Sunday, March 4, 2012

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Presents Scandinavian Night

Rules are made to be broken.   And the typically well-disciplined Charlotte Symphony Orchestra audience did just that last night when many concertgoers broke into applause after the completion of the first movement of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16  featuring 17 year old pianist Alex Beyer.    I'm not talking a spattering of applause either.  I personally wanted to jump to a standing ovation but that definitely would have been over the top (and quite visibly inappropriate from my seat in the front row where I had a bird's eye view of the keyboard!)

 In his pre-concert interview with Katherine Caldwell, Alex shared that the concert would be the first time that he played the Grieg Piano Concerto in a performance, and I'm betting it won't be his last.  Caldwell asked him what he liked about the work and his response was quite thoughtful (especially for a 17 year old kid.)  He said that the concerto is "flashy" and therefore "accessible" to the audience (spot on on both points!) so that the challenge is bringing it to a new level and finding the "edge between the poetic and atmospheric."    He told us that when he plays the second movement, he visualizes the beautiful scenery in Norway that inspired Grieg to compose this piece and tries to "create moments of vast expanse."  I understood what he meant as I listened to the second movement of the concerto with its relative serenity after the flourish of the first movement.   It was truly a wonderful and exciting performance by both Beyer--whose fingers both flew and flowed over the keyboard--and the CSO.

But the Grieg Piano Concerto wasn't the only excitement last night.  The first half of the evening featured Finnish composer Jean Sibelius' Finlandia, Op. 26 and Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43, and they were incredibly stirring and powerful.  Finlandia was dramatic with its crashing cymbals and blaring trumpets and ascending strings.  I learned from Caldwell's program notes that Sibelius composed Finlandia in 1899 for a political demonstration in Helsinki at a time when Russia was tightening its grip on Finland, and it continues to be one of Finland's most important national songs.  Interestingly, this music was included in the score for Die Hard 2:  Die Harder (so perhaps I wasn't the only one who felt a massive adrenalin rush from this piece!)   At the end of this piece (which opened the concert), the audience gave the CSO a standing ovation.  Yes, it was just that kind of night!

Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 rounded out the evening with its four movements.  Once again, it was a dramatic and exciting piece of music and it showed off the depth of talent in the CSO.   The second movement started with an unusual pizzicato "conversation" between the cellos and the basses, and the bassoons had a section of their own.  The third movement was my favorite, though.  As a Phantom of the Orchestra (the CSO's volunteer organization), I was able to attend part of Saturday afternoon's rehearsal for the concert, and the musicians were working on the third movement.  It was really fun to see them fine tune their performance and to hear Maestro Wada's words of encouragement.  (Among other things, he said, "Let's play cool" in the heat of the lights on the barely air-conditioned stage.)   It was tantalizing to hear little snippets of the movement, and I was thrilled when they played it from start to finish before their break.  The music was amazing and sounded straight out of a movie soundtrack.  (Stephanie, who attended the concert with me, wondered how many movie music composers were inspired by this work, and Caldwell commented in her pre-concert talk that it sounded like a John Williams score.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that John Williams' music sounds like Sibelius' Symphony No. 2!)    As the Symphony came to a close, my heart was pounding, and I wanted more.

It's hard to imagine a better ending to this season's classical concert series and to Maestro Wada's tenure as conductor of the CSO.  (Happily, I am jumping the gun a bit because we still have the April Pops concert with the Kruger Brothers, but this was the Maestro's last classical concert.)    The musicians of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra have shown us time and time again that they can rise to any challenge put in front of them.  This knowledge and confidence will put them in good stead as "our" symphony orchestra moves forward to a future without MaestroWada at the helm. Like everyone else, I will sorely miss the warmth and enthusiasm and creativity that Francis has brought to the CSO.   His selections as musical director over the past two years have made me--someone without any background in classical movement--passionate about the symphony.  Filling his shoes is going to be a big job, but I'm confident that the CSO has a bright future,  and I am looking forward to many more exciting symphonic experiences in the years to come.

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