When Charlotte Symphony maestro Christopher Warren-Green waves a stick around at a concert, he's usually facing away from the audience, cuing musicians and setting the tempo. But the new KnightSounds series is hardly your typical concert experience, so when Warren-Green was shaking a stick at the start of last week's Light My Fire concert, he wasn't conducting at all. He was actually shaking the evening's program at the audience, making sure everyone had picked one up on the way in.
To be accurate, the program was printed on a torch-shaped cutout that had been slapped on an oversized tongue depressor. Nobody was to pretend they could be burnt by this crude contraption. On the contrary, Warren-Green declared that we could use our programs to cool off with — by grasping the stick and fanning ourselves when things heated up.
Symphony would bring the fire from multiple sources. Music was paramount, of course, beginning with Handel's Royal Fireworks Music. Yet it was likely that Warren-Green was warning us of another combustible, mezzo soprano Carla Dirlikov. Decked out in a fiery red dress, and bearing a trophy red rose, Dirlikov vamped her way through two of the most familiar arias in Bizet's Carmen, the "Habanera" and the "Seguidilla." The prime vamp-ee, in the absence of an operatic tenor playing Don Jose, was the nearest man at hand, Warren-Green at the podium.
But Dirlikov flung her rose out to audience at the end of the "Habanera," a clear signal that she was not too choosey.
So eager was Warren-Green to reach this heat wave in the program that he inadvertently skipped over the piece that was to precede it, Manuel de Falla's "Fire Dance from El Amor Brujo." Elegantly maintaining his poise after the sensuous Dirlikov onslaught, the maestro was jolly enough to tell us, "And now we're going to play what you thought you just heard."
Although Dirlikov wasn't quite the vocal sensation that Denyce Graves or Kirstin Chavez had been when Opera Carolina brought them to Belk Theater, the overall package was more than sizzling enough to rouse the near-capacity crowd at Knight Theater to a lusty standing ovation. So the De Falla did feel somewhat like a lull afterwards.
But a second guest appeared before Symphony played the final piece, a condensed version of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. The core theme of the evening, unlike the title, hadn't been ripped off José Feliciano's hit song. No, the true fire of inspiration had been the major exhibition of Nikki de Saint Phalle's artworks next door at the Bechtler Museum — and across the street at The Uptown Green.
De Saint Phalle is already regarded fondly hereabouts for the glittering "Firebird" sculpture that draws people and their cameras to the corner of South Tryon and The Levine Avenue of the Arts. It was therefore altogether appropriate that Bechtler president John Boyer inform us more fully about the life of the artist and her work as a preface to the Stravinsky — particularly since the Bechtler and the De Saint Phalle exhibition (containing numerous other incarnations of the Firebird) would be open to the audience for a full hour after the concert concluded.
It was altogether delightful that Symphony's performance, even more than Boyer's intro, was adorned with audiovisual fireworks — and Nikki's artworks — projected on an enormous upstage screen. These were further augmented by folks in the light booth making a second screen out of the acoustic material at the ceiling of the hall, right in front of the proscenium.
Having gotten our attention, Warren-Green and Charlotte Symphony didn't let us down. There was precision coupled with earth-shaking fury at the start of the "Infernal Dance," and Frank Portone's mellow solo leading off Stravinsky's "Finale" reminded us why this music is so treasurable.