Review: Ocie and Lonnie Davis have launched a new series, Live at the Crown
By Perry Tannenbaum
My last memories of the NoDa district of Charlotte, when theatre still thrived there and gentrification was still in progress, are vividly stamped by the obstruction that bisected 36th Street about a block west of North Davidson Street. This was the ongoing construction of light rail, envisioned as salvation for theatre companies producing in NoDa until Carolina Actors Studio Theatre was shut down in 2014 by its less-than-visionary board of directors.
Fringe theatre companies are more comfortable these days in Plaza Midwood, but a new online JazzArts Charlotte series is supplying me with fresh incentive to revisit NoDa once we’re all clear of current pandemic restrictions. Presenters Ocie and Lonnie Davis have launched a new series, Live at the Crown, that has an intimate clubby feel, devoid of the glitzy studio vibe of The Playroom, where Bechtler Museum is streaming its jazz series, and more to the liking of cellar dwellers.
Crown Station, as its name implies, will be accessible for its indoor events by motor and light-rail transit once Governor Cooper sounds the all-clear. Meanwhile, my first exposure to the Crown via the David Lail Quintet put me in mind of the Village Vanguard with its unassuming ambiance. Three cameras were deployed for the Facebook Live webcast, none of which changed position or zoomed in when musicians soloed. Combined with Chromecast, the stream produced fairly sharp video, particularly when pianist Phillip Howe soloed.
On the audio feed (pumped into Boston Acoustic speakers via Bluetooth and a Yamaha receiver), Lail on tenor sax, Matt Postle playing trumpet, and Ocie Davis behind the drumkit were the best served. Howe could have benefited from a smidge more amplification at his open-front upright, and bassist Vince Rivers was woefully undermiked on his first solo, but evidence of on-the-fly audio engineering could be detected during Rivers’ subsequent solo, and he was a satisfying part of the mix afterwards. On a couple of occasions, Lail’s hand mic didn’t seem to be switched on during his introductions, but this problem seemed to have been remedied in post-production when I watched the set a second time.
After Davis’s welcoming remarks, Lail’s program emerged as an homage to his tenor sax heroes – Wayne Shorter, Joe Farrell, Stan Getz, and Joe Henderson. Discriminating listeners may have descried John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon among the leader’s unmentioned influences. The emphasis for the first three selections was on Shorter, Coltrane’s successor in the Miles Davis Quintet, in compositions written during the 1960s – before Shorter became a foundational member of Weather Report and better known for his work on soprano sax.
“Armageddon,” the opening tune, was first recorded on Shorter’s Night Dreamer album, his 1964 debut on the legendary Blue Note label. This composition surely has the hard-bop flavor that Blue Note is famous for, but Lail’s solo, like Shorter’s before him, was marked by the surge and wail of Coltrane and Gordon. Postle proved to an effective counterpart, cooler and less frenetic in his trumpet solo. Howe was even cooler, soft enough for us to savor the support from Davis more keenly before Rivers had his muffled spot. Davis took over briefly and effectively before the horns reprised the melody.
“Night Dreamer” brought forth an even more blazing solo from Lail, with Postle and Howe sounding comparatively meek in his wake, but it was reassuring to hear the swing from Rivers’ bass as his solo gathered steam. Once again, the tenor and the trumpet returned with the outchorus, but this time, Lail reserved a slice of the replay for himself.
My strongest misgivings of the evening assailed me when Lail announced “Nefertiti” as his next number, a Shorter composition that first appeared as the title tune on a Miles Davis release in 1968. On both the Davis album and Herbie Hancock’s subsequent V.S.O.P. recording, the arrangement became a tedious repetition of the same slow-paced riff played by the horns, with all the excitement passed down to the piano and drums’ accompaniment. Lail and Postle both triumphantly proved that you can improvise on this composition without compromising its lazy, luxurious pace, and despite being granted scant time in this arrangement, Howe also distinguished himself with his thoughtful work.
There are certainly more obvious launchpads for a tribute to Joe Farrell than “500 Miles High,” a Chick Corea tune that first appeared on Return to Forever’s Light as a Feather album in 1973, where Farrell appeared as a guest artist playing flute, soprano sax, and tenor. The texture of that cut – with a Flora Purim vocal, Corea playing electric piano, and no trumpet at all – was very different from the sound that the Lail Qunitet brought to the Crown. Maybe that’s why the performances on “500 Miles High” were even more impressive than those on “Nefertiti.”
Postle opened the soloing, more brash and confident than he had been when comparisons might be made with trumpeters Lee Morgan or Miles on the original recordings. Lail had a more individual sound here as well when he followed – and a well-defined story to tell, building his solo beautifully and not entirely discarding his Trane-like wail. Not at all obligated to sound like an electronic Corea, Howe sounded more like Hancock or early McCoy Tyner as he worked up a lather.
Tyner is the common denominator who bridged Lail’s early segment of Shorter compositions with the final two paying tribute to Henderson, for Tyner was a sideman on Shorter’s Night Dreamer and on Henderson’s Inner Urge. After those stellar 1964 albums, Henderson guested on another Blue Note gem in 1967, The Real McCoy, from which Lail covered one of Tyner’s most celebrated compositions, “Passion Dance.” Once again, Postle took the first solo, still frisky and brash but now punching in a style that might bring Dizzy Gillespie to mind. Lail roared again in his Coltrane comfort zone, but it was Howe who surprised most. Inevitably, he must have been thinking of Tyner’s rich and heavy left hand, but the chords he played were different and his right-hand treble was funkier, reminding me more of Dave McKenna’s hard-driving swing. In a foretaste of fireworks yet to come, Davis asserted himself in a fine bashing solo.
Before a snippet of Shorter’s “Footprints” faded us out, the closer was a Henderson original, “Isotope.” It would have been interesting to hear Lail and Howe hook up on the melody as Henderson and Tyner did on Inner Urge, but instead Lail remained formulaic, introducing the catchy tune in unison with Postle. The trumpeter began the soloing again, poised and authoritative, and the leader was nearly as inspired as he had been in “500 Miles,” clearly having fun and dropping a snatch of Coltrane’s “Bessie’s Blues” as he signed off.
Howe was also in a frolicsome mood as he soloed, and the camera caught Davis acknowledging that he was up next. Here Lail’s arrangement was more in line with Henderson’s when the tenor sax traded four-bar volleys with Davis, but Lail also admitted Postle and Howe to his trading-fours party. Two rounds of Davis pounding his answers to trumpet, tenor, and piano led us back to Henderson’s genial melody. Taking up his microphone and thanking us for virtually being there, Davis had plenty to be pleased with.
Nobody has quite opened their doors for business as the 2020-21 theatre season begins, but a couple of companies were inching in that direction last week. Theatre Charlotte staged their season opener for a limited, socially-distanced audience out on Queens Road in their parking lot. The broader public and citizens of the world will be able to stream What I Did Last Summer after they bring the show indoors and record a better-lit, better-miked version on their stage.
Meanwhile, CPCC Theatre used our computer and TV monitors as their stage with A Virtual Whodunnit by Flip Kobler and Cindy Marcus, a lighthearted made-for-ZOOM romp that deployed nine digitally-distanced actors on a layout that, decades ago, would have been identified as Hollywood Squares. Very much attuned to this COVID-19 moment, the storyline of this murder mystery manages to keep the murder victim, seven suspects, and a retro hat-sporting shamus homebound – or office-bound – throughout a fast-paced sequence of scenes.
Kobler and Marcus package an antagonistic meeting of the victim and our suspects, an onscreen killing, an investigation that includes interviews with all possible culprits, and – after viewers message their votes on who is guilty – the final reveal. All in about one hour, a proper chunk of time for a family entertainment.
James Duke picks up the reins as director in the first CP show since the retirement of Tom Hollis as department chair. Duke’s imprint is also evident on the lighting, sound design, and virtual scenery of this production. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Duke’s work is his matchless cast: not one of their names matches a search of my voluminous computer files over the past 27 years.
I’m not quite sure any of Duke’s choices is that old – Tony Cudic as Detective Rockford Sloan seems to be – or if all of them have reached legal voting age. This cradle raid proves curiously apt for a layout that is so miniaturized and claustrophobic, where the hand-to-hand violence of conventional police procedurals would be frowned upon by the CDC and the Governor’s office.
Hard-bitten realism is not the artistic aim here, though it figures as the satirical target when Detective Sloan is on the prowl. We convene at the bidding of software mogul Augustus Sterling, whose overbearing bluster and over-the-top cruelty occasionally reminds us of our Orange Incumbent. It’s really a bravura debut for Brennan Sawyer, who loudly fills his screen and seems destined to eat it. Nobody comes close to rivaling Sawyer’s scenery chewing, but we find numerous tasty clichés to savor in his circle.
The frustrated brain of the family is Sterling’s son, Bullion, a perpetually seething Daniel Keith, whom Dukes places nearly as close to his screen as his dad. Keeping poor Bullion at a near boil is the family princess, Juniper, as spoiled and pampered as her brother is oppressed and ignored. Corina Childs doesn’t quite play Her Highness’s cluelessness to the hilt, but she has a firm enough grasp on her patrician privilege. The third sib, Macy, is the anti-capitalist tree-hugging wildcard of the family, providing Dukes an opportunity to play with colorful lighting and giving costumer Ramsey Lyric a go at hippy garb.
Florina is the interloping stepmother, stymied by a pre-nup and resented by all her stepchildren. Jeanine Diaz plays this brazen opportunist in fine dragon-lady style – you may detect a wisp of Melania foreignness in her accent – blatantly bidding for audience votes. Can she wriggle out of her legal bind with the help of Barry Schwartz, the corporate attorney who is redrafting her husband’s will? Played close-to-the-vest by Jacob Feldpausch, Schwartz could have company secrets to leverage and his own fish to fry. He’s also the only suspect who must know the reason for his boss’s meeting.
Encountering the VP of technology, Haley Hawkins, we find that the Sterlings’ corporate intrigue goes deeper. A software developer who has been instrumental to her company’s success, the underappreciated Haley is sympathetic toward Bullion’s vision of the firm’s potential. Of course, the Haley-Bullion alliance may be more than cerebral after office hours, but Shelby Armstrong mostly plays the overlooked VP as wide-eyed and principled, without nearly the same level of resentment as her confidante.
Amid these raging and suppressed malcontents, Andrew Blackwell stands apart as Eugene Everton, the downtrodden CFO at Sterling Software and the imperious Juniper’s puppy-dog husband. I was so tempted to vote for this soft-spoken nerd as the culprit. Blackwell makes him so quietly forgotten at work and so uncomplainingly hen-pecked at home, each of his tantalizingly brief statements barely above a whisper, that I longed to see Blackwell break loose and become unhinged. Or simply move with a trace of energy.
With his wide-brimmed hat, Cudic presides over this mystery and infuses it with its noire flavor. Heaven knows why he doesn’t go all the way and pile on a Bogart lisp for the old-timers in the audience, but Cudic’s head is always turned maybe 15 degrees askance of his camera, assuring us that he isn’t corporate, hippy, dictatorial, or sexually brash. Everyone on this cheesy tic-tac-toe layout stays in his or her lane.
If you’ve never experienced the difference before, there’s a certain campy quality that comes with a ZOOM theatrical – beyond the compartmentalized miniaturization – when pitted against our nostalgic memories of live, in-person productions. Every person has his or her name inscribed in the corner of their cubicle, and the frames of these cubicles will light up for each person as she or he speaks. When characters leave the scene, Duke keeps their places reserved, their names inscribed over humble icons, as if they were inert apps on your iPad.
What makes Sawyer’s cameo so treasurable for me is that he rages against his confinement and the dopey simplicity of the format. August not only fills the screen in his final moments of life, he dies into his webcam when he is killed, claiming a good chunk of his wee screen with the top of his head. On the other hand, Blackwell remains precious because he succumbs so totally to his belittling plight, sometimes scrunching up as if he isn’t sufficiently confined.
Priced at five bucks, this webcast is clearly worth it, especially if you’re spreading the suspense, the plot twists, and the laughs among multiple generations in your household. Every cellphone, computer, and tablet can have a vote on the outcome. Hopefully, you emerge after this merry hourlong escape remembering how important it is to vote in real life.
Review: Virtual Jazz at the Bechtler event hosted by The Playroom, the Ziad Jazz Quartet
By Perry Tannenbaum
Aside from the color blue, John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue have a few things in common. Both were recorded in the late fifties, Coltrane’s album for Blue Note in 1957 and Davis’s for Columbia in 1959, both featured sextets, both were dominated by compositions written by their leaders, and both were fueled by tenor saxophonist Coltrane at his fiery peak, one of the many reasons why both albums are regarded as jazz classics. As the title implies, Blue Train is the more hard-driving of the two albums, and in the second virtual Jazz at the Bechtler event hosted by The Playroom, the Ziad Jazz Quartet paid tribute to this beloved recording, roaring as perhaps they’ve never roared before. Pumping up the volume for this special event, and helping tenor saxophonist Ziad Rabie to replicate Trane’s original instrumentation, were guest artists Lynn Grissett playing trumpet and Rick Simerly ably sliding a trombone. Bassist Ron Brendle and percussionist Rick Dior returned in their backup roles, while Lovell Bradford took over Noël Freidline’s bench at the keyboard.
The two brass players made social distancing a bit more strained than last month’s Quartet tribute to Jimmy Heath, but space was adequate and both guests sported pandemically-correct masks with cunning mouth flaps designed for wind players, the first time I had seen these. Nor was there any delay in seeing these masks in action, for one of the most memorable aspects of the title tune that opens the Blue Train album is the roar of the saxophone, the trumpet, and the trombone all playing at once. Even watching a 23-inch monitor and listening through a pair of Boston Acoustic speakers via a Bluetooth hookup to my Yamaha receiver, I was surprised by how emotional I became listening to the familiar sound. It’s the trombone that makes the blend so distinctive, and maybe that’s why I found myself getting choked-up. Rabie certainly didn’t let me recover as he launched his solo, wasting no time in reaching peak form – perhaps the most majestic playing I’ve heard from him. Adding extra coal to the engine of this “Train,” as each of the horns nears the end of his solo, the other two horns back him up with a repeated riff, challenging the soloist to rise above them.
Rabie was pretty much at full throttle beginning his solo, so he needed to flare up to white heat with the brass behind him, yet Grissett came in softly with his trumpet solo, reminding us after Rabie’s fury that “Blue Train” is actually a midtempo tune. He and Simerly, who would follow, gradually came to a boil in their brass solos, and the other two horns would enter when the soloist had shifted into cruising gear – and the backup would prod them into redlining. It’s a wonderful arrangement, very much in the hard-bop tradition perfected at Blue Note records, so it came as no surprise when Rabie later stated that the musicians on the original recording had been given two days to rehearse. At the keyboard, Bradford was up to the challenge of having three horns behind him as his solo climaxed, beginning quietly and tightening the tension with each chorus. The quieted episodes of the performance enabled us to savor Brendle’s bass, heard to better advantage than at last month’s session, while Dior also made his presence known as the soloists reached maximum ferocity, most noticeably when crashing his cymbals in the transition between Simerly and Bradford. To be absolutely precise about the arrangement of the melody, repeated at the end, it was Rabie and Simerly who began, with Grissett’s entry on trumpet perfecting the blend.
Named by trombonist Curtis Fuller because of how the tune was sprung on him at the Blue Train recording session, “Moment’s Notice” has always been one of my favorite Coltrane compositions, notably covered by flutist Hubert Laws on his In the Beginning album. Once again, the three horn players combined in introducing the melody – until the final eight bars, which Ziad used as a runway to launch his solo. Rabie seemed to share my affection for this composition, for he worked Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” – a tune that Coltrane made a jazz standard – into his blazing solo. Simerly reached peak form in his solo, saluted again with a bomb from Dior as he made way for Grissett, cooling things down before gradually turning his solo up to high heat. Bradford’s allusions to the Scottish “Comin’ Through the Rye” in his solo were less Coltrane-connected than Rabie’s had been, but they made amusing musical sense.
The sextet played “Locomotion,” aptly described by Rabie as “a blues with a bridge,” at a noticeably slower tempo than you will hear on the Blue Train album (a newer release, The Ultimate Blue Train, adds two alternate takes to the original album). I have to say – heretically, I know – that Rabie has found the better groove. It’s another glorious arrangement, three horns again playing the melody until the final eight bars and Rabie once again launching into his solo after already seizing the spotlight. A similar falling away occurred in this arrangement when Simerly and Grissett began their solos, the rhythm section suddenly silenced as the brass players entered acapella. When the rhythm section returned, Dior on drums especially raucous, it was like giving each of these solos a fresh kickstart. Grissett was consistently wonderful through this entire set – maybe his evocation of Lee Morgan, the original Blue Train trumpeter, explains the unexpected emotional impact I felt with each of his solos. The rhythm section kept going when Bradford took his turn, building to a two-fisted apex before handing things over to Dior for a well-earned, well-bashed solo.
Rabie introduced Todd Smith, who informed us that he was in his fourth day as the Bechtler’s new executive director. Better yet, he said the Museum would be reopening in a couple of weeks with free admission to start. This little respite was followed by a change in mood as the sextet played “I’m Old Fashioned,” the only non-Coltrane composition on the album and the only ballad. Rabie played the melody, this time without the brass at all, beginning with the lovely ending to the Jerome Kern melody and then recapping as the full rhythm section entered so that the end the melody got an extra hearing before he set off into his solo. Simerly followed in a more solemn ballad mode, with enough space in the arrangement for Brendle to shine briefly before Bradford’s entry. The pianist didn’t hurry the tempo, but he certainly crammed more notes into it, reminding me of how Art Tatum and Red Garland treated the blues. Grissett’s solo, weaving bits of “My Funny Valentine” into the fabric, was another gem, Dior sensitively plying his brushes in accompaniment. A short coda from Grissett was backed by the other winds.
Grissett continued in the lead for the final piece, “Lazy Bird,” only sparingly accompanied by the other horns before swooping into his solo. Simerly played in a lighter vein, pointing up the melody’s anthemic jollity, while Rabie upstaged him slightly, pulling out his horn-player’s mask for the first time and trying it on. Perhaps he had been worried that taking the mask off for his emceeing chores would dislodge his eyeglasses or his earpieces. Whatever caused the hesitation, the mask was no impediment as Rabie’s tenor solo evoked Trane’s most joyous vein. Bradford continued the celebratory mood, giving way to Dior, who regained his customary ebullience with his sticks before Grissett led the outchorus.
Production of the latest livestream improved incrementally on its predecessor. The opening montage by Wonderland still rocks, and Playroom was still populated by four video cameras that never budged or zoomed. Positioning was slightly changed. The better-miked Brendle gave up his dedicated camera to Simerly, while Bradford shared his with Grissett. A third camera occasionally peeped in on Dior from the rear of the stage, and there was an establishing shot from front-and-center. Song titles were discreetly scrawled at the bottom of the screen, perhaps too briefly but a nice new touch. Only the rhythm section seemed to have gotten the blue memo about the dress code, while Rabie and Grissett veered off into olive green. Simerly was the outlier in a peach-and-tan outfit, but he blended best with the special burnt-orange COVID masks. Best of all, the set didn’t abruptly end at the hour mark, continuing at least ten minutes longer until the complete Blue Train tribute was done. Well done.
At a time when marquee classical artists of international stature are sidelined, unable to draw the fees and crowds they normally command, it’s been rather gratifying to watch the professionals in our own communities, while similarly sidelined, step forward and show their mettle in more intimate virtual settings. With the Durham-based Mallarmé Chamber Players, founded in 1984 but newly taking to streaming their concerts, it’s nothing new for musicians from local orchestras to stand forth and shine, but with our big orchestras and concert halls silenced, it may be new for some of our music lovers to take notice. Though Mallarmé may be new to the virtual concert game, their choice of Bösendorfer Hall at Ruggero Piano in Raleigh shows they’re savvy, for the acoustics proved to be of studio quality in the latest episode of their Ode to Joy series. An all-Beethoven concert is an inevitable part of such a series, particularly when we continue to celebrate Maestro Ludwig’s 250th birthday, pandemic or no.
Wearing matching black masks, aglitter with reflective beads, violinist Jacqueline Saed Wolborsky and pianist Danielle DeSwert Hahn performed a nice variety of seldom-heard pieces representing Beethoven’s early, middle, and late periods. Wolborsky is principal second violin of the North Carolina Symphony, and Hahn, a former principal pianist of the Baltimore Opera Company, currently heads the music programs at the National Gallery of Art in DC. Both players are prominent in the Living Art Collective Ensemble (LACE), which Wolborsky co-founded, so I expected to find an excellent rapport between the two.
The concert began with the Rondo for Violin and Piano in G, likely written during one of Beethoven’s early sojourns in Vienna around 1794. Hahn led into the piece at a brisk and lively pace, reveling in the ebullience of the piece and clearly at ease at the Bösendorfer as she sketched the recurring theme. That disadvantaged Wolborsky as the violinist floated in above Hahn’s playing, for she was not as well miked as the pianist (if miked at all), and she tended to mistake simple passages for insignificant ones, disinclined to seize the lead or to sustain it. I was fond of the pace that Hahn had chosen, more akin to the leisurely ramble of Wilhelm Kempff with Yehudi Menuhin than the feverish gallop of James Ehnes with Andrew Armstrong, and I liked how she guided us back and forth from the playful main theme to the alternate themes, engaging detours into graver depths or fantasy mists.
What lay before us was a fascinating pairing of final Beethoven statements, beginning with his final composition for solo piano and concluding the evening with his last violin sonata. The six Bagatelles for Piano were published in 1824 and challenge the musician to navigate a kaleidoscope of different colors and moods, with no lack of hairpin turns along the way. Of the many versions you can sample on Spotify, I prefer the Paul Lewis and Alfred Brendel versions to those by Sviatoslav Richter and Piotr Anderszewski. Glenn Gould is also a contender, but only if we ignore his perversely slow account of the middle Presto. Hahn seemed less confident in this suite, either because the spotlight fell solely on her or because of the treacherous terrain. The opening Andante con moto in G Major could have used sharper dynamic contrasts, yet the Allegro, still in G, was markedly improved in its sculpting and built to high drama. Hahn captured the lyricism at the start of the Andante in E-flat and the poignancy of its ending. She did not deny the Presto in B Major of its speed, and when the music possessed her, she found the flow. Though the triple meter rhythm of the Quasi allegretto in G slipped from her grasp, Hahn excitingly captured the flow and the argument of the concluding Presto in E-flat, delivering her most sensitive playing in the extended Andante amabile a con moto section that dominates the piece.
Written in 1812, at the very end of Beethoven’s middle period, the Sonata in G for Piano and Violin doesn’t get nearly as much attention, in concert halls or recording studios, as the Violin Sonata No. 9 that preceded it, the famed “Kreutzer Sonata” celebrated by Janacek and immortalized by Tolstoy. My favorite recordings of Violin Sonata No. 10 differ in their balance, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Itzhak Perlman achieving exquisite equilibrium while Lev Oborin allows the scales to tip slightly toward violinist David Oistrakh. So it was a bit startling at first to hear Wolborsky yielding dominance to Hahn in the opening two movements of the piece. The charm of the two musicians playing in unison through the most exquisite passages of the opening Allegro moderato disappeared with hardly a trace, and in the ensuing Adagio espressivo, Hahn’s echoes upstaged Wolborsky’s statements with their soulfulness.
Fortunately, Wolborsky rose to the occasion for the final two movement of the sonata, some of the most rousing music of the evening. There was plenty of spirit from the violinist pouncing on the penultimate Scherzo, which seemed to buoy Hahn to greater flights of bravura, and – with a page-turner appearing out of nowhere to help Hahn keep up the pace – the pianist had a wonderful lilt in introducing the melodies of the concluding Poco allegretto, while Wolborsky seemed equally transported. The headlong transition to allegro was the most thrilling moment of the concert, inevitably followed by a diversionary Beethoven cool-down. Hahn handled her cadenzas beautifully, and Wolborsky produced her finest sounds in her soulful responses. We seemed headed to the heated finishing strokes when Beethoven applied the brakes at what seemed to be the last note. Jollity triumphed at the end as both Hahn and Wolborsky relished regrouping and romping to the finish line.
The QC’s Arts Groups Face Up to Adversity and Diversity
By Perry Tannenbaum
Performing arts in Charlotte have been hit hard, halted, and placed on hold by a COVID-19 invasion that’s still going strong. Chip Decker, longtime artistic director at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, has taken this sort of punch before. Twice in the past five years, he has seen new venues for his company swept out from under his feet.
And now this.
“Seeing the thing you have sacrificed so much for be on the brink of disappearing, despite all of your best efforts, really quite sucks,” Decker observes. “Our business is dependent on lots of people gathering in small spaces. Not the best operating model during a pandemic.”
Nor is gathering lots of people in big spaces. Charlotte Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty at Knight Theater and a three-day Women in Jazz fest at the Stage Door were among the first events to be cancelled in March. Charlotte Symphony’s concert at Belk Theater and the Jewish Playwriting Contest at Shalom Park quickly followed.
Audiences have never seen the sets for Theatre Charlotte’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Children’s Theatre’s Dragons Love Tacos. They were deserted onstage at their Queens Road and ImaginOn locations. CPCC Summer Theatre never got off its feet this year, and when we checked in with Blumenthal Performing Arts last month, president Tom Gabbard told us that over 300 events had already been cancelled.
Even the teeny Warehouse Performing Arts Center up in Cornelius has seen its storefront operation come to a halt.
“A good portion of our mission and aesthetic was bound up in the intimacy of the venue, the ability for small audiences to engage very closely with the dramatic world immediately before them,” says WPAC prez Marla Brown. “We can’t do that. Social distancing at WPAC would mean one audience member watching a monologue.”
Unlike Brown, who suspended efforts to stage live performances, Decker has raged against the dying of the spotlights. Actor’s Theatre lost three productions from its 31st season and now expects to lose all of Season 32. They’ve had to postpone their nuVoices new play festival and the follow-up to last summer’s Midsummer Nights @ Queens, presumably a Shakespearean comedy.
An outdoor revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fell through, compounding Decker’s woes, along with outdoor events planned at Freedom Park and a nearby Dilworth vacant lot at the intersection of Scott Avenue and East Boulevard. Charlotte Symphony was no less elaborate in its planning, seeing a three-week festival of concerts scheduled this month at Queens University, Knight Theater, Belk Theater, and Triple C Brewing Company dribble down the drain.
“It takes months of planning to get a show up, and one 30-second COVID announcement to derail it,” says Decker, “and to the layperson, that can come off as nothing has been done.”
Without any income from tickets and subscriptions to nourish them, hibernation is a more viable strategy at WPAC.
“The ironic ‘good news’ is that no artists made their living at WPAC, so the company is not seriously damaged economically,” Brown reports. “We have always been poor, relying on MacGyver Theatre tactics and the wonderful talent pool of Metrolina to make solid shows on a dime. We will be back.”
One size does not fit all when it comes to financial impact. The image of poor ragtag artists doesn’t fit Blumenthal Performing Arts operations, nor do Charlotte Symphony, Opera Carolina, Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre, Charlotte Ballet, or Actor’s Theatre fit the same WPAC storefront template.
All of these companies have salaried employees. All applied – and received – PPP funding from the Small Business Administration, totaling upwards of $3 million.
“We received a PPP loan from SBA which covered staff salaries through June,” says Ron Law, who was slated to retire on June 30, but has signed on for another season as Theatre Charlotte’s executive director at the request of the board. “We have used up our cash reserves, but we have been able to generate revenue from an online web-a-thon and other asks. Many of those holding tickets for the two canceled main stage productions made their ticket purchases a donation to TC.”
Under COVID conditions, Theatre Charlotte has been able to achieve the improbable. Weather permitting, they’ve presented Grand Nights for Singing: The Parking Lot Performances on Friday Nights. Their audiences, capped at 25, are socially distanced – and so are their singers.
You bring your own snacks, beverages, and chairs – no reservations – and the suggested donation is $10. Each of the two vocalists gets his or her own mic, and there are no duets.
So far, thanks to lucrative TV contracts, professional sports leagues have returned with their superstar athletes to empty stadiums and coliseums. Unfortunately, that business model hasn’t worked for Blumenthal Performing Arts’ big three venues – Belk, Ovens, and the Knight. We can expect them to be shut down until at least December.
In the meantime, performing arts around the globe have migrated online. Charlotte Ballet was among the first to adapt. Within two weeks of cancelling the March 13 premiere of their “fairy-tailored” Sleeping Beauty – at the last minute – Ballet had dipped into their digital vaults and streamed Dispersal, their first free digital event.
Nor was it merely a rehash of the choreographies presented at Innovative Works 2019, when Charlotte Ballet collaborated with the Mint Museum, the Studio Drift duo, and choreographer Christopher Stuart. Intercut with the Innovative performance videos was behind-the-scenes footage that transformed the evening into a documentary, reaching an audience of more than 13,000.
Enter Zoom for a brand-new collaboration. Charlotte Ballet artistic director Hope Muir couldn’t help noticing that the web was becoming supersaturated with dance.
“We took a step back to regroup and to explore other means of engagement,” Muir reveals, “and I worked with choreographer Helen Pickett to discuss our options and resulted in an opportunity for five of our dancers. Charlotte Ballet joins artists from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Dance Theater of Harlem for Part III of a trilogy Helen developed titled Home Studies, which is entirely choreographed and rehearsed via Zoom.” (Airing on September 3 on Charlotte Ballet’s Facebook page.)
No less audacious, Muir has sidelined Nutcracker, Ballet’s traditional Yuletide cash cow, for the 2020-21 season. Fingers crossed, she’s replacing the beloved Russian ballet at Belk Theater this December with another Tchaikovsky masterwork, the previously abandoned Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy-Tailored Classic.
The reawakened Sleeping Beauty is the first live event to be planted on the 2020-21 calendar, but Theatre Charlotte has hatched – or is it hedged? – some hybrids. After purchasing video equipment, the Queens Road barn can now pivot to streaming.
Twelve Angry Men, originally scheduled for October, has been ditched because Theatre Charlotte couldn’t obtain streaming rights. Instead, the company will showcase A.R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer for three nights in September and Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer for three dates in October. Both productions will feature socially distanced casts – performing on the same Cat on a Hot Tin Roof set that has been waiting for action on Theatre Charlotte’s stage since March.
These shows will be ticketed, streamed behind a paywall. Law hopes that audiences will be able to attend the traditional holiday production of A Christmas Carol on Queens Road. But he isn’t taking chances. He had Chris Timmons shorten his own adaptation to 90 minutes so that it can be performed without intermission, utilizing a small cast and a narrator.
“If we can perform it live in TC by that time, we will,” Law declares. “We will also put it on video and stream it for those who don’t feel safe coming to the theatre or can’t be accommodated due to limited seating capacity.”
Three Bone Theatre has a four-person leadership team, the same number as Theatre Charlotte’s full-time staff – except that Three Bone executive director Becky Schultz serves on a volunteer basis. Because of their non-traditional staffing, the company wasn’t eligible to apply for PPP funding. Because they don’t control their own space, they can’t rehearse or perform as freely as Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre, and Charlotte Ballet.
“When we do go back into production,” Schultz confides, “we are facing smaller house sizes and artists and patrons who are concerned about safety. We will need to prioritize shows with smaller casts and production costs, limiting the stories we can tell. It’s impossible to say when audiences will return to pre-COVID levels but we expect it will take a long time. We have lost the forward momentum that we’ve spent the last eight years developing, and dipping into our reserves delays our ability to finally add staff.”
It’s been over six months since Three Bone’s last production shut down. Revenue from their last two shows, Dada Woof Papa Hot scheduled for May and This Is Modern Art for July, was largely lost, representing 40 percent of their 2019-20 season. During the shutdown, Three Bone staffers have dealt with loss of jobs, taking on the rigors of homeschooling, experiencing the stresses of quarantine, and watching family members battle the virus.
Like other performing arts companies across Charlotte – we sent out questionnaires to 17 of them – Schultz and her Three Bone team are heeding the crosswinds of social unrest sweeping across the country. The Black Lives Matter reckoning is spilling onto our streets amid the pandemic, troubling consciences and challenging longstanding norms. Planning how to come back from COVID, arts leaders agree that it’s not just about making the smart business decisions necessary to cope with new realities. It’s about being better.
Schultz admits that Three Bone is re-evaluating 2020-21 programming.
“We believe that Black Lives Matter and Black theatre matters,” Schultz states, “and we have a responsibility to ensure that we are deliberately supporting that with our programming, both on stage and behind the scenes. We are taking this opportunity to further educate ourselves as individuals and as an organization. We are listening to BIPOC artists, engaging in difficult conversations and reflecting on how we can do more to be an anti-racist company.”
Black theatre has been part of Actor’s Theatre programming for every season since 2008-09, most recently with Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill – with Crowns on tap for their upcoming season – yet Decker is among the arts leaders of Charlotte unanimously proclaiming that they are rededicating themselves to BLM.
“ATC is working hard on recognizing and dismantling our own systemic racist culture,” Decker responds, “and we are in full support of the Black Lives Matter movement and having room at the table for BIPOC.”
Nor is Actor’s Theatre an exception. Inclusive programming is admirably pervasive across the spectrum of Charlotte’s performing arts scene. Opera Carolina was close to presenting I Dream for a second time – in a newly revised version – when the pandemic hit. Charlotte Ballet has a long history of showcasing African American dancers onstage and forging sturdy relationships with Black choreographers behind the scenes.
Up in Cornelius, WPAC was in mid-rehearsal of Lynn Nottage’s award-winning Sweat when COVID shut things down. Ron McClelland was directing a diverse cast that included Shar Marlin, Brian Daye, and Dominic Weaver. That show might pivot to a streaming format when the production team meets to decide.
Theatre Charlotte, with Ain’t Misbehavin’ in February 2019 and Dreamgirls missing-in-action back in May, certainly hasn’t been caught off-guard by pleas for Black programming. CPCC Theatre has presented multiple dramas by August Wilson, their Summer Theatre offered Beehive in 2019, and the college recently announced the onboarding of a new chief diversity officer.
Aside from the Johnson C. Smith theatre department and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, there are two Black theatre companies based in Charlotte, On Q Performing Arts and Brand New Sheriff. We have hosted – and won – the National Poetry Slam, we have an annual jazz festival closely aligned with Jazz @ Lincoln Center, and we were the first American city to host Breakin’ Convention, with admirable outreach to urban youth.
Up in Winston-Salem, the National Black Theatre Festival has convened for a week in odd-numbered years since 1989, most recently in 2019 when they hosted more than 40 African American celebs, 30-odd Black theatre productions from across the nation, and the American Theatre Critics Association. So Charlotte and North Carolina have nothing to hang their heads about if you’re making comparisons about Black culture and programming.
Dig beneath Charlotte’s shiny surfaces and you do notice the structural, systemic problems that are drawing fire. Sixteen of the 17 questionnaires we sent out – to companies who had already found a spot on our 2020 calendars before COVID – were earmarked for Caucasians.
No arts organization in the Metrolina region presents a more diverse array of educational and onstage programming – or serves a more diverse audience – than Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. When they halted the hip-hop run of Grimmz Fairy Tales and shelved Dragons Love Tacos, staff at ImaginOn did not leave students enrolled in their 20-week School of Theatre Training program in the lurch.
Adroitly, they pivoted, so that two OnStage plays and two musicals were moved to virtual format. Summer camps began online, not skipping a beat, morphing to a hybrid program – your choice of online or in-person – when CDC, state, and federal guidelines could be met. Collaborating with 37 children’s theatres across the country, Children’s posted a new adaptation of A Kids Book About Racism as a virtual performance early this month, and they’re continuing work on their commission of Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba as part of The Kindness Project.
Yet executive director Adam Burke is among the good guys who are still doing some soul-searching.
“This is an incredibly important moment in the world, but also here in Charlotte, both socially and culturally,” Burke asserts. “Black Lives Matter is at the center of this moment. It is our responsibility to be checking to ensure that we are doing this in a way that is equitable and inclusive. What I, and Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, can do is work to acknowledge and eliminate unconscious bias through active education as well as examination of current practices and policies, and that is what we are doing.”
Systemically, the most obvious places to be on the lookout for change is on the roster of performing arts vacancies around town. Burke reports that his director of advancement position has been vacant since November and that managing director Linda Reynolds is retiring at the end of this month. Law isn’t the only leader who needs to be replaced once he’s allowed to retire – CP’s Tom Hollis ended his long tenure as department chair on August 1.
Our performing arts companies can address adversity and diversity at the same time, but we can also help with our interest, encouragement, and support. We can also look at ourselves and check our citizenship.
Decker probably says it best: “Tell your crazy uncle to put on his damn mask!”
Located on the west side of town, The Playroom bills itself as Charlotte’s oldest music production facility, offering rehearsal space and recording/mixing services. Lately, Playroom has changed its tune, becoming the site for the newest Jazz at the Bechtler webcast as the Ziad Jazz Quartet paid tribute to the music of Jimmy Heath, the composer and saxophonist who passed away back in January at the age of 93. As social distancing and severely restricted public gatherings become pandemic norms, the Bechtler-Playroom partnership makes beautiful sense from a musical standpoint. Technically, the museum can expect the studio to deliver optimum sound from expertly deployed state-of-the-art equipment, and if Ziad Rabie and his jazz quartet are to perform concerts without the vibe of a live audience, it would be hard to imagine a more comfortable place for them to play than the studio of their choice.
The risky element of this business had to be the video, for livestreams are not on Playroom’s pricing schedule. Any misgivings about this end of the Bechtler-Playroom collaboration were quickly dispelled when the program opened with an adroitly edited montage of Charlotte night scenes, including the city’s light rail and its iconic “Firebird” sculpture in front of the museum. Music from the quartet was already playing under the movie cuts, and aside from a voiceover “5-4-3-2” countdown, the Ziad Quartet’s set began without any formalities – or an emcee until Rabie himself spoke after the third selection.
Rabie gave his downbeat for the first Heath original of the evening, “Togetherness,” behind a second retro test pattern, but our first glimpse of The Playroom was not at all old-timey. Pinpoint lightbulbs studded a black backdrop, dispelling any worries of a rehearsal room ambiance. Lighting was otherwise ample, giving a nightclub feel to a venue that presumably offers limited seating. All four cameras came into play with nifty screen wipes as we transitioned from one view to another and pianist Noël Freidline soloed between two Ziad improvisations. An unobtrusive “Live from The Playroom” logo took up permanent residence at the upper righthand corner of our screens, no matter which camera view we saw. Occasionally, promo messages for donations and the Bechtler’s Facebook and Twitter hangouts swept across the lower lefthand corner. The cosmopolitan polish of the introductory montage was definitely sustained.
Freidline, drummer Rick Dior, and bassist Ron Brendle all wore masks – and all were admirably socially-distanced behind Rabie in a diamond-shaped configuration as Rabie blew on his tenor sax. Sitting upstage behind a plexiglass enclosure and wearing headphones as he wielded his drumsticks, Dior was the most conspicuous reminder that we were in a studio, but his bandmates were also wearing earbuds of some kind. Rabie would turn around between tunes as Dior launched “Gemini” and then “C.T.A.” in the opening cluster of Heath compositions, so they played with hardly a pause.
“Gemini” was most famously covered by Cannonball Adderley, a slower, bluesier title than “Togetherness” that settled comfortably into a waltzing 3/4 groove. Freidline had the first solo after Rabie played the melody, and then the leader returned with a rougher sax sound than we had heard earlier, not at all shy about revealing that he had listened to more John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins than to Heath in forming his style. Brendle soloed tastefully afterwards, though I wished his bass were potted up more at the soundboard, before Ziad then took the outchorus.
Another oldie, recorded by both Miles Davis and Lee Morgan when they vied for trumpet supremacy back in the ‘50s, “C.T.A.” returned us to uptempo. Rabie was already in bebop mode when he introduced the melody, bouncing when he laid out the melody, and he didn’t let go until he had wailed an extended improvisatory rant. Freidline took over authoritatively at the keyboard, swinging hard and comping aggressively when he handed the reins over to Brendle. Dior excelled in his first spotlight of the evening, trading four-bar thrusts with both Freidline and Ziad before the leader circled back to the theme.
Featuring all the members of the quartet, “C.T.A.” was the sort of arrangement that scales a summit that concerts should close with. So it was the right moment for Rabie to pause and speak to us, introducing his band and speaking briefly about Heath, his music, and his career. It was also the right moment to change the mood. Musically, Radie did the job beautifully with Heath’s “The Voice of the Saxophone” after an impressionistic and unaccompanied intro from Freidline. If you’ve heard Coltrane’s Ballads album, you can imagine the aching, romantic region that Rabie steered us toward after the full stop that preceded his solo. It was only here that it became apparent that we might be watching The Playroom’s maiden voyage into video. Lights didn’t dim for Rabie’s most lyrical moments of the evening, nor did we zoom closer to either of the soloists in “The Voice of the Saxophone,” laying bare the fact that both the lights and cameras were unmanned.
While the tech crew for this production didn’t sustain the nightclub vibe here, they were tasteful enough to refrain from marring the seriousness of Ziad’s balladeering with any promotional wipes on the video. Rabie also had a sure sense of drama, following his tenderest selection with his wildest so far. The percussive two-note phrase that is so salient in the melody of “The Thumper” probably gave this Heath piece its name – and it definitely stamps its hard-bop flavor. Ziad embraced its bounce from the beginning, with wilder, higher and screechier playing on tenor than ever, doubling back to the melody before handing soloing chores over to Freidline, who sprinkled broad hints of Charlie Parker and Gershwin into his launch, almost tipping his chair over with his gusto. Brendle also seemed to be keyed-up by this tune’s exuberance in his brief spot, his most impressive playing so far.
During an interval when Bechtler’s director of programming and public engagement, Daniel Ferrulli, punctuated his descriptions of the museum’s upcoming programming with pleas for financial support (rather than the other way around), one of the camera positions was altered, moving closer to Freidline and blocking off the leader from his rhythm section. “A Sound for Sore Ears” had the most irregular pacing of the night as Rabie unveiled the melody, Dior’s emphasis on his cymbals adding a Latin tinge. Freidline had no difficulty at all navigating the jagged terrain as he initiated the soloing, wailing and banging away as he riffed. Rabie answered with a majestic rant of his own before handing things over to Dior for his most extended soloing yet, and the saxophonist added extra trimmings when he returned with his outchorus.
The Ziad Quartet arrangement of “Gingerbread Boy,” by far Heath’s most recorded composition, emphasized its funkiness, effectively splitting the melody between Rabie and Freidline, who only needed to alter his introductory vamp slightly to make it mesh with the sax portion. First recorded in 1961 on Milt Jackson’s Statements album, where Heath played tenor sax in the vibraphonist’s quintet (with pianist Tommy Flanagan anchoring the rhythm section), “Gingerbread Boy” has attracted a sufficient number of proponents, from Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon back in day to more recent covers by Kendrick Scott and Kurt Elling, for it to be considered a jazz standard. Both Rabie and Freidline seemed to be having fun with their own slant on the tune, the saxophonist squonking merrily in his glee and the pianist shuffling through a variety of jazz styles in their solos. Rabie returned just briefly, supplying a launching pad for Dior’s firecracker rampage on the drums. Completing the admirable symmetry of this arrangement, the rhythm section led by Freidline chugged it out.
In effect, “Gingerbread” was the closer. Although the combo moved onto “Far Away Lands,” a tune that has been covered by saxophonist Hank Mobley and trumpeter Art Farmer, the webcast cut off abruptly about 30 seconds past the one-hour mark, just as Freidline was beginning to work up a lather in his solo. Rabie had given us a fine account before relinquishing the reins, leaning into the speedy piece with Coltrane-like intensity in his valedictory solo. No doubt when the Bechtler Museum and The Playroom look back on their first collaboration they will be very pleased, but they will also doubtless be thinking of adding a webcast sign-off that’s as slick and urbane as their intro.
Dedicated to the memory of Joe Restaino, who succumbed to complications from bone cancer in 2010 at the age of 20, the Joedance Film Festival has a clear vision of whom it represents and whom it benefits. The annual cinema showcase was established later in 2010 and held on the first weekend in August in Charlotte’s Fourth Ward, where Restaino resided. Most recently, the festival was staged at Charlotte Ballet’s Center for Dance before the onset of COVID-19 precluded a public event this year. Proceeds from the festival are funneled toward research into rare pediatric cancer and the Leon Levine Children’s Hospital managed by Atrium Health. New short and feature-length films are both eligible for inclusion, provided that the filmmaker can demonstrate a connection to North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia or Tennessee.
There’s something to be said for the intimacy of a virtual Joedance as festival founder Diane Restaino welcomes us every night of the festival, filling a good portion of our computer monitors or TV screens. Many of us under lockdown have no doubt accustomed ourselves to streaming movies, miniseries, theatre, opera, and classical music into our living rooms and dens via Chromecast and Fire TV, but in this instance, unlike Charlotte Symphony’s recent livestreams on Facebook and YouTube, our setup wouldn’t work with our Apple computers. We would need to purchase Apple TV or Roku to stream on our smart TV’s. Obviously, the streaming process is complicated when you establish a paywall via Eventive.
Fortunately, my computer monitor is fairly large, with HD, and audio can be channeled to my Yamaha receiver via Bluetooth, so I can be as discriminating about the sound of Joedance films as I am about the photography. There were a couple of kinks in the ticketing process, but neither of these degraded the quality of the product. In hindsight, Restaino likely wishes she had recorded different intros for each night of Joedance, but she did a fairly slick job for a beginner in reading her remarks. A segment of testimonials from Levine and Atrium personnel ran the first night and again on the second. When Restaino turned the proceedings over to festival director Chip White, solemnity vanished. Relaxed and spontaneous, White’s touch of folksiness isn’t about the suffering children or himself – or even about our glorious region. He sticks personably and concisely to the films.
On opening night, there were a half dozen, viewable for 24 hours after your virtual ticket was punched. The first, Penny Press, was a documentary that sent Blythewood, South Carolina, filmmaker Anil Dhokai out to Oklahoma, where his father-in-law has a collection of elongated coin-rolling machines locked away in his squat backyard barn. It’s hard to say what Dhokai’s father-in-law, Tyler Tyson, loves most as he extols the wonders of the coin-rolling machines, the dies he has designed for them, or the elongated coins themselves, which he has collected from his own creations and from anyone from anywhere who was willing to part with one of these treasures. Tyson is clearly a man who is prone to obsessions, but he becomes a cheerfully enthusiastic voiceover talent as Dhokai – using macro and telephoto lenses – homes in on individual coins, details of the pressing machines, and the rolling cogs of the presses as they turn pennies into mementos. There was one memorable obsession within Tyler’s obsessions, a series of coins he designed of places and mile markers along the fabled Route 66. I was so immersed in this lapidary world that I found the closing interior shot, as Tyler exited and shut the door of his little barn, a useful reminder of where we had been. Pity that the cramped quarters prevented Dhokai from shooting an establishing shot of all Tyson’s machines.
Gunpowder and Paperboy, written and directed by Durham native Todd Tinkham, was the first of two comedies on the bill – a zany, resolutely retro romance by a filmmaker and cinematographer, Rachael Silberman, who clearly know what they’re about. Opposites attract and spark in this film as Paula, alias Gunpowder, is smitten by Paperboy, the new kid at school. The newcomer is hidden behind a white papier-mâché mask topped with a crown of brown and gold paper curls. White curlicue gloves and sleeves complement the mask. We’ve been introduced to Paula’s pyromaniac tendencies in the intro where she’s playing with fireworks, but it’s in the classroom where her role as Paperboy’s champion is concisely planted. Paperboy sits down next to two bullies and a geek who will appear in a subsequent outdoor scene. One of the bullies makes his play, getting into Paperboy’s mask. Eventually, we see the bullies out in a field, getting set to beat up the geek, but Paula arrives on the scene, a goggled superhero with rockets shooting from each hand. When the bully starts up with Paperboy in class the next day, all Gunpowder needs to do is glare at him to make him stop. Lovably naïve, right? In 2020, we expect the bully to show up with an AK-47.
Romance is treated equally concisely, beginning with a recess scene outside the school building, where Gunpowder sidles up to Paperboy and lights up a cig. Paperboy reacted by inching away. A closeup of Paula’s cigarette smooshed into the brick wall and extinguishing capsulized her consideration – and her resolve. Then Paperboy, still texting on his cellphone, inched right back. A later scene began with a drone shot over a bridge as Gunpowder trailed Paperboy across a bridge, where they introduced themselves to each other. The spare dialogue that followed, as Paula set up a rendezvous with now-identified Dale, was admirably compressed, with a memorable pickup line, “Wanna watch the sun set?” Maybe a little too compressed, since Dale departs while the sun is still out. The aftertalk with Silberman and Tinkham, intercut with winsome outtakes from the filming, was the best of the evening, disclosing that most of the budget had been spent on fireworks. Of course, the closing shots of fireworks bursting in a nighttime sky, symbolizing romance achieved, didn’t exactly blaze new trails, but they didn’t need to.
By far the longest film of the night, written by Allen Gies and Shawn Nguyen, Karma’s Shadow was easily the most polished and complex, thanks to director and producer Rob Underhill, who hails from Morrisville. We can grasp that instantly in Underhill’s opening film-noire shot of a manhole cover exhaling steam into out-of-focus lights dotting an urban nightscape – and we hear it in the deep rumble of the musical score. In less than 25 minutes, Karma’s Shadow shuttled me back and forth from New York City in 1980 to battlefields in Vietnam and a shady Saigon saloon in 1970. New York cop JW is at the center of the tensions that drive this international thriller, temperamentally at odds with his old war buddy, Billy Preston, now a dirty politician in New York. Our hero has also made an enemy of Preston’s drug-dealing connection in Ho Chi Min City, Tien. JW may hardly remember Tien, who was jealous of the love that had flamed up between JW and Lan, the woman he wished to marry – with added spite toward the ease with which he formed a bond with Lan’s son Vu.
The situation was more than a little combustible as JW accompanied Billy to a showdown at mobster Adolfini’s lair. JW had not yet discovered that Billy was dirty and did not realize that Adinolfi had kidnapped the grown-up Vu. He certainly didn’t realize that Tien had poisoned Vu’s mind against him by saying that JW had murdered the beautiful Lan. Everyone is surprised that the girlfriend Vu has picked up within two days of arriving in the US is JW’s daughter. They try to play this absurd coincidence as comic relief, which may help viewers forget that Vu has swiftly direct-dialed Vietnam without operator assistance in 1980, an operation that requires 13-15 digits even today. There are other plot points to nitpick in the Gies-Nyugen script, but Underhill paces the action so swiftly you probably won’t catch them. The acting was more than a cut above the Powder-Paper idyll, with fine outings by R. Keith Harris as JW, Michael Rosander as Billy, Alexis Camins as Tien, Jennifer Finley as Lan, David Dollar as Adinolfi, and Jessie Leung as the elder Vu.
Written, directed, and produced by Kerry Everett out of Charlotte, Ella dramatized the story of the only woman ever lynched in Wyoming, Ellen Liddy Watson Averell. Under 15 minutes long before the postscript titles come on, Everett’s screenplay is a little too compressed. What Everett told us in her aftertalk, that one of the reasons Ella settled in Wyoming was because she could vote there, is barely hinted at in the opening scene, where Ella extracts a “Votes for Women” sash from a hope chest before going downstairs to serve dinner at a boardinghouse where she is employed. Things move quickly. Ella flirts with one of the boarders, Jimmy, between slices of pie, and he proposes to her on the front porch in the next scene. The wedding had to be performed secretly in another county so that Ella could achieve her ultimate goal, owning her own homestead.
Everett has a down-to-earth feel for the western genre, and both Caitlin Kresse as Ella and James Self as Jimmy strike us and brave pioneers, helped by well-chosen period costumes. But their nemesis, cattle baron A.J. Bothwell, gets the most wicked and colorful lines. Feasting on them, Lon Bumgarner reminds us of all that is most treasurable in indie films. This is a homespun laughing villain, not rugged, dignified, or snarling as Bumgarner goes completely against the Hollywood grain. Awkward and slightly scruffy, this Bothwell even waves his gun in an unfrightening fashion. Evil doesn’t need to be awesome to leave its mark. Everett only succumbs to indie pretension in framing her piece. We begin with an outdoor closeup of Ella gazing out into the distance, a shot that will replay after she and Jimmy have been strung in nooses by Bothwell and his gang. We either surmise that Ella is looking back on her life in that moment, or we just scratch our heads.
In her aftertalk, writer Sophia Watson disclosed that her 11-minute film, #Slut, was distilled from a screenplay that was originally 96 pages in length. With multiple layers to cope with, #Slut seems too trimmed for comfort, but Watson’s talents, as a writer and as the actress in title role, are unmistakable. The film is a cautionary tale about Grace, who wears the hashtag brand after a surveillance photo taken on a cellphone and broadcast over a laptop spreads its venom at her high school. Somebody does call her “slut” as she passes along a row of lockers in the hallway, but it’s unclear whether the teacher who exploits and abuses her afterwards knows anything about the cyber-slur. That tenuous connection is further weakened by Grace when she lingers in class after everyone else has left, and Mr. Blake makes his first move. There’s even a shot of Grace’s current boyfriend hesitating at the doorway before leaving the two alone.
The enveloping layer of the guy who snapped and broadcast the photo is left dormant while Grace’s story unfolds, fulfilling the voiceover we hear as he opens his laptop: “One small lapse in judgment can change lives forever.” When Grace’s story is done, we cut to a publisher’s office where the snoopy photographer’s manuscript has been accepted for a book. Mitigating this further exploitation of Grace’s story is the writer’s insistence that proceeds should go to a women’s charity. Jenna Kanel is sophisticated and laudably succinct in her direction, while Keller Fornes brings the right combination of charm and menace to the teacher’s role. Somehow, Blake is a single parent taking care of an infant that Grace babysits.
Finally, from filmmaker James Sunshine, there was The Mountains We Climb, a sweet and madcap comedy romp directed by Jeremy Camp. All of this miniature, barely lasting more than three minutes, took us into the mind of Alex on a first date. Both the girl and their restaurant rendezvous were chosen with appropriate cellphone apps. We heard no onscreen dialogue between Michael Meza as the eternally self-doubting Alex and Amanda Cruz as his cheerful and receptive date. Visually as the voiceover unfurled (shared by Meza with Josh Calvin), we shuttled between scenes of the actual Alex (primping, driving to the restaurant, and engaging with Judy, his date) and the mental Alex among scrub brush at the foot of a chalky mountain, which he laboriously proceeded to scale. Since we never hear how Alex charms Judy, the main payoffs are in cutaways when Judy finds Alex funny and later in the parking lot, where they kiss before parting. With Judy’s laugh, we switched from wilderness to woods, where fantasy Alex danced with delight, and after the kiss, we escalated to Alex frolicking half-naked at the foot of a waterfall. Comically, Alex’s self-doubt ultimately prevailed in the dead of night, but a series of outtakes at the falls returned us to joy after the credits rolled.
Multiply all these delights by three and you can grasp the magnitude of the Joedance Film Festival and the regional talent that has made it possible.
The COVID collapse happened quickly on March 13. “We were hours away from the curtain rising on our all-new Fairy-Tailored Sleeping Beauty when we had to postpone the season,” says Hope Muir, Charlotte Ballet’s artistic director. On the morning before that, Charlotte Symphony’s new director of communications, Deirdre Roddin, met with me to discuss future concert coverage at this publication. But the upcoming Saint-Saëns Organ Concerto concert would soon be postponed, among the first performing arts dominoes to fall to the pandemic in the week that followed – along with an annual Women in Jazz fest at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, the annual Charlotte Jewish Playwriting Contest at the Levine JCC, a chamber music concert at the Bechtler Museum, and Theatre Charlotte’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Tom Gabbard, president and CEO at Blumenthal Performing Arts, last attended a live show on March 11 – in the UK, before he and his wife Vickie returned home and tested positive for COVID-19. The Gabbards quarantined and recovered, but by the day after Ballet’s postponement, Gabbard had announced that all events at all Blumenthal venues were suspended through April 12. Complying with NC Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order suspending all public gatherings of 100 or more people, the Blumenthal directive took all decision making on the Saint-Saëns concert, scheduled for March 20, out of Symphony’s hands. Both of CSO’s primary venues, Belk Theater and Knight Theater, are managed by Blumenthal.
So far, Symphony has had to cancel 49 concerts. “That’s obviously a huge blow to the organization, both artistically and financially,” says Michelle Hamilton, CSO’s interim president and CEO. “The estimated financial impact of these concerts alone is in excess of $1.5 million. This does not include the impact of the pandemic on future concerts and attendance.”
On the revenue side, Opera Carolina wasn’t as seriously damaged as Symphony, losing just one event, an extensively revised version of Douglas Tappin’s I Dream. “The company received support through the Payroll Protection Plan [PPP],” says Opera artistic director, James Meena. “That has allowed us to maintain our staff and redirect funds to our new online series iStream, which has provided employment to our resident company.”
PPP funding has flowed to the most established arts organizations in Charlotte, including Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, Blumenthal Performing Arts, and Charlotte Symphony. “However,” Children’s Theatre artistic director Adam Burke points out, “the PPP was designed to help organizations through what Congress thought was going to be a short-term, 8-week issue.”
Blumenthal drew the largest PPP allotment, $1.7 million, that helped with payroll in May and June. “We avoided furloughs until July 5,” says Gabbard, “when three full-time and 114 part-time team members were furloughed – 105 full-time remain, mostly working from home, with some working in the venues on various maintenance projects. PPP made a big difference.”
What lies ahead for all Charlotte performing arts groups is very murky, subject to weekly health directives from city or state government officials loosening or tightening restrictions. “Opera is dealing with a multitude of challenges,” says Meena, “caused by COVID-19 and now the 43% reduction in ASC [Arts & Science Council] support for the 2020-2021 season. We are evaluating audience concerns for attending performances, and perhaps more dauntingly, health and safety concerns for our performing company.
“Singing is one of the most effective ways to spread the coronavirus. Many church choirs are rehearsing remotely, so imagine a 50-voice opera chorus, principal artists, extras and the more than 30 technicians who normally work on an opera production. Additionally, health and safety concerns for the orchestra musicians (imagine being confined – maybe consigned is a better word – to the orchestra pit where social distancing is all but impossible) are challenges to performing Grand Opera that we have never experienced before.”
All of the companies we’ve mentioned have pivoted to online programming, but all weren’t equally prepared to make the switch. Charlotte Ballet, the first company impacted by the COVID ban on public assembly, was quickest to steer a fresh course. “I had implemented a much more robust structure for archiving and curating digital content over the past three years,” says Muir, “not just performance footage but interviews with artists, designers, collaborators and behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage as well as the documentation of the Choreographic Lab. That commitment, I think, is why we were able to get out of the gate so quickly.”
Raiding their digitized vaults, Ballet was able to present Dispersal online, repackaging the company’s Innovative Works 2019 program with behind-the-scenes footage for a new kind of digital experience on March 27, just two weeks after Sleeping Beauty had been scheduled to premiere. Opera Carolina’s iStream series began in April and is archived on its YouTube channel, while Charlotte Symphony has logged an assortment of live Zoom and pre-recorded material online. For six straight Wednesday evenings, ending on July 29, they streamed a series of Al Fresco chamber music concerts recorded on video in the backyard of principal cellist Alan Black. It’s an avenue that will likely be revisited. Meanwhile, CSO has extensive recorded inventory to call upon, but unlike Charlotte Ballet’s, it is entirely audio, so their outlet of choice has been WDAV 89.9, where past concerts are aired on Friday evenings.
The mass exodus to streaming platforms has been global, creating a glut of available online events that don’t quite measure up to live performances. Charlotte Ballet has responded to this oversaturation by thinking outside the box. “I worked with choreographer Helen Pickett to discuss our options and this resulted in an opportunity for five of our dancers,” says Muir. “Charlotte Ballet joins artists from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Dance Theater of Harlem for part III of a trilogy Helen developed titled Home Studies, which is entirely choreographed and rehearsed via Zoom.”
Other companies are pushing the envelope by reimagining live performance under COVID restrictions. Rehearsing with masks and performing unmasked live at their dance studio, Caroline Calouche & Co. presented two online showings of A Love Show on July 25, charging admission for a ticket link. Theatre Charlotte is trying a more audacious outdoor model, presenting Grand Nights for Singing: The Parking Lot Performances on Friday nights outside their building, limiting audience size to 25, and charging $10 per ticket. Each of two performing singers wields a separate mic, there are no duets, and the audience is expected to provide their own chairs, snacks, and beverages.
“We are most likely not going to be able to perform for an audience in TC until at least December and maybe beyond,” says Ron Law, who was scheduled to retire June 30 but has extended for another season as Theatre Charlotte artistic director – and as President of the Board of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. “We have purchased appropriate video equipment so we can livestream productions. At this time, we are planning on doing performances of What I Did Last Summer by A.R. Gurney that will be livestreamed, with a per household ticket charge, on three dates in September.’
Waiting until June 11 to announce their 2020-21 season, Theatre Charlotte has prudently delayed their musical productions, The Sound of Music and Pippin, until spring 2021 – with understandable contingency plans. For their fall plays, they are tentatively offering their audience the options of live performances or streaming. Children’s Theatre have allowed themselves less wiggle room for 2020-21, eliminating musicals entirely from their slate. Yet their company, with video production a longtime component of their educational offerings, is probably the most adept we have in Charlotte when it comes to hybrid, live-or-streamed presentation skills.
While closing down all public performances at their two ImaginOn theaters, Children’s Theatre was at the tail-end of a 20-week School of Theatre Training programs, which culminates in four fully-produced OnStage presentations, two plays and two musicals. “We decided to move all four productions to a virtual format,” says Burke. “We’ve made other adjustments as well. We started some online educational programming and shifted our June summer camps to virtual experiences. In July we offered students the choice of virtual or in-person camps. We’ve kept close watch on all CDC, state and federal guidelines and have invested in some technologies that help us to maintain safety.”
Like Charlotte Ballet, Children’s has plenty of past performance video on file. They’ve edited these multi-camera shoots and served them up on a series of “Watch Party” webcasts. The new work keeps coming, further underscoring CTC’s technical prowess. “We’ve continued to move forward, as best we can, with the works that are in development including a collaboration with 37 children’s theatres across the country to adapt, as a virtual performance, the book A Kids Book About Racism.” That new piece launched into cyberspace on August 1. Other projects in the pipeline are Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, and a stage adaptation of the award-winning The Night Diary.
On March 12, the day before performing arts in Charlotte abruptly shut down, the town was abuzz in anticipation of Mecklenburg County announcing its first case of COVID-19. A surreal five months later – without any improvement, to be sure – announcements for the 2020-21 season, sensibly stalled in March, are beginning to flow amid a chaotic atmosphere in anticipation of the fall. Once again, Charlotte Ballet is at the vanguard, announcing that the long-delayed premiere of Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy-Tailored Classic will open at Belk Theater on December 10 – replacing the traditional Yuletide presentation of Nutcracker. Makes sense: the trimmed-down Tchaikovsky ballet remains family-friendly with a helpful narrator to keep us abreast of the storyline. Unlike Nutcracker, the Tailored Sleeping Beauty doesn’t consign the Charlotte Symphony to the orchestra pit, and it doesn’t recruit 150 sacrificial lambs for children’s roles, including the ever-lovable Clara.
Iffier but on the schedule is Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, scheduled for April 22-24. Muir is “holding onto a beacon of hope” that CSO will be able to collaborate with Symphony on that auspicious event, booked at Belk Theater. Opera Carolina maestro Meena has seen his own commitments scuttled in Italy, where he had planned to conduct Andrea Chenier, Manon Lescaut and Turandot. He doesn’t expect opera to resume in Italy until December, so he isn’t counting on Opera Carolina collaborating with CSO before 2021. Meanwhile, expect the unexpected as OpCarolina fires up a new chamber music series, reviving their iStream Online concerts the week of September 11, returning every two weeks through November 16.
Keeping his eyes open for online options and live opportunities, Actor’s Theatre artistic director Chip Decker isn’t counting on returning to live performance at Queens University before July 2021. Tom Hollis, theatre program director at Central Piedmont Community College, retired on August 1. But he didn’t go out directing a final season of CPCC Summer Theatre as he had planned, so he’s expecting to reprise the complete 2020 slate in the spring or summer of 2021. Sense and Sensibility, originally set for this past April, may also figure in the mix.
Gabbard, the first to respond to our questionnaire on July 14, said that over 300 performances had already been cancelled at Blumenthal’s multiple facilities and wasn’t expecting national tours – their bread and butter – to resume “until at least late fall, and perhaps early 2021.” Even outdoor stopgaps that Gabbard might stage in Charlotte’s Uptown must remain on the back burner until public gatherings of 100 or more are approved.
On the lookout for best practices and inspiration, Gabbard is looking globally, “including Seoul, Korea, where big musicals like Phantom have played throughout the pandemic. I was asked to join the COVID-19 Theater Think Tank in New York, where we are speaking with academics and thought leaders in a search not only for short-term solutions, but also ways to improve our venues and hygiene practices long-term.”
Bach Akademie Charlotte artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett slowly realized last spring that there was no way to mobilize the musicians, patrons, and audience that would be necessary to make the third annual Charlotte Bach Festival happen last June. Hurriedly, he pulled together a four-day virtual festival that streamed on Facebook, YouTube, and Zoom. Much like Actor’s Theatre and CPCC Summer Theatre, Jarrett is hoping that the June 2020 event will happen in June 2021.
The experience shook him. “The recognition that I hadn’t made music with another human being in a month hit me hard on Easter Sunday morning,” Jarrett recalls, “and I grieved deeply for several weeks. Gradually, the shared recognition of all that we were losing with one another affirmed a shared value for communal music making. Those conversations continue to sustain me.”
Jarrett is busy, busy, busy these days up in Boston, working as artistic director with the Back Bay Chorale on their new Zoom curriculum and as director of music at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel – and expecting to stay healthy. BU has taken the plunge, plowing millions of dollars into testing in an attempt to bring their student body back to campus, aiming to test all faculty weekly and all students twice weekly. Plans for the 2021 Charlotte Bach Festival are on hold, says Jarrett, until a proven vaccine delivers true COVID immunity.
Yet he’s clearly upbeat, even if he’s forced to deliver the 2021 Bach Experience via Zoom. Describing her own company’s trials, Charlotte Ballet’s Muir offers the best explanation for this paradox: “Once we realized this virus was not going anywhere quickly, we had to pivot and focus on new ways to keep the team motivated and creative. And this is where artists thrive! At our core, we are shape-shifters and it’s exhilarating to think of new ways to communicate and engage with one another.”
On the day of the latest Al Fresco concert, Charlotte Symphony had good news and bad news. Getting ready to set a YouTube reminder for my Chromecast hookup to the 7:30 webcast, I was encouraged to discover – on the Al Fresco webpage – that the Wednesday night series had been extended through at least July 29. Unfortunately, that good news may have been an outgrowth of the bad news announced earlier in the day: Symphony had canceled their Three-Week Summer Festival, slated to begin on August 7. All of the Festival events – a finely judged assortment that included Beethoven’s “Pastoral,” The Best of James Bond, Peter and the Wolf, On Tap at the Triple C brewery, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a free community concert – had been scheduled at indoor venues, running afoul of public assembly restrictions mandated in Raleigh and still in effect. It was merciful that Al Fresco concerts are pre-recorded, for host Alan Black and his “Romance of the Viola” guest musicians would have certainly been downcast if they were giving a live performance in the wake of this daunting setback.
As the latest program began in Black’s bosky backyard, with the CSO principal cellist in conversation with violist Kirsten Swanson, the series’ subtitle, “changing venues for changing times,” more than ever seemed to evoke an escape from Charlotte’s barren cultural climate under COVID siege, a welcome oasis in the musical wasteland. Adding to the freshness, Swanson and Black were discussing a pair of composers few Symphony subscribers had come across, Kjell Marcussen (1952- ) and Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979).
Black admitted discovering Marcussen a mere three weeks earlier while combing the internet – and, presumably, streaming services – in search of music written for the unique viola-cello instrumental combo. As a cursory YouTube search will confirm, the Norwegian composer does favor viola among orchestral instruments. Black could easily have found Marcussen’s “Berceuse” there, for it’s the first video that comes up in a Google search for the composer, but the composition also pops up readily on Spotify in a 2017 album, Dedications, recorded by the same Duo Oktava musicians, violist Povilas Syrrist-Gelgota and cellist Toril Syrrist-Gelgota. In solo compositions, Marcussen gravitates toward his own preferred instrument, the guitar, so it’s not at all surprising that guitarist Anders Clemens Øien shares the spotlight on the CD.
After watching Swanson and Black perform the “Berceuse,” I must say that I found the Oktava video stuffy and pretentious by comparison, and I’m only finding a new way to praise Bob Rydel’s audio engineering when I say that the sound at this Al Fresco concert was richer and more detailed than either the YouTube video or the CD (available on Apple Music as well as Spotify). Black gets a rich dark tone when he moves to the forefront in the exposition of this morose lullaby, but he’s more varied in his dynamics – and the pace is quicker, cutting more than 25 seconds off the Oktava’s fastest performance. The real difference maker, though, is Swanson when she takes the lead in the concluding half of the work with her lighter tone, making for a far more poignant experience than the Norwegian duo can muster. To be fair, I should say that I’ve been captivated – and perhaps swayed – by the open-air informality of the Al Fresco format, which certainly accentuated the élan of Black’s approach.
I have no record of hearing or reviewing Clarke’s music before March 2019 at the Savannah Music Festival, where chamber music host Daniel Hope reprised the composer’s Dumka, a piece the famed violinist had played on a Naxos recording of Clarke’s music. That estimable album, recorded in 2007, showcased Clarke’s most famous work, her Viola Sonata – played by violist Philip Dukes. As you may know, Dukes would have succeeded Hope as the chamber music director at Savannah Music Festival this year if the 17-day event hadn’t been canceled. Black and Swanson discussed Viola Sonata in the context of Clarke’s stature among her contemporaries. Clarke herself was a world-class violist (and violinist), and she submitted her chef d’oeuvre to a 1919 competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge at the Berkshire Festival. Ernest Bloch and Paul Hindemith were also among the 72 entries, Swanson noted. Depending on which account you read, Clarke either tied Bloch for the Coolidge Prize until Coolidge bumped her down to second place, or she took the runner-up spot outright.
The piece that Swanson and Black would play, “Lullaby,” was more modest in its aspirations than the brooding, turbulent, three-movement Sonata – its epic first movement is marked Impetuoso! – but this more abbreviated work probably dates from the same period, in 1918. Black was quick to point out the piece’s accidental relevance to today, written during the Spanish Flu pandemic, and though Swanson remarked on how such periods of confinement often prove fertile for creativity, this “Lullaby” had an unmistakably mournful sound, not unlike Samuel Barber’s more funereal “Adagio,” with a similar peak before taking a breath for the last third of the piece. As beautiful as the playing is, from Black in particular, this duo’s interpretation lacks the contours you’ll find on the excellent Centaur recording of this work, where both cellist Moisés Molina and violist Kenneth Martinson assert themselves more forcefully and emotionally.
With Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960) taking us back to the brink of the modernity with his 1902 Serenade in C Major for string trio, Al Fresco completed its second consecutive concert of music written entirely since the dawn of the 20th century. Both Swanson and Black lauded the solos Dohnányi had written for viola at the outset of the Romanza second movement and toward the end of the theme-and-variations fourth movement. Submitting his regrets for sitting out the trio, Black was replaced onstage by cellist Marlene Ballena and associate concertmaster Joseph Meyer.
I found this performance more likable, in the early movements and in the Rondo Finale, than on my 2003 Naxos CD with members of the Spectrum Concerts Berlin, where the players sounded too slick and harmonious after hearing the fresher, livelier Charlotte trio. The Symphony musicians skipped over the middle Scherzo movement and didn’t find nearly as much emotion in the Tema con variazioni because their pacing and dynamics were more monochromatic. Yet in the passages extolled by our host and Swanson in their conversation, the violist lived up to the hype. Even so, it can be said that Swanson’s softly accompanied solo in the Romanza, about 75 seconds in length, became a launchpad when Meyer entered with his violin, picked up the pace, turned up the volume, and soared. Between Swanson’s best bits in the Tema con Variazioni, Ballena had her finest moments. Rydel’s engineering also merits special praise here, for the entire trio is subtly encased in a warm concert hall ambiance.
With the cancellation of Charlotte Symphony’s Three-Week Summer Festival, extension of this Al Fresco series was obviously a logical move. But it should be remarked that, with the cancellation of six upcoming programs, and with no orchestral programming on the near horizon, more of Symphony musicians’ energies can be devoted to future Al Fresco concerts. In their sound and musicianship, they can’t get much better, but in their scope, we can certainly anticipate bigger things to come. If there’s anything to carry away from Al Fresco – and carry over to CSO programming when it returns to our familiar concert halls – it’s the notion that repertoire isn’t merely a balancing act between what the public craves and what Symphony’s maestro longs to present. As we’ve already seen, Symphony’s musicians also have some entertaining and rewarding ideas.
Charlotte Symphony’s new Al Fresco series had already reached an admirable level of originality in its first four installments. Although they had launched many inventive series in the past, chamber music had been off-limits programming before the current pandemic, and we can only attribute the birth of an online-only series to the necessities of our current plight. But thanks to two multi-talented Symphony musicians, principal cellist Alan Black and French hornist Bob Rydel, weekly Al Fresco webcasts have not only been judiciously programmed and masterfully played, they have risen to admirable distinction with Black’s insightful interviews and Rydel’s remarkable audio engineering in an outdoor setting and his immaculate video editing.
The original touches enhancing all this artistry and virtuosity have been in Black’s emphasis on the musicians’ point-of-view in interviewing his guests and in the creative editing of each episode. Unlike a concert in real time, a prerecorded concert can dispense with scenery changes as we shift from one set of players to another – or from interview mode to performance. Beyond that, Black and Rydel have occasionally flipped the chronology of interviews and performances in their episodes. That innovation allows Black to discuss performances we’re about to see with his fellow musicians – as in the previous “Viennese Serenades” concert, where Black and two Symphony violinist discussed what it was like to play a swift Haydn divertimento while wearing masks.
The latest Al Fresco concert, “All-Lamb Jam,” added new layers of originality, an entire program of new compositions by Symphony cellist Jeremy Lamb and interviews with the composer that took us through how his music came to be written. After a brief welcome to us and an intro to Lamb, now a member of Symphony’s cello corps for three-and-a-half years, Black plunged right into the unique titles of the three-part Lamb Jam Set. As it turns out, they had a lot to do with the musicians that Lamb wrote the piece for, cellist Sarah Markle and bassist Taddes Korris, with whom he bonded shortly after joining Charlotte Symphony.
A prime motive for writing all the pieces on the program turned out to be the scarcity of music previously written for two cellos and a bass. Both Markle and Korris, Lamb soon found out, were vegans, so “The Hempeh Tempeh Jam” was an outgrowth of Lamb’s learning curve as he struggled to remember the difference between the two soy products. The entire Lamb Jam was itself an outgrowth, the composer revealed, of a melody that hit him during work on A Ride on Oumuamua, the more ambitious piece that would conclude the concert.
As for Lamb’s anecdotes about the other titles in the Lamb Jam, “A Stroll Down Alpha Mill Lane” and “Keepin’ It Schwifty,” those would have to wait until I replayed the episode later. Weather at my viewing location, across the state line in York County, scrambled the audio and visual signals that followed in this conversation between Black and Lamb. Fortunately, I was able to recover the YouTube channel in time for the music to begin. “Hempeh Tempeh” sported the back-and-forth feeling that might have been evoked by its title, for the harmonized melody line of the two cellos drew shuffling answers from Korris’s bowed double bass. In the next chorus, Lamb and Markle played higher and longer, and the Korris answer bridged the end of this chorus and the beginning of the next, where the cellos were now answering him. Lamb was clearly the lead afterwards as the music grew bluesier in the closing chorus. It was only after I replayed the episode that I heard Lamb’s confirmation that his template for “Hempeh Tempeh” and the ensuing “Alpha Mill Lane” was a 12-bar blues. As you could expect, “A Stroll Down Alpha Mill Lane,” named after the street where Markle and Korris reside, ambled along at a medium-speed loping gait, and you might find it (at the Al Fresco webpage) even jazzier than the opening piece in the Jam, with a nifty Korris glissando launching the final chorus.
The “Schwifty” title derives from the cartoon world of Rick and Morty, a realm where my erudition is limited to an animated 87-second clip on YouTube. It’s easily the most free and provocative movement in Lamb’s suite – and the one that most decisively deserves to be called a jam. It began with a Korris pizzicato intro, taken up by Markle as Lamb carried the melody. Two of the sections had the feel of an accelerating locomotive, with Markle emphatically seizing the lead at cruising speed the first time around as Lamb sawed a propulsive ostinato. Korris also had some telling licks during the fray, which was driving and bluesy in the medium-tempo sections. The rocking sway of the most memorable passages were even more reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s “Any Way You Want Me” than parts of “Alpha Mill Lane” had been.
Named for the first interstellar stellar object to have ever been observed passing through our solar system, A Ride on Oumuamua ambitiously chronicles the birth of the object (estimated in 2017 at perhaps more than a half-mile in length), its epic journey through space, its arrival in our solar system, its flybys the sun and the Earth, and its voyage beyond. In his second conversation with Black, Lamb credited a Glass-like riff that he heard Korris playing for inspiring his Oumuamua, but in his opening section, “In the beginning, the motion of the stars,” Korris contributes richly yet sparingly, his long, widely spaced notes simulating the primordial darkness in which the cellos’ arpeggios play out. With the opening notes of the ensuing section, “Oumuamua is hurled away; the journey begins,” Lamb has already broken free from Glass’s minimalism. Other notable sections follow before Oumuamua reaches our solar system. Korris has a fine melodic lead in “…icy worlds appear,” where the cellists both get chances to sing, and in “…a lonely voyage; calling out,” there was a forlorn cadenza for Lamb that seemed to float in deep space.
Because the titles flash only briefly onscreen, in thin white letters spread across an orange brushstroke design, you might miss some of the 14 section titles on your first viewing. That’s the only significant production flaw I’ve found so far in the Al Fresco concerts, requiring me to “rewind” numerous times as I documented the titles that flashed on and off the bottom of the screen. Oumuamua went on to make Lamb’s strongest case for composing music for this unique instrumental combination – and a strong argument for applying Glass’s hypnotic arpeggios to space travel. In the course of “…Earth appears,” “…Earth fades into the distance,” and his concluding “…infinite vistas: time loses meaning,” Lamb reminded me more than once of the sensation of interstellar travel that Star Trek delivered on TV, his fadeaways particularly evocative. Yet Lamb didn’t conclude with a fadeout. Instead, he seemed to circle back to the cello arpeggios that had signaled Oumuamua’s birth, stopping abruptly when the reprise had barely begun. The more I thought about it, the more appropriate it seemed.