All-English Symphony Program Moves from Wintry Dreariness to Triumphant Jollity

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Holst + Elgar

By Perry Tannenbaum

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 Assailed by the ongoing pandemic, the postponement of vaccinations, and a midwinter cold snap, we must be contented when we receive short rations of Edward Elgar without pomp or percussion and William Walton’s Henry V without winds or brass. In fact, since Charlotte Symphony music director Christopher Warren-Green often shuttles back and forth across the Atlantic to lead our Queen City orchestra and the London Chamber Orchestra, we’re rather fortunate just to have him on the podium at Knight Theater conducting an all-English program. Traveling by air between the UK and the US has become uncertain in recent months, due to the mutating coronavirus, and restrictions pushed Symphony’s Holst + Elgar offering from January 23 into February. Electricity can also be capricious when the Arctic is riled: Texas is merely the most notorious state plagued by power outages this month, not the only one.

We’ve heard more than a couple of Serenades since Symphony returned, string players only, reconfiguring its 2020-21 season and fine tuning on-the-fly. Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor was certainly not the peppiest or the most sweeping of the breed, but Warren-Green, stressing the harmonic blend of the piece instead of its rhythmic flow, gave us a drearier reading than I would have hoped for, particularly in the first two movements, a tranquil and dreamy Allegro piacevole followed by a sleepier Larghetto. Only in the concluding Allegretto did Warren-Green abandon extreme delicacy and pick up his baton. Only now did the orchestra’s energy compare with the more light-hearted Sir Roger Norrington recording of the piece. Here there was more melodic dialogue between the upper and lower strings, more satisfying swells in the sway of the dynamics.

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Although Walton’s Two Pieces for Strings from Henry V have been paired on commercial recordings, they are hardly a representative foretaste of the full musical score written for the 1945 film starring – and directed by – Laurence Olivier. Elsewhere in the score, in places such as the “Charge and Battle” and the “Agincourt Song” collected in more extensive suites, Warren-Green could parade Symphony’s winds, brass, and percussion. Mightily. “Death of Falstaff” and “Touch Her Soft Lips and Part” are soft, brief, and fragile flowers compared to those sturdy oaks, yet they were more affecting than the Elgar pieces. The Passacaglia for Sir John was quiet and grave, almost but not quite a dirge, and the “Soft Lips” was tenderly suffused with pure and chaste ardor, tinged with the sorrow of soldiers’ farewells. Count me as enthusiastically supportive if Warren-Green opts to program a fuller representation of this Henry V score when he can bring the full Symphony to the task.

If we longed for music that quietly reflected our mood during these cold, gray, homebound winter days and nights, then these Elgar and Walton works more than fulfilled their mission, but if it was uplift that we sought, then Gustav Holst’s St Paul’s Suite in C Major was a perfect tonic. Warren-Green’s anecdote about meeting Olivier and Walton after a performance of the Henry pieces was by far the most appealing of his intros. Warren-Green had been onstage as the concertmaster that night, and the actor and the composer had vied ridiculously with each other at the post-performance reception to be more modest about his contribution to that celebrated film. Yet the insight into Holst, when Warren-Green visited the St. Paul’s Girls School in London, was also fascinating. Holst taught at the school, eventually becoming its music director, and a soundproof room was built specially for him at the school where he composed his most famous work, The Planets, as well as this more modest suite.

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To be honest, St. Paul’s sounds more like it was written in the middle of the girls’ playground on a bright sunny spring morning with the children running and squealing in all directions around the composer, especially in the effervescent outer movements. Amid the lively opening Vivace, ebulliently labeled as a Jig, it was inspiring to see Warren-Green jumping up and down on the podium again, excitedly gesticulating after maintaining his British dignity for these many months. The liveliness spread across the Knight stage, and I strongly suspect that the masked faces of the Symphony musicians were smiling. Even the middle movements had a youthful élan. The second movement was a quiet Ostinato at a Presto pace, with concertmaster Calin Lupanu floating a melody over the subdued churning of the upper strings and pizzicatos from the cellos. Lupanu’s soloing resumed in the Intermezzo, where we slowed to Andante con moto and principal violist Benjamin Geller took a couple of turns in the solo spotlight. Here again, a Vivace interlude abruptly shed its orchestral sunlight before we reverted to a slower tempo, ending with a sedate string quartet led by Lupanu.

Jollity reigned when we arrived at Holst’s Finale, an Allegro that riffs on an English folk tune, “The Dargason,” sounding even merrier than the opening Jig, and certainly more familiar. Holst further enhanced the merriment and complexity of his composition by giving the cellos the undercover assignment of introducing the ancient melody of “Greensleeves” under the main theme. No problem if you missed “Greensleeves” while it was part of the cellos’ stealth operation, because it became gloriously dominant when it was reprised. The infectious “Dargason” was not to be suppressed for long, interweaving so well with “Greensleeves,” and Lupanu had one more tasty little cadenza before the full string orchestra pounced on the final fortissimo chords.

 

Wilde Gets a Manicure, Not a Makeover

Review: The Importance of Being Earnest in a Pandemic at CPCC

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Oscar Wilde fell on tough times after writing his comic masterwork, The Importance of Being Earnest, in 1895 – but whatever else he succumbed to, including humiliation and imprisonment that very same year, Wilde never faced the Spanish Flu, let alone COVID-19. Our supply of pandemic epigrams would have been unquestionably enriched if history had played out otherwise. So I did have hopes, when I signed up for CPCC Theatre’s webcast of The Importance of Being Earnest in a Pandemic, that history would be redeemed.

Compounding pandemic and winter woes, a ransomware attack on CP plagued this production, delaying its opening by a full week and ratcheting up my eagerness. Subtitling his three-act romp “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” Wilde could have had a field day opening a Pandora’s box of pandemic paradoxes. The new script by Don Zolidis, sad to say, performs little more than a manicure on Wilde’s popular script – nothing like the refresh or update a more ambitious and talented playwright might have attempted.

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Masks and social distancing are occasionally acknowledged during the CP webcast, ably directed and designed by James Duke. Since our comedy comes to us on the Zoom format, the formalities of signing in and out of the grid are observed – often with an odd doorbell ring that gets its own mini-screen among the human characters’. Pandemic or not, no other technology aside from those martialed by Zoom advances us past 1895.

Nobody specific seems to have died during the pandemic in London, where we meet at Algernon Moncrieff’s flat for Act 1. None of the proper folk he and his lazy manservant Lane receive – including the duplicitous “Jack” Worthing, his lady fair Gwendolyn Fairfax, and the imperious Lady Bracknell – seems to have suffered any grave losses. Bucolic serenity also seems to prevail when we adjourn to Jack’s country manor for Act 2, where we meet Worthing’s lovely ward, Cicely Cardew, who is pursued there by Algernon, posing as Jack’s invented brother.

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That’s odd, because Jack’s butler Merriman has disappeared during Zolidis’s tidying of the script. Couldn’t he have been in a susceptible age group or have been afflicted by a pre-existing condition before he was taken away from us so cruelly? As it is, we must skip over an accounting of Algy’s luggage when he arrives for his surprise visit – and poor Jack is left without a surrogate to quickly order a cab for the sly mischief maker.

Tidying is never really what happens here, for doling out a comedy onto an orderly Zoom grid messes it up irreparably. Two marriage proposals happen across multiple locations on paired screens, which oddly show Algy and Gwen and then Jack and Cicely facing us when they would normally be gazing exclusively and adoringly at each other. The screen kissing is an cute touch, I’ll admit. Pure pandemic. Later on, the simultaneous withholding of permission to marry from the ladies’ guardians crisscrosses our monitors on four separate mini-screens as seven of the eight cast members get involved in the climactic melee.

Anybody yearning for reruns of Hollywood Squares will be ecstatic during this flashy denouement.

It helps that Wilde provided us with two women who had already settled on the men they would marry before they proposed – in Cicely’s case, incontestably documented in her diary, before she had even met her Ernest. More than that, we are lucky to have both Algernon and Lady Bracknell on hand. Tatters in time and space mean nothing to these perfectly insouciant personalities. They each see the world around them with uniquely absurd viewpoints. Both are uniquely acclimated to absurdity.

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Andrew Blackwell is especially satisfying as Algernon, conducting himself with an equipoise that suggests that all is well with the world. Until it isn’t, when fretting and fussing must be immediately rejected as ways of fixing things. A cucumber sandwich or a good muffin seem as capable of bringing bliss to Blackwell as the hand of Miss Cardew. Sensible fellow.

At the other end of the spectrum, with even more certitude, is Lady Bracknell. Nothing is right with the world unless it has received her certification. Milady is one of the most celebrated creations of the British stage, a plum that leading actresses and actors have salivated over for more than a century. Brionna Knight isn’t merely confronting this heritage in tackling Lady Bracknell, she’s taking on the constraints of a cruelly decimated screen.

A small restricted screen, it turns out, is fully adequate for conveying the bliss of devouring a cucumber sandwich. Lick your fingers afterwards and nothing is lost. But ruling as a stern monarch over an empire? Lady B needs a stage, a big stage, and a larger-than-life portrayal. Crowding her computer monitor in front of a tastefully decorated green screen, Knight is rarely visible below her collarbones. A diva needs more, so we never find out whether Knight can be one.

Among the other players, only Miyoni Heard is comparably disadvantaged as Miss Prism, Cicely’s incompetent governess. Heard must content herself with a dull gray background each time she appears, along with a microphone that screams out for an upgrade. Nor does Duke illuminate his governess in a way that would prompt him to take credit for lighting design, settling for a dim silhouetted look that would suggest Miss Prism was in a witness protection program. Ironically, Prism becomes the key witness at the end of Act 3 as we unravel the mystery of Jack’s origins.

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Knight is at her best in launching Prism’s reckoning, but Jacob Feldpausch as Jack swoops in nicely at this point to help Heard prolong our suspense. Wilde himself contributes superb contrivance to sustaining the tension, one of those craftsy things that can emerge the seventh time you’ve enjoyed a great comedy. More than Jack’s exit to fetch an old handbag is involved as Wilde deftly pumps the brakes. Lady B must forget the name of a lost family member after 28 years, she must also have a clue, and Jack must own a copy of the Army Lists spanning the last 40 years to finally track it down.

Brilliant.

The remaining glitter in this production comes from the ladies who portray Wilde’s eccentric, cocksure bachelorettes. As befits a relation of Lady B, Mia Venuto as Gwendolyn can nonchalantly claim the adoration of all male Londoners as her birthright, never doubting her allure or her marriageability. On the other hand, Jeanine Diaz as Cecily is as adrift and insecure in her condition as Jack is on their country manor, equally given to doing the adoring.

Wilde finely calculates his romantic relationships, to be sure, but what elevates his comedy above the epigrams of Algy and Lady B, above how fate serves Jack up to Gwen on a silver platter, is how his complications set Gwen and Cicely against each other as mortal enemies, dueling with their diaries. When these betrothed ladies are most deceived and most misunderstanding of each other, Venuto and Diaz offer up their best work, carving a perfect circle out of their confusion and caprice.

Of course, this spitfire confrontation would be even more delectable if the women were face-to-face at CP’s Halton Theater and we were all sitting there, laughing at their raging befuddlement even as we understood it so well. On Zoom, it’s so easy for them to mind their manners and resist clawing each other’s eyes out! But what can we do? We’re all in this pandemic together.

Playing Its Trump Card, Four Nations Caps Valentine’s Day of Infernal Love With Médée

Review: Four Nations Ensemble’s Baroque Valentine’s Day Celebration

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Chamber Music Raleigh and their latest guest artists, Four Nations Ensemble, had a different idea for a Valentine’s Day concert than you might expect, disdaining both the saintliness of religious music and the Hallmark Cards sentimentality of sappy love songs and madrigals. Their Baroque Valentine’s Day Celebration took up the theme of “When Love Goes Wrong,” and like the “Treacherous Love” concert by L’Académie du Roi Solei that we reviewed two years ago, reminded us that early music had a raw side, not circumscribed by salons or churches. Four Nations did indeed roam Europe more widely than the Roi Soleil group, presenting music by Handel, Vivaldi, François Couperin, Barbara Strozzi, Michael Haydn, Jean-Paul Martini, and Giuseppe Tartini. Both groups played the same trump card for their finales, the Médée cantata for soprano and instruments by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault.

Andrew Appel, who directs Four Nations from the harpsichord, acted as our host and offered his first thanks to the Chamber Music Society of Detroit, who produced “When Love Goes Wrong” as part of their new CameraMusic series. In order to remain unmasked, he introduced all the pieces – and all his fellow musicians – before we saw anyone else onscreen, lingering over the two prima donnas in the music, Queen Dido from Vergil’s Aeneid and Jason’s scorned wife Medea, somewhat softened in comparison with Euripides’ tragedy. Appel found them both extremely attractive to baroque composers in the sense that both delivered high drama and sharp contrasts, the antithesis of mellow background music for a dimly lit romantic rendezvous.

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We could see the full Four Nations onstage (location never mentioned) when Appel began with a superb rendition of Couperin’s utterly gorgeous Prelude No. 5 from L’art de toucher le clavecin – on a lovely, ornate harpsichord that wasn’t quite as wide as his piano bench. The program was arranged in a way that gradually introduced us to the full Ensemble, with cellist Loretta O’Sullivan taking the lead on Couperin’s “Le Dodo ou l’amour au berceau,” a piece normally heard on solo piano or harpsichord to somewhat better advantage. By jettisoning the charming trill that infiltrates the recurring melody, O’Sullivan slowed the piece down and invited a downcast “Three Blind Mice” monotony, though Appel’s accompaniment was helpful.

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Energy rose conspicuously when soprano Pascale Beaudin joined lutenist Scott Pauley for Strozzi’s “Amor Dormiglione.” It’s unknown whether Strozzi was a courtesan, but the Venetian was incontrovertibly prolific as a songwriter and no doubt wanton, since the one formal portrait we have of her (clasping a lute) shows her with one breast bared. Appel pointed out the suggestiveness of the song, and lines like “Love sleep no more!” and “Arrows, arrows, fire, fire, arise, arise!” weren’t about a cute cuddly concept of Cupid awakening. This was indeed the sort of song that Strozzi, a renowned singer, might have sung in plying a lewd trade.

Curiously enough, Beaudin eschewed much of the song’s seductive drama by remaining seated beside Pauley, who was brilliant in accompaniment. Nor was that the best position onstage for her to be singing, from an acoustic standpoint. The soprano’s voice came to us muted with a distancing echo contrasting with the lute’s clarity, but we could already espy loveliness in her sustained notes. Beaudin foreshadowed her fitness for the Médée when she detoured into moments of pouty resentment and amorous longing.

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Shorter and darker than his previous Couperin solo, Prelude No. 2 was another beauty from Appel that perfectly bridged the importunate Strozzi and Handel’s more emotional “Credete al mio dolo” (Believe my pain). Discreetly, Beaudin switched chairs with Pauley while Appel soloed and rose while O’Sullivan played an aching intro on the cello, easily her most affecting playing so far. This put the soprano near the far end of the harpsichord, roughly parallel with O’Sullivan at the other side, by far the sweetest spot onstage for her to sing. Beaudin projected the opening ache of the song, intensified her expression for the crying midsection – after more affecting work from O’Sullivan – and returned even more appealingly to the plaintive theme.

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Following the pattern set by Beaudin, violinist Andrew Fouts remained seated in his chair as he made his long-awaited musical entrance, playing the lead in the Andante from Michael Haydn’s Divertimento in C major. Pacing was more in the Adagio range compared with other recordings I’ve sampled, but Fouts’s tone was a fruity delight up in the treble, and the interplay between him and O’Sullivan, seated to his left, was quite enchanting. Fouts sounded even more commanding in Tartini’s Sonata No. 10 in G minor, “Didone abbandonata” (Dido Abandoned). Nor did it hurt that this piece, originally written for violin and continuo, was expanded for Four Nations to include the entire instrumental quartet.

Standing near the middle of the harpsichord, Fouts delivered lively contrasts from the beginning of the opening Affettuoso, including some transporting double-bowing that made the suicidal queen’s lament all the more poignant. Backed by Appel’s thrashing harpsichord rather than a mere piano, Fouts brought more clout to the turbulent Presto movement than Oistrakh delivered in his Paris recital album from 1959. In this and in the dancing Allegro finale, where the heroic Aeneas has left Dido far behind, Four Nations sounded more like the Fabio Biondi recording of 1992, another full-bodied performance.

Between these two instrumental exploits, Beaudin sang “Plaisir d’Amour,” Martini’s greatest hit – and one of Elvis Presley’s greatest when it was transformed into “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Best authentic recording I’ve heard is Bidu Sayão’s radio performance from 1950, collected in 2009, and my all-time favorite commercial adaptation remains the incomparably sweet Joan Baez recording of 1961, uniquely sublime and heartbreaking. Like Suyão’s version, Beaudin couldn’t escape the comparatively earthbound lyric of the original work, brooding about the love and the lies of a faithless Sylvia, so anger and bitterness inhabit the middle of the song instead of bliss. Thanks to the lovely work by Appel at the keyboard, however, I was able to rediscover the two fine melodies so finely interwoven by Martini – and Beaudin’s anger augured well for the Medea that lay ahead.

 

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O’Sullivan moved over toward the middle of the harpsichord to take the lead in Vivaldi’s Sonata No. 4 in B-flat major, a spot that added echo to her cello. My favorite recording of this cello sonata by Jean-Guihen Queyras uses an organ and a theorbo to magical effect as opposed to the harpsichord-theorbo basso continuo offered by the Four Nations’ Appel and Pauley. The cellist sounded best in the even-numbered Allegro movements, while Pauley’s theorbo was most effective in the two odd-numbered Largos, particularly in the third movement, where his light strums and fingerings formed a halo around O’Sullivan’s richly forlorn playing. Appel’s thrashing harpsichord was most effective in the closing Allegro, combining with O’Sullivan’s nimble work on Vivaldi’s catchy melody to create the merriest music of the evening.

Both of the live Médée performances I’ve heard in the past two years, by Margaret Carpenter Haigh and Beaudin, have been more than equal to the best recording I’ve been able to audition, featuring Agnes Mellon. The spark of both these women, dressed to kill and spitting fire, bestowed a fierce energy on both live performances and ignited spirited accompaniment on both occasions. On my second go-round with the piece as Beaudin sang, I could pick up on two patterns of ebb and flow that Clérambault had crafted in his cantata. Structurally, the cantata shuttles between recitatives or preludes and arias, slowed fluid tempos and speed-ups that became increasingly dramatic when they recurred. Emotionally, the lulls corresponded with a narrator’s objectivity, with Medea’s nostalgia as she recalls her seduction and the sacrifices she made, with her retreat from murderous intent to poignant reconsideration as her heart rebels, and with the calm before the final storm when she contentedly observes that her spell has been cast. The quickenings connect with Medea’s remembrances of her betrayal; with her jealousy and her thirst for vengeance; with her renewed fury when she realizes how foolish she is to be hesitant, loving, and merciful; and with her summons as she unleashes the forces of Hell to mete out her revenge. Capping the portrayal, there was an ebb-and-flow within Medea’s frenzied wickedness as her outbursts of rage were punctuated with expressions of delight at the prospect of seeing her rival and her betrayer destroyed.

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Fouts was at the forefront with Beaudin’s deadly conjurations throughout this riveting performance, particularly when the last of the 12 sections turned into a frenzied witches’ sabbath, and he kept fiddling – at a furious tempo – long past the moment of Medea’s final words of hellish triumph. But perhaps the signature episode of Médée, and surely the most chilling, came when Fouts, Appel, and O’Sullivan – in a stop-and-go tattoo – cued up the march that became the undercurrent for Beaudain’s wicked sorcery. No doubt about it now, this “Cruelle Fille des Enfers” evocation was cold, calculated murder, not a sudden impulse. And in her ensuing deployment of her spellbound fiends, “Volez, Démons, Volez!” Beaudin became regal, delighting in the mayhem while sustaining her fury. Insanity! No, this Medea did not tweet “This is what happens” after completing her handiwork, but Beaudin’s majestic arrogance, as she stood there defiantly in the middle of the stage, emphatically stated that her Medea was capable of such monstrous vindictiveness.

CSO and Lupanu Debut a Harlem Nachtmusik, a Starburst, and Youthful Mendelssohn

Review: Mozart’s Night Music

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By Perry Tannenbaum

One of Mozart’s most beloved compositions and the inspiration for the title of a Stephen Sondheim musical, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is perennially popular on streaming sites, CD players, and classical radio stations. WQXR’s annual countdown of audience favorites listed Eine Kleine Nachtmusik at Number 38 in its Top 100 for 2020 – ahead of Mozart’s own Clarinet Concerto, his Symphonies 40 and 41, and two of his most familiar operas, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute. Yet if Charlotte Symphony is an accurate barometer, this Mozart masterwork is rarely heard in public. Until last Saturday night, the piece hadn’t been played in Charlotte on CSO’s classics series during the current millennium. The performances led by Christof Perick in September 2004 were played out of town at the Matthews United Methodist Church, Winthrop University in Rock Hill, and Davidson College.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has refocused our thinking about what music can be performed safely by symphony orchestras, while the BLM movement has been shuffling our thinking on what music should be offered. So it’s natural to conclude that Symphony’s dusting off of this old chestnut was purely in response to pandemic conditions, for the Nachtmusik is actually the 13th – and last – of Mozart’s string serenades, written in 1787 for string orchestra (or quintet).

Opting for safety first and omitting wind players from their recent performances at Knight Theater, Symphony must have found Mozart’s G Major to be an inevitable choice, especially since they’ve already dusted off Barber’s Adagio, the only piece for string orchestra that currently polls better than Nachtmusik. Notwithstanding this logic – and Symphony’s history – it must be remembered that Nachtmusik was already scheduled for a rendezvous at the Knight last April, under the baton of guest conductor Jeannette Sorrell, when the pandemic struck. So there may be an additional logic at work: very likely, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik rehearsals had already commenced. Certainly the musical scores were already in the string players’ hands.

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The real responses to 2020 and the “New Normal” actually lay elsewhere in the program, most notably in the resourceful pairing of Mozart’s famed Serenade with Leonardo Balada’s A Little Night Music in Harlem, premiered in 2007. The preamble to this Nachtmusik pairing on the program, Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst, was also noteworthy. Starburst was commissioned by The Sphinx Organization, a non-profit dedicated to the development of young Black and Latino classical musicians, and The Sphinx Virtuosi, who performed its 2012 premiere. Capping the live-streamed concert from Knight Theater, concertmaster Calin Lupanu spearheaded the Charlotte premiere of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D, a work discovered and premiered in 1952 by violinist Yehudi Menuhin, 130 years after it was composed. Like the Balada and the Montgomery, this excavated Mendelssohn was the antithesis of the utterly predictable Mozart revival.

Clocking in at 3:31 on Montgomery’s own Strum CD in 2015, “Starburst” was a perfect prelude to the lengthier nocturnal works that followed, cued by resident conductor Christopher James Lees with an effervescent vitality that augured well for the rest of the concert. The minimalistic repetitions didn’t last long enough to become stale monotony, churned our way with infectious enthusiasm. Strands of melody were sprinkled with pizzicatos, and the bracing celestial explosions came in collective four-note clusters at the tail end of cheery sawing from the violins.

After explaining the interconnection between the Mozart and Balada pieces, Lees drove the orchestra into the opening Allegro of the Eine Kleine Nachtmusik with the same zest he lavished on the Montgomery aperitif. There was a dramatic contrast between the delicate passages in the treble and the onset of the full orchestra’s robust responses, which always came back louder, accelerated, and edgy. While you might prefer the way Sir Neville Marriner interpreted the music with his Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields on their Philips CD, allowing the music to speak for itself, the CSO reading was more exciting. Lees not only hears the sturdiness of the melodies we so readily remember in movements 1, 2, and 4 (not performed) of the Nachtmusik – and their amazing simplicity, anticipating the miraculous opening of Symphony No. 40 – he hears the dialectic in Mozart’s idiom. Even in the ensuing Romance: Andante, where repose might be more readily excused, Lees had Symphony playing crisply, so this wasn’t a lullaby. The brief second theme had some zip to it, subsiding graciously into the more familiar strain.

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Born in Barcelona, Balada studied composition at Juilliard with Aaron Copland, began teaching at Carnegie Mellon University in 1970, and became a naturalized citizen in 1981 at the age of 48. The two Naxos albums of Balada’s music on my shelves; featuring concertos for Violin, for Cello, and for Four Guitars; both left me hungry for more. Both were recorded by the Barcelona Symphony, so it would have been easy to overlook Balada’s American ties if it weren’t for the Cello Concerto’s alias, “New Orleans.” A Little Night Music in Harlem, one blushes to say, was commissioned by the Hungarian Chamber Orchestra and recorded on Naxos by the Iberian Chamber Orchestra, underscoring the simple fact that Balada is underappreciated and neglected in his adopted homeland.

Music in Harlem is merely a peephole into Balada’s capabilities, but many of us who watched this Symphony webcast will not only accept Lees’ invitation to replay this performance online but also to seek out more of the composer’s output. A recurrent baseline through this composition, bowed or in plucked pizzicatos, could be construed as locals walking up and down Lenox Avenue or back and forth along 125th Street, also known as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Or it could just as easily be heard as the spirit of jazz clubs along that street, the pulsebeat of Harlem. Like Mozart’s Nachtmusik, perhaps even more so, Balada’s piece displays its layers, denser and more pictorial than the Serenade. Aside from Balada’s echoes of the second and fourth movements of Nachtmusik, the new piece evokes vehicular traffic with its occasional glisses and takes us underground for the rumble of the subway. Lees told us that he hears the extended whistling sounds toward the end of the piece as commuters emerging from a subway station whistling together. It was certainly an eerie, sad, and ethereal contrast with much of the big city bustle and cacophony we had heard before.

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Listening to Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D minor for the first time, I couldn’t help thinking that the reason it’s so rarely heard can be traced, like the absence of Mozart’s Nachtmusik from our concert halls, to its having been written for string orchestra. The biggest names to have recorded the work since the piece was discovered 69 years ago are Menuhin and Kyoko Takezawa. On the strength of their performance on Saturday, the CSO’s Lupanu, Lees, and the 22 string players onstage at the Knight can thus be counted among this concerto’s leading exponents. The sound from the orchestra was full-bodied and satisfying from the outset of the opening Allegro. After playing along with the others through most of the prologue, Lupanu showed that he was fully warmed-up, attacking the opening bars of his solo fiercely, bowing with bold panache, sharply punctuating the swiftest passages and then singing the lyrical sections with ardor, all the while producing the fullest, loveliest tone I’ve ever heard from him.

As the middle Andante movement began, I had momentary fears that Mendelssohn’s immaturity – he composed this concerto at the age of 13, after all – might have been too much of an impediment to achieving true excellence in a slow movement. However, soon as Lupanu ascended into the treble in his first solo, all doubts were dispelled, for there were no pedestrian moments afterwards. On the contrary, Lupanu’s soulfulness increased with his silvery pianissimos. The catchiest theme in Mendelssohn’s youthful concerto came in the final Allegro, enabling Lupanu to play with greater verve and virtuosity than ever. Lees and the CSO seemed to be lifted by Lupanu’s brio, maintaining the torrid pace set by the concertmaster while he rested briefly before his crowning cadenza. Some fancy bowing gave way to a final burst of ethereal lyricism as Lupanu circled back to the sunny main theme. The soloist and the orchestra tossed it back and forth with engaging spirit, triumphantly finishing in just under an hour.

Grace and Kindness Glow in Anna Deavere Smith’s Answers to Adversity

Review: A Deeper Dive Into Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy  – With a 2020 Refresh

By Perry Tannenbaum

 Winner of multiple Drama Desk Awards for her plays – and her solo performances in them – Anna Deavere Smith has forged a unique synthesis from her skills as a playwright, actress, journalist, and teacher. Her groundbreaking monologues, Fires in the Mirror (1992) and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 (1994), were skillfully edited from hundreds of interviews that Smith taped with people involved in two distinctively American events, the Crown Heights race riots of 1991 and the Los Angeles rioting of 1992 that followed the acquittal of police officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King. After compacting the taped interviews into taut monologues, Smith channeled each of her characters in performances of carefully crafted mimicry. In artfully distilling the essence of her characters, Smith cumulatively distills us with her art in a fascinating, unique way.

On a webcast presented by The Schaeffer Center for Performing Arts at Appalachian State University, “An Evening with Anna Deavere Smith: Reclaiming Grace in the Face of Adversity,” Smith came onscreen in a way that freshly meshed theatre, lecture, pedagogy, and discussion. Dr. Paulette Marty, theatre arts professor at App State, introduced Smith, instantly departing from normal theatre presentation. Marty and Smith joined in laying the groundwork for the evening’s theme, chosen so aptly in the face earth-shattering events that have rocked us all in the past year – for Smith had prologues of her own that preceded each of her three extended portraits. Of course, such a video conference would be a staid affair in 2021 without a stream of chatter rolling along the margin of our screens. Viewers of this free webstream had a chatroom for making comments – and afterwards, as Marty interviewed Smith, the professor lifted some of her questions from that chatline.

Apparently, a side benefit of all Smith’s researches is all the prime leftovers she can deliver from those hundreds of interviews. For her rendezvous with App State, to which she linked live from New York, Smith had distillations of interviews she had taped while researching Let Me Down Easy (2008). These dated back to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and included sitdowns with Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and the late Congressman John Lewis, who walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in the famed 1965 Selma March.

Before these well-known figures, Smith introduced us to Kirsa Kurtzberg, a white physician who worked at a charity hospital in New Orleans in the midst of the Katrina disaster. Smith wove together two strands of the Kurtzberg interview in crafting her monologue, a description of the “worst asshole” she had run across in her hospital work, followed by recollections of her patients’ cynical stoicism during the Katrina ordeal. That worst person turned out to be a doctor who was her superior: he not only demonstrated absolute coldness and distaste toward his patients, but when Kurtzberg called him out on his poisonous attitude, declared that she would inevitably come to feel the same way in time.

When Katrina inundated New Orleans, Kurtzberg watched the city’s reaction unfold as private hospitals were evacuated and the charity hospital was abandoned. Worse, they opened the levees on that part of town in order to save the more valuable real estate. It was not only revelatory to Kurtzberg that her patients, overwhelming black, would be treated with such disregard and disdain, but also that these unfortunates were not at all surprised, telling her in advance that the unthinkable would happen.

If we thought that these were the darkest perceptions we would need to entertain, Smith’s portrait of Bryan Stevenson proved us wrong. Since founding the Equal Justice Initiative, Smith reminded us, Stevenson has opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, commemorating nearly 4400 victims of “racial terror lynchings” between 1877 and 1950. What Smith then concluded about America is piercing, damning, and true – more indelibly now since January 6: we are a post-genocidal society. Smith’s interview with Stevenson spotlighted a failed attempt to obtain a stay of execution for a prisoner on death row who was intellectually disabled. This is the kind of work Stevenson has dedicated his career to performing, as well as the famed case, exonerating a wrongly convicted murderer, that became the cornerstone of his memoir, Just Mercy, and the film derived from that book.

The question that Stevenson repeatedly asked in court with respect to the intellectually disabled, “Why do we kill broken people?” morphed into another question when the Supreme Court rejected his appeal at the eleventh hour. “Why do I do this?” His self-reflection yielded a brutally honest answer, “Because I’m broken, too.” This realization was illuminated by a childhood memory of the frustration, violence, and humiliation that broke out when he, his mother, and the black community stood in line – at the back of the line – waiting to be vaccinated for polio. Like his mom, Stevenson concluded, he was seeking a way not to be silent about this perennial brokenness.

The portrait of Congressman Lewis, eulogized just last summer by three former American presidents at Ebenezer Baptist Church, was the most hopeful and conciliatory in Smith’s trilogy. “Brother” also featured the most rewarding stretch of Smith’s acting skills as she adapted Lewis’s slow, distinctively accented drawl. He spoke of his yearly pilgrimage to Selma, a ritual that included stopovers in Birmingham and Montgomery, but unexpectedly, the moments of grace that he gleaned from this commemoration shone a spotlight on white people upstaging him. The first was the current Montgomery Police Chief, who publicly apologized for the beating that his department had inflicted upon him decades earlier. It was the first such apology that Lewis could remember.

What touched Lewis equally was that the Police Chief took off his badge and offered it to him. Then the moments of grace, for when Lewis answered, “I cannot accept your badge – I’m not worthy,” the chief insisted, saying. “I can get another.” An additional opportunity to forgive came to Lewis after an event that had happened even longer ago, on May 9, 1961, when the future Congressman was brutalized in Rock Hill. The son of one of those cops came to Lewis’s office to ask for forgiveness, and Lewis granted it immediately. They hugged, called each other brother, and by Lewis’s count, met 49 times afterwards.

While the post-performance discussion wasn’t my prime reason for attending, it provided a soft landing from the heights of Lewis’s moments of grace and a chance to hear some of Smith’s views head-on. Among the topics she tackled so ably, in response to Marty’s probing and pertinent questions, were the pathology of America’s police, the media’s addiction to big pharma and the auto industry, the plight of black artists, the need for a public health rethink, and the enduring need for theatre now and post-pandemic. She even dropped a suggestion on Marty, App State, and academia to deal with our times. “You might laugh,” she said, “but we need a department of kindness.” Out of nowhere, there was a religious distinction to be made. “Jesus wasn’t nice. He was kind.”

2020 or Not 2020

Review: A Half-Masked Christmas Carol at Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JazzArts’ Mostly Merry Holiday Edition Spans Continents and Holidays

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

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zuill Bailey and Natasha Paremski Bring Scintillating Rachmaninoff to Meymandi

Review: Zuill Bailey and Natasha Paremski in Raleigh

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Perry Tannenbaum

2020~Lady Jess @ UNCSA-3

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

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

2020~Lady Jess @ UNCSA-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020~Lady Jess @ UNCSA-18

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

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

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

2020~Lady Jess @ UNCSA-2

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

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

Bullock Brings Folk and Baroque to St. Alban’s

Review: Robin Bullock Plays Guitar and Mandolin

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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