Slacking off with Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's "La Mer"



Should a critic ever slacken in his or her vigilance? Certainly not. But at last Friday night's Ravel and Debussy concert, I yielded to the temptation anyway. I blame it all on the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, which has been on a streak of unrelenting excellence since the beginning of March.

They were irresistible with guest conductor Larry Ratleff in a program that included Brahms Symphony No. 4 and a pupu platter of Cantaloube's Songs of the Auvergne. Two weeks later, with the return of CSO maestro Christopher Warren-Green on March 15, they upstaged last-minute fill-in Adele Anthony in the Brahms Violin Concerto and gave an absolutely devastating account of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony.

Yet Warren-Green hadn't dabbled much in French repertoire since becoming the CSO musical director. Actually, he was reprising a couple of his prior ventures, both outside the Belk Theater classics subscription series.

Gabriel Fauré's Pavane lurked in the background last spring at the KnightSounds series when Matthew Weinstein's animations for Maurice Ravel's Bolero grabbed all the hype, and Warren-Green brought Claude Debussy's Prélude à L'après-midi d'un faune to the unique lab conditions of the CSO on Campus concert of November 2010. With a UNC Charlotte professor hooked up to a battery of medical equipment, I was able to objectively report on the medicinal effects of oboist Hollis Ulaky, flutist Elizabeth Landon and concertmaster Calin Lupanu's handiwork.

The biggies on the all-French program, Ravel's Piano Concerto and Debussy's majestic La Mer, were both new for W-G. Although the difference may have been entirely due to my giving the L'après-midi my undivided attention, instead of also scrutinizing a UNCC prof's heart rate and blood pressure, last week's performance seemed far more polished and perfect than before, with yummier work from Ulaky and Landon plus dark shadings from clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo.

From its opening whipcrack, the piano concerto is a friskier piece - and I'll go ahead and say that, for me, Pascal Rogé's CSO debut was a double-underlined event on the 2012-13 season calendar from the moment it was announced. Still, he exceeded expectations in the opening Allegramente from the instant he first entered, with some exquisite pianissimo backing from Frank Portone on the French horn. What we probably remember best, however, is the downward arc of the piano's theme in the concerto's middle Adagio movement - and the orchestra's languid reply with its glints of flute and piccolo. Here in the slow lyricism is where Rogé and our Warren-Green truly shine, though beaucoup kudos can also be heaped on Terry Maskin for his stellar work on English horn. The whole wind section earned plaudits in the closing Presto, but nobody was stealing Rogé's thunder, flashing sparks of inspiration and joy.

Played as an appetizer before the Weinstein world premiere - and before the Knight Theater was outfitted with its new acoustic shell - the Fauré also seemed better the second time around with W-G. Landon played so beautifully, and the Belk acoustic was far kinder to the violins than - how else shall I say it? - the old Knight.

So, when the time came for the piece that brought me back to classical music some 40 years ago, via the landmark Pierre Boulez recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, I decided to put my pen down, settle back in my chair, and simply enjoy La Mer. I felt that the music would be in good hands, and I was right.

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