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Orchestral Music Review

Charlotte Symphony: Strauss, Korngold, & Beethoven

October 8, 2005 - Charlotte, NC:

There was much to praise in the Charlotte Symphony's October 8 concert in Belk Hall at the Blumenthal Center, starting with the warm rich sound, especially in the strings. (To be fair, the winds and brass had little to play, but they will be tested at the next concert, an all-Strauss program, and again in November in Verdi's monumental Requiem.) Add a magnificent soloist in the person of Vadim Gluzman, playing an infrequently heard but intriguing violin concerto on a superb Stradivarius, once owned by the legendary teacher, Leopold Auer. Then, Maestro Christof Perick, in his fifth season with the orchestra, is clearly in charge of his ensemble, leading with an athletic and vigorous beat. And finally, there are the outstanding acoustics of Belk Hall, which, as I anticipated, got better with altitude: the highest balcony revealed the best blend, greatest dynamic contrast, and clearest detail in soft passages – as well as the best sight lines.

The concert opened with Johann Strauss's "Tales of the Vienna Woods," replete with a wonderfully nostalgic and poignant zither solo in the introduction which reappears before the coda of the familiar waltz. The zither is a plucked or stroked instrument of folk origin, akin to the dulcimer and to the autoharp. The zither was admirably played by Kenneth Bloom, a man of many talents who builds instruments in Pilot Mountain, NC.

There was a time when waltzes were frequently heard in classical concerts, but more recently they have been relegated to the "classical Pops" repertory and, thanks to media broadcasts, to niche programming on New Year's Eve or Day. My delight in hearing it in place of an overture was only slightly blurred by some less-than-unanimous agreement on articulation in the violin sections. Professional musicians know that Viennese waltzes are among the most risky works to play with perfect ensemble, even when the uneven beat (um-PAH–pah), typical of some Viennese interpretations, is not followed. The writing is exposed, demanding precision and virtuosity with constant attention paid to changing tempos and character.

Composer Erich Wolfgang (!) Korngold is perhaps best known for his movie scores written for Hollywood. (My personal favorite is the score to Captain Blood, a swashbuckling adventure flick starring Errol Flynn.) However, his Violin Concerto, Op. 35, in D major, was written shortly after his father's death, an event which had caused him to re-evaluate the path he had taken after fleeing Nazism in the 1930s. The style is tonal but pregnant with unresolved cadences, which lead the listener down the sinuous path of expectation and anticipation. Increasingly, it is being discovered by more violinists and has been recorded by many great musicians, from Jascha Heifetz (for whom the work was written) to Anne-Sophie Mutter to Itzhak Perlman.

The Concerto is in three movements, using four themes from some of Korngold's most popular movie scores. I was particularly taken by the beautiful and introspective second movement with its incursions into bi-tonality. And typical of most concertos, the third movement, almost a classical rondo, was a boisterous virtuosic romp. Here the woodwind section was particularly brilliant in fast and rhythmic passages. The soloist, Vadim Gluzman, was magnificent, creating drama from the opening bars of the first movement, musical tension in the many quasi-cadenzas, and an exhilarating release of that tension in the finale. I look forward to hearing him again in some more familiar repertoire. He has a tone to die for.

The second half of the concert was consecrated to one of the great masterpieces of all time, Beethoven's monumental Fifth Symphony in c minor. No matter how often I hear it, I find something new, or rediscover one of the many "musical jokes" Beethoven has hidden in the layers of the piece.

Maestro Perick, looking like a modern Mengelberg, certainly has not ignored the wealth of resources uncovered by the current craze for "period performance practices," – in other words, casting off the heavy mantel of at least a century of romantic interpolations to return to the way Beethoven was played in his own time. The Charlotte Symphony's tempos were brisk, although almost nobody can play the tempos Beethoven later added to his symphonies. My only quibble with the performance came in the fourth movement where Maestro Perick chose to skip the repeat of the exposition, thereby robbing the sudden and audacious modulation to E major of its potent impact. But happily, the tempo relationship between the third and fourth movements was preserved (unlike many performances, where the triumphant last movement is erroneously played faster than the preceding Scherzo) and those magical moments where one leads into the other were successful.

I was dismayed to notice that the Korngold piece is one of only a small handful of works written within the last hundred years to figure on this season's offerings of the Charlotte Symphony. This season has no Debussy, Ravel or Dutilleux, no Bartók, Britten, Barber, or even Stravinsky, nor Tan Dun, Corigliano, or Harbison. There is just one very familiar work of Aaron Copland, and one challenging concert directed by the orchestra's resident conductor, Alan Yamamoto.

This is surprising for the thriving and progressive metropolis that Charlotte claims to be. Indeed, when the arts become conservative, creative thinking suffers. If the arts become comfortable, soothing and just entertainment, they lull the intellect, dull the appetite for adventure and stifle creativity. In this reviewer's opinion, every concert should present a challenging work as well as something familiar and something entertaining. Played and presented well, even a difficult work can be a meaningful experience.