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The Charlotte Symphony featured two outstanding guest artists Nov. 8 at the Knight Theater: guest conductor Hans Graf and the exceptional violinist Angelo Xiang Yu. The program was a three-piece offering of Debussy, Mozart, and Brahms.
The evening began with Debussy's "Prelude to 'The Afternoon of a Faun,'" the sweet and lushious homage to Stéphane Mallarmé's 1865 poem about a faun's fascination with a couple of nymphs. Guest conductor Graf is originally from Austria but has now conducted all over the world. He was recently appointed chief conductor of the Singapore Symphony and was awarded the Chevalier de l'Ordre de la Legion d'Honneur by the French government for "championing French music around the world," among other awards. He led the orchestra through "Afternoon of a Faun" gently, with crescendos that started so softly you sometimes couldn't even hear when they began; suddenly, you found yourself in the midst of magic.
The orchestra closed the evening with Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73, a full and dramatic work in four movements. In this 1877 symphony, Brahms moves through light plucking of strings, a languid lullaby, and dark, dramatic chords. The orchestra, especially the strings, did well particularly in these strong moments, filling up the theater with sound.
Between these two pieces was the most extraordinary part of the evening: Yu as soloist in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A.
Mozart completed this concerto in 1775, three years after being appointed conductor and concertmaster of the Salzburg Court Orchestra, one month before his 20th birthday. Mozart, of course, was the world's most accomplished 19-year-old: Not only was he an amazing composer, but he was also an amazing pianist and violinist. These violin concertos were especially written to showcase Mozart's incredible abilities on the instrument. This concerto is in three movements with several cadenzas in which the soloist is granted lots of space to be free and expressive; Mozart would take these opportunities to showcase his virtuosic and spirited violin-playing.
Yu would have made Mozart proud. A graduate of and now faculty member at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, Yu has toured nationally as a featured soloist and won multiple awards including a 2019 Avery Fisher Career Grant and First Prize in the 2010 Yehudi Menuhin competition. The cadenzas of Mozart's concerto allowed Yu to showcase his prize-winning technique and musicianship: playing that is crisp, clear, versatile, and impressive. More important than his technique, though, is the life that Yu brings to his music.
Listening to Yu play Mozart's concerto was so uplifting and inspiring, I found myself on my feet applauding at the end and laughing with joy. Yu was playful, taking liberties in tempo and timing (not just in cadenza, but with the orchestra, too) and nudging the conductor and fellow musicians with cheerful accents. In the second movement, there are moments of melancholy with bittersweet melodies, and Yu played them lyrically and poignantly. In the third movement, which features the "Turkish" elements that give the concerto its nickname, Yu played with vigor and dramatic flair. He played every phrase with musical intention in dynamics and articulation.
Watching Yu play was as delightful as listening: he smiled and danced while he played, making jokes with his face as well as his sound and acknowledging his conductor and fellow musicians with nods and leans forward. He would often close his eyes and take deep breaths while playing, hugging his violin (which, by the way, was a 1729 Stradivarius on loan from an anonymous donor) with his shoulder, chin, and cheek.
After the concerto, Yu gave a brief but energetic encore of a tango by Piazzolla, which he said he learned two days earlier after hearing it on YouTube (he's still trying to find the music). The audience cheered and laughed and gasped at Yu's lively, expressive, and expert playing.
The orchestra, conducted by Graf, played with keen expressivity, and Yu's overall performance was one that would be an absolute shame to miss. There is one more performance Nov. 9. Go hear it: It will make you happy you're alive to witness it. See the sidebar for details.