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin and Debussy's Danses sacrée et profane. CSO's principal harpist, Andrea Mumm, stepped into the soloist spotlight for the Debussy and lingered for an encore by Ravel's contemporary, professor of harp Marcel Tournier (1879-1951), "l'éternel rêveur (Eternal Dreamer)" from En France.
Although three of Brahms' four symphonies placed in the Top 100 in the most recent WQXR listener poll up in New York, with Symphony No. 2 most precariously at the No. 91 spot, Perick's wariness seemed very much justified by the Friday night attendance at Belk Theater, where the orchestra and grand tier were pocked with empty seats. A relatively subdued program was perhaps an apt response to the turnout – and appropriate in the wake of the death of longtime CSO first violinist Evelyn Blalock on January 3. Yet Ravel's Tombeau isn't as funereal as its daunting title might suggest, and Warren-Green was keenly sensitive to its quiet riches. Principal oboist Hollis Ulaky soloed in all four sections of the work, excelling in her fluidity, while other wind principals – Elizabeth Landon, flute, and Eugene Kavadlo, clarinet – peeped in on multiple occasions no less deftly. The strings maintained admirable transparency throughout, and Warren-Green brought a dancing lilt to the middle movements' triple metre. But too much of the breeziness we heard in the Forlane and the Menuet carried over into the closing Rigaudon, which calls for a fresher infusion of exuberance.
Mumm and Warren-Green were magnificent collaborators throughout the deceptively simple Debussy for harp and strings. Writing is so soft and sparse for the strings through much of this two-movement gem that their role can hover on the brink of inconsequence. Perhaps the composer fretted over drowning out the soloist as he wrote, but the acoustics at Belk Theater make such scruples unnecessary. I didn't realize that I was bracing for a struggle to hear the soloist until Mumm's ringing crystalline tones rendered such misgivings needless. There was less of an echoey, blended sound to Mumm's playing than I've heard on recordings – a welcome clarity for me as opposed to a more clichéd harp sound. Only the lowest notes, which mark the transition between the sacred dance and the friskier secular dance, were soft enough to rekindle my already-dispelled worries. But I'm not sure if Warren-Green didn't share those worries with Debussy as the music swelled in the "Danse profane," for once again, the orchestra played with less-than-ideal vivacity and volume in the climaxes.
The shortcomings of the Brahms are not quite so easily described, for the winds, the brass, and the strings all played flawlessly, with the exception of principal hornist Frank Portone, who atoned for a slight fluff in his first solo in the opening Allegro non troppo with his customary perfection afterwards. Each of the sections played beautifully, especially the cellos introducing the Adagio non troppo, and timpanist Leonardo Soto played with his usual brio. But until we reached the concluding Allegro con spirito, I found my appreciation extended no further than the cerebral satisfactions of hearing how Brahms artfully shuffles and mixes all these distinctive ingredients – far short of the visceral sweep and ardor I find in my Berlin Philharmonic recording led by Claudio Abbado. Warren-Green's way with the Allegretto grazioso struck me as particularly moribund, so the vitality he injected into the closing movement was truly startling and encouraging. With Soto's mallets flying – and the dynamic trumpet duo of John Parker and Richard Harris blazing – the D major symphony finally took flight. All the brasses were tight and brilliant in their final muster, bringing a triumphant close to an otherwise shaky program. At the post-concert talkback, Warren-Green absolutely gushed his enthusiasm for Brahms, so I retain hopes that our maestro has only begun his efforts to ignite a Brahms fervor in his orchestra and community. If he's as successful as Perick was with his Richard Strauss exploits, this Brahms performance is merely the harbinger of far better things to come.
This program is being repeated on January 11. For details, see the sidebar.