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One of Mozart's most beloved compositions and the inspiration for the title of a Stephen Sondheim musical, Eine kleine Nachtmusik is perennially popular on streaming sites, CD players, and classical radio stations. WQXR's annual countdown of audience favorites listed Eine kleine Nachtmusik at Number 38 in its Top 100 for 2020 – ahead of Mozart's own Clarinet Concerto, his Symphonies 40 and 41, and two of his most familiar operas, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute. Yet if the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra is an accurate barometer, this Mozart masterwork is rarely heard in public. Until last Saturday night, the piece hadn't been played in Charlotte on the CSO's classics series during the current millennium. (The performances led by Christof Perick in September 2004 were played out of town at the Matthews United Methodist Church, Winthrop University in Rock Hill, and Davidson College.)
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has refocused our thinking about what music can be performed safely by symphony orchestras, while the BLM movement has been shuffling our thinking on what music should be offered. So, it's natural to conclude that the CSO's dusting off of this old chestnut was purely in response to pandemic conditions, for the Nachtmusik is actually the 13th – and last – of Mozart's string serenades, written in 1787 for string orchestra (or quintet). Opting for safety first and omitting wind players from their recent performances at Knight Theater, the CSO must have found Mozart's G Major to be an inevitable choice, especially since they've already dusted off Barber's Adagio, the only piece for string orchestra that currently polls better than Nachtmusik. Notwithstanding this logic – and the CSO's history – it must be remembered that Nachtmusik was already scheduled for a rendezvous at the Knight last April, under the baton of guest conductor Jeannette Sorrell, when the pandemic struck. So, there may be an additional logic at work: very likely, Eine kleine Nachtmusik rehearsals had already commenced. Certainly, the musical scores were already in the string players' hands.
The real responses to 2020 and the "new normal" actually lay elsewhere in the program, most notably in the resourceful pairing of Mozart's famed "Serenade" with Leonardo Balada's A Little Night Music in Harlem, premiered in 2007. The preamble to this Nachtmusik pairing on the program, Jessie Montgomery's "Starburst," was also noteworthy. "Starburst" was commissioned by The Sphinx Organization, a non-profit dedicated to the development of young Black and Latino classical musicians, and The Sphinx Virtuosi, who performed its 2012 premiere. Capping the live-streamed concert from Knight Theater, concertmaster Calin Lupanu spearheaded the Charlotte premiere of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in D, a work discovered and premiered in 1952 by violinist Yehudi Menuhin, 130 years after it was composed. Like the Balada and the Montgomery, this excavated Mendelssohn was the antithesis of the utterly predictable Mozart revival.
Clocking in at 3:31 on Montgomery's own Strum CD in 2015, "Starburst" was a perfect prelude to the lengthier nocturnal works that followed, cued by resident conductor Christopher James Lees with an effervescent vitality that augured well for the rest of the concert. The minimalistic repetitions didn't last long enough to become stale monotony, churned our way with infectious enthusiasm. Strands of melody were sprinkled with pizzicatos, and the bracing celestial explosions came in collective four-note clusters at the tail end of cheery sawing from the violins.
After explaining the interconnection between the Mozart and Balada pieces, Lees drove the orchestra into the opening Allegro of the Eine kleine Nachtmusik with the same zest he lavished on the Montgomery aperitif. There was a dramatic contrast between the delicate passages in the treble and the onset of the full orchestra's robust responses, which always came back louder, accelerated, and edgy. While you might prefer the way Sir Neville Marriner interpreted the music with his Academy of St. Martin's in the Fields on their Philips CD, allowing the music to speak for itself, the CSO reading was more exciting. Lees not only heared the sturdiness of the melodies we so readily remember in movements 1, 2, and 4 (not performed) of the Nachtmusik – and their amazing simplicity, anticipating the miraculous opening of Symphony No. 40 – he heared the dialectic in Mozart's idiom. Even in the ensuing Romance: Andante, where repose might be more readily excused, Lees had the CSO playing crisply, so this wasn't a lullaby. The brief second theme had some zip to it, subsiding graciously into the more familiar strain.
Born in Barcelona, Balada studied composition at Juilliard with Aaron Copland, began teaching at Carnegie Mellon University in 1970, and became a naturalized citizen in 1981 at the age of 48. The two Naxos albums of Balada's music on my shelves, featuring concertos for Violin, for Cello, and for Four Guitars, both left me hungry for more. Both were recorded by the Barcelona Symphony, so it would have been easy to overlook Balada's American ties if it weren't for the Cello Concerto's alias, "New Orleans." A Little Night Music in Harlem, one blushes to say, was commissioned by the Hungarian Chamber Orchestra and recorded on Naxos by the Iberian Chamber Orchestra, underscoring the simple fact that Balada is underappreciated and neglected in his adopted homeland.
Music in Harlem is merely a peephole into Balada's capabilities, but many of us who watched this CSO webcast will not only accept Lees' invitation to replay this performance online but also to seek out more of the composer's output. A recurrent baseline through this composition, bowed or in plucked pizzicatos, could be construed as locals walking up and down Lenox Avenue or back and forth along 125th Street, also known as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Or it could just as easily be heard as the spirit of jazz clubs along that street, the pulsebeat of Harlem. Like Mozart's Nachtmusik, perhaps even more so, Balada's piece displays its layers, denser and more pictorial than the "Serenade." Aside from Balada's echoes of the second and fourth movements of Nachtmusik, the new piece evokes vehicular traffic with its occasional glisses and takes us underground for the rumble of the subway. Lees told us that he hears the extended whistling sounds toward the end of the piece as commuters emerging from a subway station whistling together. It was certainly an eerie, sad, and ethereal contrast with much of the big city bustle and cacophony we had heard before.
Listening to Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in D minor for the first time, I couldn't help thinking that the reason it's so rarely heard can be traced, like the absence of Mozart's Nachtmusik from our concert halls, to its having been written for string orchestra. The biggest names to have recorded the work since the piece was discovered 69 years ago are Menuhin and Kyoko Takezawa. On the strength of their performance on Saturday, the CSO's Lupanu, Lees, and the 22 string players onstage at the Knight can thus be counted among this concerto's leading exponents. The sound from the orchestra was full-bodied and satisfying from the outset of the opening Allegro. After playing along with the others through most of the prologue, Lupanu showed that he was fully warmed-up, attacking the opening bars of his solo fiercely, bowing with bold panache, sharply punctuating the swiftest passages and then singing the lyrical sections with ardor, all the while producing the fullest, loveliest tone I've ever heard from him.
As the middle Andante movement began, I had momentary fears that Mendelssohn's immaturity – he composed this concerto at the age of 13, after all – might have been too much of an impediment to achieving true excellence in a slow movement. However, soon as Lupanu ascended into the treble in his first solo, all doubts were dispelled, for there were no pedestrian moments afterwards. On the contrary, Lupanu's soulfulness increased with his silvery pianissimos. The catchiest theme in Mendelssohn's youthful concerto came in the final Allegro, enabling Lupanu to play with greater verve and virtuosity than ever. Lees and the CSO seemed to be lifted by Lupanu's brio, maintaining the torrid pace set by the concertmaster while he rested briefly before his crowning cadenza. Some fancy bowing gave way to a final burst of ethereal lyricism as Lupanu circled back to the sunny main theme. The soloist and the orchestra tossed it back and forth with engaging spirit, triumphantly finishing in just under an hour.