By Lawrence Toppman
Until last weekend, I had two opinions about Christopher James Lees. I formed the first from our interviews long ago; there he was funny, articulate, relaxed and insightful about music. I formed the second from watching him on the podium; there he seemed cautious, anxious to get things right without unbuttoning himself enough to help musicians maximize their potential.
Lees, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) resident conductor, changed my mind Saturday night at Knight Theater. He drew forth all the spooky drama of Antonin Dvorak’s “The Noon Witch” and all the drama, humor, struggle and triumph in William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, often called the Afro-American Symphony. I haven’t heard him conduct in a while, and I had no idea the musicians would play for him with such vitality and keenness.
The program started – for me, at least – with music no conductor could enliven much. I commend the CSO for reviving interest in obscure female composers. (May I suggest Louise Farrenc, who wrote three fine Romantic-era symphonies?) But on the showing of this “Faust” overture, Emilie Mayer has small claim to our attention. The zestful Mendelssohn-like surges and Schumann-esque horns seemed to have nothing to do with the Faust legend, and the piece stayed in memory for exactly the time it took to play it.
Then came Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, actually the first of two he wrote. Has a first-rank composer ever orchestrated a concerto more banally? Granted, he wrote it at 19, but its repetitiveness and empty gestures through the 20-minute opening movement made me nod over my notebook time and again.
I came to for the beautiful larghetto, the solo part of which could have been one of Chopin’s sublime nocturnes, then found my attention wandering during the blandly showy final rondo. Pianist Orli Shaham played with the right tenderness, sparkle and virtuosity and made me want to hear her in something substantial.
After intermission, Lees prepared us for the wide range of emotions to come. He spoke entertainingly about “The Noon Witch” and Still’s symphony, and we later heard the nuances he’d took us to look for.
Dvorak, an amiable and universally beloved man, wrote symphonic poems about abductions, murder, suicide, the decapitation of a child, etc. “Noon Witch” follows that pattern: An exasperated mother threatens her misbehaving youngster with a visit from the Noon Witch, who does indeed appear to snatch the boy; the mother, frantically trying to protect him, accidentally smothers him herself.
The orchestra rightly played this like horror movie music written in 1896, before feature films existed. The violins created an ominous haze through which Allan Rosenfeld’s bass clarinet slithered, embodying the witch. The all-out climaxes, followed by a mournful resolution, worked as Dvorak meant they should.
Still’s symphony, which premiered in 1930, consists of four movements: longing, sorrow, humor and aspiration. They encapsulate the life of an extraordinary man who had already worked with W.C. Handy’s band, recorded with Fletcher Henderson’s Dance Orchestra, played in the pit for Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s Broadway musical “Shuffle Along” and arranged “Yamekraw,” a classical rhapsody composed by Harlem stride pianist James P. Johnson.
Small wonder then, that it opens with a bluesy riff for trumpet, played in sinuous style by Alex Wilborn. Symphony musicians often have difficulties capturing the feel of other kinds of music, even if they can play the notes. Not here. The jazzy riffs, traditional classical gestures, Juba dances (which first appeared in this country in Charleston) and other elements came together smoothly and vivaciously, in a performance that must have won Still new fans.
Pictured: Conductor Christopher James Lees/ courtesy Charlotte Symphony.