Sunday, February 17, 2013

Raffaele Ponti Conducts the CSO in a Rousing Performance

Maestro Raffaele Ponti, the third—and final—candidate to take the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s baton from Maestro Francis Wada next year, believes that the role of an orchestra is to “enrich the lives of the community through great music.”  In his pre-concert talk with Katherine Caldwell, Ponti took his view a step further, commenting that a maestro/music director and his orchestra can “evangelize” the beauty and power of classical music.  If Saturday night’s performance is any indication of the music that Ponti and the CSO would create together, there will be lots of converts.   

Snare drums opened the evening’s concert, which began with Rossini’s Overture to La gazza ladra (“The Thieving Magpie”).  The music soon began to soar, with a particularly animated performance by the violin section, whose purposeful bowing was striking from the furthest corner of the concert hall.  Throughout the piece, it was easy to imagine the mischievous magpie that inspired the comic opera flying around with a stolen silver spoon in its beak. During the pre-concert talk, Ponti and Caldwell had chatted about Rossini’s tendency to procrastinate in his composing.  In fact, the producer of the opera reportedly had to lock Rossini in a room on the day The Thieving Mapgie was opening to force him to write the overture.  As the overture progressed, it was easy to envision Rossini hurling pages from his score out the window to the copyists who scurried off to duplicate (by hand) the music for that night’s performance.   The evening was off to a strong start.

Violinist Michael Ludwig
Next up was Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46, featuring guest violinist Michael Ludwig.  Ludwig has recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and came to Punta Gorda fresh off a gig with the Krakow Philharmonic.   Van Cliburn is quoted on Ludwig’s website as saying, “A musician of profound artistry and consummate integrity, Michael Ludwig possesses a gorgeous sound which he projects with heartfelt passion and intensity.”   With these credentials, it came as no surprise that Ludwig made his violin sing in ways that I have never heard before.

Maestro Ponti introduced the piece by saying that the Scottish Fantasy is a dance between the violin and the orchestra, with the partners sometimes embracing and sometimes merely touching one another with their fingertips.  The CSO proved itself an equal partner to Ludwig’s violin with a performance that was passionate, emotional, and exciting.   Ludwig actually had a second dance partner during the performance:  his instrument.  Ludwig literally waltzed with his violin on the stage as if it were a beautiful woman.  He glided and dipped and extended, all the time making incredibly beautiful music.   It was truly a virtuoso performance.      

The final musical selection of the evening was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, Op 5.   Maestro Ponti understands that the more an audience knows about a composer and what they will be listening to, the more engaged they will be.  As he said, “People want to hear the Oprah side of things, not how a particular eighth note fits in.”  He set the stage for Symphony No. 5 by placing it in the time of Tchaikovsky’s life when he was facing his mortality.   Tchaikovsky’s marginal notes for the first movement of Symphony No. 5 read, “Murmurs. Doubts. Laments. xxx.”  Many view the “xxx” as a reference to the struggles Tchaikovsky faced as a closeted gay man in Russia in the 1800s, and the second movement of this Symphony as his open-hearted love song.   With this background in mind, the piece opened with an unusual clarinet duet that was dark and foreboding and evocative of the turmoil Tchaikovsky must have felt.

Any number of adjectives could be used to describe this Symphony as the emotion built with each crescendo and the audience experienced Tchaikovsky’s sense of determination and striving for happiness.  The words romantic, dramatic, majestic, and thrilling come to mind.  The French horn solo in the second movement was stunning in its beauty.  The woodwinds had their moment to shine in the third movement.  And in the final movement, the violinists played with lightning speed as the Maestro literally leaned towards them, spurring them on.  It was a triumphant ending to a night that would have persuaded even the most vociferous naysayer about the ability of music to enrich an audience’s life. 

The final excitement of the evening came with the solicitation of the audience’s opinion as to which of the three guest conductors should assume the helm as maestro and music director of the CSO next year.  As the audience exited the performance, people were buzzing not only about what an exciting evening of music it had been but about the upcoming decision.  Again and again, you could hear people saying, “I’m glad that I don’t have to make that decision!”   The CSO will announce its selection at Maestro Wada’s final concert on March 23rd.  Whichever candidate is chosen—Roderick MacDonald, Matthew Wardell or Raffaele Ponti—will have the opportunity to build on the strong foundation that Maestro Wada has built and to lead the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra into a new era.   Kudos are due to each of the potential maestros for a season filled with exciting programming that has given the CSO the chance to show that it can rise to whatever challenge is placed before it.  May the odds be ever in your favor.     

Note:  A version of this article was published in the February 21, 2013 edition of Florida Weekly.  

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