by Lawrence Toppman
The most recent Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) concert at Knight Theater was Old Home Week. Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu got his annual solo outing in Bruch’s First Violin Concerto, which played to his strengths. The meat-and-potatoes 19th-century programming that served the CSO for many years brought three works from different decades of the Romantic Era: Fanny Mendelssohn’s Overture in C major, Bruch’s concerto, César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor.
And Mei-Ann Chen made a welcome return five years after conducting one of the most satisfying oddities in CSO history: A pipa concerto by Zhao Jiping so rare it has never been recorded. Her take on Franck added her to the list of top candidates for permanent music director. More than anyone I know, including French masters Charles Munch and Pierre Monteux, she almost convinced me Franck’s lone symphony wasn’t waaaayyyy too long.
She did that, fascinatingly, by embracing its excesses, rather than trying to hide them. The first movement, which grinds a pleasantly melodic theme into the ground through countless variations, acquired grandeur. It began to sound like Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” piling climax upon climax and reaching a kind of luxuriant ecstasy. (Perhaps Franck had read Wagner’s score, as the opera hadn’t yet come to Paris by 1888.)
Chen broadened tempos in the first two movements instead of rushing them, justly confident that the musicians’ big sound and her own passion would carry the day. Then, as Franck continued to chew his slender musical cud in the third movement, her fire and intensity prevented any feeling of lassitude.
She had earlier proved her mettle with Mendelssohn’s only published orchestral piece, which suggested not brother Felix but an opera overture by the earlier Carl Maria von Weber: Carefully crafted, varying in mood from contemplation to tumult, ably scored and melodically unmemorable. Her piano pieces and chamber works demand reappraisal – I’m just getting to appreciate them myself – but on this evidence, she hadn’t found an orchestral voice. (Not that her family’s or society’s lack of encouragement helped, of course.)
Bruch, on the other hand, gave us plenty of melodies in his concerto. It suits Lupanu, whose pairing with Chen proved especially apt. He provided tenderness, sweetness and a sense of yearning; she brought drama and Brahmsian weight to the orchestral portions, never swamping him when they played together but bringing the orchestra to full power when they didn’t.
This piece has not been ranked among the greatest violin concertos, though I’m not sure why: It lacks the profundity of Beethoven or Brahms, the mystery of Sibelius or heart-on-the-sleeve emotions of Tchaikovsky, but it’s as appealing as those by Felix Mendelssohn, Mozart or Shostakovich.
In fact, the whole evening consisted of works musical history relegates to the second tier or below. Michael Steinberg, in his helpful tome “The Symphony,” makes room for discussions of symphonies by Lou Harbison, Karl Hartmann and Roger Sessions but can’t spare a page for Franck’s. Perhaps he’d have changed his mind, if he’d heard what Chen has to say about it.
Pictured: Mei-Ann Chen by Simon Pauly.