By Perry Tannenbaum
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Brimming with confidence after reporting its first surplus in a dozen years, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra tried something new starting on Oct. 30. Emboldened by a $71,000 surplus for the 2013-14 season — and pleas from potential subscribers who like to hit the road during weekends — the CSO added two extra Thursday concerts to its 83rd year of classical performances.
The new initiative is certainly a cunning idea, since the CSO’s musicians are already contracted to be at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center’s Belk Theater on Thursday nights for dress rehearsals prior to their customary Friday and Saturday night concerts. From a contractual perspective, Thursdays are even savvier than last year’s addition, a hugely successful Mother’s Day matinee. After all the masterful personnel and programming changes made by the orchestra in recent years, Thursday concerts figured to be another thundering success.
Unfortunately, the Thursday night ventures were scheduled long before CBS engineered a massive competing event on Oct. 30 by selecting the local game between the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers for its Thursday night football telecast. Though I started up I-77 more than 15 minutes earlier than normal for a 7:30 performance, I needed to navigate an alternate route to make it on time.
Perhaps discouraged by the snarled traffic on the highways and on the uptown streets, turnout for this initial Thursday experiment was barely half of what I normally see on Fridays. A few people didn’t take their seats until the second movement of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, which was preceded by Wagner’s brassy Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin.
Yet all was well onstage, despite the traffic outside and the truncated rehearsal routine, as things have been since British conductor Christopher Warren-Green became the orchestra’s music director four seasons ago. Fulfilling an audacious pledge, Warren-Green moved to Charlotte with his family and brought with him a commitment to innovation, participation, and community that none of his predecessors could rival.
Adding to the classics, kiddie, and pops series performed at Belk Theater, he launched the KnightSounds series — themed concerts and social events rolled into one — at the more intimate Knight Theater, aimed at freshening a graying classics audience. Educational outreach was also enhanced, and Rosemary Furniss, Warren-Green’s wife and concertmaster of the London Chamber Orchestra, has made her presence felt as a teacher in the Charlotte school system and as a performer in two of the area’s chamber music series. Nor did it hurt that Warren-Green himself performed at a certain royal wedding in his homeland during his first season as CSO maestro in 2011 — or that he lingers after every classics concert with the evening’s guest artist for a talk-back with the audience.
Warren-Green did so after the Oct. 30 program, which ended with Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. To accommodate the work’s massive scoring, the ranks of musicians had swelled from the 62 full-timers who regularly perform to 88, including extras on horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, flute, piccolo, harp, and contrabass. The five horns, three trombones, and three trombones onstage for the Wagner were a mere foretaste of the artillery to come. Some of them, Warren-Green noted at the talk-back, were among the players currently locked out from the Atlanta Symphony.
Size of the ensemble is the key sticking point down in Atlanta, which had a deficit of $2 million for the 2014 fiscal year after reducing the number of full-time musicians from 95 to 88 in 2012. In their latest counter proposal to the Woodruff Arts Center, the Players’ Association would start the currently delayed season with 77 musicians, with incremental additions that would restore Atlanta’s corps to a minimum of 88 musicians by the end of 2017-18.
Other major orchestras in states adjoining North Carolina also have had their travails in recent years, including the Nashville Symphony in Tennessee and the Charleston Symphony in South Carolina. Following a precipitous decline in gift-giving, Charleston suspended operations in 2010, and a nine-month labor dispute — during which David Stahl, the orchestra’s music director, died — delayed the opening of 2010-11 season until December, when the number of core musicians was reduced to 24. Its full-time roster hasn’t increased since then, but the orchestra reported hefty surpluses through the 2013 fiscal year.
Meanwhile, in Nashville, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center was rocked with flood damage in 2010, four years after its ballyhooed opening and threatened with foreclosure last year. Musicians recently agreed to a four-year pact that assures them of 3% raises for the first two years, after submitting to 15% reductions last season. Fundraising shot up 71% during the 2013-14 crisis, accompanied by a 26% rise in ticket sales. Nashville’s debt is still nearly $23 million, mostly related to the mortgage obligation.
Charlotte’s musicians have undoubtedly been encouraged by the recent financials, having taken significant pay cuts for fiscal year 2010, the season before Warren-Green took over. The CSO ran a deficit of $1.5 million during the new maestro’s first season, so the improvement has been sizable — boosted by increased ticket sales, up 6% since 2010, and a 23% increase in contributions. Expanding the roster of full-time musicians was on the wishlists of previous CSO music directors, but it has held steady at 62 during Warren-Green’s leadership.
News that the orchestra’s numbers had been bolstered for the Oct. 30 concert by front-liners from Atlanta signaled that the CSO isn’t skimping. Warren-Green bid the entire brass phalanx to stand for a collective bow after the Wagner curtain-raiser, and it would be hard to argue that they hadn’t earned that recognition with their clarion clarity. The main fireworks began when the keyboard was wheeled to center stage and Abdel Rahman El Bacha made his Charlotte debut in the Beethoven. Unless you had stumbled upon him in the Spotify universe, you would likely have missed the Lebanese pianist, who has flown under the radar of major labels while recording prolifically for Mirare, Triton, Forlane, and Classical.com since the middle 90s.
From the opening cadenza of the first movement, El Bacha’s fluid and lyrical phrasing was as pleasing as his lustrous tone. Called upon to deliver Beethoven’s resounding sforzando chords, he responded with Brendel-like authority. El Bacha’s fingerwork was flawless; soft passages with horns hovering above were exquisite. The orchestra had sounded somewhat moribund in their launch of the season in September with the “Eroica” Symphony, their previous Beethoven outing. Responding to El Bacha’s opening salvos, they sounded far more alert, and during the Adagio movement, the wondrous serenity Warren-Green has brought with him to the string sound was back in evidence.
El Bacha’s playing was so soft and meditative entering the famed transition between the last two movements that his sforzando detonating the closing Rondo actually startled me. He caught the theme-and-variations flavor of the ensuing solos beautifully, coming nicely to a boil in a dazzling-yet-precise presto that never lost its triple-time sway. The orchestra’s rich and robust interplay with the pianist in the final recaps of the theme sparked an unmistakably lusty ovation from the crowd.
Following what might be the emperor of all concertos, Strauss’ poetic traipse through Heldenleben was only slightly anticlimactic. The CSO’s affinity for Strauss had been honed during the regime of Warren-Green’s predecessor, Christof Perick, who made a complete traversal of the composer’s tone poems, beginning with Heldenleben in 2001. Perick’s legacy was thus evident in the musicians’ deftness with the music and the audience’s willingness to return after intermission; such loyalty was lamentably lacking the last time a Shostakovich symphony was programmed at the Belk.
The raucous climactic battle episode, heralded by three of the five trumpets who had briefly adjourned backstage, didn’t faze the audience at all, perhaps because concertmaster Calin Lupanu’s solo work sketching “The Hero’s Companion” — actually a portrait of Strauss’ wife, Pauline — had been so beguiling. There was also impressive individual work from Leonardo Soto on timpani, Hollis Ulaky on oboe, Mary Beth Griglak on bassoon, and Terry Maskin on English horn, but the 19-piece brass corps was the most awesome aspect of the piece, especially when the tenor and bass tubas were both crowned with mutes. No less memorable were the orchestral sublimity in the wake of Maskin’s solo in “The Hero’s Retirement” and the reprise of Lupanu’s soothing work.
Box office results of the inaugural Thursday experiment were inconclusive, but another is scheduled for next April, when NFL interference won’t be a worry. Then the viability of the new concept should get its first true test. An evening of contemporary dance presented by Charlotte Ballet will be the only Uptown competition threatening the CSO’s initiative when pianist Yulianna Avdeeva makes her Charlotte debut in the second Chopin concerto. Warren-Green and the orchestra can afford to be patient, especially when their balance sheet is heading in the right direction.
Perry Tannenbaum regularly covers the performing arts scene in Charlotte, N.C., for Creative Loafing and CVNC. His CD and concert reviews have also appeared in American Record Guide and JazzTimes.