2020 or Not 2020

Review: A Half-Masked Christmas Carol at Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Luckily, the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, so friendly and jolly with his glowing torch, was more than 175 years removed from 2020 when he made his first oxymoronic appearance in print. Christmas of 1843 may not have been the best ever as it greeted Dickens’ original readers, but it had to be more festive than 2020, the gloomiest in centuries.

While it’s possible to retreat into the nostalgia of numerous movie and TV adaptations of the Yuletide classic, Charlotte is one of hundreds of cities where watching live theatrical adaptations has become a holiday tradition. So it’s fascinating, even revelatory to see how Theatre Charlotte is adapting to the unprecedented circumstances of 2020 in presenting its 14th annual production of A Christmas Carol.

It’s a remarkable chameleon, adapted by Julius Arthur Leonard and co-directed by Stuart Spencer and Chris Timmons. This is truly a to-be-or-not-to-be effort: Live and virtual, at Theatre Charlotte on Queens Road and not, set in Dickens’ London in the 19th century and unmistakably invaded by COVID-19 and the constraints of the pandemic. 2020 or not 2020.

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Watching the virtual version recorded at the Queens Road barn, I was surprised to find how Dickens’ characters, in period costumes designed by Chelsea Retalic, replicated daily life today. While Marley and the three famous Christmas Ghosts wore masks, others – including Scrooge, his nephew, and the Cratchits – did not. No wonder poor Tiny Tim is dying!

Live outdoor performances of Theatre Charlotte’s pandemic edition of Dickens premiered at Christ South’s Old Dairy Farm in Waxhaw on Reid Dairy Road, which may account for some of the anomalies we see when we tune in to the indoor version. Outdoors, winter is upon us, so Spencer and Timmons may not have wished their Scrooge to change into his jammies. Besides that, an outdoor shift in scene from the Scrooge & Marley counting house to Ebenezer’s bedroom may have been unwieldy out on the farm.

So all of the action, aside from the Ghosts’ travels, is confined to Scrooge’s office until he sallies forth on Christmas day. To achieve this economy and consistency, Spencer and Timmons alter the plot just a little, sending Scrooge outdoors for dinner and having him realize that he has forgotten his pocket watch at his office. That’s where Marley and the Ghosts will now do their haunting. Nor do our directors forget about Ebenezer’s watch or his watch chain, elegantly transforming it into a fresh plot point without changing any of the dialogue.

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The uncredited set design, likely by Timmons, is very spare, silhouettes of city and government buildings in the background, connected to the Scrooge & Marley firm by a stunted staircase and a front door. No walls or windows obscure our view of the sidewalk outside the office or the silhouetted figures that traverse it. Inside, we never need more at Scrooge’s HQ than desks for Ebenezer and his oppressed drone Bob Cratchit. Bedtime is never observed, so there’s no longer any need for a bed. When we visit the Cratchits or Scrooge’s nephew Fred, as much as a cushioned chair and a wee table are necessary, so that Fred’s wife may have a glass of wine and a decanter nearby, but that is all.

Sound design by Timmons and Vito Abate only blunders with the opening and closing of Scrooge’s front door. Opening it lets in a hullabaloo of street sounds and closing it silences the noise – except we can clearly hear the footsteps of whoever departs on the sidewalk. Grander and more successful are the sounds heralding the supernatural entrances of Marley and the three Christmas Ghosts, while lighting by Rick Wiggins brashly suggests that all three of Scrooge’s guides have celestial origins.

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Hank West, mostly prized around town for his comedy exploits, is not a complete stranger to mean roles, having portrayed the Marquis de Sade in 2003. There’s nothing missing of Scrooge’s flinty cantankerousness in the opening scene. West’s rebuffs of a charitable solicitor (just one this year instead of two) and his nephew Fred are even more repellent than his tyranny and resentment toward Cratchit. It’s when we approach West’s comedic wheelhouse where we find him woefully hamstrung. Deprived of Scrooge’s bedclothes and his dopey nightcap – the lone accessories that make Ebenezer vulnerable or adorable through five-sixths of the story – West must accompany the Ghosts in business attire.

Worse than that, West must give us a Scrooge who dances with glee, realizing that he hasn’t missed Christmas morning, dressed up like an adult going to work rather than as a child waking from – and to – a fabulous holiday dream. Missing this parcel of Dickens’ visual genius, we can appreciate it more, for the nightcap and bedclothes are also as indispensable to the distinctive flavor of Scrooge’s supernatural journeys as the Ghosts’ personalities.

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West’s comedy isn’t totally eclipsed, peeping out in his retorts to Cratchit and the Solicitor, in his timing of remarks after visitors exit, and in his sunny sallies around town making his many amends. Of course, the final prank on Cratchit when he comes in late on the 26th is handsomely done, though I was a little surprised by West’s decision to underplay Scrooge’s mischievousness and glee as he did Ebenezer’s playacting.

More women than men are seen onstage here, with Andrea King tipping the balance as Bob Cratchit. At work, she is purely deferential toward Scrooge, and King’s entrance on the 26th has a stealth worthy of Chaplin or Lucille Ball. We probably notice that at home, King’s Cratchit as a husband and a father comes off as less of a patriarch than we’re accustomed to. Can’t say that I minded much – am I becoming too evolved?

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Seeing both Allen Andrews as Christmas Yet to Come and Josh Logsdon as Marley’s Ghost wearing masks hardly detracted from their portrayals. Logsdon’s mask had an orifice that seemed rimmed with teeth, he was bundled up with enough rags under his chains to look like a leper, and a huge gray wig affixed to his head with a shroud-like kerchief made him even more loathsome. Notwithstanding Scrooge’s doubts, when Logsdon bemoaned his fate and issued Marley’s warnings, there was far more grave than gravy in this ghost.

More noticeable were the alterations that masks imposed on the women Ghosts. Reprising her role as Christmas Past, Anna McCarty had a veiled look in her gleaming white gown, Arabian or ecclesiastical in its modesty. Yet when she needed to be strong and authoritative, McCarty didn’t disappoint, even though she seemed more socially-distanced than her castmates. Lechetze Lewis as Christmas Present was free to mingle more in her garrulous London tour. Her lively interaction with Fred and his wife, Andrews and Mary Lynn Bain, offered the most spectacular display of Retalic’s costume designs this side of Marley.

Andrews’ entreaties that Uncle Scrooge come dine with Fred were nearly as foundational in establishing the Christmas spirit on Queens Road as Cratchit’s sufferings and goodwill. Bain was also more impactful when she doubled as Belle, Scrooge’s sweetheart in the flashback, particularly when she returns her engagement ring, releases Ebenezer from his obligations, and decries his worship of Mammon.

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Little moments like this, Cratchit applauding Fred’s advocacy of Christmas, and the perfect view we get of Cratchit sneaking in late after the holiday are among the many testaments we get to the work of Megan Shiflett and Nick Allison behind the cameras – delivering the best angles from the best distances. Theatre Charlotte may not have the resources that CPCC can boast in video gear, but they’re outstripping every live video I’ve seen from the college, because Spencer and Timmons are so deftly cuing their cameras where to be and when.

Amid the special hardships of 2020, local theatre companies are substantially sharpening their video techniques and their cinema savvy, good tidings that will pay dividends when COVID-19 is conquered.

With Jill Bloede executing the Narrator’s role in such a ceremonious British style, and with the likes of Tom Ollis and Rebecca Kirby as the Fezziwigs, quality runs deep in this cast – as deep as you’d expect with productions running twice the five performances this one is getting. There’s plenty of mileage left in the virtual version, which continues its on-demand run through January 2.

JazzArts’ Mostly Merry Holiday Edition Spans Continents and Holidays

Review: Jazz Room Holiday Edition with Roxy Coss, Corey Wilkes and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band

By Perry Tannenbaum

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President and CEO Lonnie Davis and artistic director Ocie Davis have been delivering JazzArts programming and monthly Jazz Room concerts for over 10 years – and Holiday Editions from their first year onwards. Previous Jazz Room Holiday Editions were staged at Booth Playhouse or McGlohon Theater to accommodate larger Yuletide audiences, but the 11th Edition had to be unique, virtually streamed over Facebook and YouTube, sourced from multiple locations in the US and abroad. Hosting garrulously in a seasonal Santa cap and a garish fal-la-lah jacket, Curtis Davenport certainly established a festive tone. Yet all wasn’t merry on the playlist from nine different ensembles – and all wasn’t Christmas, since time was set aside for a Chanukah segment.Screen Shot 2020-12-18 at 8.14.19 PM

Leading off from New Orleans was Matt Lemmler, whom we had last seen at the Stage Door in an August 2019 jazz tribute to Stevie Wonder. For that Jazz Room event, Lemmler had fronted a 10-piece band from the keyboard. This time, clad in full Santa attire, Lemmler launched into Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” from A Charly Brown Christmas without even a trio, accompanied only by Don Caro, a rather interesting and unique drummer. Lemmler didn’t toy much with the beloved 1965 soundtrack album, improvising only a little, but his follow-up vocal on Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” from the same album, certainly changed the flavor. A small band of cute little cartoon kiddies sang on the original vinyl from the CBS Special, but Lemmler’s style evoked the late Dr. John, though there wasn’t the same signature rasp in his voice.Screen Shot 2020-12-18 at 8.16.10 PM

The next group was homegrown and JazzArts-bred, namely the JazzArts All-Star Youth Ensemble playing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Hollnd Maajors seemed to anchor the quartet from the electric keyboard, but it was Olivia Ratliff who had center stage and the spotlight, playing electric bass and singing the vocal. Tenor saxophonist Gustavo Cruz was consistently fine on both his solos. Majors also took two brief solos, impressing me more when he switched off his piano mode and went with his organ sound. Since this webcast also doubled as a fundraiser, Davenport aptly pointed out that educational programs working with musicians and combos such as these were a prime destination for contributions to JazzArts.Screen Shot 2020-12-18 at 9.14.33 PM

Davenport was most effusive when he introduced the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and rightfully so. The New Orleans institution not only brought the largest ensemble to the party, they also boasted the most impressive video production in their down-home setting, easily MTV quality. As tenor saxophonist Clint Maedgen sang “Please Come Home for Christmas,” there were close-ups of the brass, Ronell Johnson on the trombone and Branden Lewis on the trumpet, enriching the texture. Side shots of the rhythm section showed us drummer Walter Harris in the foreground, bassist Ben Jaffe near the middle of our screens, and pianist Kyle Roussel in the distance with his back toward us. Yet there were also closeups of Roussel in the final cut, and shots of hands were near enough to render his wristwatch larger than life-size on my computer monitor. Maedgen’s vocal was as recognizably New Orleans as Lemmler’s had been but in a bluesier vein.

While I couldn’t begrudge JazzArts for saving the second Preservation Hall selection for the finale of the program, it was a bit cruel to have Robyn Springer follow in their wake with such spare backup. Lovell Bradford was listless and quiet at the electric keyboard and Ocie Davis, armed with a bell shaker in one hand and a brush in the other, hardly helped Springer to even smolder, let alone burst into flame, as she sang the coquettish “Santa Baby.” A more robust backup could have added some edge to Springer’s savvy rendition the lyric before she finally heated up toward the end. There was a welcome flourish of scatting the vocalist before her fadeout, sprinkled with Bradford’s holiday coda.Screen Shot 2020-12-19 at 8.32.10 PM

Springer recorded her spot at Wonderworld West End Studios, the same local spot as the JazzArts All-Stars, so the interval with the Preservation Hall combo gave the Holiday Edition a more credible continuity. No exits, no entrances, and no new setups were necessary to sustain the flow. Our next excursion was to Chicago, where we reverted to a duo performance with a less claustrophobic camera placement than we’d seen for Lemmler. We could see the full height of bassist Junius Paul as he accompanied Corey Wilkes, playing muted trumpet on “Winter Wonderland.” Without much texture to the arrangement, Wilkes’ straightforward unveiling of the melody was a bit bland, but he opened up impressively with multiple choruses of dazzling variations on the theme. Discreetly, the trumpeter exited from the screen – well, almost – while Paul demonstrated that he also had formidable improvising skills.Screen Shot 2020-12-19 at 8.49.15 PM

We returned to the local studio, where Israeli-born guitarist Amos Hoffman (now based in Columbia, SC) supplied us with our Chanukah interlude, “Cad Katan,” backed by Davis and bassist Sam Edwards. You can more easily check out this song, commemorating the “Little Jug” of oil that lasted eight days at the Holy Temple when the Maccabees reclaimed Jerusalem in 160 (the Chanukah miracle), by spelling it “Kad Katan” in a Google or Spotify search box. Hoffman’s first pass through the melody was very much at the deliberate pace of most recordings, with perhaps a reggae lilt layered on. Each successive chorus markedly quickened the pace, triggered by Davis at the drums, truly swinging by the time we reached the outchorus. Over the course of this instrumental, Davis switched from mallets to drumsticks to kickstart Hoffman’s fleet repeat, switching yet again to brushes when he shared a chorus with Edwards, trading fours as the bassist unsheathed his bow. These exploits were nearly as eye-catching as the handless Caro’s had been behind Lemmler. One of Caro’s arms proved capable of grasping a stick, but the other needed the assistance of an elastic armband. Switching from one kind of drumstick to another was itself a feat.Screen Shot 2020-12-19 at 8.39.08 PM

Our trip overseas to watch Sasha Masakowski sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was arguably the most claustrophobic of the evening – and certainly the most poignant. Accompanied only by guitarist Per Møllehøj in the corner of a Copenhagen garret, Masakowski sang a reduced arrangement by her father, renowned New Orleans guitarist Steve Masakowski, that appears on the newly-released Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Live at Snug Harbor New Orleans) album by the Masakowski Family. Sasha is anything but a belter. She sang so sweetly, making this “Merry Christmas” especially forlorn each time she reached the final eight bars and their pandemic-pertinent lyric, “Through the years, we all will be together, if the fates allow.” Given his own solo, Møllehøj underscored the intimacy and solemnity of Masakowski’s performance. Showcasing Jason Marsalis as its most recognizable guest artist, the Masakowski Family album manages to cover two other songs performed at the Holiday Edition, making it a worthy gift.Screen Shot 2020-12-19 at 8.56.15 PM

“Christmas Time Is Here” was the first of these covers and “The Christmas Song,” presented at Wonderworld West End by Mac Arnold & Plate Full O’Blues, was the second. Immortalized with his bassline in the “Sanford and Son Theme Song,” Arnold is doubly unorthodox as a bluesman. He plays his bass left-handed and, even more outré, his instrument is handmade with a gasoline can – like the gas-can guitar he learned to build and play when he was growing up on a sharecropper’s farm in South Carolina. You wouldn’t expect the 78-year-old’s rendition of the Mel Tormé standard to sound like Nat Cole’s, but Arnold was not far from the weathered timbre and expressiveness of Tony Bennett to my ears – and Austin Brashier’s brief solo reaffirmed that Holiday Edition was blessed with more than a couple of fine guitarists.Screen Shot 2020-12-19 at 8.58.19 PM

Roxy Coss’s most recent Quintet album was one of the best in 2019 to my ears, and the tenor saxophonist was able to gather a fine quartet into her cramped New York dwelling – with a video camera or two, a grand piano, and the grand pianist from her quintet, Miki Yamanaka. Coss put a little more mustard on her opening chorus of “Let It Snow” than we heard on the plainer expositions by Lemmler and Hoffman, handing off the bridge to Yamanaka to add color to the arrangement, and both women swung their solos heartily when the real blowing began. The gals gave a guy a piece of the action, taking turns in trading fours with drummer Jimmy Macbride before taking back control for the last chorus. It was arranged like the opening statement, except for Yamanaka getting the last word and adding a Count Basie-like coda to her exit.Screen Shot 2020-12-18 at 9.13.08 PM

With the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s encore came an extra treat, 88-year-old clarinet icon Charlie Gabriel performing the valedictory vocal, “We Wish You All.” This Christmas song is unknown in the annals of Google, Spotify, and AllMusic, listed simply in the closing credits as performed by the band without specifying a composer. Could have been a world premiere for all we knew, sung with youthful gusto by Gabriel and very much in the vein of that quintessential New Orleans native, Louis Armstrong. Nor was there anything as newfangled as a solo during the half-chorus between Gabriel’s gorgeous vocals: Johnson on the trombone, Maedgen on tenor sax, and Lewis on a muted trumpet all jammed together. Big finish, of course, in classic Dixieland style.

Zuill Bailey and Natasha Paremski Bring Scintillating Rachmaninoff to Meymandi

Review: Zuill Bailey and Natasha Paremski in Raleigh

By Perry Tannenbaum

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As audience members, performing artists and critics, we talk or write about how much we miss the communal ritual – and electric excitement – of gathering for live concert and theatrical events. So it was gratifying to see North Carolina Symphony, in its latest virtual concert, making an effort to replicate the experience of walking into Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall and anticipating the outpouring of music from skilled virtuosos. Before Symphony oboist Joseph Peters greeted us as our host, nighttime views of the Duke Energy Center, the ticket booth, the Meymandi lobby, and stairways leading to the Hall flashed on the screen over the muffled sounds of an small group of musicians tuning up. Seeing those images and hearing those sounds made me feel afresh how much I missed the real live occasions that COVID has taken from us.

In calling upon cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Natasha Paremski for a second time this season as guest artists, after headlining a streamed “Trout Quintet” in October, NCS was more emphatically underscoring the link between their current Streaming Series and their past history. Bailey and Paremski have guested with NCS and musical director Grant Llewelyn before, most notably in their chart-topping 2014 CD that paired Benjamin Britten’s Cello Symphony and his Cello Sonata, recorded live at Meymandi. Back in the days when Simone Dinnerstein was his chamber music partner, I saw the previous Bailey duo up in New York at Le Poisson Rouge, a unique nightclub setting, in an all-Beethoven program, celebrating the 2009 release of their Telarc set of the complete Beethoven works for cello and piano. This time, teaming up with Paremski and NCS assistant concertmaster Karen Strittmatter Galvin, Bailey brought an all-Rachmaninoff program to the Woolner Stage.

2020~Zuill and Natasha-03A full-length concert of Rachmaninoff chamber works with this trio would have been a handsome representation of all the Russian’s significant chamber-sized compositions, for he pretty much abandoned the salon – for larger orchestral works – after publishing his Cello Sonata in 1901. Vocalise, a song written in 1912, has been adapted for cello and piano (with many extant recordings to choose from), so that could have been comfortably wedged into this program. Trio élégiaque, written in memory of Tchaikovsky after his sudden death in 1893, was a more understandable omission. That mighty three-movement trio in D Minor, up to 40 minutes in length, was shelved for another night. We contented ourselves with the earlier Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G Minor, inspired by Tchaikovsky and his Piano Trio in A Minor, which solemnized the death of Nikolay Rubinstein in 1881.

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Though both “élégiaque” trios were written before Rachmaninoff turned 21, neither can be classified as derivative or apprentice work. The famous Rachmaninoff pianism was readily apparent as soon as Paremski entered, layering onto a primordial quaver on the cello, begun by Bailey on the open strings. Four notes embedded in the four-chord piano opening built into a melody in Paremski’s hands, coalescing as Bailey zeroed in on the theme, making it instantly memorable. Galvin echoed the theme in Bailey’s wake, not the most enviable task, and then she supplanted the cellist as the main ostinato when Paremski reasserted herself at the keyboard. It was only when she followed Paremski, ascending forcefully into the treble for the first time, that Galvin proved she belonged in this elite company.

All three players converged on the first climax of this trio. Each of these swells was followed by a becalmed episode from Paremski, right after she had reminded subscribers with her lush knuckle-breaking exploits that she had played the mighty Rachmaninoff Third Concerto with NCS at Meymandi back in February. Bailey countered after these becalmed episodes with a savagery of attack that left a breathtaking impression as he initiated the thrust-and-parry of the trio that culminated in the next swell of convergence. It was in the build-up to the third and final tutti, launched passionately by Bailey and answered by Paremski with a frenzied cascade of treble, that a new peak of amorous heat was achieved. Listening to numerous recordings, I wasn’t able to find anything comparable to either this mutual abandon or this power held in reserve. Where this paid off most handsomely was in the aftermath, where the stately quiet of Paremski’s playing, so much more vividly contrasted to the previous fireworks than any other performance I auditioned, suddenly reminded me that Rachmaninoff had truly aimed for an elegy with his dirge-like ending.

When Galvin sat down with Peters for an intermission chat, she offered some insight into what we he had just witnessed. Apparently, that video was not the trio’s only take. After the first, she revealed, the group decided – without any feedback from the empty hall – that they could do better. So on the second take, they had made their entrances from offstage as if an audience were there awaiting them: “It was though a switch flipped, and we were in performance mode. Even though the chairs were empty, because we have that muscle memory of walking onstage and being ready to perform, all of a sudden it was as if we could feel the audience with us, and we were very much in the headspace of this is a performance for an audience. They may not be physically present, but we can feel them on the other side of the camera.”

Our own memories of live concerts deprived us of another touch the trio had applied in establishing an elegiac atmosphere – coming on with mostly black attire, including black masks. That’s pretty much customary attire for all Symphony concerts. We could only appreciate that solemnity in retrospect as Bailey and Paremski returned for the Rach Cello Sonata. Paremski had changed into a maroon-colored dress while Bailey had discarded his black jacket, previously worn over a black shirt and tie, in favor of a royal blue blazer. They made their entrances masked as before, but both players unmasked as soon as they were seated, allowing us to fully savor their expressiveness.

On the strength of this performance, I would have to conclude that this epic Cello Sonata, longer than any that Chopin or Beethoven wrote, is criminally under-recorded. Aside from Rostropovich in 1960 and Paul Tortelier in 1968, I cannot find a single performance by any of the cello giants until Lynn Harrell teamed with Vladimir Ashkenazy in 1986. Du Pré, Piatigorsky, Fournier, and Casals all passed on the piece, as far as I can tell. Obviously, the barometer of critical esteem has shifted since then, for the beauties of the work have drawn such advocates as Alisa Weilerstein, Gautier Capuçon, Janos Starker, and Yo-Yo Ma. The opening Lento switched quickly to the more prevalent Allegro moderato section of the opening movement, the longest of the piece, and there was an agitated, expectant calm-before-the-storm that gave added electricity to the exciting climax, culminating in a ferociously abrupt ending.

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So help me, the piano vamp that opens the ensuing Allegro scherzando movement has become among Rachmaninoff’s most recognizable melodies for me, yet the melody that Bailey introduced afterwards was unutterably lovely, and the mellower one that followed was almost its equal. Before you knew it, Bailey and Paremski were up in the stratosphere, circling each other in preparation for a thrilling descent into the main theme, grown more restless and turbulent than before. Influenced by Russian Orthodox hymns, the Andante was the only forgettable music of the evening, anticipating later Rachmaninoff melody that we know without ever quite capturing the magic. Bailey was especially effective in advocating for the sublimity of the piece while Paremski was true to the composer’s idiomatic lyricism.

The NCS program booklet, made available online for download, probably offered the most plausible reason for the neglect this piece had suffered for the first 60 years after it was completed: it has been described as “a piano sonata with cello accompaniment.” You only needed to listen to the final, achingly lovely Allegro mosso movement to see how ridiculous such a dismissal was. Paremski began this powerful valedictory, but it was Bailey who introduced the first jubilant theme and then its ruminative successor – with a glittery accompaniment caressing it from the keyboard. Paremski certainly had a role, pounding the keys and delivering a fine monologue that Bailey answered in kind. But when the two combined on the peak of the movement – and the entire Sonata – it was the chords from the piano that gave the stately music its anthemic stamp. Tempo quickened furiously in the gallop that overtook the final brooding lull, leaving us with a jubilant finish.

Lady Jess Carries a Torch and a Bow for the Black Mozart

Review: NC School of the Arts Alum Jessica McJunkins, Rebranded as Lady Jess, Returns to Winston-Salem

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When she graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree in 2009, Jessica McJunkins was already known at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts as a promising violinist. Returning to her alma mater as winner of UNCSA’s 2020 Alumni Artpreneur Award, the guest soloist at the Watson Chamber Music Hall was established in a career that has extended beyond the classical genre into theatrical and commercial music – and beyond music performance into contracting freelance artists and promoting racial diversity in the industry. And she returned as Lady Jess, somewhat scrambling my expectations.

The name change was not the only last-minute alteration of the program that hit my Inbox on the morning of the concert. Two groups that we had listed on our CVNC calendar, the Brandenburg Ensemble and the Amadeus Players, had withdrawn from the program along with two faculty members. Other than that, only the venue had changed, from the Stevens Center to Watson Hall. The Bartók Ensemble, under the direction of Winston-Salem Symphony associate conductor Karen Ní Bhroin, would play the previously announced works by Paul Hindemith and Samuel Barber, and Lady Jess would appear with the alumni quintet and UNCSA students who had rehearsed with her in two works by Joseph Bologne (1745-1799). Faculty member Kevin Lawrence shared soloing honors with Lady Jess in the Symphonie Concertante for Two Violins.

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Ní Bhroin and the musicians seemed to adjust more readily to the venue change than the audio engineers, for the sound, which seemed to satisfy a scattered live audience at the Watson, was often rudimentary at the other end of the online webcast through my loudspeakers. The new W-S associate conductor had a microphone with her on the podium as she introduced the pieces by Hindemith and Barber that she and her 14-member ensemble would perform, yet the streamed volume was hardly adequate and the clarity of her voice was far from studio quality.

Of course, Ní Bhroin’s COVID mask and her Irish accent weren’t helpful, but here the advantages of Livestream came instantly into play. If your setup at home is like mine, you simply pick up a remote control and increase the volume on your home theatre receiver – or you can replay the whole concert later at your leisure. Now it may have made some of the Bartók group uncomfortable to hear their leader quoting Hindemith on the subject of composing for amateur musicians, but it was certainly illuminating for me.

Yet it quickly became clear that Ní Bhroin had no intentions of going easy on her students even if Hindemith had titled his 1927 compositions Schulwerk. Nor was she inclined to be servile or worshipful toward the music, for the opening Slow movement wasn’t as slow as it could be, and the second movement, marked Slow – Fast, seemed to almost flip the order of these tempos in the Bartóks’ performance, rather brisk from the outset. Ní Bhroin was equally aggressive in shaping her ensemble’s dynamics, adding to the freshness of her approach. She chose the first three of Hindemith’s Five Pieces, ending with the first of two sections marked Lively. There’s an extended stretch where only the first violins are pitted against the violas, before the second violins, cellos, and double basses enter the fray, and the Bartok Ensemble delivered a fine account of the contrast, so the dramatic effect of a finale was achieved.

Barber’s 1936 Adagio for Strings, originally a movement from the composer’s String Quartet that was famously magnified for orchestra at the request of Arturo Toscanini, doubly fits our moment. It’s well-aligned with performance restrictions imposed statewide and by the CDC, and it’s attuned to our mood – and the need to voice our feelings as the holiday season approaches and the pandemic worsens. My thoughts ran to it recently when Charlotte Symphony performed the Andante religioso movement of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, and it was certainly welcome to hear such a heartfelt rendition from the Bartók Ensemble. Here the sculpting of the dynamics by Ní Bhroin was far subtler and more gradual, peaking to a dramatic full stop before subsiding into a musical sigh and returning to its signature mournful plaint.

Surely, a couple of 18th century allegros was exactly what a doctor would order after the lugubrious Barber and an intermission, but webcasts, where live and pre-recorded performance seamlessly intermix, need not be saddled with intermissions. UNCSA chancellor Brian Cole sat down with Lady Jess – who sported a completely different mask, dress, and hairdo from what she would be performing with just minutes later. It was definitely a visual sampling of what the lauded alumna’s branding was all about. Cole described the Artpreneur award as recognizing grads who are “business savvy and technologically aware.”

The conversation not only highlighted Lady Jess’s eclectic musical and business interests but also how UNCSA had nurtured them during her undergrad years. Her aims, like those of Yuja Wang and Lang Lang, are to boost classical music into mainstream culture, though the pop stage name seems to take Lady Jess’s pursuit to a more aggressive level. She is also focused on making classical music, the arts, and society more receptive to African Americans – voicing her goals with a certain amount of eloquent, muted impatience as she looks forward to a time when black people have the cultural equity they earned long ago. Her down-to-earth Promised Land is a place where overdue respect is “not something we need to roundtable every time someone dies at the hands of police.” The only sour note in this fascinating colloquy came when Cole lauded his guest as a Fighting Pickle, an albatross all UNCSA alumni must bear.

Born a little more than 10 years before Mozart, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was certainly a fine figure for Lady Jess to champion – and to emulate. As Ní Bhroin rightly observed in her introduction, Bologne was more than a fine composer and violinist who was regarded as “the Black Mozart” (and likely a Mozart mentor), he was also a champion fencer, knighted by the King of France. A few things she might have added to make him worthier of emulation and attention: he was an important orchestra conductor, an important political activist, and a charismatic military leader.

As a promoter, Bologne prevailed upon Haydn to accept the commission for his “Paris” Symphonies. For her Bartók Ensemble, now gone from the Watson stage, she could have added that Bologne had starred in composer François Gossec’s Le Concert des Amateurs orchestra. The rest of us, in the live audience or watching the webcast, would have benefited from knowing that Bologne’s most famous opera, The Anonymous Lover, is currently streaming as a free digital experience at the L.A. Opera website through November 29.

2020~Lady Jess @ UNCSA-18

If you’re familiar with Anne-Marie McDermott’s audacious 2013 recording of three Mozart piano concertos, accompanied by only a string quartet plus double bass, you already know how effective such reductions can be. Playing the Op. 13 Symphonie Concertante in G for Two Violins and Orchestra, Lady Jess and Lawrence enjoyed the advantage of being able to join their accompanying mini-orchestra in playing the intro to the opening Allegro and to rejoin them between their soloing episodes. Unfortunately, the two soloists were not equally well-miked, disadvantaging Lady Jess.

Only one microphone was visible in the video feed, suspended from overhead, slightly right of center. Lady Jess was further left of center, and her solo passages, often repeating what Lawrence had just played, consistently sounded softer and thinner. The five UNCSA alums, with a string quartet spaced evenly around the mic and the double bass in the opposite corner from the soloists, projected nicely. Hints of Lady Jess’s silvery brilliance came across in her first foray, but Lawrence was mellower and turned up his intensity as the movement climaxed, demonstrating that the prof could still keep pace with the alum.

Compared with the London Symphony recording on the Columbia label, the UNCSA performance most noticeably fell short of capturing the beauties of the Symphonie Concertante when the two soloists duetted. Balance and clarity are most important in these exquisite passages. The Watson Hall setup, evidently a work-in-progress if we consider how suddenly the venue was brought into play for this Livestream, was better suited for the Violin Concerto No. 1, which saw Ní Bhroin return to the stage and Lady Jess move closer to centerstage. Both of those moves were helpful, while Lady Jess’s mini-orchestra was beneficially fortified with the addition of two student oboists and two French horns. The wind players were unmasked, of course, housed behind a phalanx of four plexiglass cubicles.

2020~Lady Jess @ UNCSA-2

The Violin Concerto seemed to challenge and excite Lady Jess more than the Symphonie Concertante, offering her longer solos that frisked in the treble and called forth more virtuosity in her fingering and bowing. From the beginning, Ní Bhroin spurred the tempo into its Allegro without letting the pace slacken as it does on the comparatively lackadaisical recording I was able to track down on the Oehms label played by Yura Lee. The ensemble was more spirited here than previously, crisp when their pizzicatos occurred, and buoyed by the wailing of the French horns.

Because of her placement onstage and perhaps because she was so often iterating what the other soloist had just played, Lady Jess seemed to wilt when matched with Lawrence. Alone in the spotlight and allowed to gather more steam, the violinist showed us some true Lady Jess swagger. Throughout the Concerto, she seemed to relish the dialogue with her mini-orchestra, particularly as the tension of the Allegro built at the end with rapidfire exchanges with the alumni army. More than ever, I was convinced that we need to hear more of Joseph Bologne – and more often.

Bullock Brings Folk and Baroque to St. Alban’s

Review: Robin Bullock Plays Guitar and Mandolin

By Perry Tannenbaum

2020~Robin Bullock @ St. Alban's-13

Watching Robin Bullock with his guitars and mandolin at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson wasn’t exactly a first – we had reviewed a previous appearance. Nor can we feign surprise that Bullock’s program included selections from Turlough O’Carolan, J.S. Bach, and Stephen Foster. Bach and O’Carolan were fixtures in Bullock’s 2017 Music @ St. Alban’s concert – and that concert concluded with “Oh, Shenandoah,” which the guitarist called “the American folksong.” What made this concert so different, three years later, were the changes necessitated by COVID-19: the reduced size of the audience and the move to online streaming. Yet the similarities with the 2017 concert and Bullock’s relaxed personality were comforting, reminders that all is not lost and people can work, create, and recreate in the teeth of a resurgent pandemic.

Bullock has recorded an entire album of work by the blind 18th century Irish bard, so it was puzzling that he started off his 2020 concert with “Lord Inchiquin,” one of the two O’Carolan pieces he performed in 2017. Played on a Martin steel string guitar, the piece delivered more bite than might have been extracted from a harp, the instrument O’Carolan usually composed for, and it was heartening to hear applause ringing out from the small audience at St. Alban’s. Subsequent outbursts of applause sounded suspiciously identical, but critics tend toward cynicism. More and more, the pretense of live performance is being discarded in streaming presentations, so a fade-dissolve can now replace the tedium of watching a performer switch from one instrument to another, tuning up, and whatnot. We could rejoin the performance after instrument switches without any awkwardness, and Bullock was sufficiently at ease to deliver his intros while tuning. In fact, the last two songs were done in a single continuous take.

Double intros were necessary for both of Bullock’s next two selections. As a preamble to Foster’s “Oh, Susannah,” Bullock told us how folksinger Tom Paxton had advised him to compile an album of American guitar classics – now available at the guitarist’s website and titled, predictably enough, An American Guitar Album. “Susannah,” Bullock then informed us, was Foster’s first hit, published when the lad was 22. Lamentably, Bullock felt no compulsion to play the verses of this classic as Foster had written them, leaving me to wonder where he had misplaced Susannah’s buckwheat cake, the hill she came down, and the weather. Obviously, he was more enamored with the chorus, where he clung closer to the melody, but Bullock wasn’t exactly kind to the lyric. Each time he played the refrain, he added a syllable to “cry” and “Alabama.”

2020~Robin Bullock @ St. Alban's-8

Switching to mandolin in the blink of an edit, Bullock ventured beyond his CD compilation with the next O’Carolan piece he played, “Carolan’s Concerto,” enhancing the adventure by coupling the harp piece with a movement adapted from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3, Bouree I and II. Bullock’s finger-picking here, fleet and sure, was more sparsely sprinkled with strums and grace notes, yielding a more discernable melody – and a more harp-like sound – than his previous foray on guitar into the Irishman’s work. The seamless transition into the C Major Cello Suite, easily detected by anyone familiar with the great recordings by Pablo Casals or Yo-Yo Ma, further shored up my confidence that he was not straying far from the original compositions.

If the mandolin didn’t sound quite right for the Cello Suite, Bullock was more discerning in his choices of instruments for the movements excerpted from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 1. Again, this was a piece that does not appear on any of the 21 downloads at Bullock’s online store. The are actually four pairs of movements in this B minor Partita, rooted in French dances, namely the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Bouree. Bullock chose the Sarabande and its complementary Double movement. The rich sound crisp articulation of the Martin guitar was key to Bullock’s most satisfying Bach performance on the languid Sarabande, and his Gibson mandolin meshed beautifully with the speedier Double. Obviously, Bullock wasn’t taking his inspiration from the 2017 account of the Double movement by Christian Tetzlaff, who hardly varies the tempos at all. More likely, Bullock took his cue from recordings by Midori or Gidon Kremer, who also hit the accelerator on the Double.

2020~Robin Bullock @ St. Alban's-4

Favoring one of his custom-made guitars, notable for their wolf paw print insignias on the marker spots along their necks, Bullock now turned to “Westlin Winds,” a tune associated with its Robert Burns lyric. The melody lurked closer to the surface than “Oh, Susannah,” though you couldn’t emerge from the concert knowing either melody unless you had heard it before. Yet the arrangement was quite lovely, soaring up to the treble for some unexpectedly ethereal interpolations after its folksy beginning, probably more woodsy than windy but vividly capturing the autumnal scent of Burns’s lyric.

Having primed us earlier with Foster’s first classic, Bullock left us with “Beautiful Dreamer,” said to be his valedictory song. In his intro, the guitarist spoke of the serenity and acceptance he found in both the melody and the lyric, hinting that it could be construed as a voice from beyond calling to the songwriter, who died at the age of 37, even younger than Burns. While the textual analysis that Bullock offered hits a road hazard when it runs into “queen of my song,” his oral reading of the lyric and his instrumental adoration of the melody were luminous and sublime. There was little ornament here, and the variant chords that Bullock imposed on the melody after his opening chorus added poignancy and a country music flavor – clarifying for me why the slightly cowboy-tinged recording I found on Spotify by Marty Robbins far outshone the more elaborate arrangement sung by Bing Crosby. Especially moving was the beginning of the final chorus, where the guitarist slowed down and hushed to a whisper, as if he might not be able to continue. We’ve had a painful amount of this kind of serenity over the past eight months, and perhaps in that moment, Bullock felt an inrush of solemnity amid the serene.

 

Charlotte Symphony Returns, Stoutly Resisting Escapism

Review:  CSO Livestreams Grieg and Tchaikovsky

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

2020~CSO Grieg-Tchaikovsky-07

Over the past seven months of an unabated pandemic, I’ve become more and more immersed in reporting on and then reviewing performing arts companies and their responses to COVID-19 as it continues to swallow up the norms of our cultural life. Lately, I’ve become fascinated by what artists think we wish to see and what they wish to say. The balance seems to have tilted toward diverting and amusing us while easing the burden on our fragile attention spans. All of us wish to escape this moment, I’m sure, but ceding the drama in our lives to COVID news bulletins and political campaign rhetoric has seemed like a wan, impoverished response.

Sadly, the toolkits of artists who wish to address the moment – not to mention their monetary resources – have been drained by the necessities of social distancing and shrunken live audience limits. Larger organizations like Charlotte Symphony have had to pivot multiple times as the course of events spun out of control. Indoor concerts had to be cancelled late in the spring, and then outdoor summer events, both previously planned and hastily improvised, also fell by the wayside.

Hence a pivot to virtuality with a new CSO On Demand livestreaming series. It was doubly satisfying to see Christopher Warren-Green and a sizable contingent of his musicians onstage again at the Knight Theater, even if I was watching on a smart TV, for they hadn’t returned merely to serve up some musical pabulum. Edvard Grieg’s From Holberg’s Time and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings both have extended contemplative and elegiac episodes, echoing and commiserating with how we often feel in these mournful times instead of prodding us into forgetting.

2020~CSO Grieg-Tchaikovsky-12

Even before they played, you couldn’t think Symphony was back to normal if you were watching. Winds, brass, and percussion were missing in action, so the stage wasn’t teeming with musicians and instruments. Nearly 40 percent of CSO’s string players were absent from this skeleton crew, spread out and socially-distanced on the Knight stage. Yes, I had expected Warren-Green and his orchestra to be masked, but the sight of them still took me aback, and I didn’t anticipate how different the ensemble would look when no two players shared the same music stand.

Whether it was hygiene, democratic deliberations, or aesthetics, the normal formalities of concert dress codes were relaxed, further emphasizing – or memorializing – that we were not back to normal. All were masked. Women were liberated to wear colored blouses or sweaters. Men wore jackets, but white shirts were not mandatory, and none wore neckties. Even with the purple-and-blue background lighting, the overall look didn’t suggest a triumphant celebration. All of these alterations seemed to color the music, making the opening Praeludium of the Holberg Suite sound braver and less festive. Similarly, I found the ensuing Sarabande more affecting, solemn, and poignant than I will if I revisit this concert at Symphony’s website in 2022.

The scent of springtime was unmistakable from the start of the middle movement Gavotte with hints of jollity in its brisk Allegretto. Nothing short of piercing heartbreak came across in the longest movement of the suite, the Air marked Andante religioso, all the more keenly felt when the music faded to a whisper before the last swell of feeling. Thankfully, concertmaster Calin Lupanu brought us back from this precipice with some truly zestful fiddling in the folksy Rigaudon finale, all of the other strings sustaining the merry Allegro con brio tempo behind him with pizzicatos, until his solo reached its jazzy release.

I don’t have any record of hearing Charlotte Symphony playing the Holberg before, but I own two recordings of the suite, one of which I reviewed in 2009, with Yuri Bashmet leading the Moscow Soloists. One of the things I particularly enjoyed on that CD was how the sound of the 17-member ensemble shuttled between the textured graininess of chamber music and the homogenized sheen of orchestral performance. That same delicious variety was audible in the Knight Theater webcast, particularly when I listened via Bluetooth on my Boston Acoustic loudspeakers via my Yamaha Receiver. Some of that texture Symphony’s 22 players was blurred when I listened through the same audio system via Chromecast, which also produced less delightful definition in the pizzicatos.

That same enhancement via Bluetooth was evident when I replayed the Tchaikovsky Serenade, which also appears on the previously mentioned Bashmet recording. So does Mozart’s famous Serenade No. 13, “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” – and with good reason. Tchaikovsky’s piece was written as an homage to Mozart’s Serenades, quickly finished while he was at work on the 1812 Overture and esteemed by the composer as having more heart and artistic merit than his flashier warhorse. Warren-Green didn’t seem to be aiming for Mozart as his trim orchestra launched into the initial Pezzo in forma di sonatina, which moves from an Andante non troppo tempo to Allegro moderato and back again. The massive sound Warren-Green elicited from his ensemble at the slower tempo evoked Bach more vividly than Mozart, and at the quicker Allegro juncture, the music was like the involuted canons Bach or Beethoven might whip up – or a dizzying 3/4 dance that might adorn one of Tchaikovsky’s own ballets.

2020~CSO Grieg-Tchaikovsky-06

With more of a ballroom ambiance as Warren-Green slowed and accelerated his tempos, the dancing flavor carried over to the Valse, where the cellos heightened the sense of intimacy with their warmth and tenderness. Beginning with a weepy whisper, the penultimate Élégie was the most tragic music of the evening, filled to bursting with bittersweet nostalgia. With pizzicatos handed off from section to section – four violas, four cellos, and two double basses to Warren-Green’s right, and 12 violins to his left – optimum audio reproduction paid especially huge dividends here. The orchestra has notably mastered playing softly under Warren-Green’s tenure, and the ending of the Larghetto was absolutely sublime.

The Tema russo conclusion began at a hushed Andante, hardly distinguishable from the Élégie that had preceded. With the onset of the Allegro con spirito section, we felt the joy and exuberance we had been craving during the middle movement of this Serenade – and realized how much we craved them. Before an even more rousing reprise of this celebration, the cellos ignited a romantic theme – and turbulent episode that built to a climax. A stately melody seemingly materialized out of nowhere, encapsulating all bravery, anguish, and grief that had weighed upon us through the evening before a final celebratory romp. Grimly, we were reminded how much more genuine joy feels after we’ve endured suffering and catharsis. Welcome back, Symphony, I’ve missed such authenticity.

 

Company SBB Takes to ZOOM and the Outdoors

Review: Company SBB at Duke Performances’ Show Must Go Online

By Perry Tannenbaum

Company SBB narrowly missed me in 2018 when they decided to tour the Spoleto Festival in Italy instead of Spoleto Festival USA. If the company founded by Stefanie Batten Bland had turned south instead of east from their New York HQ, my first encounter with them would have given me a more typical sampling of the Jerome Robbins Award winner’s work as a dancer and choreographer. On their recent appearance with Duke Performances, rebranded for the pandemic as their “Show Must Go Online” series, Company SBB veered away from stage presentation in both of their new pieces.

“Mondays at Two” gathered its dancers onto the ZOOM platform, building upon the troupe’s weekly meetings with additional footage shot by individual dancers, in imaginative – often surreal – TikTok fashion. “Currents” liberated us from the confines of the SBB dancers’ webcams and cellphone cameras, taking us outdoors to a secluded stream in upstate New York, where a trio of dancers, including Batten Bland, were part of a cinematic design that was ominously surreal and naturally serene.

Batten Bland’s relaxed webcast introductions not only yielded useful insights on the works that followed but also offered us hints and glimpses of how she inspires her dancers. “Mondays at Two” began with the sort of ZOOM tableau we’ve become accustomed to during our prolonged lockdowns, only instead of crosstalk between 18 participants, there was music by Paul Damian Hogan. Warmups no longer happened haphazardly on a studio floor or on ballet barres against walls and mirrors. In a ZOOM universe, dancers mostly limbered up close to their webcams, stretching their necks or rapidly bobbing their heads so that multiple waves of hair dotted the screen. The claustrophobic confinement of ZOOM meetings was quickly established, humorously followed by stillness, dejection, and undisguised boredom. We could all commiserate.

If dance under normal circumstances explores the possibilities and meanings of motion, it was clear that, in creating her pieces during quarantined pandemic conditions, Batten Bland also wished to convey the sheer preciousness of movement. While all her other dancers slouched, moped, or blankly stared at their monitors, one of the screens in the second row lit up yellow along its frame, inevitably grabbing our attention. The dancer who owned that screen, Claire Gieringer, clearly relished the attention, for the busy eye-catching scene that filled her screen was revealed to be a cellphone as she drew it away from her webcam. At that point, there was a doubled “through the looking glass” reveal sucking us in: we were rushed into the dancer’s bedroom while we zoomed into the dancer’s screen until it was the only screen, all the ZOOM frames stripped away.

Now there was a succession of privately filmed and edited videos from the dancers, individually or in pairs. In-production and post-production editing created assorted surreal effects, and occasionally multiple videos from multiple sources were juxtaposed. Prevailing themes among the dancers’ videos were walls, halls, and doors. One dancer trembled before a formidable double- or triple-locked front door, another writhed and danced against her door, while yet another dancer emerged from a closet into her partner’s bedroom. One of the cellphones was propped inside a drawer or storage nook, yielding a similar feel as a dancer peered in.

Perspectives were often strange and unique as the experiences of cabin fever and confinement were explored. Only in the final sequence, filmed by a middle-aged couple, did anybody venture outside – even then, the excursion was brief and plagued with distrust. The turning back of the male partner to the anxious female partner waiting at the front door circled us back to the full troupe on their ZOOM screens. They could have been kissing us or each other goodbye as we faded out, but the meaning of their parting moues was ambiguous.

While “Current” took us outdoors, neither the weather nor the mood was sunny. Jean Claude Dien’s cinematography left the opening sequence a bit cryptic, for he was expecting us to notice the falling of a single yellow leaf – the preciousness of motion – against a relatively vast forest scene. Unlike Gieringer’s antics, the falling leaf could be overlooked, though the principle was the same: a small spot of activity amid a vast surrounding stillness. We cut to a leaf, presumably that leaf, as it floated downstream until it collided with the arm of Jennifer Payán, lying motionless in the shallow water.

Soon we had a shot of a canoe adrift on the stream and then a gloomier cliffside scene along the shore, where the three dancers performed individually or collectively, never really connecting or acknowledging each other’s presence. In the dim light near the cliff, movements seemed particularly anguished, desperate, and despairing. The dancers’ wide-eyed blankness put me in mind of how the insane Renfield is usually portrayed onstage in productions of Dracula. Joining Payán in these eerie revels was Batten Bland and Oluwadamilare Ayorinde. Neither of the women’s full, silky dresses, designed by Shane Ballard, was especially intended for camping or canoeing, and Ayorinde’s outfit, pants and vest cut from a khaki-colored tweed, was more suited for a night on an urban street than an afternoon on a lonely stream.

As the camera repositioned and we saw the dancers positioned in front of the stream, movement became more dazed. Batten Bland was the most inert, seemingly catatonic. When his tempo quickened, Hogan’s music came to the forefront of the cinematic concept as the dancers began shaking and trembling. Intercut with this suddenly spasmodic choreography, we saw shots of the rushing water, and the sound of the water suddenly became prominent in the soundscape, hushed as suddenly as it was unleashed. More spasmodic action and quicker cuts ensued as the drumbeat reached the apex of its crescendo.

All three dancers were shown individually in the water – luxuriating, lazing, or warily hunting – or collectively huddled onshore, still emotionally disconnected from one another, perhaps too enervated to connect. As if all we had seen since the opening sequence had been a flashback, the music and the action subsided. The pace of the water’s flow was greater now than before, and we saw more leaves going with the flow. At last, the leaves led us back to the dancers, all recumbent in the shallow water, as lifeless as before. Rather than morbidly fatalistic, the lingering impression was of a lyrical beauty, of a place where nature’s eternal cycles prevail.

Finckel-Han Deliver Powerful Beethoven and Brahms

Review:  Wu Han and David Finckel at Duke Performances

By Perry Tannenbaum

2020~Finckel and Han~6

Wu Han and David Finckel, longtime artistic directors of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, are among the world’s greatest ambassadors of chamber music – with talents and personalities worthy of their mission. I’ve seen them together in live performance on at least three occasions in past years at the Savannah Music Festival, and before those encounters, I had seen Finckel play without his wife at the Aspen Music Festival in epic two-night traversal of the Bartok string quartets while he was still the cellist with the Emerson String Quartet.

I’m still hoping to see them together at the Music@Menlo festival, which the New York-based couple established in California back in 2003, at some future date when air travel is no longer a game of Russian roulette, provided that the premises haven’t been reduced to cinders. In the meantime, I was delighted that Duke Performances was offering a virtual opportunity to see Han and Finckel online in a concert of works by Beethoven and Brahms – and curious to see how these elegant performers would handle the technical side of their webcast.

The video setup was fairly inconspicuous as the power couple opened with Beethoven’s pioneering Sonata for Cello and Piano in F Major, the first of two pieces written in 1796 for no less than Friedrich Wilhelm II, the cello-playing Emperor of Prussia. It was Finckel, in the charmingly shared introductory remarks, who pointed out that this was the first piece written for these instruments that placed the cello on equal footing. Three unseen cameras faced the players as they began the Adagio sostenuto against a bosky backdrop of what appeared to be the couple’s back porch, looking out on a brightly-lit forest that filled up nearly all we could see through the generously-sized sliding glass doors of their studio. Sound was warm and rich as Finckel immediately took the lead, Han helping to build the tension of the movement until we reached its crest.

Around that point, when we verged on the seamless transition to the middle Allegro, without our having seen a cameraman silhouetted against the burnt-out background, there were suddenly close-up shots of Han from a camera in the opposite direction that somehow didn’t expose any of the three camera placements that had already been deployed. When video was handed back to the frontal cameras, I finally noticed what looked like an iPhone mounted inconspicuously on a slender tripod just beyond the Han’s Steinway, roughly parallel with her left ear.

2020~Finckel and Han~10

This was an excellent vantage point to watch Han’s light touch as she sped the tempo into the brighter Allegro and its sunnier melody, the most dramatic moment of the linked movements before they concluded. Finckel repeated the catchy melody with less filigree but no shortage of merriment and gusto. Overhead shots, which began to proliferate toward the end of the Allegro, revealed a dangling microphone less than a yard above Finckel’s right shoulder, almost directly in line with his bowing elbow.

With Finckel performing the Cello Sonata without any visible score and his microphone mostly out of sight, the look was very clean, particularly since Han was using a tablet to read her part, obviating the need for a page-turner. The two shared a dramatic cadenza, Finckel supplying most of the gravitas, before the rousing, effervescent finish. The sonata’s finale, a Rondo marked Allegro vivace, initially sounded anticlimactic in the wake of the middle Allegro, which is more than twice as long. Finckel and Han gradually stirred up its strength and intensity without sacrificing its essential merriment.

2020~Finckel and Han~8

After the ensuing blackout, violinist Arnaud Sussmann and violist Paul Neubauer materialized, bows at the ready, for Brahms’ Quartet for Piano and Strings No. 1 in G Minor, firmly settled in the space formerly occupied by Finckel, while the cellist crossed over to the right side of our screens. Camera positions also changed. One placement put the newcomers exclusively in view, and the cellphone near Han was repositioned to give us a more frontal – and greatly improved – view of the keyboard. Lighting was also enhanced: the background greenery was not so nearly bleached away by the sun and additional indoor light insinuated itself upon the string players.

While it was natural to see Han and Finckel performing unmasked as a duo, I was a little surprised to see no adjustment with the arrival of Sussmann and Neubauer, who also played unmasked. Further decluttering the presentation, both the violinist and the violist mounted tablets on their music stands, so I never saw any pages turning. Finckel alone was old school, with a score that protruded from the right side of his stand, presumably paper.2020~Finckel and Han~9

All of the musicians knew their way around this Brahms, confident and collegial in a setting that was marvelously intimate. Acoustics were so beautifully balanced that no engineering seemed to be involved, the music forward and effortlessly in our faces in a way that chamber music in a concert hall rarely is. Seemingly positioned so close to the performers, we could easily see their camaraderie as they collectively savored the twists and turns – and the peaks and valleys – of the opening Allegro, described by Finckel as “almost epic.” The group was genial and jolly in this performance than Emil Gilels’ mighty DGG recording with the Amadeus Quartet but no less convincing. The ensuing Intermezzo had a nice brisk tempo for its Allegro ma non troppo marking, with plenty of moody, brooding heft, culminating with a charming little coda where Han shined – somewhat belying Finckel’s description of the movement as “perhaps the most wistful scherzo-style movement ever composed,” but never disappointing.

More twists and turns greeted us in the Andante con moto with sweet lyricism early on, Han continuing to assert herself, followed by a majestic rhapsodic episode that broke into a deliciously pompous military march. The upper strings combined to steer us into lullaby land, and Sussman took the lead in a climactic ascent before the other players imposed a soft touch-down. It was in the closing Rondo alla Zingarese, described by Finckel as “one of the wildest folkdances in chamber music,” that the congeniality between the players paid off most handsomely.2020~Finckel and Han~3

From the outset, a thrilling gallop, there was no question that this foursome was taking the Presto marking seriously, increasing the excitement with sudden decisive shifts in dynamics, triggered by Sussmann’s assaults on the treble. Han took over control, calming things down, while the strings plucked pizzicatos in anticipation of the restart. The upper strings launched a new theme before Finckel and Neubauer sweetly launched another. Ideas continued to bounce unpredictably between the strings and the piano with hairpin changes in mood and tempo until Han triggered the final frenzy. There was enough speed and fire to convince you that the musicians were racing each other to the finish – but more than enough virtuosity and togetherness to reassure us that they were all fully synchronized and having tremendous fun. It wasn’t relief flowing through the room and through the screen when the music was done. It was pure Gypsy joy.

Pattishall and Sotashe Deliver a Jazz Concert Gem

Review: Pattishall and Sotashe

By Perry Tannenbaum

2020~Chris Pattishall @ Duke-4

Enigmatic and eclectic, Chris Pattishall is largely absent from Amazon, Spotify, or Apple Music, the places where I usually search out the latest in jazz and classical – and he’s not always captured to best advantage on YouTube, where his presence is far more substantial. The keyboard artist (he plays accordion as well as piano) has firm ties to Jazz at Lincoln Center and the great Marcus Roberts, so it’s not surprising to find that he has earned a roster spot at the Savannah Music Festival for the past three years. Nor does it come as a shock that he would show up among the headliners at Duke Performances’ The Show Must Go Online series. Pattishall, after all, is a Durham native who has a special affinity with the music of Mary Lou Williams (1910-81), Duke University’s first artist-in-residence. Naturally, Pattishall’s solo offerings included samples – or should I say signs? – from Williams’ Zodiac Suite, for his quintet played an assortment of them when I saw the group live in 2019. Other selections, whether alone at the Steinway or with vocalist Vuyo Sotashe, were pleasant and intriguing surprises.

It seems almost sacrilegious to jump into the music without showering praise on the woodgrain vibe of The Bunker Studio, where this concert was filmed, and the wonderful sound engineering by Todd Carter. Director of photography Nick Hughes presumably merits the credit for the moody lighting and the restless variety of camera angles – producing images that are perennially sharp and never handheld. Introductory titles and video by Hughes told us immediately how classy the production values would be while establishing an astronomical/astrological motif, foreshadowing Pattishall’s Zodiac centerpiece. The first titles that flashed over shots of antique maps and a sweep of stars and concentric circles – more curious documents would be spread across Pattishall’s piano – were Carman Moore’s “Tema I” and Richard Lee Smallwood’s “Angels.” Further indications that we were headed skyward. We were still panning across a document depicting the night and the stars when the concert began.

Pattishall used “Tema” to frame his medley, a piece whose contemplative simplicity reminded me of Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs and Bill Evans’ recording of “Some Other Time.” In the middle, “Angels” sounded jazzier and more jagged with a harmonic palette that evoked a gloomy deserted cocktail bar late in the afternoon, not very ethereal at all. So “Angels” was a verbal harbinger of the Zodiac Suite, but it was “Tema I” that actually set the stage, beginning and ending Pattishall’s mashup. In his spoken intro, Pattishall wove his growing interest in Williams into a chronicle of his own development as a jazz musician. He was aware of her as he grew up in Durham, his dad had a vinyl record of hers, and he had gone to Duke University to hear pianist Geri Allen when she came and played the Zodiac Suite. What fascinated Pattishall most was how neatly Williams cut between the idioms of jazz, blues, and the church during a single composition or performance.

You may wish to search outside the Zodiac Suite – or at least beyond the four signs that Pattishall played – for footprints of the church. “Taurus” was heavily infused with both jazz and the blues, shuttling back and forth between the two idioms. At times, the blues seemed to take up residence in Pattishall’s left hand while jazz was partying upstairs in the treble – and some might have indeed perceived the occasional stomping chords up there as footprints of the church. Pattishall actually ranged further than Williams, whose 1945 recording of “Taurus” clocked in at a mere 2:35, playing a full minute longer and exploring chromatic terrain and Gershwinesque harmonies. “Libra” brought more sunshine in with it, sounding more like spring than autumn, with the feel of childhood, first steps, and plashing in a quiet brook before ending on a more meditative note, Pattishall once again giving himself a full minute more than Williams’ 1945 recording.

“Scorpio” certainly didn’t linger in the ruminative mood of “Libra,” entering stealthily and mischievously, as if Williams had sought to hint at the spookiness of Halloween in her opening bass figure. Pattishall stretched the original concept, taking the tune down a brooding path into an impressionistic clearing that veered spasmodically toward Thelonious Monk before softly reprising the opening vamp. Adding to the mischief, Hughes and B camera operator Rafiq Bhatia tossed in entirely new side and front angles throughout the piece. “Sagittarius” retained the new camera angles, soared with a rich aerial sound in the treble, where it circled around Gershwin-like chords once again. It wasn’t Pattishall’s longest tribute to Williams, but it was the one that added the most playing time to the 1945 original.

Admitting that he was “a sucker for a slow second movement with a haunting English horn melody,” Pattishall said that he had discovered William Dawson and his Negro Folk Symphony only recently, so his transcription of the second movement, “Hope in the Night,” was also a personal exploration of the composer’s counterpoint, his sense of drama, and his pacing. Interestingly, this transcription substantially reduced the length of Dawson’s slow movement, smoothed the jagged edges of transitions that jump from one orchestra section to another in the symphony, and transmuted the primal passages in the latter half of the movement into something yearning and modern.

2020~Chris Pattishall @ Duke-12

Pattishall told us how he first met Satashe at William Paterson University in 2013 and connected with him subsequently in the offices of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Then he recalled how, when he first heard Satashe perform, he lived up to all the hype he had heard. What he left out, and what you can only catch hints of on previous YouTube clips, is how astonishingly Satashe has advanced his artistry and transformed his presentation. The man hails from South Africa, so the exotic element, his ability to inject Xhosa clicks into renditions of African songs, has always been there. You can also find more than a couple specimens of his scatting ability among the clips. Because Satashe hasn’t been recorded quite so clearly and intimately as he was at The Bunker, you would likely miss how chameleonic his voice is.

On “I’ll Never Be the Same,” his timbre and inflections reminded me of Billie Holiday first (Holiday recorded the song in 1937) and then Dinah Washington – with an interval of Pattishall soloing that sounded, ironically enough, more like Mary Lou Williams’ keyboard style than any of his prior riffs on her music. Satashe’s African selection, “Sylvia” by Michael Moerane, had a surprisingly Western pop flavor, sprinkled so lightly with Xhosa clicks that I wasn’t sure at first that I’d heard them. There were actually two kinds if you listened closely: one a generic knock or clunk, the other like a flick of a fly-swatter on your window. But now as I scrambled to find an analogous voice, I found myself settling on Abbey Lincoln, maybe taken down a third.

When we reached “Autumn Nocturne,” Satashe suddenly went low, often sounding like Stevie Wonder in this ballad, with a bottom that Wonder can only pray for – amazingly in the same league as Kurt Elling, though I suspect Satashe has also listened to Johnny Hartman’s “Autumn Serenade.” Before the duet on Dave and Iola Brubeck’s “They Say I Look Like God,” both Satashe and Pattishall extolled the humanity of Louis Armstrong, who introduced the song on The Real Ambassadors, a show and recording from 1962. They also discussed the poignance of the song, what Satashe said connects with the “ancestral energy of our fight for life force.” In his candor, Satashe let slip that the original song – recorded only that one time on Columbia – had biblical verses intertwined with Armstrong’s lead vocal. These were sung by Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, and Annie Ross, the renowned jazz vocal trio, but behind Satashe, Pattishall had to cut all those biblical verses the singer was referencing. Instead, he played piano reductions of the trio’s chant (plus a solo break replicating one stanza of the vocal), leaving Satashe to address racism with his haunting Socratic questions.

As with his Dawson arrangement, Pattishall compacted the length of the Brubecks’ original, which can be accused of hammering its point with too many biblical verses – making Satashe’s reclamation all the more powerful. Here the vocalist once again sounded like Lincoln with just a pinch of Carmen McRae, but on the closing tune, “Come Back as a Flower,” Satashe shuttled back to Wonder, which made sense when the credits rolled, since it turned out to be a Stevie Wonder composition I was unfamiliar with.

My first priority after the video was done was to swing on over to Google and YouTube to check Satashe out – for neither the singer’s first name nor the program notes decisively settled the question of gender. Well, when you look at other bios and watch the YouTube videos, where Satashe sports men’s suits and sweaters, the question is readily settled. On this new Bunker date, the singer looked as androgynous as his voice, newly adorned with dreadlocks, big earrings, and a nose ring. So the presentation was now of an exotic African with Xhosa clicks compounded by the mystery of androgyny when you see and hear him – far different from his gangly prom date look I found on YouTube when he sang at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival in 2015. Clearly this is an artist who is finding his identity even more quickly and arrestingly than he’s finding his own individual voice, if he’s even thinking in those terms. As long as he keeps the clicks, I’ll be watching and listening.

 

 

Three Bone Theatre Responds to this Moment with “Hands Up”

Review: Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments

By Perry Tannenbaum

Actor- Jay Ward

The stats and the realities have been out there for years – before a racist took up residence in the White House. Racial profiling by people with badges, guns, and gavels had already been documented with actuarial precision. The disproportionate number of black men stopped and ticketed for broken tail lights, frisked at checkpoints, picked up on ticky-tack drug violations, incarcerated for maximum sentences on trumped -up evidence, and gunned down or choked to death by police without cause or provocation? All of it had been calculated over and over.

When Ferguson happened in 2014, triggering an oft-repeated American awakening, Michael Brown lay in the streets for hours after he was murdered. Police brutality seemed to be hidden in the shadows under the cover of darkness during those primordial days. Our iPhones and mandated police bodycams have opened our eyes since then. Now in 2020, after the brutal suffocation of George Floyd in broad daylight, the essence of the Black Lives Matter grievance is no longer the abstract result of a statistical calculation. It is vivid and visceral for millions of us here and around the globe.

And maybe, just maybe, the worldwide unrest has made a dent in policemen’s brazenness, in police chiefs’ and unions’ defiance, in mayors’ aloofness, and in legislators’ indifference. Normally, black and guerilla theatre companies might be expected to help sustain momentum for change, but in a time of pandemic, norms themselves have changed. So it’s welcome that Three Bone Theatre has returned to the Charlotte scene at this moment focusing on an issue that seems lately to be waning among our priorities – distantly behind ejecting a noxious clown from the Oval Office.

Following up on commissioning a set of 10-minute plays sparked by the murder of Trayvon Martin the previous year, the New Black Fest commissioned Hands Up: Six Playwrights, Six Testaments. An early reading stage version preserved on YouTube was recorded in November 2014, just three months after the Michael Brown shooting. That six-pack retained its original formulation when the piece was formally premiered in Philadelphia on June 10, 2015, in a Flashpoint Theatre Company production directed by Joanna Settle.

Actor- LeShea Nicole

One might infer that Settle influenced the subsequent trajectory of the piece, for its subtitle is now 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments, and smack in the middle of the previously all-male lineup of playwrights and protagonists, we now have “Dead of Night… The Execution Of…” by Nambi E. Kelley, in a stunning performance by LeShea Nicole that any production, past or future, would benefit from.

Mainly, the black men keep asking how they need to act to shield themselves from racial profiling, police paranoia, and the hail of bullets fired at them without impunity. “Hands up, don’t shoot,” the slogan that quickly cropped up during the Ferguson protests of 2014, has sadly retained its currency alongside “I can’t breathe” and “Get your knee off our necks.” That slogan gets a riveting workout in the concluding playlet, “How I Feel” by Dennis A. Allen II. The fact that Sultan Omar El-Amin didn’t have an audience in the house to interact with at Duke Energy Theater hardly detracted from the power of the grim communal ritual he led.

Added to the intrinsic power of the 7 Testaments, the current Three Bone production forcefully reminds us that nothing has changed since Hands Up had its first reading six years ago. Quentin Talley’s stage direction helps us grasp all that is still true about the difficulties blacks face in navigating everyday life in America – and all that was prescient in these seven scripts about what would be so graphically demonstrated on TV and social media. As a society we aren’t merely discovering the systemic racism thriving in our midst the systemic racism thriving in our midst. We’re taking our blinders off.

Talley’s audio setup at Spirit Square frequently let him and the other performers down as this compelling livestream unfolded. The dropouts pretty much ruined Mason Parker’s rendering of “They Shootin! Or I Ain’t Neva Scared…” by Idris Goodwin and intermittently – but annoyingly – cut the argumentative thread of “Abortion” by NSangou Njikam as Gerard Hazelton engagingly prowled the stage. “Walking Next to Michael Brown” by Eric Micha Holmes fared slightly better, dramatically delivered by Laurence Maher.

My hypothesis was that microphone placement was nearly as much responsible for the dropouts as the wayward streaming signal. Talley had these guys moving around more in his blocking than Nicole, whose audio was comparatively solid. When Talley himself opened the show, performing “Superiority Fantasy” by Nathan James, his voice tended to fade when he distanced himself from centerstage. That’s probably why the full force of James’s distinction between whites and Caucasians didn’t quite register as it should. It was a distinction that, for millions of people of good will, would have come in handy decades ago.

Members of the audience who have waited in vain for spokespersons from Antifa or the Deep State to share their views could hear more pointed and realistic testimonies about how it feels to wake up every morning and walk America’s streets in a black skin. Talley’s character described it as constantly walking on eggshells even when he wore his carefully crafted non-threatening smile. Jay Ward, performing Nathan Yungerburg’s “Holes in My Identity,” recalls the cringeworthy moment in grade school when a classmate mispronounced the River Niger and all the other white students turned towards him.

Actor- Sultan Omar El-Amin

Perhaps the most poignant evocation was in El-Amin’s testimony when he overheard his mother remembering how, when she was pregnant, she had wished that her child would not be a boy. We’ve seen enough tearful moms on the evening news to know why. El-Amin went on to describe how radically blacks and whites would need to change before Mom could discard those fears. Even then, he wasn’t betting that systemic racism would be on the ropes.

So he finally lowered his hands and simply vented: “Fuck you! And fuck this shit!”

The concluding Allen ceremony and rant justifiably gave the New Black Fest collection its title, surely the most stirring piece in this Three Bone production. But the Yungerburg monologue struck me as the most nuanced and sneakily persuasive. The main “hole” in this speaker’s identity as a black person was that he had reached the age of 43 without ever having been stopped, frisked, interrogated, or beaten for no reason. It’s not an initiation you seek out, of course, but it’s a condition that drives Ward’s character to a therapist.

Eventually, he pierces to the core of why the hurts fester in the hearts of police victims, no matter how trivial – or even paranoid – the victimization might be. “Dismissal steps quietly,” he says, because we’re not always aware that we’re doing it while the victim feels it keenly. At a certain point, Ward’s uncannily untouched character, during a walk in the park with a black partner, discovers that he himself has dismissed his friend’s fears as a silly phobia.

And he takes the opportunity, then and there, to apologize. It’s at that pivotal moment that Yungerburg and Allen are empathizing with us, grasping that we often don’t know how to cope with an unbridgeable divide – and showing us the way.

“That’s where the healing begins.”