By Lawrence Toppman
If I say I spent Friday night watching a beautiful violinist shed her garments, the words “Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO)” will not leap to your lips. But Melissa White did just that – chastely, I hasten to add – while playing the “Butterfly Lovers” concerto with spirit and dignity. Her work, which was as close to performance art as I’ve seen at a CSO concert, came at the midpoint of an evening that succeeded in three very different ways.
Last things first. I associate guest conductor Hugh Wolff with smaller-scale works, due to fine recordings with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. But his performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony, dramatic from the opening hammer-blows to the end 50 minutes later, left me wrung out with pleasure.
His fleet yet forceful and dramatic approach reminded us why the piece had such power to shock audiences in 1805, when it was the longest symphony ever by a major composer. Wollf, who turns 70 this month, had the energy of a man half his age and made every bar count. Even the finale, adapted from one of Beethoven’s ballet tunes, had extra intensity.
Wolff showed his range after conducting the opening piece, Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja,” with gentle precision. The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned this short work, subtitled “Anthem of Unity for Orchestra,” three seasons ago, when Coleman became the first living female African-American composer on a program there. (The CSO had already broken that barrier.)
“Umoja” means “unity” in Swahili, and the piece is a musical “e pluribus unum:” From many sources, one style emerges. We might think of Copland’s prairie consciousness, Rimsky-Korsakov’s pseudo-Orientalism, the urban clamor of Bernstein. Yet it all fits together appealingly, and Coleman’s attractive melodies (especially in her writing for strings) make this a rarity: A modern piece that appeals equally to the mind and ear.
In between came the concerto, composed in 1959 by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang. At first, it sounds like the kind of music you might idly take in while rolling moo shu pancakes at a Chinese restaurant or watching figure skaters at the Olympics. (It has been used in both places.)
Sentimental as it is, alternating themes of almost saccharine sweetness with bombastic orchestral climaxes, it’s an irresistible earworm. White’s gracious, flexible and empathetic playing came as close as anything could to bringing this concerto near the top rank, and Wolff and the CSO stayed right with her.
She provided added interest by coming out in a multi-layered, multi-colored dress, which she stripped down and altered at intervals in her playing. She cast away a yellow outer shell, pinned up an orange flap, dropped another layer to the stage, shifted a swatch of tan to her hip and finally stuck her bow hand through one of those loops 19th-century ladies employed to carry heavy skirts. When she swung her arm wide, she created a butterfly wing, complete with eye-like spots. This might have seemed a gimmick, but the image of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis worked for this music.
Two parting thoughts: First, principal oboist Hollis Ulaky retired from the CSO this weekend after nearly half a century, dating back to the days when music director Leo Driehuys led an orchestra of professionals and volunteers. (It went fully professional during his tenure,) You could’ve appreciated Ulaky’s value by listening her plaintive solo in the funeral march of the “Eroica.”
Second, people talk rightly these days about multiculturalism in classical music. An African-American violinist and the French-born son of a white American diplomat combining on a Chinese composition seems to me like multiculturalism at its best.
Pictured: Melissa White by Dario Acosta.