By Lawrence Toppman
Officially, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) concert last weekend paid homage to the exhibit of Picasso landscapes next door at the Mint Museum. Picasso designed sets and costumes for Erik Satie’s “Parade” and Igor Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” when they appeared in Paris a century ago as ballets, and those comprised the first half of the CSO’s program.
Unofficially, the concert gave guest conductor Paolo Bortolameolli a second chance to impress musicians and audience during the long search for a permanent music director. I warmed to his conducting for the second time, but in a different way.
He anchored the program in February 2022 with John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, which seethes with angst and bitterness while commemorating friends who died from AIDS. There Bortolameolli took us down to despairing depths for 45 minutes before the meditative finale.
He came back last weekend more thickly bearded, more chatty and with a grin that lasted through all three compositions. As he conducted the merry finale to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, the last he wrote before upending the symphonic world with the Eroica, Bortolameolli seemed to be giving and getting joy.
Even the composers might agree the first two works on the program were lightweight. Satie was in his most puckish mood when he created this fluff inspired by Parisian music halls and American silent films: He included sections for tap shoes rapped on a desktop, police and air raid sirens, balloons to be popped dramatically, water sloshed in a jug, even hanging bottles played with tiny mallets. The music doesn’t amount to much; it’s bland for a ballet intended to startle the bourgeoisie, but the CSO jogged through it pleasantly.
Without the three singers who enliven the full-length “Pulcinella,” the eight-movement suite seems repetitive. Stravinsky based this work on Baroque themes – once thought to be by Pergolesi, now known to be the work of four or five lesser composers – and it needs the jaunty outlook Bortolameolli and the musicians provided to avoid becoming a drawn-out joke.
Beethoven’s symphony justified the ticket price. He finished it in 1802, around the time he wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament to his brothers. This letter explained that he felt suicidal over his near-deafness, and only art had kept him alive. He determined to embark on what he called the New Path, and the world-changing Eroica emerged the next year.
His symphonic voice in 1802 held echoes of Mozart and Haydn; the latter was still alive and would surely have appreciated the elegance of the second movement of the Symphony No. 2. The piece mingles drama, old-fashioned sweetness and raucous humor; more than any work of Beethoven I know, it represents the musical world he’d soon leave behind while offering glimmers of the future.
The players relished this meat-and-potatoes entrée after two bowls of musical meringue. By the time they reached the finale, violins fiddling furiously and woodwinds making rude noises one critic related to Beethoven’s chronic gastric distress, they seemed to be enjoying the music as much as Bortolameolli and the rest of us.
Pictured: Paolo Bortolameolli by Jorge Brantmayer; cropped with modified background.