By Lawrence Toppman
Twelve years ago, Christopher Warren-Green auditioned for the job of music director with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, guest-conducting a concert capped by a vivid rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” The wheel comes round again this year, as six guest conductors get a chance to show what they can do with the CSO before Warren-Green leaves in 2022.
Georgia-born, Berlin-based Roderick Cox began that process Friday night in Knight Theater with his hands partially tied by COVID-19: He led Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 and Brahms’ Serenade No. 2.
None of these pieces exploits the full tonal range of a classical orchestra or plumbs many emotional depths. Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 would have done both, but management replaced it with the serenade to accommodate a reduced orchestra and allow additional spacing for wind and brass players, who can’t be masked. (The concert repeats Saturday; you’ll find information here.)
Yet despite the confines of the programming, Cox conducted with intelligence, sensitivity, precision and energy. He has set the bar high for the five young guest conductors who’ll follow.
Youth ruled the evening. Neither Cox nor solo violinist Benjamin Beilman has reached 35; Brahms finished the serenade at 26; Mozart composed this last authenticated violin concerto at 19. Wagner was 57 when he wrote the idyll as a birthday present for his second wife, but he was probably feeling his oats: He’d married Cosima just a few months earlier, legitimizing their two children.
The “Siegfried Idyll” can easily seem overlong, not music to wake up to – as Wagner meant it to be for Cosima – but a lazy lullaby that floats repetitiously along. Cox gave it no chance to sag, conducting at an unhurried but steady flow and emphasizing the dramatic links to the “Ring” cycle. (Wagner was polishing the third act of the opera “Siegfried” at the time.)
Beilman, who played the Beethoven concerto here in 2017, paired smoothly with Cox in Mozart. Together, they attacked the vigorous parts with swift sureness, especially in the mock-militant “Turkish” section of the finale. When left alone in the solos, Beilman often produced a sweetly intimate tone that anticipated the sentiments of the Romantic era. His 19th-century-style cadenza underlined that forward-looking feeling; I’m guessing it came from Joseph Joachim, Brahms’ favorite violinist.
Cox finally got a chance to imbue a score with a bit of mystery in the serenade. Brahms originally wrote that piece for a full orchestra, then re-scored it 16 years later for a chamber orchestra. He omitted violins in the revision, so the string lineup – eight violas, five cellos, three double-basses – creates a darker sound even in joyful moments.
Only the centerpiece of the five sections, an adagio non troppo Clara Schumann admired, can take much weight; there the musicians played with gravity tempered by a smile. They bounced genially through the other four movements, and Cox capped the piece with a bounding allegro that suggested hunters tally-hoing across spring fields. One can only guess what he could do with a broader musical palette, but I’d like to find out.
Pictured: Roderick Cox; photo by Susie Knoll.