Charlotte SO, Chorale Echo Troubled World: ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’

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The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and Charlotte Master Chorale performed Vaughan Williams’ ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ in front of the colors of the Ukrainian flag. (Photos by Daniel Coston)

CHARLOTTE — With Russian bombs raining down on Ukrainian cities, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s stirring performance of Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem could hardly have been more poignant. This towering choral work, not performed often enough, powerfully underscores the tragedy of armed conflict.

Under the superb direction of Christopher Warren-Green, the March 11 concert and sentiment surrounding it combined to make this an affecting, memorable evening in the Belk Theater at Charlotte’s Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.

In addition to Dona nobis pacem, Warren-Green offered polished accounts of Holst’s Walt Whitman Overture, Malcolm Arnold’s Four Scottish Dances, and Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. The musicians of the Charlotte Symphony and Charlotte Master Chorale were in top form.

In truth, the all-British program was intended to be celebratory: The two weekend concerts marked the orchestra’s 90th birthday. Like many great things in our country, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra was the idea of an immigrant, Guillermo de Roxlo, who brought local musicians together to perform the orchestra’s first concert on March 20, 1932.

The Charlotte Symphony’s entire 2021-22 season, meanwhile, honors Warren-Green, who is stepping down as music director after 12 successful seasons at the helm. Warren-Green, whose tenure was marked by a broadening of repertoire and innovative programming, will take on the titles of music adviser and conductor laureate.

The conflict in Ukraine may have shifted the focus from those celebrations, but how could it not? The orchestra’s program was planned long before Ukraine came under fire, but the Charlotte Symphony dedicated the concerts “to the courage, strength, and resilience of (the Ukrainian) people.” And the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag were projected on the organ pipes.

Warren-Green, meanwhile, released an individual statement: “Dona nobis pacem was Vaughan Williams’ brave and heartrending plea for peace at a time when the world was facing yet another devastating war. My hope is that this performance will serve as a powerful reminder of music’s extraordinary ability to unite, and of the strength and fortitude of the human spirit — a spirit which yearns for freedom and autonomy.”

Soprano Christina Pier, conductor Christopher Warren-Green, and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch acknowledge the audience’s applause.

Dona nobis pacem (“Grant Us Peace”) is a reminder of how war divides and destroys. Vaughan Williams’ 1936 cantata is an odd amalgam of brief phrases from the Latin liturgy, three poems by Walt Whitman, a portion of a speech given by John Bright to the House of Commons during the Crimean War, and excerpts from the Old Testament. Yet it all hangs together well, moving from the horrors of war to the hope for a peaceful future.

Vaughan Williams himself enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War I and witnessed the devastation of the Third Battle of Ypres at Flanders, which claimed heavy losses among British, French, and German soldiers. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Vaughan Williams, in composing this war cantata, turned to Whitman, whose experiences as a nurse in the Civil War resulted in a series of vivid, heartbreaking war poems.

Dona nobis pacem opens with a soprano soloist (the marvelous, silver-toned Christina Pier in this program) and chorus crying for peace but answered by the unsettling drums and trumpets heralding war. Vaughan Williams then launches into Whitman’s “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” a searing depiction of the chaos of war, which disrupts all peaceful daily life, leaving no one unscathed. The chorus and orchestra, under Warren-Green’s sure hand, rendered this tumultuous movement with precision and fierce commitment.

“Reconciliation,” a reminder that war artificially divides the human family, spotlighted the burnished bass-baritone solo of Daniel Okulitch and the warm phrasing of the chorus. The “Dirge for Two Veterans,” the third Whitman poem, about the funerals of a father and son slain in battle, was passionately delivered by the chorus. The playing of the brass in this movement and elsewhere, aided by the fine acoustics of the Belk Theater, was magnificent.

In the final movement, Vaughan Williams combines a number of biblical verses to offer a consoling vision of hope, though there’s some ambiguity in the soprano’s final plea for peace. Warren-Green’s choral and orchestral forces brought the work to a triumphant conclusion, though the chorus was at times overpowered by the orchestra. I counted about 60 singers in the chorus; the work could well benefit from 100 more, though there might not be room on the Belk Theater stage for that many.

Throughout, however, the chorus, under the artistic leadership of Kenney Potter, proved itself to be an excellent ensemble: cohesive, well-balanced, and sensitive in phrasing.

To my ear, Warren-Green’s tempos seemed slower (if only slightly) than what one often hears on recordings, though they added gravitas and grandeur to the proceedings. Concertmaster Calin Ovediu Lupanu contributed fine solos.

Christopher Warren-Green leading the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and Charlotte Master Chorale.

Earlier in the program, Warren-Green offered vigorous interpretations of Holst’s Walt Whitman Overture and Arnold’s rambunctious Four Scottish Dances. (I sincerely regret, however, arriving a few minutes late — I had journeyed from a few hours away — and not being able to catch Thomas Burge’s Charlotte Symphony Fanfare.)

It was a particular pleasure to hear Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, one of those tremendously popular works that, like Pachelbel’s Canon, don’t actually seem to be performed live very often. Warren-Green favored deliberate tempos that brought a mournful and elegiac feel to this wonderful piece. The performance was memorable particularly for the smooth sheen of the Charlotte Symphony’s strings. Warren-Green concluded the Fantasia on a breathtaking decrescendo, with the sound ever-so-slowly disappearing into silence.

At the March 11 concert marking the orchestra’s 90th birthday, the Belk Theater seemed not much over half full. Granted, many audience members are still reluctant to return to the concert hall after a two-year pandemic. But I hope the residents of the Queen City know what a treasure they have in the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.