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Fiddlers on the loose 

And wrestling with the truth

Niccolo Paganini burst upon the musical scene at the height of the Romantic Era, when titans such as Byron and Beethoven -- and legends such as Frankenstein and Faust -- already loomed large in the popular imagination. So in the face of Paganini's astonishing, unprecedented virtuosity, it's not all that surprising that rumors spread across Europe attributing the violinist's extraordinary skills to a pact with the devil.

That's why I'm exhaling so loudly. Last Saturday evening, Bulgarian native Mario Hossen played the Paganini Violin Concerto #1 at Halton Theater, tapping the Charlotte Philharmonic Orchestra for his North American orchestral debut. While Hossen was launching into the devilishly difficult opening allegro, Israeli sensation Vadim Gluzman was still sawing away at the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto at Belk Theater. In his hands was a 1690 Stradivarius that once belonged to Leopold Auer, the dedicatee of Tchaikovsky's concerto, who declared the piece "unplayable" 50 years after Paganini had redefined what was possible on the instrument.

Yet both of these fiddlers somehow escaped the Queen City without being burned at the stake, an unparalleled display of Charlotte liberalism. Surely, these two virtuosi must have been in league when you consider that they were playing in the same key, D major. The Devil's key!

Paganini's concerti were designed to showcase the soloist and relegate the local orchestras along his travel route to second-fiddle status. So Hossen's choice of the déclassé Philharmonic wasn't altogether outré for this Strings of Vienna concert. Nor could the Phil simply disappear when their guest took center stage. In fine showbiz style, Paganini builds up anticipation for the instrumental conjurer.

Ever-ebullient maestro Albert E. Moehring didn't cheat on the swift tempo of the longish intro. The horns were the only weak link before Hossen took over -- but it wasn't for lack of warm-up. Horns and brass had some fine moments in the preceding appetizer, Franz von Suppé's "Light Cavalry," particularly in the concluding bars of Moehring's punchy reading.

Hossen's fingering was phenomenally clean, though his attack remained somewhat cautious until he reached the exhausting first-movement cadenza. It was refreshing, in the ensuing adagio and especially in the tuneful rondo, to be reminded of the fruity tone that Hossen could coax from his 1749 Guadagnini violin. The encore, a fine orchestration of the "Theme from Schindler's List," was also satisfying.

Now Suppé and Paganini migrated to Vienna at critical points in their careers -- and Hossen studied there. But the truest Viennese segment of the Phil program came after intermission when Moehring & Co., supplemented by the Charlotte City Ballet, cranked up a trio of crowdpleasers from Johann Straus, Jr., including the inevitable "Blue Danube."

Even truer to their essence, the Phil closed their 17th season with a medley from Disney's Aladdin. The near-capacity crowd at the Halton loved it, and Moehring's band was at its best breaking out the pops.

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra was far less eclectic in their All Tchaikovsky! program. Gluzman had performed twice before with maestro Christof Perick, but "due to unforeseen circumstances," young Andrew Grams was filling in at the podium.

Of course, Perick's permanent departure from Charlotte is now a foreseen circumstance, so Grams' impromptu debut became something like an audition to succeed the absentee. Gluzman, ever the brooding showman, didn't seem to feel upstaged, tearing into the opening allegro with his trademark ardor and fearlessness. His fretwork wasn't quite as precise as Hossen's, causing some slurring and intonation problems as he began, but his bowing was a constant wonder, the wellspring of his expressiveness -- bold, confident, and as accurate as a quartz timepiece.

The ricochet bowing (a Paganini invention) was particularly impressive in the splashy cadenza that climaxes the opening movement, but there was no letdown in the mid-tempo canzonetta that followed -- after a lusty ovation from audience members who may not have realized there was much more to come. The mini-duets between Gluzman and principal flutist Elizabeth Landon came off deliciously, and Grams segued seamlessly into the frisky finale. It was fascinating, as the concerto climaxed, to see how Tchaikovsky contrived to create such grand sounds from such diminished forces: a brass section of just two trumpets and a lone timpanist supplying percussion.

Grams' reading of Peter Ilyich's Fourth Symphony, by contrast, could have benefited at times from grander scale and more fervid emotion. The brassy fanfare was admirably clear to launch the somber F minor andante, but the horns were a bit palsied in the animated moderato, and the climax seemed more fastidious, less turbulent than it should be.

Principal oboist Hollis Ulaky delivered the languid detachment Grams was looking for in the ensuing canzona (she subsequently got the first bow), but I much preferred the forlorn laments of principal bassoonist Mary Beth Griglak and, briefer still, clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo. What followed, the penultimate pizzicato movement, could serve as a textbook definition of what a scherzo should be.

Except that Grams and the suddenly mischievous musicians were having far more fun that you'd ever extract from a textbook. After this stealthy, fast-paced prank, the CSO launched the final allegro with an explosion that would have delighted Papa Haydn in his most devilish "Surprise" mode.

If this is the kind of music making Grams can bring to Charlotte, Symphony administrators should take the 29-year-old's candidacy seriously -- and subscribers should make sure there are fresh batteries in their pacemakers.

YOUTH WAS ALSO SERVED in the recent Children's Theatre production of The Wrestling Season. Go figure. The show downstairs with the all-teen cast (except for the ref, Andrea King) was worlds more challenging and provocative than the all-adult show that just concluded upstairs, Go, Dog. Go!

Laurie Brooks' script blew the whistle on the notion that teens can be simply understood by outsiders. No less forcefully, Wrestling was cautioning insiders against the harmful effects of malicious gossip. In this engrossing kaleidoscope, the two wrestling buddies who were bad-mouthed by their peers could honestly protest to them, "You don't know me" -- not long after the whole group made the same statement to us, the spectators surrounding them in this arena-style staging.

What turns this whole jungle on its head and inside-out is the lurking truth that teens are wrestling with the quest for their own identities, nowhere near the end of the journey, often unsure of who they are themselves. So yes, that compounds the absurdity of snap-judging others. But it also opens the possibility that others see us more truly than we yet perceive ourselves.

Stephen Friedrich and Christopher Pressley were superb as the wrestlers seeking to escape the hold of the rumor mill, but the whole ensemble under Nicia Carla's direction was compelling. Sometimes they were better than the script, which was pretty damn good.

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