L’Académie du Roi Soleil Unleashes Pent-Up Power in “Treacherous Love” Cantatas

Review: “L’Académie du Roi Soleil” at Tate Hall and the CPCC campus

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Two baroque companies have risen to prominence over the past couple of seasons in Charlotte, different in size and scope but with obvious affinities. Over that span, the newer Bach Akademie Charlotte has performed two cantata series in Charlotte and nearby towns at various churches, now preparing to stage its second annual Charlotte Bach Festival in June. Not so high-profile, L’Académie du Roi Soleil has settled into Charlotte within the past year after a concert history that has traversed the Carolinas, with transoceanic excursions to Oxford and Cambridge, England.

While it’s possible that the Bach Akademie may branch out into works by Handel, Telemann and the French baroque masters in seasons to come, Académie has already planted its Gallic flag. Soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh and harpsichordist Nicolas Haigh, who co-founded Roi Soleil in 2013, have established themselves as Bach Akademie mainstays as well. In their return to Tate Hall and the CPCC campus, Roi Soleil continued to emphasize the Sun King in their program.

 

Or should I say “Programme”? For in their terminology, their typeface, and in their performances, L’Académie proved that they have a style of their own. Starting their presentation at 12:30 PM, however, wasn’t a new wrinkle, for midday concerts are fairly routine at both the Oregon and Charlotte Bach Festivals. In fact, when L’Académie performed Couperin’s Leçons de Ténèbres at Tate last March, that concert was also a midweek lunchtime event. Fewer Francophiles were likely to be as familiar with this year’s lineup, which included Jean-Féry Rebel, Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, Louis-Nicolas Clérambault – and a devastating theme: “Treacherous Love, Passion and Vengeance in 18th Century France.”

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Giving Margaret Haigh the opportunity to make a solo entrance, Michael Haigh and Roi’s two string musicians, violinist Cynthia Black and viola da gamba player Gail Anne Schroeder, began the afternoon with Jean-Féry Rebel’s Violin Sonata No. 5. One of Louis XIV’s “24 violons du Roi,” Rebel came across as a blithe spirit in my first brush with the composer’s work. Especially in the third Viste movement, Rebel offered Black ample opportunities to impress with her vitality and virtuosity. In the opening movement, where Viste was just the first of three tempo markings – with a middle Grave section providing contrast – Black displayed the richness of her tone almost immediately. Nor was there any inwardness or solemnity in the Sarabande that followed, where the trio’s sound remained sweet instead of sad. After the exhilarating pace of the penultimate Viste, the final Gigue slowed down noticeably but remained joyously danceable.

When she emerged to perform the two cantatas on the bill, Margaret Haigh did not dwell on Jacquet de la Guerre’s gender in introducing her Semelé. Unlike Handel’s opera, which expands upon Ovid’s 53 lines on Semele in The Metamorphoses – with a libretto by William Congreve! – Jacquet’s cantata actually condensed Ovid’s original, so Haigh and the program booklet were obliged to fill us in on the backstory, where the Roman goddess Juno, jealous of her husband Jupiter’s love for Semele, disguises herself as the human maiden’s nursemaid and convinces her that she must get proof from Jupiter of his divinity. Here is where Jacquet began, sending her soprano onstage to tell us that Jupiter had rashly sworn to grant Semele anything she desired before she surprised him with her wish. The rules are the same as they were in the Old Testament: humans who view the face of god must die.

From then on, Haigh became Semelé, anticipating Jupiter’s arrival and – amid mighty displays of lightning – chiding herself for her doubts. Haigh’s best moments came when Semelé’s triumph was at hand and in her ensuing immolation. Jacquet gave the instrumental accompaniment an emphatic pulse here that the musicians picked up on, and Haigh took it upon herself to dramatize Semelé’s giddy vainglory, acquiring a strength in her “Quel triomphe, quelle Victoire” air we hadn’t heard earlier. For both Handel and Jacquet add on a sexy spice to Ovid’s narrative, a hint the Semele aspires to become a goddess herself if Jupiter couples with her in the way he would with Juno. “Je vais joüir de sort des dieux!” she exults. She will enjoy the lot of the gods.

Jacquet has her bragging that she knew how to please Jupiter, and Haigh reveled in repeating those hubristic vaunts. Our heroine’s fall is pretty steep in the ensuing recitative, and Haigh was suitably vulnerable, surprised, and pathetic in describing her own destruction. Haigh then reverted to her previous role as Jacquet’s narrator, drawing a moral that tenderness and warmth should be what we ask of love rather than blazing fire and glory. No wonder, then, that there’s no mention that Semele’s pregnancy incited Juno’s jealousy or that Dionysus, god of wine and revelry, would be her son.

In Clérambault’s Médée, no such restraints applied. After an introductory recitative, Haigh could immerse herself in the wickedly vengeful queen and stay there. Yet Clérambault humanized his Medea more than we might expect if we’re familiar with the vengeance Euripides ascribed to her in his ancient Greek tragedy. Taking his cue from the Golden Fleece narrative of the Argonautica, the Frenchman ignored the more fiendish aspect of Euripides’ storyline, when Medea kills Jason’s – and her own – sons. Clérambault concentrates instead on Médée’s ruminations before she kills Glauce, the Corinthian royal that her husband has abandoned her for. Where Euripides had Medea pausing to consider before slaying her own children, Clérambault had her pausing before murdering Jason, remembering how much she once loved him, and deciding to vent her rage on her rival.

Without needing to revert to her narrative role, without a particle of self-pity, and with the support of demons that Médée rabidly summons from hell, Haigh could be even more manic and powerful. Haigh seemed to revel in the give-and-take, the tender moments of fond memories giving way to fury, resolve, and exultation. Clérambault’s score also gave the musicians greater latitude to vent their energies. Before Médée called upon the demon jealousy, “Cruelle fille des enfers (Cruel daughter of hell),” Nicolas Haigh pounded a march-like intro on the keyboard, so when Margaret Haigh sang out, casting her spell, it was like Médée was giving the demons their marching orders.

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There would be no neat moralizing here. After a recitative confirming that Médée’s father, the sun god Helios, had favored her cause, Black’s violin feverishly cued the “Volés, Démons, volés! (Fly, demons, fly!)” finale. Haigh sounded fully aware that she didn’t need to save herself for anything afterwards, and this was one of those times when Tate Hall couldn’t contain the power of her voice. Even when she was done venting and raging, the fury of Médée’s vengeful wickedness continued in Black’s violin, leaving us with the feeling that we had just witnessed the unleashing of an awesome elemental force.

Reservations Are Required – and Rewarded – at Charlotte Symphony’s “On Tap” Concert

Review:Charlotte Symphony’s “On Tap” Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Beer gardens, rathskellers, and brewpubs have traditionally encouraged their patrons to listen to music, lift their glasses in song, and maybe dance a polka, but for many classical music enthusiasts, Charlotte Symphony’s excursions to local breweries for their Symphony on Tap concerts may seem to be pioneering. Apparently, they originated in 2015 with a season kickoff party at Belk Theater, evolved into a similar event the following September at Booth Playhouse, before Symphony ventured forth to the NoDa Brewing Company for their third Symphony on Tap in November 2016. In terms of sampling these more informal concerts – and getting the word out – I will freely admit that I’m late to the party. Special dispensation was required to review the latest in this concert series, since it was sold-out weeks in advance.

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Obtaining their tickets in advance, patrons pre-qualified themselves as interested in Symphony’s product, though you had to wonder how many of them had bothered to check out the CSO website and see what they would actually hear. When NoDa Brewing owner Susie Ford drew attention to the stage, the crowd quieted, and there was no great commotion when the musicians performed. Yet there were limits to the decorum. Lines to the taps got shorter when the concert started and, after a strategically placed intermission, when it resumed, but people continued to line up for their pints and sampler flights of NoDa brew. Symphony conductor Christopher James Lees was not all perturbed. On the contrary, he encouraged the relaxed atmosphere and even plugged the brewery’s award-winning Hop, Drop ‘n Roll on numerous occasions.

In a place where you couldn’t call for a Bud, a Blue Ribbon, or a Miller Lite, it was encouraging – but not altogether surprising – that Lees was emboldened to offer us more than a strict Haydn-Mozart diet. After opening with the “Adagio and Fugue,” not the lightest of Mozart’s works, we detoured into Gustav Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite. Further out on the musical frontier, the second half of the program began with “Tango” by Alicia Bachorik Armstrong, a living composer who was on hand to introduce the piece. Even the Haydn symphony that closed out the evening, the No. 30 “Alleluja,” was off the beaten path.

As I quickly discovered in the Mozart, the hall was unkind to low decibels and high frequencies. While the bass-heavy opening to the Adagio segment sounded natural enough, it had to compete for my attention with the churning hum of the brewing apparatus in the adjoining space behind the bar. By the time we reached the Fugue section, initiated by the double basses, I was fairly well acclimated to the steady hum, but I wasn’t pleased by the thin querulous sound of the violins as they layered on. Without the resonance of a church or concert hall, the trebles were more like the sounds we hear on authentic ancient instruments. The bass foundation under the violins was rich and lovely as the performance climaxed.

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Unacquainted with the Symphony on Tap ground rules, I was afraid that we were only going to hear the spirited Jig from the St. Paul’s Suite. It transitioned nicely from a merry dance to a briefer, more insistent episode – almost a march – before the Vivace movement accelerated to an even quicker pace. Effectively shaped and very well suited to the room, the movement drew applause. Lees not only tolerated this beerhall response, he encouraged it, for he proceeded to introduce each of the next three movements before they were played.

Just as he had explained what a fugue was prior to the Mozart, he now deciphered the mystery of what an ostinato was before playing the movement that bore that title. Second violins initiated this repetitive figure over pizzicatos from the other strings, not the swiftest presto I’ve heard on this movement, and concertmaster Calin Lupanu soloed gracefully. Lovelier Lupanu was wrapped into the ensuing Intermezzo as he entered over delicate pizzicatos – and over a baby’s cries in his most virtuosic passages. Violist Ning Zhao engaged Lupanu in a couple of satisfying duets here as well. Probably the most engaging music of the evening, Holst’s Finale ended by meshing an Irish folk dance with the traditional “Greensleeves,” both melodies frequently playing simultaneously in this rousing Allegro. Even without the customary percussion, it energized the audience.

Born in the Philippines, schooled at the NC School of the Arts (when Lees was on the faculty), and currently residing in Greensboro, Bachorik Armstrong wrote her “Tango” for orchestra in 2016 and last year completed a string quartet version that can be auditioned at her website. Her personable intro of the orchestral piece rivaled those delivered by her mentor, chiefly pointing out that the piece grew out of her lifelong love of dance – and repeated efforts to excel at it. We could relate. Reflecting her tentative starts and reboots, Bachorik Armstrong could have easily titled her dance “Attempted Tango,” for its beginning was indeed tentative over a pizzicato vamp, until the violins danced more confidently to the plucked lower strings, and there were two definite restarts later on, initiated by the cellos and the double basses. Over the sustained bass figures, there were unexpected shifts in tone and tempo, with a modicum of modernism instead of a noxious deluge. Lupanu and a second violin had tasty little cameos toward the end.

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A mini-break followed Bachorik Armstrong’s “Tango” – and the composer’s bows – as a modest group of wind players joined the strings. Still no percussion, but the question of whether Haydn’s Symphony No. 30 should be performed with timpani remains under dispute. The chronology of Papa’s early symphonies hasn’t been settled by the numbers assigned to them, but the “Alleluja” is the last of the numbered symphonies to be written in three movements. Surprisingly for a symphony that may have premiered on Easter of 1765 – or the Holy Week preceding – the “Alleluja” spirit is rather festive, with no slow or mournful movements. In other words, “Alleluja” was a perfect cloudless finale for a brewpub concert.

Wind instruments fared far better at NoDa Brewing than the violins, instantly pleasurable in the opening Allegro with a nicely gauged crescendo from the cellos toward the end. After setting the stage for flutist Erinn Frechette’s exploits in the ensuing Andante, Lees didn’t allow the tempo to flag to anything slower than a brisk canter. At that speed, Frechette’s filigree became brilliant over the crisp strings, and the flute’s birdlike warblings remained jocund, unalloyed by any solitary gloom. Collectively, the winds reached their fullest bloom in the impressive allegretto Finale. If Lees kept them a little too subdued in the opening Allegro, he unmistakably unleashed the woodwinds here to rollicking effect, establishing a clear 3/4 minuet sway along the way.

Although this was the last official Symphony on Tap for the 2018-19 season, the uniquely relaxed vibe of the series lingered on after the final note. Along with an audience mostly seated in casual dress at tables, instrument cases stowed under musicians’ chairs, and audience applause between movements, there was no sudden rush for the exits after the final note. The night was young and the taps hadn’t shut down. Charlotte Symphony has obviously reached out successfully to the community with these concerts, and NoDa Brewing Company isn’t the only joint they visit. Come summer, Symphony will return to Triple C Brewing for a June 27 concert in the Barrel Room, and a whole new flight of On Tap events is already booked for 2019-20.

“Spring Works” Delights With Sensuous, Satirical, and Classic Vibes

Review: Charlotte Ballet’s Spring Works

IN Cognito by Taylor Jones-1

By Perry Tannenbaum

Go figure. On opening night of Charlotte Ballet’s Spring Works, the most famous choreographer on the program wasn’t listed in the program booklet. Nor was his dance repeated at the next three performances after the Friday opening. Unless you noticed the insert inside your program booklet, you never did know that Merce Cunningham, who would have been 100 years old on April 16, was the mystery choreographer of the night. Or that Anson Zwingelberg, Charlotte Ballet’s representative at a Centennial Celebration at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on that night, was the dancer who repeated his performance from the special “Night of 100 Solos” gala.

For those of us who did eventually discover the insert, then looked up the celebrations – in London, Brooklyn, and LA – and tracked down the Vimeo replays of the live streams, most of the mystery was solved, except for the title of Zwingelberg’s solo. Others who freewheel their spectating without consulting their programs might still be puzzling the connection between what Zwingelberrg did and the Opus.11 pas-de-deux that followed.

With my program spread out before me, I knew instantly that I wasn’t watching Alessandra Ball James or Josh Hall, respectively in their 13th and 7th years with the company and listed as the partners in David Dawson’s Opus.11. Completing his second year, Zwingelberg is best remembered for his villainous Karl in The Most Incredible Thing last March. He wore a costume then. Although credits for designing Zwingelberg’s attire were given to Reid Bartelme and Helene Jung, your initial impression of their handiwork might be to assume that Zwingelberg had escaped from a work prisoners’ detail along the margins of I-77.

In his brightly colored jumpsuit – somewhere in the neighborhood of mauve, DayGlo orange, and Band-Aid – Zwingelberg performed one of Cunningham’s less dancelike solos. Arm, hand, and leg movements had an eccentric inward quality to them, occasionally endearingly comical, emphatically anti-musical, and occasionally spasmodic and crazy. A formal onstage introduction of some kind would have helped, to be sure, although it would likely have been nearly as long as the solo.

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Described as a “love letter” to Dawson’s two collaborators, dancer/costume designer Yumiko Takeshima and dancer/choreographic assistant Raphaël Coumes-Marquet, Opus.11 was unmistakably about love. Greg Haines’ hypnotic music and Dawson’s intimate lighting cast a nocturnal spell, more than sufficient to rekindle the chemistry between James and Hall. It should be familiar to CharBallet subscribers by now. If you’ve forgotten their man-goddess pairing at last year’s Spring Works, they’ve been Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier in Nutcracker and Peter Pan and Wendy in the meantime.

For James to reach such depths of sensuous surrender in a dance, she must trust Hall completely when she lets go. Years of dancing together have built a confidence in James that now appears to be absolute, so it’s really exquisite to see them so sinuously, emotionally, and fearlessly in action. It probably didn’t hurt that Coumes-Marquet himself was on hand to stage and rehearse this satisfying piece.

Helen Pickett, the choreographer who paired James and Hall so effectively last spring in her “Tsukiyo,” returned with the world premiere of a more complex work, IN Cognito. Dedicated to Blowing Rock native Tom Robbins with a title inspired by Villa Incognito, one of his later novels, Pickett plays with the idea of performers hiding behind their roles – yet exposing their true selves. Lighting by Les Dickert and costumes by Charles Heightchew evoked the brightness of 60’s and 70’s décor, yet there was regimentation and repetition in the early ensemble action that made me think Pickett had something pungent to say about peer groups and humdrum workplaces.

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The 10 performers, including special guest Robert Plant, executed their impersonal dance moves amid innocuous furnishings. A couch, complementary ottomans, floor lamps, descending window frames and ceiling lamps defined a domesticated indoor space where people interacted without really connecting. Satire? Music by Oscar-nominated Jóhann Jóhannsson and Mikael Karlsson occasionally heightened the urgency of this dance but didn’t warm up its cold vibe. When the couch was put into service as a runway, the dancers briefly took flight.

Reprising Johan Inger’s Walking Mad, CharBallet recalled artistic director Hope Muir’s triumphant arrival in the fall of 2017, when this was the opening work on her first program. Premiered at Nederlands Dans in 2001, toured by Alvin Ailey, and staged by an international who’s who of companies, Walking Mad can be anointed a classic even if Inger’s name still isn’t a household word. It features nine dancers in moods ranging from giddy silliness to deep despair – and a very versatile wall – mostly dispelling the obsessive spell of Maurice Ravel’s famed Bolero.

Replacing Ryo Suzuki, who launched the piece in 2017, Maurice Mouzon Jr. made his entrance from the Knight Theater orchestra pit, dressed in a drab overcoat and a Magritte bowler hat, the first of numerous bowlers we would see. No music yet, wall only dimly evident in the gloom. Mouzon and Sarah Hayes Harkins would dominate the pre- and post-Bolero moments, the first in silence and the moody finale set to Arvo Pärt’s “Für Alina.” Withdrawn and grumpy, Harkins wouldn’t accept Mouzon’s coat, letting it drop to the ground.

The first uptick in intensity comes as the simple wall springs to life, plowing Mouzon towards us. Then the mood also begins to shift when there’s a breakout of silent vaudeville comedy at opposite ends of the wide wall, our first visual confirmation that other dancers are conspiring in the comedy. Silent film comedy, you might say, appropriate for when Bolero was premiered in 1928. Doors appear in the wall. Another uptick: Men dressed in dopey maroon party hats begin to chase around and through the wall. Women in similar hats, looking equally dopey, join the party.

We tend to forget – or not even know – that Ravel’s Bolero actually began as a ballet. But not like this!

Abruptly, the wall was bent into a perpendicular shape, the music was muted, and Elizabeth Truell dominated the enclosure, by turns unresponsive, terrified, and violent toward the men who tried to reach her. She was clearly the maddest of Inger’s walking mad, conceivably in an isolation ward, and most bizarre when she and her partners suspended themselves in the corner of the half-folded wall. Slamming all three of his dancers against the wall in this segment, the choreography had a sprinkling of French apache as we awaited the return of the Bolero.

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The logic seemed to be that the music returns to full volume when Truell peeps over the top of the wall, but that logic didn’t hold in this surreal world. Gradually the music and the snare drum’s tattoo returned. After an old vaudeville mirror shtick early on, Ingel had laid part of the wall down like a palette and turned it into a slightly elevated dance floor. Now the whole wall came down, and in a Kafkaesque sequence, the former partyers all returned in Magritte bowlers, dancing in manic unison rather stumbling glee. in the process, the mob tormented Mouzon, tossing off their overcoats as Bolero roared to its end.

Applause inevitably greeted that wild moment, although Mouzon remained spotlit downstage awaiting Pärt’s wan piano sonata to cue up. With business between Mouzon and Hayes centering on his coat once again, the two dancers came marginally closer to connecting. If Mouzon had strengthened and persisted in his overtures for an hour or so, the diffident Hayes might have relented a bit, but the young man didn’t have that kind of resolve.

You could have called Mouzon’s exit Chaplinesque if it had a sunnier energy – or any true animation, though he did scale to the top of the wall and balance himself there. Instead of jumping or throwing himself off the edge, Mouzon merely leaned forward and fell out of sight. Classic.

Divinity, Orgy, and Terror Are Excitingly Mixed into Charlotte Ballet’s “Spring Works”

Review:  2018 Charlotte Ballet’s “Spring Works”

By Perry Tannenbaum

Spring is always considered a season of growth and renewal, and at Charlotte Ballet, where Hope Muir is completing her first year as artistic director, that old maxim was explosively confirmed on opening night of Ballet’s Spring Works at Knight Theater. Indications were strong that Muir and the company had turned a corner with the triumphant American premiere – after a one-night postponement – of Javier de Frutos’s The Most Incredible Thing in early March, reaffirming that CharBallet could take on bigger challenges and fill anybody’s shoes. The current sequel has brought in Bryan Arias, Helen Pickett, and Filipe Portugal, three choreographers the company had never presented before, and a rousing reprise of Ohad Naharin’s masterful Minus 16 suite.

The evening began with the splendid partnering of Alessandra Ball James and Josh Hall in Pickett’s “Tsukiyo,” premiered by Boston Ballet in 2009. Having watched The Shape of Water on a flight from Rome the previous morning, I saw a common thread between the Oscar-winning film and Pickett’s pas de deux, which is set to Arvo Pärt’s Speigel im Speigel. Both have the look of an amorous encounter between the human and the divine. James emerged from a mist like Botticelli’s Venus, supremely elegant and graceful, radiating a regal and divine assurance.

Hall approached her with worshipful awe, initially repulsed by the goddess, but he didn’t flee, continuing to circle her with awestruck wonder. Somehow Hall, who is the title character of the piece (and a god) as far as I could determine, wasn’t upstaged by James’s perfection. After starring as Leo the Creator in The Most Incredible Thing, Hall may have given an even richer characterization here, often curving his body to a picture of humility, yet strong and worthy of the goddess in those few moments when she yielded to him. The chemistry was profound, meshing beautifully with the music. Costumes by Charles Heightchew and lighting by John Cuff enhanced the magic.

In the wake of this powerful intensity, the next two pieces, both in their world premiere presentations, were comparatively abstract. Set to generous selections from the “Tirol Concerto” by Philip Glass, Portugal’s “Stepping Over” shuttled from fast to slow and back to fast in classic style. Action, divided among eight couples, was lively in the fast sections, most effectively in the final movement, where the music has a ragtime flavor. But I most enjoyed the slower middle movement with its style and grace.

Costume design by Christopher J. Parker detracted from the overall impression, barely transcending workout togs, matching blue outfits for the three lead couples and teal for the others. Hall and James made fairly quick costume changes into blue, each taking on a new partner, Chelsea Dumas and Drew Grant respectively, but it was hard for me to take my eyes off Sarah Hayes Harkins. Eclipsed and maybe a little enervated for much of the 2017-18 season, Harkins regained all her old sparkle and precision paired with James Kopecky, dancing with a new joy and rejuvenated spirit. An impressive North American debut for Portugal.

The only true intermission came after “Stepping Over,” though the program booklet deceptively places another one after the world premiere of “When Breath Becomes Air” by Arias. With more time devoted to ensemble movement, dancers were more detached and impersonal in the Arias piece than in the Pickett. Yet there was something more conceptual going on, since Arias has set his dance to Six Breaths by Ezio Bosso. As his title hints, part of Arias’s intent was the give physical shape to the invisible. All-white costumes by Márian Tatán heightened the molecular quality of the ensemble’s motion. Arias seemed to break away from that mold in the midsections of the piece, breaking down his ensemble into four different couples. Perhaps because these couples came on an evening that was already highlighted by the exploits of James and Hall, I was more enchanted by the trio of Colby Foss, Lexi Johnston, and Harkins.

Lights come up at Knight Theater after the Arias piece and the curtain comes down, but you shouldn’t leave the hall. Naharin’s piece explores the sometimes-ambiguous borderlines between playfulness and madness in a society under constant threat of terrorism. The most famous part of the Israeli choreographer’s Minus 16 is where he sets the Tractor’s Revenge modernization of a Passover song for a tightly regimented group of dancers who curve from one side of the stage to the other, mostly sitting and moving on chairs as “Echad Mi Yode’a” cycles from one to 13 in much the same fashion as “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Naharin brought this part of the piece to the Carolinas when his Batseva Dance Company made its Spoleto Festival USA debut in 2007. But the first complete performances of the suite in the Carolinas came at Knight Theater in 2012 when the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre brought it to town in 2012 – on their way to presenting it at Spoleto. Charlotte Ballet latched onto the piece in 2016 with smashing success.

The encore presentation seemed even better. While the lights were up for “Intermission,” Kopecky came out for his solo, a potpourri of spasmodic, graceful, and acrobatic movement – mixed with stony motionlessness and paranoid scrutiny of the audience. Of course, the sensation of all this wackiness increased as audience members returned from the lobby to discover it. (Maurice Mouzon Jr., who originated this role in 2016 while still a member of Charlotte Ballet II, will do this solo on the evening of April 27 and at an April 28 “family matinee” which will omit “When Breath Becomes Air.”)The curtain rose and fell many times during Minus 16, most shockingly when we suddenly see the “Echad Mi Yode’a” tableau, where costumes resemble those worn by ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews.

Primed by Kopecki’s antics, the audience was inclined to laugh at the end of each refrain, where a wave of prayerful motion sweeps from left to right, to Hebrew words that translate as “One is our God,” capped by one solitary man who explodes from his chair and falls face down onto the stage. It’s only when the ensemble’s collective actions grew crazier, all of them shedding an article of clothing in each refrain, that the laughter subsided – perhaps with the realization that the fallen man was a victim of a terrorist bomb. Maybe the sight of ultra-orthodox Jews tossing off their hats was their cue.

Amazingly, the chaos of clothing strewn across the stage gave way to frantic joy as the borderline was crossed once more to energetic, orgiastic celebration. All of the dancers eventually came out into the audience, as “Over the Rainbow” poured from the loudspeakers, and picked out members of the crowd who came back with them onstage. It really got crazy when the stage filled up again, as a block party broke out to the strains of “Hooray for Hollywood” and Dean Martin’s iconic “Sway.” Joy, laughter, and escape were fully consummated.

 

Plenty of Broadway DNA on Belmont Avenue

Review: A Bronx Tale

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

a Finale

Gotta love the production concept of A Bronx Tale in its touring version. Show producers, along with directors Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, have clearly attempted to keep as much of the original Broadway design as possible intact, and they’ve taken as many of the Broadway cast as possible on the road. Opening night at Belk Theater, the show looked very much like what I saw at the Longacre Theatre two years ago. The show ran almost as smoothly as it did in New York, and the sound was nearly as sharp. When hit shows are booked here for longer runs, critics are often kept away until at least the second night. Tweaking the sound and other niggling details is part of the reason.

The story is very personal to the guy who wrote the book, Chazz Palminteri, who based his one-man show on his own youthful adventures on Belmont and Webster Avenue, directed by Zaks. De Niro bought into turning the project into a 1993 movie in which he co-starred with Palminteri. In a couple of neat switcheroos, De Niro directed and played Chazz’s dad, Lorenzo, instead of the charismatic mobster who imperils – and saves – our hero’s young life. Palminteri took on that plum role of Sonny, the fearsome mobster kingpin who stands watch over Belmont Avenue, leaving the role of Calogero – Chazz’s original first name – to a greener actor.

So there’s a rich family feel that lingers in the musical version of this autobiographical 1960s tale – and I mean family with Godfather connotations. Calogero’s dad is a straight-arrow bus driver, but he understands the Italian-style street realities of his shambling neighborhood. When Sonny calmly guns down a less polished thug in cold blood, just a few yards away from Calogero’s front stoop, Lorenzo tries to shield his son from being dragged down by the police to identify the killer in a lineup.

o Sonny and Lorenzo and Chez Bippy

The scene is tense when Sonny and Calogero come eye-to-eye at the police station. But seemingly by osmosis, the nine-year-old kid knows the score: there is nothing lower on the streets of the Bronx than a snitch. Cool, stolid, and terrifying as he is, Sonny will not forget a favor, generous in his gratitude beyond Calogero’s dreams – and way beyond Lorenzo’s comfort level. The one scene where Sonny and Lorenzo confront one another absolutely sizzles.c Young C and Lorenzo

Both of these men have strength and wisdom, and each of them has a lasting influence on Calogero. Or C, as the imperious Sonny prefers to call him. “You done a good thing for a bad man,” Lorenzo tells his son after they return from the life-changing lineup scene. Yet it isn’t until deep in Act 2, when justice is meted out by the street instead of the police, that some in the audience will realize that Dad has a deeper wisdom and a deeper understanding of how Bronx justice works.

 

Sonny will teach us how power works in the “Nicky Machiavelli” showstopper, aided by his colorful henchmen, Rudy the Voice, Eddie Mush, Frankie Coffeecake, Tony 10 to 2, and JoJo the Whale. Very subtly, Sonny also lets us infer the secret of his sangfroid when a true answer from the nine-year-old C at the police lineup might have ended in a long, long stretch in jail. Sonny tells C that he had read his Machiavelli while doing some prison time in the past. If you want to get ahead in life, you take advantage of such opportunities. And if you take up crime as a career, you look at prison as a business expense.

The only time Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design malfunctioned was when a scrim was supposed to rise as Calogero was asking pretty black coed Jane out on a date, knowing that he was bridging the racial divide between Belmont and Webster. Here we will get a neat twist when Dad opposes his son’s dating Jane, who is showing some moxie of her own in encouraging Calogero. The worldlier Sonny not only condones C’s initiative, he gives his protégé some clever advice on testing a woman’s mettle – then tosses him the keys to his swank car. For couples watching this show on a date night, this “One of the Great Ones” scene, with its cool Sinatra swagger, will be Sonny’s most memorable showstopper.

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Perhaps emblematic of Lorenzo’s more durable lunch-pail values, Richard H. Blake is one of the original cast members that I saw at the Longacre in 2017. He makes a finer impression than ever in the “Look in Your Heart” episode, even if the Alan Menken-Glenn Slater song is interchangeable with at least 30 other Broadway tunes, and his bravery in the “Giving Back the Money” scene is obviously enhanced by his understanding of the risk he’s taking for the sake of keeping his son straight.

Joey Barbeiro as Calogero and Brianna-Marie Bell as Jane haven’t dialed up their chemistry as much as they could, nor does Palminteri underscore the larger significance of their association from their perspective. Is it enough that his book shows the two teens resisting pressures from family and friends? Maybe not in a show that runs 100 minutes and could easily have jettisoned its intermission.

Bell, a replacement cast member on Broadway, does her best acting work dealing with her schoolmates and her brother, a gang member who gets roughed-up on Calogero’s turf. But if Slater’s namby-pamby lyrics don’t give her much of a chance to distinguish herself on “Out of Your Head” or “Webster Avenue,” Menken’s music certainly lets us sample the firepower in Bell’s voice. Of course, Barbeiro’s dramatic chops are more extensively featured in multiple heavy scenes with Sonny, Lorenzo, his mom Rosina, and his own gang – Handsome Nick, Crazy Mario, and Sally Slick. Barbeiro is definitely comfortable with his ongoing narrative chores, and his voice is also conspicuously at a high Broadway level.

d Lorenzo Young C and RosinaShane Pry, the kid who alternated with Brigg Liberman as Young Calogero on opening night, was ill-served at the soundboard, particularly when he sang. Pry proved far more intelligible when he spoke, had very appealing energy, and was a great match physically for Barbeiro, the Calogero he would grow up to be. I was also pleased with Michelle Aravena as Rosina, another Broadway replacement who has hit the road. She reminded me of Bronx matrons I encountered in my early years, frazzled, prematurely old, and forever attached to a dish towel.

Maybe the most impressive of the Broadway originals is Joe Barbara as Sonny. Barbara has actually moved up the gangland pecking order on tour, having opened as Carmine, a Police Officer, and a Gang Leader on Broadway while understudying Nick Cordero, the original Sonny. Not quite as imposing or intimidating as Cordero was on Broadway, Barbara is every bit as calm and confident on tour, making up for his slight meanness and cynicism deficits on his “Machiavelli” showpiece with more musicality and savoir faire on ““One of the Great Ones.” Barbara and Chazz himself were the only Broadway replacements for Cordero onstage during the 700-performance run of A Bronx Tale, a heavy family endorsement that our Sonny makes good on.

Hope Plays His Swan Song in Savannah in an Epic Exit

Review: Celebrating its 30th season, the Savannah Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Celebrating its 30th season, the Savannah Music Festival is weathering a series of transitions that began less than a year ago. After 16 seasons as the SMF artistic and executive director, Rob Gibson abruptly resigned last summer. Marketing director Ryan McMaken moved up to the artistic directorship and David Pratt, formerly with the Queensland Symphony in Australia and the Savannah Philharmonic, returned to the US as the new SMF chief executive.

The new leadership didn’t stumble dramatically in the shadow of a 2018 classical lineup that included guest appearances by Murray Perahia, Audra McDonald, Marc-André Hamelin, the Zukerman Trio, Yekwon Sunwoo, and a residency with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, newly headed by star violinist Daniel Hope, SMF’s associate artistic director in the classical sphere. Lars Vogt, Juho Pohjonen, The Tallis Scholars, and the Jerusalem Quartet are on the bill for 2019, and in the first full-scale collaboration between the Festival and the Savannah Philharmonic, a new piece by jazz pianist Marcus Roberts will premiere in a Phil concert that will also include works by Borodin, Stravinsky, and Gershwin.

Perhaps the news that was forthcoming from Hope was telegraphed when Zurich did not commit to repeating its visit in 2019. Stating that the decision had been made “to reduce the amount of international travel time to which he is obligated,” the announcement that Hope’s 16th season at SMF would be his last officially dropped on March 5 – barely three weeks before the 2019 Festival began.

We can begin to grasp the impact of Hope’s departure on SMF’s 2020 programming by surveying the scope of his participation this year. Easily the most active performer at the Festival, he is slated to appear in five of the six “Daniel Hope & Friends” concerts. During the 17-day festival, Hope is also performing with the Atlanta Symphony (March 30) and teaming with Saebstian Knauer on an “Homage to Yehudi Menuhin” (April 12). In what will no doubt be a touching valedictory, Hope will play and his novelist father will narrate “Christopher Hope Presents ‘My Son the Fiddler.’” (April 13).

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In his first three performances of 2019, Hope was playing with a zest and dedication that indicated he is sorry to be leaving. Few of the occasions I’ve covered in the past 10 years – only the “Kreutzer Sonata” he played with Knauer in 2011 comes instantly to mind – saw Hope in the same fiery form he brought to the stage of the Lucas Theatre on Saturday night, playing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with the Atlanta Symphony, pianist Wu Han and her husband, cellist David Finckel.

The crowd, the occasion, and the gauntlet laid down by Beethoven’s score – not to mention having his name up in lights on the Lucas’s movie theatre marquee – might have actually given Hope a touch of the jitters as he fussed over the location of his iPad-holding music stand near the lip of the stage. Frankly, Finckel was the steadier string player in the first solo salvos of the Triple’s opening Allegro, but after the ebullient trialogue with Han and a spirited interjection by Robert Spano and the Symphony, Hope was locked in and absolutely brilliant, his double-bowing as sharp as steel.

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Finckel was a mellowing agent throughout, graciously restoring calm in the outer movements and surpassing himself with a heartfelt intro to the middle Largo. Han proved to be an equal partner and provocateur in the outer movements, especially conspicuous in the closing Rondo alla Polacca where she delivered dreamy excursions in the middle and an extended ramble away from closure before Hope pounced on the presto-paced exchange that carried us to the end. Hope’s fireworks with Han had made it obvious that applause was forthcoming at the end of the epic opening movement, and a standing ovation was no less inevitable here.

Gravitating toward the extreme downstage at the Lucas, Hope and his trio mates were unintentionally underscoring the acoustic problems faced by Spano and his orchestra. Behind the proscenium, the strings tend to get muddied and high frequencies are noticeably muffled. Cellos and clarinets sound best, but extra piccolos would have made the ending of “Overture to Egmont” sound more like Beethoven intended, though Spano beautifully judged the contrast between the final rousing rally and the calm that preceded it.

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Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony No. 1 showcased Spano’s deftness even better, with sharper section work from his players and balances that played better with the hall. There was fine thrust from the strings stating the opening Andante, although brighter percussion sounds other than the triangle were missing on the fringes of the later Allegro marking. Cellos and French horns excelled in the ensuing Larghetto, where Spano sculpted the fluid tempos and dynamics into pleasing shapes. Repetitions of the big tune never dulled the penultimate Scherzo, and the Allegretto animato e grazioso brought the evening to an exciting close, with the drums, trombones, and strings delivering the knockout punch.

Hope didn’t appear at the first “Hope & Friends” of the season on Friday night, and his entrance at the Lucas the following evening, notwithstanding the marquee, was without any fanfare marking his farewell season. Touchingly, that moment came late Sunday afternoon when Han mounted the Trinity United Methodist Church platform and warmly dedicated the ensuing Chamber Music of Lincoln Center concert to Hope, describing the joys of his playing and the joys of playing with him. Han also proved quite adept at emceeing, personably introducing the three piano quartets on the bill. She vividly described the relationship between Suk and Dvořák and detailed the despondency that sparked Brahms’s Quartet No. 3, along with the gun-to-the-head moment that concludes it.

Han, Finckel, Hope, and violist Paul Neubauer did the rest of the talking with their instruments – until Neubauer’s ill-fated maiden voyage playing with an iPad after intermission. While Hope sat back in his chair, grinning and laughing and in no hurry, Han explained the situation and helped turn the damn contraption on. Hope’s ease and relaxation probably served him best in the ensuing Dvořák Piano Quartet No. 2 when we reached the luscious Lento second movement. After yet another achingly lovely intro by Finckel – and an exquisite fadeaway – Hope began the same melody extremely softly yet piercingly, working up to a blaze of high intensity. Another ebb then flowed into a reprise from Finckel. With Han’s interjections, the movement was like a miniature concerto until the give-and-take abruptly ended with a couple of unison sforzandos that tossed us into a maelstrom.

The Suk that opened the program was brimming with inspiration and showy bowing. Yet it was useful for Han to have reminded us that this was Josef Suk’s Opus 1, finished with Dvořák’s encouragement and premiered when the composer was just 17. For all its excitement and appeal, I couldn’t push away the thought, especially in the tempestuous outer movements, that a Beethoven or a Brahms would have made even more of the inspired materials that Suk was working with. The inner Adagio, with another soulful Finckel intro was a nice foretaste of the Lento to come from Dvořák – not to mention the wondrous Andante at the heart of the epically anguished Brahms 3, which began with an eloquent and sad intro from Finckel and featured Neubauer’s best moments.

Both the Brahms 3 and the Dvorak 2 had been presented twice before in Savannah at previous festivals, but the Suk was an SMF premiere. With such a dazzling quartet of musicians advocating for it so passionately, the Suk proved worthy of such esteemed company.

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A similar mix of familiar and unfamiliar informs the “& Friends” concerts. Hope sat out the all-Mozart opener that I attended, but Pohjonen was at the keyboard for both piano quartets – with an extraordinary feel for the composer – so all was well. This was the second go-round for No. 1 and the fourth for No. 2, but the String Duo No. 2 for Violin and Viola and the Prelude and Fugue No. 2 for String Trio were new to Savannah. The “& Friends” sequel offered edgier fare, with Hope playing lead violin opposite Vogt in Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, the third time this gem has been presented during Hope’s tenure, alternately raucous and haunting in its pivotal Scherzo and Lento movements.

Otherwise, Hope sat on the sidelines. Rebecca Clarke’s Dumka, ranging from pizzicato delicacy to Gypsy fire, was presented by pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips, Neubauer, and violinist Simos Papanas. Nice to know that this piece, championed by Hope on a Naxos recording, was getting a second hearing at SMF, but Schubert’s Fantasy for Piano Four Hands and Niels W. Gade’s String Sextet were actually receiving their SMF premieres.

As the stage was being reset for the Sextet, Hope sauntered to the front of the church from his seat in the second row of pews, not bothering to climb up onstage, and gave us an impromptu introduction to Gade. Our host emphasized Gade’s talents, his travels back and forth from his native Copenhagen to Leipzig, and his association with Mendelssohn, then the director of the Leipzig Orchestra. It was the first time Hope had addressed an audience at the 2019 Savannah Music Festival, seemingly spontaneous and unplanned.

Keeping Hope’s remarks in mind, I suspected that Gade had taken some of Mendelssohn’s influence back home with him when he wrote his Sextet some 16 years after his mentor’s death, for there are echoes of the elder’s Octet in the Dane’s music, especially in the opening movement. The Kim brothers, violinist Benny and cellist Eric, longtime members of the Festival’s “& Friends” ensemble, played the leads on their instruments, prime reasons why this premiere was a resounding success.

Getting ready for the long drive home to Charlotte, I turned around in my front row seat and told Hope, “Well done, sir.” Shrugging, he replied, “They did all the work,” no doubt assuming that I was referring to his prefatory remarks.

Reading this, he’ll likely see otherwise.

“Les Noces” Challenges and Delights a Near-Capacity Crowd at Halton Theater

Review: Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces

By Perry Tannenbaum

Uniquely combining performing arts, visual arts, film, literary, culinary and even cosmetology events, all promoted with endearing academic diffidence by Central Piedmont Community College, Sensoria is an annual arts and literature festival that just might be achieving traction in Charlotte. Two campus parking garages were teeming with stalled traffic on the night my wife Sue and I attended a modernistic program of music and dance at Halton Theater, headlined by a staging of Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces. For multiple reasons, this was a student/faculty showcase like none I had ever attended before.

CPCC’s Dance Theatre had reached out to UNC Charlotte, bringing the UNCC Percussion Ensemble and the UNCC Dance Ensemble into their production and staging it on both campuses. Attendance for this edgy event at CP was phenomenal, filling the Halton’s balcony more fully than any CPCC Summer Theatre show I’ve attended in recent memory. Little slips of paper were being handed out as we exited, tipping off the probability that academic credit was being offered for attending. Student admission was free with ID.

Even before their contributions to Les Noces, members of the Percussion Ensemble were involved in three of the four preliminary pieces. UNCC lecturer Rick Dior composed, conducted, and introduced two of these, “Equinox for Percussion Ensemble and Theremin” and “Flesh and Bone.” Serving as co-emcee was Clay Daniel, who created new choreography for Les Noces. Visiting UNCC artist Janet Schroeder worked with the Dance Ensemble to create “7(each her own) = !” Composer Ivan Trevino was the only major creative force who was not affiliated with either of the two schools, but his “2300 Degrees” got the evening off to a promising start, performed by Raven Pfeiffer and Chris Merida facing each other on two shared marimbas separated by an island of crotales, little cymbal-like instruments that were pinged with sticks.

Merida launched the piece with some delicate work on the crotales before the spirited marimba duetting began in earnest. The title refers to the temperature at which glass becomes semi-liquid and malleable, and the tensions of the piece, premiered in 2016, are intended to evoke the dangers and the beauties of this hot medium. Both Pfeiffer and Merida wielded two mallets in each hand, and when the music intensified, they both played their five-octave marimbas and the crotales array at the same time. When the composition climaxed, both of the players were reaching across to the other’s marimba. Really a fun beginning.

With Pfeiffer moving to play the theremin and Merida sitting himself behind a drum kit, all of the UNCC Percussion Ensemble joined in the auspicious world premiere of “Equinox.” Most of Dior’s introductory remarks were devoted to explaining the theremin, an electronic instrument invented by Leon Theremin in 1928 and probably best recognized as the melodic voice of the familiar Star Trek theme. Dior described Pfeiffer as a quick-study prodigy on the gizmo, which is the antithesis of any percussion instrument she had played before. Touching the looped left antenna of the theremin actually silences it, and moving your hand away from that antenna raises the volume while the right hand, working with the upright right antenna, controls the pitch.

As this intriguing piece unfolded, Pfeiffer appeared to be playing what I’d call “air trombone.” Precise jerks of her right hand could produce recognizable runs and scales, but smoother movements yielded slide whistle glissandos. Of course, no breath was required for Pfeiffer to sustain tones while eight percussionists worked busily behind her, four on drums pitted against four on malleted instruments. Shifting and crossing motifs of the percussion were intended by Dior to mimic the hemispheric action of the equinox, but I’ll freely admit that it was hard for me to unfasten my attention from the spectacle of Pfeiffer’s fine performance.

It was far easier for me to wrap my eyes around the oddity of Schroeder’s “7(each her own) = !” The seven dancers, all costumed in similar aqua-colored tops and cheery white leggings with hexagonal graphics, brought out a variety of surfaces to which they would apply their tap shoes. There were individual entrances and exits before all seven of the women were there to stay, establishing the individuality of the dancers and their common link to a steady beat. No other instruments were onstage making music; and if you listened closely to the walking, tapping, and stomping; you would notice a variety of pitches that the portable circular, square, and triangular dance surfaces brought to the sound palette. For a good while, Schoeder and her dancers disdained actual tap dancing, and I began to wonder just how far the UNCC Dance Ensemble had gotten in their lessons. Relief, expression, and true individuality emerged when the tap dancing finally began – along with the beginnings of bonds and community among the dancers. Perhaps that was the message.

Choreographed by CP dance faculty member Tracie Foster Chan, “Flesh and Bone” was the first collaborative piece of the night, bringing the UNCC Percussion Ensemble back on stage to play for four members of CPCC Dance Theatre. As Dior explained prior to conducting his piece, Chan and her dancers had taken on a challenge, since most of the time signatures in the piece weren’t easily counted or danceable meters in three or four. When the two soloists did release into a stretch of 4/4, the difference was quite noticeable and refreshing. Utilizing one male dancer and three women clad in abstract black-and-white costumes, Chan’s choreography nicely captured the restless asymmetry of Dior’s score. As for dancers – Angela Cook, Kataryna Flowers, Amber Johnson, and Byron McDaniel – moving away from ballet and into the modern idiom seems to have brought more comfort and confidence to this troupe. The title of the piece was Dior’s reference to how the two drum soloists played, Merida with his hands and Daniel Ferreira with drumsticks.

With six more CP dancers, four vocal soloists, an eight-person mini-chorus, seven Percussion Ensemble musicians, and four pianos, Les Noces (The Wedding) took some time to set up, almost justifying an intermission. Once all the people and pieces were in place, with Dior wielding the baton, there was sensory bombardment and overload that I’ve rarely experienced before. Printed lyrics would have helped in understanding the action, but how could we have read them while watching the dance? The dancing helped us, after all, in delineating the four scenes of the continuous score: The Blessing of the Bride, The Blessing of the Bridegroom, The Bride’s Departure from Her Parents’ House, and The Wedding Feast. For some perverse reason, however, Daniel didn’t want his choreography to reveal who the bride and bridegroom were until the very end – so obviously the actions of blessing and departure were also blurred.

Amid all the sensory bombardment and conceptual confusion, I didn’t notice Alan Yamamoto, the conductor listed in the program, making the usual formal entrance we expect at symphonic and operatic performances. But I’ve gotten multiple assurances that he was indeed on the podium, and I had nothing but admiration for his spirited work. Daniel’s scenario began effectively in silence, with dancers ceremoniously bringing a long flowering vine in from an exit at the side of the hall. That effect contrasted with the sudden onslaught of the percussion and the female vocalist who sang The Bride’s role. Besides including the lyrics, the program would have been more useful if it had designated who sang the roles of the bride’s mother and father, the groom, the groom’s father, etc. For all of the confusion that hovered over this presentation, the primitive savagery of the singing and percussion were absolutely riveting. The title might have sounded like a sentimental Hallmark greeting card, but the experience was more like the most raucous moments of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, absolutely thrilling.

Simon Says, Be Shocked and Shaken

Review: Actor’s Gym presentation of  Act Two

By Perry Tannenbaum

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As Neil Simon tells us in The Play Goes On, the second of his two memoirs, Chapter Two was inspired by a turning point in his life, moments after he had threatened to leave Marsha Mason, his second wife. She fought back. “Marsha came to me with a torrent of words that flowed out with such anger, but such truth, that she never missed a beat, never tripped over a single syllable or consonant,” Simon wrote. “I knew it was spontaneous, that it was coming from the bottom of her heart and soul, her one last chance to save something good.”

Chapter Two would be a turning point in his career, the first time that he really poured his own painful experiences into one of his comedies. Simon paraphrased Mason’s speech and inserted it deep in Act 2, where Mason eventually paraphrased herself co-starring in the film of the 1977 Broadway hit with James Caan. It’s one of two singularly heavy moments for Simon, who is so often celebrated for his one-liners, his strung-together skits, and his extended sitcoms.

George Schneider and Jennie Malone are the onstage counterparts for Simon and Mason. In his current Actor’s Gym presentation at Duke Energy Theater, director Tony Wright wisely resisted the temptation to look for co-stars who would bring the most sparkle to the snappy banter that marks the whirlwind romance of his protagonists. Wright prioritizes chemistry, casting Bill Reilly as George and Jennifer Barnette as Jennie, two performers mostly noted for drama until Wright cast Barnette in Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels last fall.

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George, a writer, is trying to get back into circulation after the sudden death of his first wife, but finds it difficult to put an end to his grieving. A soap opera actress, Jennie is still shell-shocked by the end of her six-year marriage to a football player.

She’s definitely wary of repeating past mistakes, quietly on the lookout for something different. When she finds him, she will know.

Getting them together is where Simon can infuse some broader comedy into his script, for it’s George’s big brother Leo, a Broadway press agent, who keeps trying to set our lovelorn hero up with female prospects until he strikes Jennie gold. Pushing from the other end is Jennie’s bestie, soap opera queen Faye Medwick.

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A couple of sitcom ironies give the story extra spark. While pushing George and Jennie together, both Leo and Faye are unhappy in their own marriages – leading to a side order of illicit romance between them. Meanwhile, when romance sparks between George and Jennie, both Leo and Faye are alarmed that the spark has become a bonfire, that their matchmaking has succeeded beyond expectations, with the lovebirds rushing towards matrimony.

Plenty of latitude here for two immense screwball performances, and Wright is just as unerring here. Fresh off her outré performance opposite Barnette in Fallen Angels, Karina Caparino plumbs deeper depths of daffiness as Faye, nailing a New York accent and making a meal out of the soap diva’s paranoid fear of discovery. Wright gives Trent Merchant even wider latitude in his local debut as Leo. Whether coaxing George out of his funk or wooing the skittish Faye, Merchant goes big, brash, and boorish, Davita Galloway’s costumes helping us to distinguish Leo as the most crass and déclassé of these New Yorkers.

 

So when Merchant draws Simon’s other dramatic monologue, detailing George’s despondency after the death of his first wife, it’s no less surprising than Jennie’s big outburst will be. Desperately urging Jennie to slow it down on the eve of her hasty wedding, Leo shows us how much he cares for his brother even as he goes about it in such a gauche way.

While not exactly swank, Tim Baxter-Ferguson’s set design splits the stage convincingly into two apartments, so that when George speaks to Jennie on the phone, there is credible separation even when they’re virtually back-to-back. Reilly turns out to be very good at rendering George’s lingering grief and his romantic awkwardness. Getting on the phone for the first time with Jennie – unintentionally – George turns this first telephone encounter into a typical Simon shtick.

But Wright and Reilly are keenly attuned to the difference. So many of the moments here are about “one last chance to save something good.” In George’s case, they are mixed with moments when he’s an endearing wit or a mopey jerk.

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Barnette firmly establishes Jennie’s forbearance in the first barrage of phone calls from George with just a twinkle of archness. There is so much that Jennie must indulge from George, from Faye, and from Leo – her sponsor! – that you wonder where and if Barnette’s saintly serenity will end. The explosion shouldn’t seem inevitable, but when it comes, it should seem in character.

Most of all, Barnette must nail it, and she does. Part of the essence of Jennie’s spontaneity is that she will be a little shocked and shaken herself by what has just flowed out of her. On opening night, Barnette was. So was I.

Swinging and Singing Summits Highlight SMF Jazz Week

Review:  Savannah Music Festival’s Annual Jazz Week

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Call it the Jazz at Lincoln Center influence, but the Savannah Music Festival’s annual Jazz Week had a little bit more of an educational tinge this year. Not only was the Jazz at Lincoln Center Youth Big Band one of 12 finalists in the annual Swing Central playoffs, SMF’s nationwide high school big band competition, some of the jazz headliners took an overtly pedagogical approach to their sets at the Charles H. Morris Center.

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Warming up for Kat Edmonson on Sunday afternoon, pianist Jon Cleary offered a personal primer on New Orleans piano style, with pithy disquisitions on – and evocations of – Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, and Mac Rebennack. The following evening, Chris Pattishall and his quintet crossed the frontier into jazz piano with a full-length presentation of Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite. On the second half of that bill, Aaron Diehl dipped into Dick Hyman’s Jazz Etudes in the Styles of Jazz Masters with his trio, a foretaste of a complete traversal that would cap his solo set the following afternoon.

Since Swing Central already includes intensive workshops and clinics with such luminaries as Marcus Roberts, Wycliffe Gordon, Stephen Riley, Jim Ketch, Dave Stryker, Jason Marsalis, and Pattishall, concerts like these further enrich the program’s academic nourishment. Toss in an additional three yet-to-be-mentioned vocalists and the Grammy-winning Dafnis Prieto Big Band, and you may assume that non-student jazz enthusiasts had plenty to enjoy over the first six days of SMF 2019.

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Havana native Daymé Arocena led off the jazz lineup, backed by a fine trio headed by keyboardist Jorge Luis Lagarza. Prompted by Arocena’s recent recordings, Cubafonía and Nueva Era, I expected to see a singer who aimed mainly for Latin audiences with side glances toward R&B and jazz. With backup singers, brass sections, and overdubbing stripped away, quite a different artist emerged in live performance. The R&B dimension surfaced with a drive and vitality to her vocals that reminded me of Stevie Wonder’s breakthrough years. Her scat singing on “Maybe Tomorrow” no longer sounded like four bars sight-read in a studio but more like the free flights of Flora Purim, and there was more to come in “Mambo No Ma.”

More surprisingly, thanks to the wide spectrum of sounds offered by percussionist Marcos Morales, there were times when the full-throated beauty of Arocena’s voice – never really captured at all in the studio recordings I’ve heard – took me back to the sound of John Coltrane’s quartets during his early Impulse years. Adding to Arocena’s live electricity, she’s an engaging and involving entertainer, compelling us all to clap or sing along with her and holding her encore hostage unless we all got up and danced to “La Rumba Me Llamo Yo.”

Paying the ransom was definitely worth it, for the encore, “Don’t Unplug My Body,” began with an electric bass solo from Rafael Aldama and heated up to an intensity that you wouldn’t have thought possible on her tame recording – nothing short of an Cuban orgasm. Lagarza widened the palette of the backup trio when he turned away from the house Steinway and played his portable electric, bringing a rock guitar vibe to “Minuet Para un Corazon” and a B3 organ-like soul to “Negra Caridad.”

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Dafnis Prieto Big Band drew the coveted Saturday night slot, playing two sets at the Morris. Remembering past Latin Dance Parties at the Morris, the deafening Eddie Palmieri of 2009 and the still uncomfortable Palmieri encore in 2014, I was wary of sitting too close for this year’s Best Latin Jazz Album winner. So I’m truly gratified to report that, handling this 17-man ensemble, the Morris sound crew had decibel levels dialed in to perfection. Or so it felt from the side of the hall opposite to the four trumpets, four trombones, and five reeds.

The winning CD, Back to the Sunset, supplied five of the six tunes that the band performed at their second set. “Una Vez Mas” was certainly a very rousing, very Latin way to start both the album and the concert. More colorful and adventurous charts lay ahead, especially in the second half of the program. Expanding upon his recorded intro to “Danzonish Potpourri,” Prieto unleashed an awesome display at the drum kit. After some nicely blended saxes and an Alex Brown fill at the keyboard, Michael Thomas swooped in with a majestic soprano sax solo that eased its tempo after being partially inundated by the brass. A tasty Brown piano solo gave way to some pithy work from Michael Blake on melodica, not well-heard until the band dropped out.

Switching to flute and then alto, Thomas was even more impressive on the ensuing “Song for Chico.” At the crest of this chart, Thomas stood with his sax and counted out two successive sudden stops to the horns behind him. Then out of the second silence, he crafted a beautiful acapella solo, with numerous multiphonics strewn along the way. “Two for One” closed out this magnificent set, with high-energy exchanges between the brass and reeds, extended solos by Blake on tenor and Thomas on alto, and heavy workouts for Prieto and percussionist Roberto Quintero. Brown tucked in his loveliest piano solo in the calm before the leader’s parting shots.

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There are plenty of retro elements in Edmonson’s singing style, a pinch of Peggy Lee sultriness, the occasional Lady Day phrasing, and abundant echoes of Blossom Dearie. In the songwriting style, you might instantly recall the utmost despondency of Joni Mitchell – but you suddenly realize that Edmonson time travels farther back, dabbling in verses! If that weren’t enough, Edmonson testified to hearing the voice of Nancy Wilson when she composed “What Else Can I Do,” a song she proceeded to perform with an extended scat outro.

Like Arcena, Edmonson often verges on pop when she’s embellished at recording studios – and transitions effortlessly to jazz at Savannah with the right backup. If you feel her singing on recordings is too precious, coy and calculated, your opinion would likely improve seeing her live. The Blossom Dearie parallels certainly emerged quickly as Edmonson reined in her studio style for her opening “Champagne.” “Old Fashioned Gal,” the title tune on her latest release, was a frank and quirky instance of a verse that seemed to last the full length of the song.

Kat’s spoken intros took us to Europe, through a despondent breakup, on tour and at the studio with Lyle Lovett – dishy reveals that meshed well with her less-mannered live singing. Despite the Nancy Wilson channelling, “Nobody Knows That,” the song Edmonson sang immediately after “What Else Can I Do,” was the more diva-worthy composition, with drummer Aaron Thornton’s brushes and Al Street’s guitar adding gravitas. Admitting that the duet she wrote for Lovett was modelled after “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” before that hit became a toxic template, Edmonson did a solo version of “Long Way Home” that had a cheery post-party feel, slightly buzzed, with some solo space carved out for bassist Bob Hart.

Though “Sparkle and Shine” can be credited with an authentic verse, the best of the rest was definitely “Whispering Grass,” with an intro and outro that were no less outré and spacey than the studio version, and glimmering work from Roy Dunlap at the Steinway. Dunlap doubled on electric piano in “Lucky,” and Hart whipped out a guitar from behind his bass, turning Kat’s band for “All the Way” into a two-guitar quartet – remember The Ventures? – with a more novel electric sound than the studio cut.

While a songwriter who moans “if I had a voice” must be speaking for somebody else when her own top 10 songs on Spotify have been streamed over 22 million times, Edmonson’s rendition of “A Voice,” prefaced by another touching intro from Dunlap, was suffused with breathtaking beauty. “Summertime,” Kat’s most-streamed cut, was her encore, the Gershwins’ original comfort replaced by downcast commiseration. With nearly nine million plays, it’s working for her.

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It’s been nearly five years since Pattishall brought a quintet to Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola and played Williams’ Zodiac Suite with the same frontline, Alphonso Horne on trumpet and Ricardo Pascal on reeds. The 1944 composition, first recorded by Williams and her trio in 1945 and reissued in 1995, does not suffer from overexposure: Dizzy Gillespie brought the pianist to the stage at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957 and played three of the 12 astrological signs with his big band, comprising one track on the resulting Verve CD. in 2006, Geri Allen recorded a Zodiac Suite: Revisited tribute with her trio.

So it’s safe to assume that the sheet music strewn across Pattishall’s piano and distributed among his cohorts was penned by the pianist for his quintet. Doubling back to the YouTube videos from the 2014 Dizzy’s gig, I’m even more sure that head arrangements have been in flux. Horne plays with far more individuality and self-assurance now than he did at the Dizzy’s date, where he looked so young, but he was supplanted at the Morris by Pascal on tenor in the volatile “Virgo” section.

Choosing to begin with “Taurus” instead of “Aries,” which he saved for his closer, Pattishall immediately shone the spotlight on Horne, trading full solos twice with the young trumpeter, who put plenty of growl into his Bull with and without his plunger mute before yielding to Roland Guerin and his five-string bass. “Leo” was the next true burner after Pattishall’s ruminative soloing figured prominently in the next two signs. Bryan Carter launched “Leo” with a fine drum solo and fired another fusillade later in the piece after the horns. Pascal, who had roared moments on “Cancer,” switched from tenor to soprano on “Leo,” a nice prelude to Horne and his first extended unmuted solo.

With a walking bassline in his piano intro that reached under the horns when they layered on, “Scorpio” became the sign where Pattishall most intently replicated the Williams style, though a listen to Dizzy Gillespie at Newport will convince you that Williams was pretty eclectic herself, with plenty of chops. Starting off by introducing each astrological sign – and asking us to make noise if we were born under it – Pattishall thankfully tired of this routine and played through. That’s why the “Capricorn” segment, adding two or three other signs before coming to a halt, was the most satisfying in the set, with tasty parts for Horn, Guerin, and Carter.

Somebody should sign these guys besides SMF, which lists all five quintet members as Swing Central faculty. A studio recording would help more people to catch up with Mary Lou’s chef d’oeuvre – in a full-throated style that would make Dizzy and Wynton proud.

Quite a composer and technician in his own right, Diehl proved more exciting performing his own compositions and interpretations than in curating others’. The pianist’s interplay with drummer Quincy Davis got “Uranus” off to a provocative start, releasing into an Oscar Peterson-like romp than ended with a playful “In a Small Café” quote before each of the three trio members took turns in the spotlight. During Diehl’s meditative intro to “A Story,” Davis switched to brushes and layered on. Then bassist David Wong made his entrance and soloed gorgeously, setting the stage – and maybe the tone – for the leader.

Gillespie’s “Con Alma” was another prime delight after the long immersion into Hyman’s Etudes, heavily inflected with Latin rhythm and percussion when we released into the familiar line. But the double layer of pedagogy when Diehl delved into the Etudes was distracting for me. Unlike the signs of the Williams Zodiac, which might be dedicated to such non-jazz heroes as FDR, each of Hyman’s exercises was an homage to a seminal 20th century jazz pianist.

So when “Portrait,” taken at a nice lively tempo, sounded more to me like Hyman in Diehl’s hands than the original dedicatee, John Lewis, my response was conflicted. Nor did I see much point in the “Ivory Strides” homage to Fats Waller, way too close to “Ain’t Misbehavin’” for comfort. Much better was “Onyx Mood,” dedicated to Art Tatum. After a couple of obligatory Tatum runs, Diehl administered a torrid pounding and just went off, no confusion at all about whose style was on display.

Two other problems often plagued the project, one of which carried over to the lunchtime solo concert the following afternoon. Hyman’s Etudes are noticeably shorter than Chopin’s, sometimes less than a minute on Hyman’s own renditions – so Davis and Wong tended to disappear in the trio versions, especially since Diehl usually refrained from embellishment.

Both problems were neatly solved when Diehl ended with “Passage,” dedicated to Bill Evans, and followed with a huge surprise, Philip Glass’s “Etude No. 16.” Not only did Diehl expand on this piece as he had previously with the Tatum etude, he showed an unmistakable affinity for Evans that enhanced the tribute vibe. No less important, Davis became newly involved – against the grain of Diehl’s playing, occasionally dropping bombs on the Glass and applying both sticks and brushes to his inspired efforts.

Diehl’s solo disquisition, “Blues & the Spanish Tinge,” ended in very much the same fashion as the trio gig, with a complete traversal of the Hyman Etudes and the Glass 16. But it began very much on-topic, tracing a lineage of piano styles starting just before the turn of the 20th century with Ignacio Cervantes’ Six Cuban Dances, published in 1899, followed by samplings of Jimmy Yancey and – after circling back to Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a New Orleans native who actually taught Cervantes – Jelly Roll Morton.

The antique simplicity of the Cervantes suite, with hints of Chopin waltz and premonitions of Scott Joplin rag, grew livelier in the fourth dance, nearly a march in Diehl’s hands. Other highlights in the set included Diehl’s take on “Jelly Roll Blues” and the frenzied stride romp he applied to Fats Waller’s “Viper’s Drag” before its customary élan became discernible. In a more formal vein, Diehl’s rendition of Aaron Copland’s “Piano Blues for John Kirkpatrick” was a charming little bonbon.

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Riding high on top of Jazz Week’s airplay charts, Catherine Russell didn’t return to Savannah to promote Alone Together, her current release. Instead, she joined in a concept concert, “Billie & Blue Eyes,” with the John Pizzarelli Trio – a concept that wasn’t far distant from the “Ladies Sing the Blues” sets she sang in 2014 with Charenée Wade. As Pizzarelli pointed out in his warmup segment, Sinatra and Billie Holiday pretty much traversed (some might say defined) the Great American Songbook between them with many overlaps.

Of course, Pizzarelli is well-known in Savannah, his appearances at SMF dating back to at least 2011. Singing in a relaxed style, Pizzarelli is also a personable, self-deprecating, and humorous host – and he has obviously gotten to know Savannah well. After starting out in Sinatra’s effervescent postwar style with “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “You Make Me Feel So Young,” Pizzarelli carved out a segment devoted to Savannah’s iconic songwriter, Johnny Mercer. While the first Mercer tune, “Goody Goody,” remained squarely on the Sinatra Highway, the two scat choruses Pizzarelli added on signaled that he didn’t feel obliged to stay there. Both the beloved “Skylark” and the outré “Jamboree Jones” took the offramp, never recorded by either Ol’ Blue Eyes or Lady Day.

Cy Coleman’s “Witchcraft,” on the other hand, brought us emphatically back to recognized Sinatra hits, though Pizzarelli’s singing style still chimed best with “Skylark” collaborators Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael. “The Way You Look Tonight,” a solo with John’s own simple guitar accompaniment, was a nice way to segue into Russell’s regal entrance. There were still 14 songs to go in the 21-song set, so Russell’s brassier contributions felt quite ample as Pizzarelli and his trio stuck around.

Naturally they started off together really big with “All of Me,” Russell singing two choruses, Pizzarelli on a scat vocal and pianist Konrad Paszkudzki splitting the next chorus, and Russell harmonizing with John to take it out. Handoff accomplished, Russell took over for three songs in Billie’s bag, Pizzarelli relegating himself to a half chorus on guitar for “You Go to My Head” while both Paszkudzki and bassist Mike Karn took full choruses between the vocals on “Love Me or Leave Me.”

Pizzarelli’s return to the vocal mic was even more rousing than Russell’s initial arrival, as the whole ensemble dug into “Them There Eyes,” both singers pushing the tempo, John strumming four-to-the-bar and Karn laying down two choruses of calm before Russell and John roared home together. Back and forth the vocalists went, almost in medley style, for the next five songs. Pizzarelli’s best in this cluster was his lithe and nonchalant account of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” which nearly stood up to the Russell gem that preceded it. Evoking Billie’s 1952 session recorded for Verve, Russell’s “Everything I Have Is Yours” was suffused with sufficient ache to have me in tears.

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Yes, this was truly a taste of what Billie was all about. More treats were in store as Russell and Pizzarelli hooked up on one last burner, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” which Catherine refrained from kicking into high gear until midway through the opening chorus. John’s scat vocal then led a barrage of single choruses by his trio, and the guitarist comped furiously under Russell’s outchorus. The most exquisitely soulful moment followed as Pizzarelli duetted with Russell on “God Bless the Child,” tucking a pensive instrumental between the diva’s two vocals.

Both sets at the Morris were sellouts on the night I attended. With good reason. SMF knew what they were doing when they brought them back for another pair the following night.

Mozart Requiem Clashes With Sunny Salieri Symphony

Review: Charlotte Symphony “Mozart and Salieri”

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s been 40 years since Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus vilified, ridiculed, defamed, and demonized Mozart’s less-gifted contemporary, Antonio Salieri, presenting the prolific composer and conductor as Wolfgang’s fiendish murderer. Shaffer wasn’t the first to riff on this unfounded smear, for the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin peddled it in Mozart and Salieri, his 1830 verse play.

Although he omitted his villain’s name from his title, Shaffer has proven equally bountiful to both composers, humanizing Mozart and bringing fresh life to Salieri’s name. Ian McKellan won a Tony Award as Salieri in the 1980 Broadway production and F. Murray Abraham repeated the triumph in the 1984 Miloš Forman film, winning the Oscar over Tom Hulce, who was a runner-up playing the title role.

So it’s altogether fitting that Salieri’s 1775 Symphony in D “Il giorno onamstico,” likely marking the Italian’s Belk Theater and Charlotte Symphony debuts, should be in the shadow of Mozart’s Requiem. During the composition of this work, which remained unfinished at his death, it was Mozart who first voiced the suspicion that he was being poisoned and that his mysteriously commissioned Requiem was diabolically planned for his own funeral.

Mozart later scoffed at his own poisoning paranoia, and the Requiem wasn’t premiered until late 1793, two years after his death, completed by his student, Franz Xaver Süssmyer. But the baseless murder accusation affixed itself to Salieri. And why not take advantage of Shaffer’s preposterous mythologizing if it draws more people to the music? Symphony was only too glad to borrow the indelible Amadeus poster art for this concert’s prepublicity. “Poor Salieri!” said Charlotte Symphony music director Christopher Warren-Green, upon picking up a hand mic to introduce Antonio’s piece.

That was after a reprise of Nkeiru Okoye’s “Charlotte Mecklenburg,” which received its world premiere last September, kicking off the current season. The encore was triply justified: the piece was originally performed one night only at a special opening night gala and not part of the season’s subscription, we’re still celebrating the 250th anniversary of the city’s incorporation, and the piece – commissioned by Symphony – is non-threatening to traditionalists and worth a second hearing.

It was easier for me to ascertain on my second go-round that the opening theme, very much in the Aaron Copland manner of evoking Appalachia and the American heartland, was something that Okoye would circle back to near the end of her historical portrait. What came in between statements of her “Queen City Hymn” was more daring and original. There was urban bustle and cacophony mixed with a mountain lilt, snatches of a Scottish fiddle tune and a post-Civil War protest song, and an unexpected glance southward.

A brief marimba concerto popped up, then a muted trumpet and a cool samba beat. Okoye’s objective of portraying the city’s multiethnicity was more successfully reached than her objective of depicting our racial tensions. The codetta, beautifully played by harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell, expressed hopes for the future residing in the innocence of our children. Or that was Okoye’s stated intent. For an affirmation, it was notably faint.

Not at all saturnine like Salieri’s stage and screen image, his Symphony in D was sunny and cheerful from the outset, the opening Allegro launched with a lively flourish of horns and winds. Both of the middle movements offered opportunities for principal bassoonist Olivia Oh. The charming Larghetto remained summery in spite of its weepy violins, and the Minuet alternated attractively between mellow and anthemic themes. Warren-Green vigorously pushed the pace of the closing Allegretto, lightly carried forward by the strings when the winds weren’t adding body and zest.

When the entire orchestra joined together toward the end of “The Name Day,” the music briefly grew joyous and grand. It was almost as if Salieri was apologizing for this outburst when the strings alone crept around stealthily in staccato phrases, but the whole orchestra came back for a crisp, good-humored finish.

Warren-Green’s programming effectively flipped the Hulce-Abraham characters we remember from Hollywood’s Amadeus, assigning all the frivolity to Salieri, but he didn’t mess with the awesome impression of Mozart’s Requiem that lingers after we have seen the film. Unlike some of the Mozart performances we’ve seen before from Warren-Green and his predecessor, Christof Perick, a robust assembly of musicians, guest soloists, and the Charlotte Symphony Chorus filled the Belk stage.

If the occasionally fierce reading that emerged from this formidable congress didn’t totally accord with Mozart’s accepting intentions, there was no doubting its power. The “Dies irae” rang out impressively, taut with terror, and the “Tuba mirum” was a fine spotlight for all four guest vocalists, particularly bass Adam Lau, smoothly accompanied by principal trombonist John Bartlett before giving way to tenor Isaiah Bell. Having already distinguished herself in the soprano section of the opening “Requiem aeternum” segment with the Chorus, Margot Rood floated in gracefully over mezzo Sofia Selowsky toward the end of the “Tuba.”

Overshadowed here somewhat, Selowsky had better opportunities further along in the mass, leading off the “Recordare” and “Benedictus” sections when all the solo vocalists stood up again. Still it was Rood who shone brightest, drawing the opening moments of the concluding “Lux aeterna” and sprinkling her loveliness all over before the music grew grander and fugal with the full ensemble joining in.

The orchestra made its presence known most emphatically when the brass and timpani underscored the most dramatic choral moments. Aside from the whiplash “Dies irae,” there was ringing majesty at the start of the “Rex tremendae” that contrasted affectingly with the hushed women when we reached the “salve me” pleas. Symphony Chorus showed more finesse in the “Lacrimosa,” beginning softly over the orchestra’s keening strings, with some satisfying crescendos preceding the satisfying “Amen.”

Warren-Green and chorus director Kenney Potter may have been thinking more of Buckingham Palace than a church when they prepared Symphony Chorus for the climactic “Sanctus.” Both the orchestra and the choir suffused the repeated holies with a pomp and fervor of “God Save the Queen” proportions. Or maybe they had Westminster Abbey in mind. Warren-Green has played that joint as well.