Monday, October 1, 2012

Dr. Warren-Green's tonic for music lovers

Christopher Warren-Green tipped his hand Friday as to what he's up to with the Charlotte Symphony's KnightSounds concerts. 

The concert was titled "The Power of the Song," and the orchestra's ads said it would pay tribute to the art of song from Mozart to Bernstein to John Lennon. So it did Friday night, with the help of a pair of compelling sopranos. In the midst of it, though, came a composer who wasn't mentioned in the advertising: Osvaldo Golijov.

While Golijov, an Argentine native and U.S. resident, is one of today's most-performed composers -- and a Grammy winner, among other honors -- that doesn't necessarily mean a lot in Charlotte. No wonder Warren-Green devoted to it a bit more than the usual introductory chat from the podium. He noted that Golijov is "unknown" here, and he went on to acknowledge that unfamiliar names usually cause a flight from the box office. But with the KnightSounds concerts, which usually are built around themes rather than a headline musical work, Warren-Green hopes to expand his audience's horizons. 

"I aim to get you all to trust me," he said, adding a quip: "I'm a doctor." The audience -- a little nervous about what was coming? -- chuckled. 

Then it was time for Golijov's "How Slow the Wind," based on a   poem by Emily Dickinson. Soprano Christina Pier began by reciting Dickinson's verses, which begin: "How slow the wind / How slow the sea / How late their feathers be." Pier and the orchestra then set off on Golijov's music, which added a soulfulness of its own to Dickinson's enigmatic poetry. It was a nocturne for soprano and orchestra. The orchestra's deep, quiet tones set the scene. Dickinson's poetry unfolded in the soprano's long-breathed lines, which Pier intoned tellingly. The murmur of the bass clarinet and tolling of chimes, hushed though they were, lent urgency. 

Beyond the applause at the end, Dr. Warren-Green didn't ask the audience how the medicine had gone down. But the music did hit home with a yoga instructor I ran into afterward. It was haunting, she said, and she could imagine playing it during yoga classes. Maybe that isn't a reaction that Golijov would've expected. But it tells you that his message came across. 

The rest of the concert put pure tunefulness in the spotlight, from the noble lyricism of Handel's "Lascia ch'io pianga" -- long known as Handel's "Largo" -- to the Broadway pizazz of Bernstein's "Candide." Pier, a Catawba College faculty member, treated Handel and Mozart to finesse, dignity and silky tone. 

Susannah Biller mainly took the opposite tack, reveling in the high spirits of "Die Fledermaus" and "Candide." The more flamboyant the music was, the more she let loose with vibrant high notes and sure-fire vocal acrobatics. "Glitter and be Gay" from "Candide" brought down the house. 

Warren-Green and the orchestra complemented all of that. Afterward -- going along with the KnightSounds tradition of post-concert action -- the songfest continued with a karaoke contest in the lobby, with Warren-Green as emcee. Actually, the karaoke was mostly drowned out by the rest of the crowd in the lobby, as other concertgoers hung around and gabbed with friends. But that's OK. Isn't karaoke mainly for the participants anyway? Everyone was obviously having a good time.