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Assailed by the ongoing pandemic, the postponement of vaccinations, and a midwinter cold snap, we must be contented when we receive short rations of Edward Elgar without pomp or percussion and William Walton's Henry V without winds or brass. In fact, since Charlotte Symphony Orchestra music director Christopher Warren-Green often shuttles back and forth across the Atlantic to lead our Queen City orchestra and the London Chamber Orchestra, we're rather fortunate just to have him on the podium at Knight Theater conducting an all-English program. Traveling by air between the UK and the US has become uncertain in recent months, due to the mutating coronavirus, and restrictions pushed the CSO's Holst + Elgar offering from January 23 into February. Electricity can also be capricious when the Arctic is riled: Texas is merely the most notorious state plagued by power outages this month, not the only one.
We've heard more than a couple of Serenades since the CSO returned, string players only, reconfiguring its 2020-21 season and fine tuning on-the-fly. Elgar's Serenade for Strings in E minor was certainly not the peppiest or the most sweeping of the breed, but Warren-Green, stressing the harmonic blend of the piece instead of its rhythmic flow, gave us a drearier reading than I would have hoped for, particularly in the first two movements, a tranquil and dreamy Allegro piacevole followed by a sleepier Larghetto. Only in the concluding Allegretto did Warren-Green abandon extreme delicacy and pick up his baton. Only now did the orchestra's energy compare with the more light-hearted Sir Roger Norrington recording of the piece. Here there was more melodic dialogue between the upper and lower strings, more satisfying swells in the sway of the dynamics.
Although Walton's Two Pieces for Strings from Henry V have been paired on commercial recordings, they are hardly a representative foretaste of the full musical score written for the 1945 film starring – and directed by – Laurence Olivier. Elsewhere in the score, in places such as the "Charge and Battle" and the "Agincourt Song" collected in more extensive suites, Warren-Green could parade the CSO's winds, brass, and percussion. Mightily. "Death of Falstaff" and "Touch Her Soft Lips and Part" are soft, brief, and fragile flowers compared to those sturdy oaks, yet they were more affecting than the Elgar pieces. The passacaglia for Sir John was quiet and grave, almost but not quite a dirge, and the "Soft Lips" was tenderly suffused with pure and chaste ardor, tinged with the sorrow of soldiers' farewells. Count me as enthusiastically supportive if Warren-Green opts to program a fuller representation of this Henry V score when he can bring the full orchestra to the task.
If we longed for music that quietly reflected our mood during these cold, gray, homebound winter days and nights, then these Elgar and Walton works more than fulfilled their mission, but if it was uplift that we sought, then Gustav Holst's St. Paul's Suite in C was a perfect tonic. Warren-Green's anecdote about meeting Olivier and Walton after a performance of the Henry pieces was by far the most appealing of his intros. Warren-Green had been onstage as the concertmaster that night, and the actor and the composer had vied ridiculously with each other at the post-performance reception to be more modest about his contribution to that celebrated film. Yet the insight into Holst, when Warren-Green visited the St. Paul's Girls School in London, was also fascinating. Holst taught at the school, eventually becoming its music director, and a soundproof room was built specially for him at the school where he composed his most famous work, The Planets, as well as this more modest suite.
To be honest, St. Paul's sounds more like it was written in the middle of the girls' playground on a bright sunny spring morning with the children running and squealing in all directions around the composer, especially in the effervescent outer movements. Amid the lively opening Vivace, ebulliently labeled as a Jig, it was inspiring to see Warren-Green jumping up and down on the podium again, excitedly gesticulating after maintaining his British dignity for these many months. The liveliness spread across the Knight stage, and I strongly suspect that the masked faces of the musicians were smiling. Even the middle movements had a youthful élan. The second movement was a quiet Ostinato at a Presto pace, with concertmaster Calin Lupanu floating a melody over the subdued churning of the upper strings and pizzicatos from the cellos. Lupanu's soloing resumed in the Intermezzo, where we slowed to Andante con moto and principal violist Benjamin Geller took a couple of turns in the solo spotlight. Here again, a Vivace interlude abruptly shed its orchestral sunlight before we reverted to a slower tempo, ending with a sedate string quartet led by Lupanu.
Jollity reigned when we arrived at Holst's Finale, an Allegro that riffs on an English folk tune, "The Dargason," sounding even merrier than the opening Jig, and certainly more familiar. Holst further enhanced the merriment and complexity of his composition by giving the cellos the undercover assignment of introducing the ancient melody of "Greensleeves" under the main theme. No problem if you missed "Greensleeves" while it was part of the cellos' stealth operation, because it became gloriously dominant when it was reprised. The infectious "Dargason" was not to be suppressed for long, interweaving so well with "Greensleeves," and Lupanu had one tastier little cadenza before the full string orchestra pounced on the final fortissimo chords.