CP’s “Joseph” Connects With Talent and Style, Frustrates With Ongoing Audio Woes

Review:  Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Halton Theater

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Before this weekend, Halton Theater hadn’t opened its doors to a theatre crowd since February 2020, and Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre had been dark since July 2019, when they closed their five-show season with A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Returning to the Halton stage as guest director of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Tom Hollis posed a poignant question during his introductory remarks. Does it really count as a season when a company offers its audience just one production? Even the most loyal Central Piedmont supporter can’t buy a 2021 season ticket, that’s for sure. And until Central Piedmont Community College completes its recovery from a debilitating ransomware attack this past winter, they won’t be able to accept credit card payments at their Overcash ticket windows. Cash or checks for walk-ups, plastic for online sales only.

Opening night at Halton was a cautious first step back toward pre-pandemic norms – with a Delta-be-damned giddiness to it as COVID protocols were loosened at last. For most of the crowd mingling in the Halton lobby before and after the show, this was probably the first public event they had risked in at least 16 months, a milestone moment. For the theatre folk scattered among us, it was an emotional reunion – an affirmation.

Last season was originally envisioned as Hollis’s grand valedictory after nearly four decades at Central Piedmont, his latter years as theatre department chair. An encore reset of the lost 2020 season was rumored for a while as Central Piedmont scrambled with their winter programming, so Joseph is a double surprise – not among the shows announced for the lost 47th Central Piedmont Summer Theatre season and the only show replacing them. Previously mounted in Summer 1993 and revived in Summer 2001 at the now-demolished Pease Auditorium (the CPCC Theatre production of 2008 at the Halton was a wintertime affair) – with rousing success on all occasions – Joseph is likely more bankable than Footloose, lighter on the budget than The Music Man, and far better-known and cheaper to produce than Something Rotten! Additionally, there is likely a finely calculated ecology in a true Central Piedmont Summer season that allows the college the biggest bang for their bucks when auditioning and casting their overall troupe of performers and designers. These discarded musicals, plus Peter Pan Jr. and a Ken Ludwig comedy, might conceivably be in cold storage, slated for resurrection in 2022.THEA2021-DLV-0708-1267

Sitting in Row K, I only noticed one gentleman taking a restroom break during this intermission-free presentation, and I was somewhat surprised that the cast began taking their bows a mere 71 minutes after the show commenced. Another eight minutes came packaged in a “Megamix” reprise of Webber’s most bodacious songs – or parodies, since the composer delights in shuttling among an unlikely array of genres in retelling the most epic tale from the Book of Genesis, aided by Tim Rice’s lyrics. The news of Joseph’s demise is delivered to his doting father, Jacob, in the form of a sobbing lone-prairie cowboy song. Pharaoh is transformed into a pre-historic Elvis as he rocks his account of his prophetic dreams. The poverty of Joseph’s 11 brothers during the years of famine takes on the nostalgic air of a sad French café, complete with Apache dancer, and Naphtali’s pleas for the innocence of little brother Benjamin come in the form of a Caribbean calypso.THEA2021-DLV-0708-1815

Curiously, the irreverence and multitudinous anachronisms of this Webber-Rice concoction, not to mention the narrative alterations of Holy Writ, have never seemed to spark any massive public outcry from Judeo-Christian clergy. Maybe the outright anachronisms, beginning with the Technicolor in the title, insulate all the irreverence and textual tinkering from being taken seriously. James Duke’s scenic design and Bob Croghan’s costume design underscore the assurance that we are not in the immediate vicinity of ancient Egypt or Canaan, fortified by the equally anachronistic projection designs by Infante Media. No, this is more like a Disney or a Las Vegas style of Egypt, with Duke taking full advantage of the lordly height of the Halton stage compared with Pease’s pancake panorama. Our Elvis is also a Vegas version, clearly the sequined, jumpsuited, decadent superstar of his latter days. The Duke-Infante collaboration is so glittery and colorful that it is only slightly upstaged by Croghan’s creations for Pharaoh and Joseph.THEA2021-DLV-0708-1357

You don’t often get the chance to design a costume that is hyped in the title of a show, and Croghan, on the Charlotte scene even longer than I, doesn’t disappoint. The impact of this mid-pandemic return to live theatre caught me off-guard several times. Each time a major character made his or her first entrance – Lindsey Schroeder as our Narrator, Rixey Terry as Joseph, and J. Michael Beech as Pharaoh – I had that tingling sensation of recognizing something basic and exciting that had been missing in my life for over a year.

My biggest surprise, a frisson of renewal, came from the audience when they reacted to the most iconic moment in Joseph, when the brothers picked up the skirts of Croghan’s knockout dreamcoat so that it formed a pinwheel around Rixey, spinning around as he, Schroeder, and the ensemble sang “Joseph’s Coat.” Anybody even glancingly familiar with musical theatre anticipates this moment before it happens, or at least recalls it fondly from a previous encounter. But part of the audience at Halton erupted in delighted and surprised laughter, recalling what the first London and Broadway and high school audiences must have experienced when Joseph was new and reminding me of my own delight back in 1993.THEA2021-DLV-0708-1130

Rixey walked a treacherous tightrope, blending innocence with vanity as beautifully and energetically as any Joseph I’ve ever seen, lacking the cloying wholesomeness that only true Donny Osmond fans will miss. Maybe a plunge or two into that saccharine syrup might make Rixey more memorable in “Any Dream Will Do,” but I would prefer that he add a sprinkling of excess to those melodramatic moments when he is unjustly imprisoned, crying out his “Close Every Door.” Lighting designer Jeff Childs does come to the prisoner’s rescue, adding some spiritual gravitas.

Schroeder was brimful of brilliance as the Narrator, infusing enough energy into her string of recitative that it never devolved into tedious singsong, though she was often unintelligible. Beech’s misfortunes with his microphone were even more egregious as Pharaoh, including intermittent sonic dropouts, but his audio setup was likely jostled over the course of the evening, since he donned different costumes and headgear for his other roles – Jacob, Potiphar, and the doomed Baker.

Admittedly, it’s churlish of me to keep harping on Central Piedmont’s defective sound equipment and the cavalcade of professional-grade technicians who have failed to tame it. North of $115 million are being spent on replacing Pease, originally a lecture hall, with a genuine theatre facility, while Central Piedmont’s audio woes have gone unaddressed since 2005, when the Halton was new. But new generations come to the Halton every year, and new summer visitors from afar get their first taste of Charlotte theatre there – and they still need to be cautioned. By the time the “Megamix” came around on opening night, Beech’s “Song of the King” was only fitfully audible and Schroeder’s mic was intermittently dropping out.

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More power, then, to the performers onstage who merrily soldiered through. Even the charade of the brothers’ mournful moments was untarnished. All of the cameo solos hit their marks. Matthew Howie was hilariously rusticated as Reuben delivering the bad news to Jacob with “One More Angel,” and Neifert Enrique as Simeon – aided by his brothers and Emma Metzger’s scene-stealing table dance – brought a boulevardier’s wistful regret to “Those Canaan Days,” with more than a soupçon of self-mockery in his lamentations.

Even more THEA2021-DLV-0708-2049irrepressible and irresistible was the calypso lightness and joy that Griffin Digsby brought to the “Benjamin Calypso” as Naphtali. Around the third or fourth time Digsby reached the “Oh no! Not he!” refrain, I had to stop myself, for I had started to sing along. Just another adjustment I’ll need to make after 16 months of consuming theatre in front of my computer monitor and TV set. It was hard to be displeased by anything that accompanied this welcome change.

The Cookers Heat Up the Cistern

Review:  The Cookers at Spoleto

By Perry Tannenbaum

Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.comAfter a pandemic-induced hiatus that canceled last-year’s 17-day event, Spoleto Festival USA is back in Charleston for 2021 – but not all the way. Opera, symphony, and choral presentations remain in lockdown, Spoleto’s indoor jazz venue remains shuttered, and the long-anticipated premiere of Rhiannon Gidden’s Omar remains on hold until 2022. The festival’s general director, Nigel Redden, who has announced that he will be stepping down in October after a 26-year stint at the helm, admitted that the efficacy of COVID vaccines and the speed of recovery had wrong-footed Spoleto in their scheduling.

The only indoor events at Spoleto this year were The Woman in Black, on loan from its epic 30-year run in London’s West End, and the daily series of lunchtime chamber music concerts at historic Dock Street Theatre, always the bedrock of the festival. Live dance and music events are otherwise outdoors. With necessity as their mother, a whole brood virtual events, presented online or on your cellphone, has been invented.

Deep in the heart of Trump Country, Spoleto does impose social distancing in arranging seating, and they ask ticketholders to be properly masked until they are isolated in their seating pods. These hardships didn’t seem to dampen the rush on the festival box office, creating a quandary for omnivores like me. Press comps were unavailable for the first 12 chamber music concerts, forcing us to miss the opening weekend with its combo of New Orleans celebrations on successive nights at The Cistern. The first of these featured the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the second, a tribute to the life and music of multi-instrumentalist Danny Barker, offered Catherine Russell as its featured vocalist.

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Since I had reviewed performances by both Preservation Hall and Russell in recent years, I punted on the first weekend and opted for The Cookers on the middle weekend of Spoleto, when access to the chamber music series would also open up. Allowing us to catch up with such heavyweights as George Cables, Cecil McBee, Eddie Henderson, and Billy Hart, all of whom I knew well from recordings but had never seen live, The Cookers were anything but a consolation prize. Then there was also an opportunity to reconnect with Billy Harper and Donald Harrison, two sax greats whom I hadn’t seen on a bandstand in well over 10 years.

If the weather cooperated.

Over and over, I had checked on the forecasts. No wavering from predictions of thunderstorms slated to plague that second weekend – and no contingency plans, the press office told me, if the Saturday night concert were to be rained out. It was a nail-biter, especially after what happened to us on Friday night. My wife Sue and I were nearly finished with dinner when my iPhone beeped with a text telling me that Ballet Under the Stars had been cancelled. By then, rain was pouring down so ferociously that, after paying our bill, we told our waitress to open a dessert tab.

We could be thankful that we made it back to our hotel that night, because the floodwaters near where we had parked reached the tops of our tires at one of the intersections. We soon passed police barricades barring traffic to the streets we had just left moments before.

Ominous clouds loomed overhead as we walked past The Cistern on the night of the concert. Spoleto crew were obviously no more confident than we were. Tentpoles surrounded the bandstand where The Cookers were scheduled to perform, with a white carnival-like canopy protecting the electronics. We speculated that maybe they would perform in a light rain and let the audience fend for themselves. Or maybe The Cookers were merely having a cookout.

As we took our seats underneath one of The Cistern’s live oaks, the stage crew moved the tentpoles and canopy off the staging platform minutes before the 9:00pm start. Apparently, local radar had given the band a green light. But for how long? We’ve seen scenarios – including just two years ago, when Carla Bley brought her trio to The Cistern – when festival officials, citing an oncoming storm, forced the performers to curtail their program.

Fortune smiled on us, for the band not only stayed onstage for the scheduled hour-and-a-quarter, they overstayed, lingering longer than 90 minutes. Some might also say they overcooked, for these were mostly searing, incendiary performances. The only mellowing agents all evening long were bassist McBee, who merely smoked on his solo in his own “Peacemaker,” and trumpeter David Weiss, organizer of the group and its spokesman, whose sizzling hot solos actually seemed to cool things down amid this torrid zone of horns.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Tenor saxophonist Harper, brooding by the keyboard near Cables and playing a gruff, disconnected cadenza, clued us into how it would be. This turbulence was before Harper joined the other horns downstage for the four-barreled launch of his “Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart,” the title tune of the band’s most recent release. Within moments of this brash and brassy opening salvo, Harper seemed to have the stage all to himself, totally possessed as he unleashed a snarling, squealing, epic rant that announced he was ready for more than a cutting contest – he was geared-up for a knife fight.

When Henderson returned to his mic with his trumpet, and when Harrison followed with his alto sax, each man soloed as if Harper’s gauntlet had been tossed at him, dueling with the tenor great and with each other. After Henderson answered Harper’s fury with some awesome flame throwing, Harrison didn’t flinch, firing off a face-melting solo of his own. Arrangements for this and three other Cookers tunes from past CDs were looser live than in their studio versions, encouraging all this calculated fury and derangement. If you caught the body language of whoever was blowing and the next man up, you were hip to the fact that there was no ironclad limit to the solos.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

With relative subtlety, the rhythm section of Cables, McBee, and Hart seemed relegated to timekeeping toward the rear of the bandstand as the men with the horns jousted in the foreground. Like McBee in “Peacemaker,” both the pianist and drummer got their shots. Cables set up his own composition, “The Mystery of Monifa Brown,” which was the only tune in the set not previously recorded by the septet. On the Cistern stage, the group totally transformed the tune from what it was on the 2016 Songbook album with Cables’ trio. Not only did the addition of the horns bring fresh fire, Cables himself thundered in a way that came far closer to the sound and percussive fury of McCoy Tyner.

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As often happens in live concerts, drummer Hart got his chance to shine in the finale, Wayne Shorter’s “The Core,” after yet another searing peroration from Harper’s tenor. The sizzle of Billy’s cymbals and the barrage on his toms left scorched earth in his wake.

Paradoxically, Henderson may have received the most precious gift of the night as the Harper tune of the set, “If One Could Only See,” gave the trumpet ace an opportunity to slow the tempo – an oasis of meditative calm amid the livid flame-broiling at The Cistern. For many in the crowd, the change of pace may have come as a revelation, but for those of us who have followed the group since their genesis in 2010, it was a reminder that The Cookers can still deliver when they turn down the heat.

Jazz at Spoleto culminates this weekend with Jason and Alicia Moran’s co-production, Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration. Instead of Reconstruction, the Morans will be focusing on the music of 1910-1970 – and the key moments that forged so much of modern American music afterwards. Aside from the Morans, Wycliffe Gordon and the Imani Winds are among the talents gathered under the live oaks at The Cistern for this musical narrative.

Gay Educators Freak While Their Gay Students Cope in “Neaptide”

Review: Neaptide Via Vimeo from UNC School of the Arts

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In a twisted way, this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic year brought more to Ticket Knowlton’s senior year thesis than it took away. Slated to direct the UNC School of the Arts’ production of Neaptide by British feminist playwright Sarah Daniels, Knowlton lost the opportunity to interact with cast, crew, and design team in a normal theatre environment and to see the effect of their work on a live audience. But Knowlton (identifying as they/them/their) remained the first gender-nonconforming director to pilot a School of Drama show, and they weren’t content to simply livestream the production or to simply record it as if it were a standard TV studio sitcom.

The product that resulted from months of experimentation, adjustment, improvisation, and collaboration feels like a faithfully recorded theatrical production– with added sparks of cinematic up-closeness and video editing. And the polish from both the School of Drama cast and the video team, compounded by lighting and design that made me nostalgic for the edgy contemporary drama I would catch at various unexpected sites around London, was nothing short of astonishing. Every shot by Jeremiah McLamb and his JerFilm Productions comes through the traditional “fourth wall,” but always from the perfect angle and distance. Two days after I witnessed the Neaptide streamcast, this ranking of the World’s Best Drama Schools in The Hollywood Reporter, placing UNCSA fourth, reassured me that I could believe my eyes.

Neaptide, the first play by a contemporary playwright to be produced at the National Theatre back in 1986, is twisty enough on its own. Two lesbians will be seen in the faculty lounge that becomes the center of gravity for Daniels’ dramatic action. Or is it three? They are so closeted during the Margaret Thatcher Era in the UK. Bringing things to a head, two student lesbians are caught kissing in the girls’ bathroom, and instead of discreetly agreeing to tone it down, both decide boldly to come out. This brewing scandal tugs at the sympathies of our heroine, Claire, on the rise as the best teacher at the school, while drawing a defensive and punishing reaction from Beatrice, the school principal who has just rewarded Claire’s excellence with a promotion. Yet both Claire and Beatrice have good reasons not to champion these renegade students. Claire’s ambivalence, with her career and custody of her daughter Poppy at stake, is the most compelling quandary.

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So for my American ears, the flabbiness and misdirection of Daniels’ script turned out to be godsends. We began in a sanitorium with Claire’s sister Val, harshly spotlit, alone on a hospital gurney. Not long afterwards, her Mom drops by – an earnest, meddling, judgmental, endlessly tedious and annoying Joyce in a bravura performance by Jane Clara Cooper. Imagine a whining Mary Tyler Moore on acid. When we flash back after this encounter, most of which I hardly understood, I presumed that our main focus would be on how dear Val wound up in this loony bin. Eventually, we do learn what Val has done to earn her hospital gown – but there’s nothing close to profundity about why she’s done it. Eddy Grace gets to give us an emotionally intense performance as Val, her mania at the hospital followed by scenes with her children and her husband Colin, including the crackup.

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Yet Val and Joyce, along with whatever the crux of their antipathy may have been, drift rather abruptly to the periphery after the opening sequence. By the time we began homing in on Val and her precious relationship with Poppy, I found that I was sufficiently oriented to navigate their British accents and to follow the main storylines almost effortlessly. During the initial hospital scene, I was loading up to pillory accent coach Robin Christian-McNair, but ultimately, I was quite amazed by her results. The banter in the faculty lounge – and the lesbian scandal – are even more intelligible than the familial grappling.

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Contrasting with the pandemonium and crassness of Val’s household (television! dry cereal!), Claire’s home life is serenity, love, and cultural enrichment. Notwithstanding Joyce’s backbiting intrusions, Daniels goes out of her way to show us that Claire is the worthiest of moms. Like the playwright, Claire is a bit of a propagandist, reading to dear Poppy the myth of Demeter and her daughters as a bedtime story. Persephone, the daughter who is abducted by Hades, is paralleled to Poppy, so her dad Lawrence must surely be the King of the Underworld.

I wasn’t put off by the not-so-subtle indoctrination of this bedtime ritual as much as I was by its sweet tedium, for it wastes much of Yasmin Pascall’s time onstage as Claire, obliging her to establish herself in lullaby mode as being cuddly and wholesome. Pascall’s talent comes out far more powerfully when she faces the big conflicts in Claire’s life, at home and at school, struggling with ambivalence as a parent and teacher. We also see a frazzled Pascall – and some fairly insane slapstick – when Claire tries to cope with Val’s incorrigible brood at the breakfast table.

Since Daniels hardly assigns two dimensions for Parker Robertson to work with as Lawrence, let alone three, we’re more likely to invest ourselves with the drama at school, and an edgier gender struggle that Claire is more hesitant in coming to terms with. Making it easier was Noa Beckham-Chasnoff as Beatrice, the school principal, whose sex and sexuality have taught her the Gospel of expedience. It grows more shocking and heinous to find that her punitive attitude toward Diane and Terri, the teen lesbians, has somehow been hardened by Bea’s settled ways of dealing with her own sexuality. Perhaps conceived as belonging to the same generation, Beckham-Chasnoff shows us a Beatrice who is as tightly wound as Joyce, but primmer. Bea’s growth and development seem more natural during the arc of her action, so we can feel more affection for her towards the end.

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Knowlton and the JerFilm Productions film team mostly show us over-the-shoulder views of Lawrence, dooming whatever attempts Robertson may have made to humanize him. Amar Bains finds the richest terrain among the men’s roles, infusing Colin with spurts of anxiety, fear, frustration, powerlessness, and despair as he tries to cope with Val’s volatility. The other boys and men onstage are rather comical, though Lawrence Davis brings a chummy sleaziness to Roger, the English teacher who lusts after Claire, a portrayal that sets him apart. Daniels isn’t at all sentimental about her lesbian teens, allowing N’yomi Stewart as Diane and Belle Le as Terri to act more like punkish, rambunctious pals than lovers. Olivia Daponde is sweet innocence and devotion as Poppy, though perhaps not as malleable and fragile as her elders think. In an inadvertently comical moment, Daponde is barely light enough for Pascall to carry offstage at the end of their tender lullaby scene. Pascall manages that lift as heroically as the other burdens of her role.

By the way, if you’re appalled that any mother would name her child Ticket, she didn’t. They did, just recently. And it’s okay if you call them Lil Ticky. Me? I’m sticking with Ticket, even if they go paperless.

“Appalachian Spring” Brings Glory to Picnickers on the Symphony Park Greensward

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Evenings at the Park Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Whether or not history ultimately judges them premature, the reawakenings happening across America this past month – at sports and performing arts – are destined to be lasting memories for those of us who make it to the other side of this waning pandemic. More than Charlotte Symphony’s return to Belk Theater five weeks ago, more than the five events my wife Sue and I attended at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston earlier this month, the most recent Evenings at the Park concert at Symphony Park felt like a regathering and reaffirmation of our community. String players and the Symphony president had worn masks on the Belk Theater stage, and the spacing of the musicians underscored how few there were behind guest soloist Branford Marsalis. At Spoleto, the absence of the usual opera, orchestral, and choral presentations left the indoor and outdoor stages in Charleston similarly depopulated.

Onstage at Symphony Park for Father’s Day weekend, the string players, associate conductor Christopher James Lees, and all the other players were unmasked, apparently spaced normally. Woodwinds, brass, and percussion were amply represented, so the selections from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite weren’t drained of their customary colors. Wedged between them, David R. Gillingham’s Appalachian Counterpoint rounded out a 50-minute program of music connected to the Carolinas.

2021~Symphony Evening @ Park-03Malleted percussion and a harp were in the forefront as the Porgy and Bess selections began in a mysterious mood, veering toward the romantic with the iconic “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and – after an interjection from a 747 jet – taking a jaunty, brassy turn with “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.” Violins ushered in “Summertime” with a softly cradling sway, handing off to a forlorn oboe before “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’” entered brashly with the swagger of a trombone over a clarinet. After so many months of watching masked string players soldiering on, I felt gratified to be in a crowd listening to long-sidelined flutes, a muted trumpet, wood blocks, and a xylophone joining with their bowing comrades as the orchestra cruised through “There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way” before circling back to the inevitable “Bess.”

After all the heavy-lifting and going-it-alone that the string sections of Charlotte Symphony have done on local stages since last October, it was nice to hear Lees telling us that the strings would be sitting out the next piece while the winds, brass, and percussion carried on. A luxury well-earned! Originally written for a tuba-euphonium quartet last year, Gillingham based his Appalachian Counterpoint on an old folk lullaby, “All the Pretty Little Horses.” As the absence of strings hints, Gillingham didn’t keep the tune in that sleepy idiom in composing his contrapuntal contortions. This expanded version gave the different strands of the original quartet to different instruments, so it lost much of its original mellowness while ascending into the treble.

Even in the slow middle section, sandwiched between the two speedier sections that were conspicuously cast in a mountain mode, Gillingham wasn’t about lulling us. Since a brassy modernistic scattering was happening in this more diverse version than in the quartet original, it would have been useful for Lees to let us hear the traditional “All the Pretty Little Horses” melody briefly before performing Gillingham’s Counterpoint. That way, those of us hearing the piece for the first time could track the theme more easily.

Darkness didn’t envelop the park until after Appalachian Spring concluded, so those attending an outdoor Charlotte Symphony concert for the first time never did get to see the beauty of the vast stage canopy when it is lit up – in a succession of vivid colors – under the stars. Nonetheless, we could hear how ideally suited this vernal piece is for the outdoors in its quiet beginnings when the chirping of the birds and the chuffing of the cicadas mingled with the music, casting a twilight spell over the greensward and our assembly of picnickers. The cavalcade of beautifully-stitched-together ballet episodes ranged from hoedown to scenic grandeur and from slapstick to sanctity, giving various sections of the orchestra a workout while evoking the variety of moods and costumes that Martha Graham and her dance company envisioned in the 1944 choreography.

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During the ebb and flow of energy and sublimity, Lees never allowed his ensemble – or his audience – to drift into doldrums, deftly insinuating the strains of the Shaker tune, “Simple Gifts,” into the shifting panorama. At first, the tune danced tentatively. Soon it frolicked. While the stage never illuminated, it seemed to burst into bloom at that spectacular moment when, out of an expectant hush, Copland brings his recurring tune to full force and glory. It was only in the quiet aftermath that the riskiness of programming Appalachian Spring as an outdoor concert finale was cruelly exposed. However this performance may have ended, presumably with a poignantly fading flute solo peeping out in the gloaming, it was almost totally upstaged by the drone of a passing passenger jet overhead. While this wasn’t a triumphant note to end on, few in the crowd left unsatisfied with the occasion – or unaware of its overall uplift.

Spoleto Ends an Era With Infusions of New Works and Artists

Review:  “Spoleto is back!”

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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When Martha Teichner spoke with Nigel Redden over the Memorial Day weekend, there were three major takeaways from the Spoleto Festival USA general director – in what will stand as his exit interview for most of us in the live or online audience. As we might have guessed, setting up the 2021 festival has been notably awkward after the cancellation last year’s 17-day event: if Redden and his staff had anticipated how quickly vaccinations would open up Charleston’s indoor venues, Spoleto scheduling could have been more robust.

Because this year’s festival is so downsized after the hiatus, Redden also stated, next year’s festival will be pivotal for Spoleto’s survival. The normal balance between popular and outré events will need to be skewed toward the cash cows. Staying on until October but keeping his hands off the search for his successor, Redden will certainly play a key role in framing the 2022 lineup.

Notably modest about his impact and achievements during his most recent 26-year tenure – and his prior stint at the helm from 1986 to 1991 – Redden was surprisingly frank about his decision to step down. He pointed unhesitatingly to the #BlackLivesMatter Movement that arose amid the turbulence of 2020 and, more specifically, to the manifesto issued by the We See You White American Theatre coalition of BIPOC theatre artists demanding radical, immediate, and long overdue reforms.

Or to those willing to overlook the often-scathing tone and occasional militancy of the 29-page “Accountability Report” and its demands, WSYWAT was offering a blueprint on how to create an anti-racist American Theatre. Though not primarily a theatre person, Redden saw himself checking two major boxes in the laundry list of justifiable grievances, the color of his skin and the length of his reign.

What Redden said back in September, that the cancellation of the 2020 Spoleto and enforced isolation had weighed heavily upon him, sounded right for a press release. This more recent elucidation sounds right for Redden. We can see a continuous line of white males at the helms of various sectors of Spoleto since its opening season in 1977, beginning with festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti leading the student orchestra, Charles Wadsworth hosting the lunchtime chamber music concerts, and Joseph Flummerfelt leading the Westminster Choir.

The younger men carrying on their tradition are notably more adventurous in their programming, Joe Miller leading Westminster, Geoff Nuttall hosting the chamber music at Dock Street Theatre, and John Kennedy wearing one of the two hats worn by Menotti as resident conductor of the orchestra. Since the Westminster is a separate entity from Spoleto and Nuttall was Wadsworth’s hand-picked successor, Redden’s hand in pushing the festival to a fuller embrace of new and contemporary music was most emphatic in his appointment of Kennedy.

Yet the international tone and resources of the festival have led Kennedy to widen his horizons in recent years, and an unmistakable tidal shift has occurred in the choral and chamber music programming as well, now permeated with contemporary repertoire and studded with world premieres. COVID restrictions have kept Kennedy and Miller away from Spoleto for two seasons now, relegated to digital presentations on YouTube during this year’s festival – video self-portraits and bite-sized performances that will linger online through June 18. So it has been Nuttall’s responsibility to carry the torch in live events for the 2021 season, reasserting the festival’s right to be recognized among the world’s preeminent champions of new music.

Nine of the 11 programs at this year’s festival (each one is repeated three times) are showcasing works by living composers, including five pieces by composers appearing live at Dock Street Theatre, and four world premieres. Most of these were clustered at the top end of the schedule, making tickets – tough to score on opening weekends of all Spoletos – particularly tight in this atypical year of social distancing. So we were obliged to miss all four live performances of works by this year’s composer-in-residence, Jessica Meyer, and asked to limit our requests for press seats to one concert.

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Turning my attention to the second of Spoleto’s three weekends, I had little difficulty settling on my choice: Program VII, the return of cellist Alisa Weilerstein to the festival in the world premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s Milonga. With Beethoven’s Septet in E flat on the same program, I would also get to see five players I’d never seen before at Dock Street.

Hoping against hope, I also requested Program VIII: more Alisa Weilerstein – again paired with pianist Inon Barnatan – and the return of Anthony Roth Costanzo, the superstar countertenor, beloved at Spoleto years before the huge éclat of his Met Opera debut. “Nothing ventured…,” right? My first choice was granted. Although Costanzo’s return was solidly sold-out for all three of its iterations, my chutzpah was rewarded with an offer to choose between two additional programs.

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Had I known that violinist Livia Sohn, Nuttall’s spouse, would be returning from a hand injury in Program III to premiere a Meyer composition written specially for her, From Our Ashes, my choice of her subsequent appearance in Program V would have been easier to make. That concert included the Handel Oboe Concerto in G minor and Saint-Saëns’ fearsome “Hippogriff” violin sonata, with a contemporary wildcard in between them, Kenji Bunch’s The 3 Gs for solo viola.

Whether he’s anticipating next season’s make-or-break festival or simply realizing that much of what he does on the Dock Street stage will endure in perpetuity on YouTube, where excerpts of every concert are streamed as little as one day after a program bows out, Nuttall has noticeably sharpened his emceeing. Simply watch the streamed excerpts of Program VII and you’ll see.

To gin up excitement for Golijov’s Milonga, Nuttall not only hailed the return of the Weilerstein-Barnatan duo and the stature of the composer, he brought on hornist David Byrd-Marrow to help demonstrate the two rhythms clashing with each other in the piece. These two rhythms, the 3-3-2 pattern of the milonga and the 4/4 of Joseph Achron’s “Hebrew Melody” (written for Jascha Heifetz), repeatedly diverging and converging, personify the composer himself and his Argentinian/Jewish heritage.

Before bringing Byrd-Marrow on, Nuttall mocked himself a little by confessing that Barnatan had suggested that he demonstrate the milonga beat with one hand and the 4/4 with the other – a “total fail,” he recounted, when he made the attempt. At the end of the demo, having said that the two rhythms bumped against each other, Nuttall and Byrd-Marrow actually finished back-to-back, bumping each other.

In short, Nuttall scorns the seriousness of “setting the mood” in favor of trying to make his enthusiasm contagious. Remarkably, this humorous approach worked for a melancholy piece, cuing us to look for something we would surely find. That turned out to be chiefly Achron’s tune and Golijov’s variations on it, for Weilerstein is such a mesmerizing and rapturous performer that I gladly dwelled in the soul of Jewish melody while I was at Dock Street Theatre, mostly oblivious to the countercurrent of Barnatan’s Argentinian flavorings at the keyboard. That friction was more readily savored a day later when the YouTube replay was released.

Nuttall analyzed the Septet in a manner that would have pleased Wadsworth, but he added a couple of layers: the wild popularity of the piece, which eventually annoyed the more mature Beethoven, and his own iconoclastic preference for early Beethoven over the more widely admired masterworks of the middle and late periods. The sunniness of the music and the fecundity of melody, Nuttall extravagantly predicted, would surely send us off into the streets singing and dancing.

The Septet was a wonderful chance to see most of the newcomers in action, including bassoonist Monica Ellis, violinist Jennifer Frautschi, violist Ayane Kozasa, cellist Arlen Hlusko, and Byrd-Marrow. While this genial romp gave Byrd-Marrow a merry workout on the French horn with repeated hunting calls, the chief protagonists were Frautschi and clarinetist Todd Palmer, facing off at opposite sides of the stage. Palmer was as jocund and propulsive as ever, leading the woodwinds, while Frautschi was liveliness, intensity, and joy leading the strings. Anthony Manzo, like Palmer a longtime fixture at Spoleto, stood like a pillar between the two sections, genially keeping time on the double bass.

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Frautschi had already distinguished herself in the “Hippogriff,” lavishing her bold fruity tone on the Saint-Saëns sonata with even greater intensity, zest, and decisiveness, bringing Program V to a triumphant conclusion. Peak ferocity was reached minutes after the notorious torrent of 704 sixteenth notes that begin the closing Allegro Molto, when Frautschi and pianist Pedja Muzijevic, already red-lining the tempo, turned on the turbojets.

Ignoring the note count of the frantic Allegro Molto, Nuttall cited it as among the greatest moments in all of chamber music and asserted that Saint-Saëns is inexplicably underrated in the pantheon of great composers, a genius in the Mozart mold. His intro for the Handel concerto was more droll, embarrassing oboist Smith by floating the idea of celebrating his manly beauty by making him a centerfold in a Spoleto swimsuit calendar. Then he prevailed on Smith to demonstrate how Handel expected his featured soloists to improvise. To contrast, Nuttall now invited all the musicians onstage, instead of playing their written parts, to improvise behind Smith as he repeated his little performance.

Cacophony. A bad idea – illustrating the Baroque balance Handel adhered to. One of Nuttall’s cornier shticks.

Like Wadsworth before him, Nuttall doesn’t scorn pedagogy altogether. He seemed to revel, in fact, in teaching us the concept of scordatura, purposeful mistuning, as violist Hsin-Yun Huang prepared to make her Spoleto debut soloing on Bunch’s The 3 Gs. Nuttall and Huang showed us the normal tuning of her instrument from top to bottom, A-D-G-C, and how Bunch would be obliging the violist to retune two of strings to an A-G-G-G configuration.

Then a parting shot for us to mull over as Nuttall exited to the wings: “Hsin-Yun will never be closer to Jimi Hendrix as you are about to see her.” We soon realized what he had meant – and why there was a piano bench onstage next to Huang. Strums on the strings were the easiest of Bunch’s demands on the violist’s right hand in the hectic opening section of his piece. A sprinkling and then a barrage of finger taps on the four strings and along the fingerboard launches the solo, utilizing three or four fingers and making it impossible to grasp a bow.

When the piece did permit Huang to pick up her bow from its resting place on the piano bench, the music moved slightly closer to Hendrix, settling in a region somewhere between jazz and bluegrass, a bit funky and definitely appealing – with plenty of ricochet and double bowing to test the soloist’s mettle. In the video excerpt, which remains free online through June 18, Huang’s exploits on viola are followed almost instantly by Frautschi’s bravura in the Saint-Saëns finale, a rather remarkable sequence.

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Three of the four Jessica Meyer works featured at Spoleto this year are also preserved on the streamable excerpts. Sohn’s comeback is predictably captured, as is “American Haiku,” cellist Paul Wiancko’s touching tribute to his wife, Kozasa, and their mixed heritages, which the couple performed in a memorable cello-viola duet. Kozasa is even more impressive in Program IV, where she teams with Palmer – at the top of his game – and Muzijevic in Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” Trio. None of that performance is omitted. Nuttall’s intro, a typical mix of humor and nostalgia, will tell you why.

Redden’s valedictory season will have a momentous afterword when the curtain goes up fully again in 2022. Then we will finally behold the world premiere of Omar, the new opera by Rhiannon Giddens. Originally scheduled for a 2020 premiere, Omar is based on the autobiography, written in Arabic, of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim-African man who was enslaved and transported to Charleston. The twice-postponed premiere will be a final testament that Redden’s vision for Spoleto is grounded in diversity – and firmly rooted in Charleston’s chequered history.

 

Festival Hall at Spoleto Isn’t the Best Fit for THE WOMAN IN BLACK

Review: “THE WOMAN IN BLACK certainly has a pedigree”

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Perhaps we can declare that social distancing is as antithetical to telling a gripping ghost story as it is to sustaining a great vibe at a bar or a pub. After a 30-year run in London’s West End, where it remains on a pandemic-induced hiatus, THE WOMAN IN BLACK certainly has a pedigree to please. The play, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, is only surpassed by Dame Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap as the longest-running play in West End history.

Currently in a 16-performance run at Spoleto Festival USA through June 13, the production is the real McCoy, delivered by the same artistic team that brought an acclaimed transplant of this creepshow to the McKissick Hotel in New York in January 2020. Yet between the time that THE WOMAN IN BLACK was announced as part of Spoleto’s 2021 lineup and opening night, the chosen venue for this production – the intriguing Charleston Visitor Center Bus Shed – had to be changed.

Now it’s completely indoors at Festival Hall, better known to longtime Spoleto subscribers as Memminger Auditorium. While the Memminger has been hospitable to such dark and gloomy pieces as Don Giovanni and Amistad, both of them lavishly and audaciously staged, the house seems to overwhelm this smaller, more conventional and portable spectacle. Nor does the spacing of our seats, with no empty seats in the spaces between us, help the atmosphere. In London, where it will play to 432 seats on three levels at the Fortune Theatre, you would probably feel much closer – and certainly more huddled together.

The conspicuously diminutive proportions of this production seem to most adversely affect Peter Bradley as Arthur Kipps. Shambling, humdrum, and somewhat diffident, Kipps has sought out the help of The Actor, to assist him in narrating his ghostly encounters to his family – and hopefully exorcize his feelings of being haunted and accursed. Not the boldest, most flamboyant or operatic of stage heroes.

 

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Nick Owen as The Actor, on the other hand, has the luxury of being full-throated from the moment he enters the hall, hails Arthur from afar, and joins him onstage. Encouraging Kipps to project and emote, Owens can sustain a professional polish and a pedagogic authority, keeping his frustrations genially in check while trying to coax the aging solicitor into coming out of his shell.

Yet Arthur keeps resisting, meaning that we won’t hear Bradley projecting for a while. Mallatratt takes a little too long in building his own theatrical framework around Hill’s narrative; and director Robin Herford, who has not only directed all the seminal productions of THE WOMAN IN BLACK but also commissioned the original adaptation, is in no hurry. More ghost story and less framework would have suited me just fine the first time I saw this play in 2009 at Theatre Charlotte. Same here.

The solution that The Actor finds to his dilemma may strike non-actors as odd. When Arthur resists all urgings to become more voluble and dramatic, The Actor suggests that they switch roles: he will take on the role of Kipps in this narrative while Arthur will tackle all the other roles. Many an actor has testified that the joy and liberation of acting is in the escape from self into the skin of another person.

That idea works for Mallatratt and his protagonist. I didn’t find any hints, as I did when Kipps was portrayed in Charlotte, that either Bradley or Herford had any notion that the stodgy solicitor should suffer any relapses into hesitation or diffidence once roles were switched. It was full steam ahead for Bradley, probably the best call for those of us at Festival Hall who had strained to hear him in the early going.

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As we plunged into Kipps’s narrative, Bradley was most memorable as Keckwith, a rustic cart driver who takes Arthur to and from the haunted house, and Sam Daily, the country squire who lends him his trusty dog, Spider. The terror and consternation that we see from Mr. Jerome, the liaison between Arthur and the deceased owner of the creepy Eel Marsh House, also links us to the stage-frightened Arthur we find at the beginning.

Neither production that I’ve now seen entertained the idea of The Actor simulating Arthur’s timidity when he takes on the role. Owen takes the years off the middle-aged man and glamorizes him as a somewhat intrepid action hero. When Arthur attempts to save Spider from sinking into quicksand, and when he investigates the knocking sounds in the abandoned nursery of an abandoned house in the middle of the night, a certain amount of steely backbone in required.

The manuscript that The Actor encounters is a five-hour read in his professional opinion, subtly assuring us that he has not read it – and that as he does, he will be experiencing the story as freshly as we do. Owen’s ability to retain a thin veneer of suave James Bond professionalism as The Actor, even in the most frightful and harrowing moments of Arthur’s adventures, is a key factor in his experiencing maximum shock when The Actor – and the audience – suddenly realize that he has become enmeshed in the story.

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As I reported back in 2009, when my wife only grabbed my knee once, those frights are neither the most intense or frequent. I found the reveals of the Marsh House’s stairway and nursery to be deliciously macabre delights, thanks to the artistry of set designer Michael Holt and lighting designer Anshuman Bhatia, who also serves as production manager. Yet I suspect that many will leave WOMAN IN BLACK at Festival Hall firmly convinced that sound designer Sebastian Frost delivered the most unnerving jolts of fright with a scattering of ultra-loud outbursts.

Such scarifying devices are no more welcome to me in theatre than they are in cinema, though the general public seems to accept them readily enough. Here I can admit that they compensated somewhat for the lack of campfire ghostliness and tribal involvement at Festival Hall. A bus shed would likely have been better, creepier, if conditions had allowed.

NC Symphony, Audience, and Life-Affirming Beethoven Return to Meymandi

Review: “Meymandi Concert Hall was relatively teeming with musicians”.

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Gradually, the classical music scene is coming back to life across the state, with fuller ensembles performing in our concert halls and audiences finding more access to seats. Back in December, streaming was our only avenue to Meymandi Concert Hall when cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Natasha Paremski performed an all-Rachmaninoff program to an empty house. Even then, the incremental return to normal was foreshadowed in the second half of the program. Having followed pandemic propriety in collaborating with North Carolina Symphony associate concertmaster Karen Strittmatter Galvin on the Trio élégiaque, the duo shed their masks for Sergei’s Cello Sonata.

Flash forward to last Saturday night’s NCS concert, and the Meymandi was relatively teeming with musicians. Two percussionists and 23 string players were now on the Woolner Stage, along with 13 brass and wind players splayed across the upstage in two rows, separated by plexiglass panels – all gathered to perform Joan Tower’s Chamber Dance and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. Looking over guest conductor Brett Mitchell’s shoulders, we could see socially-distanced audience members as close as the third or fourth row, masked as dutifully as the maestro, the string players, and the percussionists.2021~NCSymphony Beethoven-11

Unchanged were the evocative footage introducing the pre-recorded webcast, ushering us into the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, settling us its eerily empty lobby, and leading us up the stairway to Meymandi, where oboist Joseph Peters greeted us as before. Peters’ hosting reached a higher level here, both in his introduction to the Tower piece and in his onstage sit-down with Mitchell between pieces. So did the camera work at Meymandi, offering us more vantage points, closer views of the musicians, and far more polished editing. Recorded sound was also outstanding, on par with last month’s Mozart-Handel concert by the Charlotte Symphony.

Peters ably described the treacherous terrain of Chamber Dance, written for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2006, pointing out its unusual scales and harmonies, its rhythmic intensity, and complexity – particularly in sections where rhythm and meter changed in every bar. Our host’s credibility was quickly underscored when the performance began, for the oboist drew the first solo. After volleying with principal clarinetist Samuel Almaguer, principal flutist Anne Whaley Laney drew a solo that was arguably lovelier than the oboe’s. You’ll need to have the volume up if you wish to hear the beginning of Galvin’s violin solo, the loveliest of all, with Almaguer layering on. Yet it was also refreshing to see the timpani, tambourine, and two trumpets back in action after their COVID lockdowns. There were other interesting chamber-sized matchups besides violin and clarinet as the cameras zeroed in on a wind quartet and afterwards split-screened pairings of principal bassoonist Aaron Apaza with principal cellist Bonnie Thron and Peters with violist 2021~NCSymphony Beethoven-39.

Belying Peters’ description, which had me bracing for a work that was rhythmically jagged and musically discordant, Chamber Dance turned out to be energetic and invigorating, with a natural flow between its solo, chamber, and orchestral episodes – though Dick Clark and I would refrain from calling it a dance. What I found most refreshing when Peters and Mitchell sat down at the break was the non-passive attitude Peters took as an interviewer and the pushback from Mitchell. Rather than agreeing with the description of Tower’s piece as a hybrid between chamber music and symphonic dance, Mitchell favored the idea that Chamber Dance was more like a concerto for orchestra.

The two also split on where the influence of Haydn was strongest in Beethoven’s Fourth, Peters hearing it in the pulse of Adagio second movement and Mitchell pointing to the mischief and misdirection in the Allegro ma non troppo finale, where Beethoven brings the music to a hushed halt before the furious gallop to the finish. Mitchell was also provocative in describing what the impact of this Symphony must have had at its Vienna premieres in 1807 and 1808, two to three years after the mighty Eroica. The ghostly, creepy, stealthy opening, circling back to solemnity, does seem to signal an even graver, more monumental work than its predecessor – until Beethoven’s infectious giddyaps merrily assure us that we’re off to the races.2021~NCSymphony Beethoven-05

The double basses deepened the spell of Beethoven’s intro in his Adagio–Allegro vivace opening movement, and a couple of timpani tattoos triggered Mitchell’s well-judged ignition of the conquering merriment. Laney offered a lithe repeat of the main theme on flute, and we had nice contrasts in those delightful moments when the restless strings quieted and chomped at the bit until Beethoven applied the whip. There was plenty in the ensuing Adagio besides its Haydnesque lilt at the start. The timps alerted us once again that there was more in the larder. A fade-dissolve to the clarinet spotlighted Almaguer’s admirable contributions to come as he dominated the solos. Beethoven’s own restlessness wasn’t ignored, and we could discern in his faintly militaristic moments what Mitchell had meant when he had prompted us on the rigor in this movement.

2021~NCSymphony Beethoven-37Shuttling between the blaring ensemble and Apaza’s gurgling bassoon, the penultimate Allegro vivace had as much mischief as merriment to delight us, with quiet passages that had light fluty colorings and oboe shadings. Of course, Apaza had his most special moment when he keyed the recap of the final Allegro ma non troppo movement. That should tell you that Beethoven has taken us far from this Symphony’s brooding beginnings, that it was written when the composer could still joyously hear, see, smell, taste, and touch our material world in the full flush of his success and celebrity. Sunlight suffused this grand finale, with none of the gloom of the cathedral or the grave in sight. The stop-and-go was more dramatic here than it was in the opening, yet there was no sadness sat all mixed into the affirmation that Beethoven offered or in the way the North Carolina Symphony played. Looking forward to the end of a plague instead of back to its havoc and carnage, Symphony struck the right notes and a responsive chord.

Branford Marsalis Helps Bring Charlotte Symphony and Subscribers Back Together at Last

Review:  Branford Marsalis Plays Ibert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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More than 15 months had elapsed since my wife Sue and I had sat together at Belk Theater and enjoyed a Charlotte Symphony concert – exactly 15 months since we had seen Gabriella Martinez with the orchestra on Valentine’s Day at Knight Theater. Needless to say, much had changed since our last night out in Uptown Charlotte. Until we turned off the I-287 innerbelt onto College Street, we had no idea what a solemn concrete canyon the Center City has become – because the explosion of new buildings, high-rises, penthouses, and parking garages has hit us while foot traffic on a Friday night remains nearly extinct. Fortunately, we had allowed for extra travel time as we made our way to the landmark “Branford Marsalis Plays Ibert” concert, for the capricious Saturday night traffic was as heavy as usual, doubling our surprise when we left I-77. There wasn’t a Hornets basketball game scheduled that night, so we were among the first to enter the BankAmerica parking garage, with hundreds of spaces to choose from.

Thwarted by travel restrictions that kept him on the other side of the Atlantic, Christopher Warren-Green was unable to preside over our auspicious reunion, so resident conductor Christopher James Lees was called into action, acquitting himself quite brilliantly. Attendance for the concert was capped at 500, about 24% of capacity, and our tickets had been channeled to the Apple Wallet app on my iPhone, which the usher firing his QR scanner gun was able to wield better than I. We were so eager to enter the hall and see the CSO again that I forgot to get an exit parking stub in the lobby, but there was no crowd lined up for them after the concert when I did remember. Masking was still in effect for everyone except wind players, so it was helpful to find staff at their customary posts in the lobby – at the ticket booths and at the entry to the grand tier – so we could recognize and happily greet one another.

Marsalis, the Grammy Award-winning saxophonist, would be playing Erwin Schulhoff’s Hot-Sonate in addition to Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera, so there was plenty to bone up on in our seats before the lights went down. Sadly, there were no program booklets to assist our preparations, only the sort of glossy 5”x8” cards subscribers will remember from the pre-pandemic KnightSounds series. An informational email from the ticket office had popped into my inbox that afternoon, which contained a link to a PDF version of a 24-page program booklet. If you’re among the lucky 500 attending the sold-out concerts, you’re covered.

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Filled out by Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances and Gershwin’s Lullaby for string orchestra, the program was an adventurous delight from start to finish – about an hour in length, as promised in that handy email, without an intermission. Bartók was particularly shortchanged by the abbreviated program handouts, for the names and tempos of his six Folk Dances couldn’t fit on the same card with all the movements Marsalis would be playing. Even if the Bartók movements had been listed they would hardly be indicative of what we would see and hear. Until the penultimate “Poargă românească (Romanian Polka): Allegro,” the dances weren’t at all festive. The “Brâul (Sash Dance): Allegro” was rather poignant, despite its nimble pace, and the “Pê-loc (Stamping Dance): Andante” was actually bleak. Even the gorgeous “Buciumeana (Hornpipe Dance): Moderato” had a forlorn fiddler-on-the-roof sadness to it. Otherwise, what was surprising was the extent that all these arrangements by Arthur Willner were miniature violin concertos, here featuring concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, who was especially impressive high up in the treble of the “Stamping Dance.”

A nice array of winds and brass – including principals Victor Wang on flute, French hornist Byron Johns, and trumpeter Alex Wilborn – joined the strings onstage as Marsalis made his first appearance. Beginning with “quarter note = 66,” the movement markings in Schulhoff’s concerto for alto saxophone were deceptively fussy and clinical, for the heat of the Hot-Sonate came from jazz, just emerging from its raucous childhood when this suite was composed in 1930. Originally written for sax and piano, the arrangement by Harry Kinross White is most beguiling in its bluesy third movement, where the horns added an astringent accompaniment. Quaintly described by the composer “lamentuoso ma molto grottesco (plaintive, but very grotesque),” this “quarter note = 80” movement delivered the deepest jazz flavor, and I could easily imagine Johnny Hodges, on leave from Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, playing its premiere. Unfortunately, Schulhoff’s idea of the grotesque was no more edgy than his grasp of the alto saxophone’s capabilities. Despite the undeniable appeal of the music, Marsalis wasn’t really tested by the demands of Hot-Sonate.

Gershwin’s Lullaby, not jazzy at all, was a perfect palate cleanser between the two Marsalis stints. The strings wafted a tropical lightness that had a “Catch a Falling Star” lilt and laziness. Little showcases were set aside for the string section leaders, most notably Lupanu and cellist Alan Black, and the piece ended deliciously in bubbly geniality, with rounds of delicate pizzicatos. Absent during the Gershwin, horns and winds reasserted themselves forcefully in the Concertino da camera, originally scored by Ibert for 12 instruments, including the soloist, with only five string players. Marsalis was noticeably more tasked now, from the opening Allegro con moto movement onwards: more speed, more range, more complexity, and more technique were required from him, while the vibrant accompaniment offered more distractions. There’s actually some percussion from the strings amid this opening movement, but I was so focused on Marsalis and his unmasked accompanists that I didn’t notice which string players were tapping their bows.

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An achingly lovely, oboe-like lament by Marsalis began the Larghetto section, with the strings gradually creeping in ever-so-stealthily behind him. Extra strings, 22 in all, were a definite asset here as the music swelled. Wang’s flute and Wilborn’s trumpet had the most impact behind Marsalis as we cheerfully swung into the concluding Animato. Though often labeled as separate movements on CDs (including Branford’s recording with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2000), this concluding Larghetto-Animato was in itself like a three-movement concerto, for Marsalis drew a second cadenza between orchestral bursts that was far more demanding than anything he had played so far, nearly requiring circular breathing to execute its cascading, fleet-fingered runs. The audience was keenly attuned to the saxophonist’s virtuosity, for they gave him a lusty standing ovation when he was done, a judicious upgrade from the warm applause showered on the Schulhoff.

A wonderful evening, all in all, and a giant step back to normality.

Chang and Yang Offer a Rousing Ladies’ Night Before Mother’s Day

Review: Celebration of Amy Beach and Florence Price

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Surely there couldn’t be a more natural concept than having two women instrumentalists sharing a concert stage and playing works by two female composers on Mother’s Day weekend. Or we can certainly hope that view will continue to prevail when we are past COVID-19, now that #MeToo has swept the nation, now that Black Lives Matter is opening the way to reconsidering African-American composers, and now that Trumpism is on the wane. Right now, I think we must admit, this oh-so-natural concept, brought to life on the UNC Department of Music’s YouTube channel by pianist Clara Yang and violinist Sunmi Chang, still felt rather refreshing and innovative. The duo showcased two pieces by Amy Beach, one of them excerpted from her epic Violin Sonata, plus a welcome reclamation from Florence Price, the African-American composer’s Fantasie No. 1 in G Minor.

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The 30-minute stream was impeccably recorded at two locations with an imaginative video mix layered on in post-production. Just to disabuse us of the notion that all this wizardry was happening live – and maybe to add some glam – the ladies changed costumes between each of the pieces. Nor was there much of a letup before the evening’s encore, William Bolcom’s “Graceful Ghost Rag.” It was rather charming, in fact, to see Chang going casual and sporting a tee shirt, ponytail, and jeans to underscore the bluesy informality of this segment, while the video mixers had some fun of their own, tossing in some funky effects, including a foray into artsy black-and-white.

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Compared with traditional chamber music programs staged in concert halls – or even those convened in the parlors of wealthy patrons – this offering had the claustrophobic TikTok feel we have grown familiar with during the pandemic. No view of Yang included all of her piano, and as the more mobile Chang moved from an austere bare wall for the Sonata to a furnished room for the Romance, her visible stage was barely as wide as her mantelpiece, slightly expanded after Chang introduced us to Price. Viewers will be able to see the earbuds sprouting from the ladies’ ears as they performed, but whether they were in any proximity with each other for their “remote collaborations” remains cloaked in mystery. Both of the Beach pieces began with piano intros, so synchronization was relatively easy to achieve. Price’s Fantasie, however, required instant alignment between the musicians, visually cued, which may be why there was a wee tablet (or a very large cellphone) perched next to Yang’s score on her piano.

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Introducing Beach and her works, Yang readily admitted that the logistics of these collaborations had been challenging, but there was no strain evident as she played the lyrical intro to the Allegro moderato opening movement. Although the distributor of these UNC webcasts is YouTube and not Sony, the sonic quality when Chang layered on in the treble was on a par with any of the half dozen studio recordings you can readily hunt down on Spotify, possibly eclipsed only by the Chandos recording with Tasmin Little teaming with pianist John Lenehan. The challenges facing UNC’s duo inhibited the kind of fluid synergy captured by Chandos, but Yang triggered plenty turbulence and drama from Chang, and the video editing underscores the dialogue between the two musicians in the refrain that partitions Beach’s structure.

Actually, there was marvelous ebb and flow as the repeated refrains dominated by Yang gave way to more and more turbulence each time the focus switched back to Chang’s violin. Perhaps the more obvious choice for sampling the grandeur of Beach’s Violin Sonata would have been the concluding Allegro con fuoco with its rousing final rush, but the opening movement is lengthier, and the women ably advocated the ethereal virtue of the Allegro moderato’s serene final bars. I’d gladly listen to this duo in a performance of the full Sonata, especially if it were boosted by the electricity of a live concert with all of us in the same hall.

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While the changes in attire and location for Chang chimed well with the more luxuriant lyricism of Beach’s Romance, this piece also plunged into turbulence in response to Yang’s eloquence at the keyboard. Beautiful ebb-and-flow was evident once again in the duo’s sculpting of this piece, both Chang and Yang tethering their crescendos and decrescendos to the intensity or tenderness of the moment, ending with a more soaring sublimity than we had heard in the Sonata. Apparently, multiple takes went into this segment of the video. How else can we explain a fade-dissolve from pianist Yang to… pianist Yang? Yet the audio seemed to flow seamlessly, a feat not quite replicated at the outset of Price’s Fantasie, after Chang gave us an impressive spoken intro and an even more impressive cadenza.

Was that merely an awkward fade after the duo veered into an outburst of folksy merriment – or was that an edit? While the web reliably confirms Price’s 1933 crowd-pleaser and the cover page of the sheet music, there is no confirmation that this piece has ever had a studio recording. All three of the YouTube listings have been logged in since last March, the majority by masked musicians, so when Chang told us in her intro that the piece was new to the duo, she was speaking for the rest of us. Total number of views has yet to reach four thousand, and only Dawn Posey’s recording with pianist Jack Kurutz (618 views) is truly a worthy rival to the new Chang-Yang offering in sound quality and artistry. As Chang rightly observed, Fantasy No. 1 in G Minor is a beautiful mix of classical tradition and African-American folk heritage, and we can see that the criminal neglect of this composer is only now beginning to be rectified. There’s obviously a long way to go as the piddling YouTube roster of videos attests, for a black violinist or pianist has yet to check in with this piece.

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That would also be a natural concept. In the meanwhile, kudos to the ladies for their inclusiveness in holding a place open for Bolcom’s piece in signing off, a courtesy that I’ve never seen extended by male performers to a female composer. “Graceful Ghost” appears in numerous forms, including for solo piano, four-hands piano, and string quartet. Chang’s genial performance, wresting dominance from the piano, hasn’t been equaled yet by any that I’ve auditioned on Spotify. There are 35, so I’m not done. I’d resist the lure of Gil Shaham’s star quality if you’re interested in samples of this work, for he perversely ignores Bolcom’s injunction against letting the moderate tempo drag, giving us a singularly lugubrious and listless “Ghost.” Chang’s bouncy take was far more preferable, a very enjoyable way to end a concert that left me wishing for much, much more.