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As subscribers to the orchestra's pops and summer concert series already know, American music is one of those things that Charlotte Symphony performs at its sunny best. With a beefed up brass section and a maestro, Christopher Warren-Green, who loves and gets George Gershwin, subscribers to the orchestra's Classics Series are hearing more of their native composers than previous music directors brought to Belk Theater. And with composer Mark O'Connor aboard since last spring as artist-in-residence, Warren-Green could easily program a whole evening of Americana. All three of the evening's pieces – Gershwin's An American in Paris, Aaron Copland's Old American Songs, and O'Connor's Americana Symphony – proudly blazoned America in their titles, and a packed stage of instrumentalists and singers from the Symphony Chorus reveled in delivering them.
From the grand tier level at the Belk, An American in Paris was visually more appealing than when I last saw it – from the orchestra level – performed by the symphony at Knight Theater in 2013. It was easier to see the percussionists and the brass musicians at the rear of the stage, and they had plenty to do. A xylophone, triangle, two French taxi horns tuned to different pitches, and a really vigorous tuba came into play early on. Three saxophones were added to the ranks, but they mostly created their waves subliminally in the background. A single celesta made more of an impression, the violin section got a rare opportunity to sound jazzy, and after concertmaster Calin Lupanu made an unmistakably Gershwinesque statement on violin, tuba principal Aubrey Foard came into the solo spotlight for a delightful instant. In context, Foard's tuba spot wasn't comical, but I couldn't help smiling.
Yet the piece didn't quite sound as satisfying as when Jacomo Rafael Bairos conducted it at the 2013 KnightSounds concert. The big city bustle of daytime Paris is fine and exciting unless it crosses the boundary between bustle and cacophony. Perhaps the Knight's acoustics are friendlier to this piece (yes, the custom-made acoustic shell for that hall was already in place in 2013), but I felt like Warren-Green could have been more assertive in reining in his musicians' exuberance in the tutti episodes. I found the quiet sections, when Gershwin says his American has perhaps ducked into a café to escape the street noises and experiences a "spasm of homesickness," more of a relief from the liveliness than I should have. By the end of the piece, running over 19 minutes compared to the 16 prescribed in the program notes (and the 17 in the Spotify preview emailed to subscribers), I was very pleased with how Warren-Green and his orchestra were handling the contrast between the bustling and dreamy passages.
Copland wrote two sets of Old American Songs, five songs per set, which were premiered in 1950 and 1953. The original versions for voice and piano evolved into scores for voice and orchestra in 1955. After that, the path to the arrangements chosen by Warren-Green and the Charlotte Symphony are shrouded in mystery. They are different from any that I've been able to track down, including those conducted by the composer. So I'll let wiser heads parse out how traditional American songs arranged by Copland and then re-arranged by someone else for orchestra and chorus are Copland's at all. Confining myself to the performances, I'll say that Kenney Potter's unseen work with the chorus was even more impressive than Warren-Green's with the orchestra. Of the ten Old American Songs, the music director chose seven, performing the complete Set 1 in its original order and adding the last two songs from Set 2, namely "(Shall We Gather) At the River" and "Chin-a-ring Chaw."
That selection tilted the overall balance slightly toward lightness. The men effectively launched the singing of "The Boatman's Dance," and the women especially distinguished themselves at the conclusion of "Simple Gifts," the melody that Copland wove even more memorably into the climax of Appalachian Spring. Changes in mood and tempo didn't seem to faze the full Chorus at all in "The Dodger," and there was agility aplenty in the engaging romps and stops of "I Bought Me a Cat" – enough to ensure that I would hear a couple of the cat's fiddle-eye-fee's in the lobby at intermission, despite the fact that it was no longer at the end of the set. After a beautiful soft brass intro, men and women blended sublimely in the final stanza of "At the River," and the sheer speed of "Ching-a-ring Chaw" brought joy to send us into the break – and perhaps encourage those wary of O'Connor to come back.
As it turned out, the lightness of Warren-Green's song selections cushioned the letdowns of the six-part Americana Symphony, subtitled "Variations on Appalachia Waltz." O'Connor's strongest writing was for the brasses in the opening "Brass Fanfare: Wide Open Spaces" and for the woodwinds in Part 3, "Different Paths Toward Home," where principal clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo and principal French hornist Frank Portone had some lovely spots to play. Concertmaster Lupanu and principal cellist Alan Black also figured in a soothing sequence of overlaps in this quiet movement. The writing for violins, bluegrass in style at the beginning of Part 2, "New World Fanciful Dance," grew more majestic as that movement unfolded, but we reverted to Appalachia when the violins returned in Part 4, "Open Plains Hoedown," wearing out their welcome with their simplistic riffing and not building as convincingly as they had earlier. Part 5, "Soaring Eagle, Setting Sun," started desolately with low-pitched brass and lugubrious horns, never soaring at all, though an onset of tubular bells marginally brightened the mood.
I was feeling pretty desolate myself about this composition when Part 6 began, "Theme: Splendid Horizons," still melodically inchoate. A ray of hope arrived with the violins, but the wide-open spaces or horizons they evoked didn't sound particularly American. There was more distinctively American flavor when the violins returned later in the movement, and Lupanu had a really beautiful double-bowed cadenza to play before a final build subtly dominated by trombones. Bloated as its final midsections were with tedious minimalistic noodling, the symphony often succeeded in evoking America's mountains and plains. Perhaps O'Connor would have sustained his inspiration more fully if he had allowed his imagination – and the whole Americana concept – to stray toward our seacoasts and shores.
This program will be repeated on Feb. 3, in the same venue. See the sidebar for details.