By Lawrence Toppman
You can play Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto weightily, with thundering chords and noble grandeur. Or tenderly, with a romantic flame at its core. Or dreamily, with what Mahler called “innigkeit,” a poignant intimacy. Or, if you have enough imagination, with all three qualities in turn, as Joyce Yang did Friday with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra – and all of that in the opening movement.
She flirted with schmaltz in the slow middle section of the concerto, playing at a stretched-out tempo that could have been her choice or guest conductor Joshua Weilerstein’s. (He preferred those in the Brahms symphony that followed.) But in the finale, Yang returned to the thrilling combination of fireworks and deeper feeling that made the whole package memorable.
The show at Belk Theater began with a curiosity: the second-act prelude from Ethyl Smyth’s opera “The Wreckers.” I’ve heard five of Smyth’s large-scale works, and the instrumental pieces stick in memory longer than the vocal ones.
The opera tells of “wreckers” off the Cornish coast, who lure ships onto the rocks with misplaced lights, kill the passengers and plunder the cargo. This prelude could have been one of the “Sea Pieces” excerpted from Benjamin Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes:” We heard wind in the rattle of the snare drum, waves in the watery notes of the harp, a storm surging in the brass. The CSO played at the top of its form for Weilerstein, as it would nearly all night.
Yang then delivered not only her rendition of Grieg’s lone concerto but an appealing encore: a nocturne from his fifth book of Lyric Pieces for solo piano. I’m used to hearing the orchestrated version in the Lyric Suite, four Lyric Pieces set by Grieg and Anton Seidl, but her playing had so much color that I didn’t miss the larger sound.
Weilerstein shared a fascinating story after intermission: All three composers on the program met at a dinner in 1888, along with Tchaikovsky. That’s hard to imagine, as the Russian had earlier referred to Brahms as “a giftless bastard,” but perhaps he’d mellowed by then.
Weilerstein then explained his view of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony: It’s a musical response to the anti-Semitism and social decay he saw around him in mid-1880s Vienna, ending in “an apocalyptic destructive fury.” He led a performance that fulfilled his vision: somber, thick with angst, joyless and furiously explosive at the end. Austrian music critic Eduard Hanslick likened this symphony to “a dark well: The longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back.” We saw the well, but where were the stars?
Weilerstein’s unfussy conducting revealed fresh details in the instrumentation, partly because he went so slowly. The unusually drawn-out second movement, an andante moderato, threatened to become a stately funeral march. The only scherzo in a Brahms symphony, bouncily adapted by Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman as “Cans and Brahms,” is marked “allegro giocoso.” That means “playful,” but here it had a stern Teutonic uplift.
The orchestra committed itself completely to these ideas, and the performance cohered in the powerful last movement: tense, thrusting forward, ultimately blazing with energy. Weilerstein had the skill and intelligence to get exactly what he wanted from these musicians. I wonder if it’s what Brahms wanted.
Pictured: Joyce Yang by KT Kim.