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At first glance, Charlotte Symphony's final program in its 2017-18 Classics Series might have seemed diminutive and summery. They moved from Belk Theater, their customary venue, a few blocks south to the smaller Knight Theater, and performed a series of pieces that could be labeled mostly Mozart – two symphonies and a violin concerto by the Austrian master plus an excerpt from a novel tuba concerto. For the Mozart repertoire, of course, a reduced and more sedate ensemble (Aubrey Foard's tuba was the only brass instrument aside from the French horns to appear onstage all evening long) fits more snugly at the Knight. The smaller, more intimate hall also was arguably a better place to celebrate the orchestra's own principals, concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu playing Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4 and principal tubist Foard playing the "Lament" from Mark Petering's 2009 Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra. Yet there was something traditional and grand about the program as well. In the same spirit of opting for Beethoven's "Choral" Symphony No. 9 to end more than a couple of seasons past, Maestro Christopher Warren-Green finished 2017-18 with Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony No. 41, another renowned last symphony by another renowned master.
Since the "Jupiter" is a major symphony in a major key, it was fitting to start the evening with Symphony No. 25, a relatively minor piece in G minor. A cursory survey of accessible recordings revealed an unusual latitude of timings, from as little as 17 minutes to over 51 minutes, obviously depending more on whether all repeats were observed than on the tempos dictated by their conductors. Differences are most extreme in the outer movements, both allegros. Played slowly and softly, the music barely makes more of an impression than one of Mozart's divertimentos, but attacked and accelerated, the effect can be quite exhilarating. The Charlotte Symphony's performance wasn't the slowest I've heard, but I would have preferred a more forceful, speedier approach from Warren-Green.
Not attacking with the fullest gusto in the Allegro con brio, the violins sounded slightly muffled. Playing softly, the French horns sounded lachrymose, but the oboe passages were all superb. The loveliness of the ensuing Andante was captured far more satisfyingly, with exquisite delicacy from the first violins and cute little responses from the lower strings. In some ways the most formidable and memorable movement in the piece, the Menuetto was slack and undistinguished. Perhaps Warren-Green wished to emphasize how the concluding Allegro builds on the brief movement that precedes it, for here was easily the liveliest playing we had heard from the Symphony so far, the horns faring far better given the opportunity to play at a more full-throated volume.
Lupanu has stepped forward before to play Mozart concertos – and the Mendelssohn as well – so his No. 4 was actually a reprise. It's been 10 years since I last reviewed Lupanu in this work, so I can't say whether he has always joined with the first violins in playing the orchestral intro to the opening Allegro, but the warmup seemed like a splendid idea, very much in the spirit of the occasion. Like the other violins, Lupanu didn't get the most robust sound high up in the treble at Knight Theater, excelling more authoritatively in his midrange as he embarked on his solo exploits. Not venturing into musical comparisons of performances a decade apart, I'll confidently say that Lupanu's body language was freer and more self-assured than before. His climactic cadenza went very well, the contrapuntal passages beautifully articulated.
The soloist continued his lovely playing in the Andante cantabile, but the overall performance fell short of sublimity with the generic accompaniment from the orchestra, violins and horns playing too passively. Warren-Green, his ensemble, and Lupanu approached the concluding Rondeau more boldly. Accompaniment in the Andante grazioso sections was fuller, the Allegro sections were more spirited, and Lupanu delivered his most festive playing. The cadenza, not the longest or most virtuosic that Lupanu played, captured the contrasting moods and tempos superbly.
Mozart's "Jupiter" would have been sufficient reason to bring Charlotte Symphony subscribers eagerly back from intermission, but the addition of a tuba concerto, or part of one, provided extra lagniappe – and an overlay of unpredictability. Modernist compositions can be willfully quirky but not this one. Foard's declamations on tuba were pitted against soothing passages of mallet-struck percussion and creamy string passages that sounded almost like a human chorus. Petering's mix of Eastern and Western cultures certainly wasn't devoid of humor. There was some really nifty passagework from Foard when he was on his own, often producing a trombone-like timbre in higher-pitched phrases, but listeners might have been more impressed when he played together, note for note, with the marimba. My only disappointment after this surprisingly agile performance was that we didn't hear the entire concerto, originally commissioned for Foard.
The "Jupiter" didn't disappoint at all unless you had to have crisper sforzandos in the outer movements. The doubled flutes, by principal Victor Wang and Amy Orsinger Whitehead, added some zip to the sound in the opening Allegro vivace, and the bassoons were silky smooth. Both the strings and the woodwinds caressed the melody of the Andante cantabile ardently, and both Wang and principal hornist Frank Portone were in top form when called upon. Warren-Green and orchestra put far more heart into this symphony's third movement than we had heard in No. 25 earlier, grandly and graciously sustaining the sway of its 3/4 meter.
In the Molto allegro finale of the "Jupiter," everything set up perfectly. At the podium, Warren-Green started the ensemble at a brisk pace that still left room for dramatic acceleration. The dynamics in the opening episodes also left ample room for mounting drama. Before the last thrilling muster of orchestral forces, Warren-Green did something I'd never seen before: it was almost comical how he slumped and drooped, arms to his sides. As inert as that seemed, that's how rousing and glorious the final coda was, five motifs detonating and churning all at once.
This performance repeats May 12. See our sidebar for more details.