By Lawrence Toppman
Like many classical concertgoers, I often raise my eyebrows when folks erupt into applause during the silence between movements of a symphony. I know that behavior can be disruptive, distracting or rude. On Friday night at Knight Theater, I did it anyway.
Guest conductor Vinay Parameswaran had just dropped his baton arm and slumped an inch or two after leading the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) through the opening of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5. The movement had apt grandeur, a thrilling undercurrent of menace, a tremendous kind of humming energy and beauty. In those 15 minutes, he showed why the CSO might want him as music director. And as he took a respite before the second half of the piece, I was not alone in clapping for him.
The second movement started with an oddly finicky daintiness that eventually vanished when full-blooded melody flowed forth. From there to the end, allegedly inspired by a circle of swans above Sibelius’ head, Parameswaran showed skill and insight. For instance, he brought the strings up to be as prominent as the brass in the glorious finale. (Pop culture factoid: The band First Class copied this brass melody exactly in 1974 in the top-5 hit “Beach Baby.”)
The symphony capped a program of lesser-known but admirable works: Gabriella Smith’s chameleonic “Field Guide,” Benjamin Britten’s playful song cycle “Les Illuminations,” and William Grant Still’s somber, sometimes majestic “Poem for Orchestra.”
Parameswaran described Smith’s piece as an interpretation of sounds collected on rambles along the California coast and into South America; he said she wrote it for the 70th birthday of her mentor, John Adams, and suggested we listen for Adams’ influence in the motoric rhythms.
Sure enough, I heard that, along with what may have been the buzzing of insects, sounds of the deep woods, mild cacophony of traffic and unidentifiable noises, occasionally in conflict with a warm melody that emerged and submerged. The finale brought gratifying cohesion, possibly suggesting the unity of nature.
I’m used to tenors singing Arthur Rimbaud’s oblique lyrics in “Les Illuminations,” but Britten wrote it in his 20s for a soprano. The absence of a printed program, my inability to speak French and my lack of desire to squint at texts on my cellphone meant I enjoyed Alexandra Smither’s voice without worrying about Rimbaud’s meaning. (A sample: “These are cities! Processions of Mabs in russet, opaline gowns climb the ravines. Farther up, with their feet in the waterfall and the brambles, stags suckle Diana. The Bacchantes of the suburbs sob, and the moon burns and howls. Venus enters into the caverns of blacksmiths and hermits.”)
Smither had an operatic but never histrionic sense of drama and comedy, and her voice remained attractively intimate, despite a widening vibrato near the end of the 21-minute cycle.
Still remains one of my favorite little-known composers. I wish the CSO would play any of his five symphonies, the first being my choice, but I was glad to hear his 10-minute “Poem” live. He premiered it in 1944, when the outcome of World War II was in doubt. He’d served in the U.S. Navy during World War I, the “War to End All Wars,” and seems in this intense piece to be expressing anger and frustration at humankind’s continued stupidity.Though it moves toward a major-key ending that could be interpreted as guarded optimism, its most potent moments come earlier. (Here, too, the brass shone.) The CSO has seldom sounded so big, so muscular. If Parameswaran can get that sound at will, he’s a serious contender for the job.
Pictured: Conductor Vinay Parameswaran; credit Gus Chan.