Symphony reprises Haydn’s big bang

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Fans of Charlotte Symphony can be very thankful this year: the orchestra is performing every weekend this month in four distinctively different programs. The last two concerts have been prime examples of the audience-building thrust – and, we hope, the quality enhancements – of the 2011-12 season in its bustling first two months.

The intersect between music and science, first explored at the first KnightSounds program last month, where Gustav Holst’s Planets met NASA’s Voyager photos and animations, was renewed in a fascinating CSO on Campus program. The mini-tour of this concert began at Halton Theater on the CPCC campus before proceeding to Robinson Hall at UNC Charlotte, and the Brayboy Gymnasium at Johnson C. Smith.

Meg Whalen, the Symphony’s director of community engagement, emceed and spoke about the tools music employs to affect our emotions, joined onstage at UNCC by Dr. Joan Lorden, the University’s vice chancellor of academic affairs, who delved into the neuroscience of music. More intriguing were the interactive components of the concert.

Whalen handed out 30 wireless devices to audience members, and after CSO played the Adagio movement of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 and Craig Bove’s Release, the 30 chosen listeners recorded their responses on four different emotional spectra – from calm to tense, rational to intuitive, melancholy to cheerful, and drowsy to energetic, with five degrees of moderation between those extremes. With a laptop onstage to collect the responses and a projection screen hovering over the musicians, results were displayed on bar graphs after each piece, one spectrum at a time.

Predictably, the Rachmaninoff graphs tended to have more tilt and amplitude, indicating a greater degree of agreement from the survey population on the traditional piece than on the experimental one. In fact, I found the amount of disagreement on the Bove piece quite illuminating – a forceful argument in favor of more educational programs such as these. Or, some might say, against outré pieces like Bove’s.

Another two contrasting pieces, the Allegro movement from Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony No. 6 and Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, were used to probe an individual’s physical response to live music. A faculty member graciously consented to be hooked up to a modest battery of medical equipment recording his heart rate, blood temperature, oxygenation, and blood pressure against his baseline measurements – in the case of his blood pressure, an alarming 149/96.

Yes, the Tchaikovsky pumped the guy up to 160 on his systolic pressure and close to the century mark on his diastolic pressure when volume and tension peaked, and the Debussy brought the man back from the brink of exploding before our eyes. CSO maestro Christopher Warren-Green and his musicians – particularly Hollis Ulaky on oboe, Elizabeth Landon on flute, and concertmaster Calin Lupanu – could take some genuine satisfaction in the medicinal effects of their work.

But the most dynamic interplay between music and technology came when graduate student Matthew Primm consented to accept audience reactions to the world premiere of his new composition, Pensive Journey, while the orchestra was playing. The projection screen over the stage at Anne R. Belk Theater showed everyone text messages received by the onstage laptop while they were being typed, one text message after another continuously as the new work unfolded.

Such open information sharing goes beyond what happens at Hollywood focus group screenings, where spontaneous audience reactions are gathered but never shared during the performance. Here the textings were a drama in themselves, threatening to thrust the performance onstage into a subsidiary role akin to soundtrack music. Ironically, the new Primm composition, which drew universally positive reactions, had elements of soundtrack likability all its own, very much like music you would expect to hear underneath a skydiving film shot with a helmet cam.

The whole idea seemed to be a huge hit with everyone. After taking their bows, musicians stood around and gawked at the screen with as much unfeigned fascination as the audience.

Notwithstanding my past admonitions to the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte and their director, Scott Allen Jarrett – to learn and perform new oratorios beyond their rather circumscribed repertoire – last week’s performance of Haydn’s The Creation was a definite step forward for the Symphony. It’s always more thrilling to hear Papa Haydn’s version of the Big Bang live than on a recording – when the chorus suddenly moves from a whisper to a thundering fortissimo upon reaching the last word of the German text for “God said: Let there be light, and there was light!” – especially when you can observe the shock on people new to the piece. Certainly that sensation would have been even riper if CSO had waited more than 4½ years to reprise the opening chapter of Genesis.

This time around, Jarrett was able to reunite two of the vocalists, soprano Amanda Forsythe and baritone Philip Cutlip, who made the 2008 performance of Handel’s Saul at Halton Theater such a smashing triumph. Forsythe started out as the angel Gabriel during the first two parts of the oratorio, alighting on Earth to portray Eve in Part III, while Cutlip cut a similar arc, declaiming the opening verses of the Bible as Raphael and reappearing as Adam when creation wends its way toward procreation. Physical chemistry between Cutlip and Forsythe wasn’t noticeably better than when he was Saul and she was David’s beloved Michal, but there was vocal amity aplenty.

Joining them was tenor Nicholas Phan as Uriel from start to finish, completing what has to be the best trio of guest vocalists CSO has ever assembled at the Belk. There was no lack of crispness from the orchestra, undergirding all the massive songs of praise, with Jarrett wielding the baton instead of Christof Perick. There was a particularly admirable flash from the brass with the onset of the final amens, and the Oreos glowed all evening long, whether called upon to simulate primordial hush or godly glory.

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