Monthly Archives: December 2015

Imagining a More Inclusive Yule @ ImaginOn

Children’s Theatre looks beyond Christmas

Scratch the wreath from a Starbuck’s cup design and you get an uproar: they’re defiling religion and steamrolling Christianity into oblivion! As usual, the silent majority is loud enough to drown out the opposing viewpoint — that the ever-expanding commercializing and mythologizing of Christmas is numbingly repetitive and downright offensive to those of us who believe differently. A few of us don’t welcome the sound of jingling bells and jolly Santas from mid-October through late December. And some of “us” could be Christians.

Long, long ago, it was past time to push back. So, it’s nice to hear that freedom of religion isn’t a mere shibboleth at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. Not only are they daring to program a non-Christmas show at one of their two theaters at ImaginOn this December, they’re revamping the remaining Christmas show so it yields space to Chanukah and Kwanzaa.

As daring as this undertaking is, it’s even more ambitious. The non-Christmas show is Ella’s Big Chance: A Jazz Age Cinderella, and the Yuletide offering is ‘Twas the Night Before. Both of these productions are spanking-new world premieres, both commissioned by Children’s Theatre. On top of that, Ella is also a musical. Adapted from Shirley Hughes’ children’s book by Joan Cushing, Ella is a formidable project all by itself.

So, the first question I needed to ask artistic director Adam Burke, who’s directing Ella, was when did you lose your mind, shepherding two premieres to ImaginOn at the same time? But that struck me as a bit hostile, so I bumped it down to my second question.

“I’m surprised that you are the first person to ask me that!” Burke confessed. One thing that has made this double-plunge feasible is the confidence that Children’s Theatre has in Cushing, who previously premiered a new musical, A Christmas Doll, back in 2007, before Burke arrived in Charlotte. Besides that piece, numerous other Cushing musicals have enjoyed success at ImaginOn, including Junie B. Jones and the wickedest Red Riding Hood adaptation you’ll ever see, the Cajun-spiced Petite Rouge.

Make no mistake, Ella Cinders is a thoroughly modern Cinderella. She’s a London dressmaker serving her apprenticeship in her father’s shop during the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties. To their credit, Ella’s new stepmom and stepsisters turn Dad’s humble shop into a fashion hotspot — leaning heavily on our heroine’s toil. Do not think of them as clones of Carly Fiorina. The focus remains primarily on Ella.

“The traditional Cinderella tells us that we need to find and marry Prince Charming and he will make us happy,” Burke observes. “Ella discovers that she is in control of her choices, and her choices will determine her own happiness. That distinction is clear and important.”

Besides the opportunity to collaborate with Cushing, a prime attraction of this jazzy Cinderella was its feminist thrust. It may also be possible for a wonder-working godmother to be a picture of elegance rather than a bumbling Disney biddy babbling “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.” Burke promises that Ella will be jazzy.

“We have a fabulous orchestra, and Joan Cushing has been working hard with Keith Tittermary and music director Drina Keen to include lots of fun horns etc.,” Burke says. “[Choreographer] Ron Chisholm has been tirelessly working on Jazz Age dances like the Grizzly Bear, the Turkey Trot, the Bunny Hug and more.”

Providing a hip fairytale alternative to Christmas fare is certainly welcome, but the sharper edge of this two-pronged overhaul of December programming is ‘Twas the Night Before, written and directed by April Jones. A commanding force on the local scene before leaving Charlotte in 2005 to care for her father and grandmother up in Buffalo, New York, Jones won eight of the Loaf‘s most prestigious Theatre Awards over a three-year span. These included a Director of the Year and Theaterperson of the Year double in 2000 and again in 2002, when she also won Best Original Play honors.

Nearly all of Jones’s award-winning exploits were at Children’s Theatre in its pre-ImaginOn days on Morehead Street. She acted in Ramona Quimby when it won Show of the Year honors in 1997 and directed Boundless Grace when it took the prize in 2000. Jones has been back in Charlotte for just over a year, currently a visiting lecturer on acting at UNC Charlotte.

“I had to get out of Buffalo,” Jones confides. “My artistic spirit was being crushed, and job opportunities wereÊpractically nonexistent. I had a terminal degree but was working in retail. I came back to Charlotte because it feels like home, and I knew that I would find some degree of artistic food to feed my soul.”

Burke also teaches at UNC Charlotte, and in conjunction with his Theatre for Young Audiences class, has brought a couple of Children’s Theatre plays to the university for development, calling upon actors in the theatre department for help. With Jones stationed in the same department, Burke was able to bring ‘Twas the Night to his class with the playwright close at hand.

To Burke’s mind, Jones was a perfect fit for the project. “The first time I met April,” Burke recalls, “we had a great and heated discussion about diversity and faith. I knew then that I wanted to in some way support her as an artist so that she can better explore her beliefs and bring that conversation to life. So when the opportunity presented itself, I reached out to her in order to bring her ideas to the table.”

Writing for a young audience, with just the four actors of Children’s Theatre’s Resident Touring Company at her disposal, Jones found it challenging to shape a simple and meaningful tale that freshly embraces three different traditions. Respecting and understanding the less-familiar holidays was also fundamental.

“I felt is was important to tell about the origins of Chanukah, because some people seem to think it’s a Jewish form of Christmas, even though it predates Christmas,” Jones says. “In writing this play, I often reflected on the seven principles of Kwanzaa, because I believe that, at their core, these three holidays are about family, community and faith. Some people dismiss Kwanzaa as an African American form of Christmas, which it is not, or discount it as being a ‘made up holiday,’ but aren’t all holidays made up?”

Paradoxically, Jones struggled most with Christmas, the most familiar holiday. If you skirt the Nativity, you’re missing the essence of the holiday, yet the story has been told over and over — to the point that you’re repeating, not really telling anything. Research didn’t help here. Creativity took over, leading Jones to a new theme.

“Ultimately, I decided to craft a story about an anthropomorphic star named Bethlehem, or Beth for short,” Jones reveals. “There is an Adinkra symbol in the Ghanaian culture that means ‘unity is diversity.’ This truth was a significant part of why I wanted to write this play. Another theme that revealed itself to me was the idea of passing light from one holiday to another, from one person to another, from one culture to another, so that we all may be enlightened as we celebrate our differences and embrace our similarities.”

Call it secularism or diversity, these bold Children’s Theatre initiatives aren’t the impulses of a few rogue artists.

“This comes from the whole team — from the board, staff and lead by the artistic team,” Burke says, “It is an effort to be more inclusive. We recognize that not everyone believes and celebrates the same thing. So we used this as an opportunity to expand the meaning of the holiday season.”

It couldn’t come at a better time.

For Veterans and Victims

Concert Review: Charlotte Symphony Performs Fauré’s Requiem and Ravel’s Mother Goose


The Charlotte Symphony’s most recent concert was designed by music director Christopher Warren-Green to be a seasonally appropriate tribute to the brave men-in-arms who serve and sacrifice for our nation in our military. Between Veterans Day on November 11 and the first of three concerts at Belk Theater on November 19-21, history intruded in Paris and Beirut. So after the orchestra played George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad Rhapsody and Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose, maestro Warren-Green returned to the podium and rededicated the final piece of the evening, Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem – and, indeed, the entire program.

Now the 1888 Requiem was dedicated to veterans of our armed forces and to victims of terrorism in Paris, Beirut, and around the globe. While the traditional Latin text isn’t custom-tailored to either group, the setting by Fauré sounded very serendipitous. We’ve had four other requiems presented in Charlotte in recent years, by Mozart, Verdi, Duruflé, and Howells. The Fauré reminded me most of the Duruflé in its calmer moments, most of the Verdi in its moments of turbulence.

Drama resonating with our anger and outrage had to be vented in response to this shocking occasion, and baritone Douglas Williams – along with the Charlotte Symphony Chorus under Kenney Potter – voiced those emotions most compellingly when we reached the “Agnus Dei” section and its climactic “Day of Wrath” stanza. Yet we also needed the consoling serenity of Christina Pier softly singing the “Pie Jesu” in her velvety soprano.

Butterworth certainly wasn’t the only turn-of-the-20th-century British composer to be inspired by the terse stoical beauty of A.E. Housman’s pastoral poetry, but this rhapsody for orchestra had a special twilight radiance under Warren-Green’s baton. The sonority of the full ensemble was poignantly punctuated with a wide palette of succinct solos by clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo, English horn virtuoso Terry Maskin, harpist Andrea Mumm, concertmaster Calin Lupanu, bassoonist Mary Beth Griglak, and bass clarinetist Alan Rosenfeld. Amy Whitehead had the ethereal last word on flute over a soft barrage of timpani from Leonardo Soto.

You wonder whether Warren-Green considered moving Ravel’s charming fantasy suite to the end of the program, just to send us home with a smile. Stealing the scene from the other impish or enchanting episodes was the penultimate “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast.” Kavadlo, Whitehead, Mumm, oboist Hollis Ulaky, and – highest of all – Lupanu all took turns with the beauteous portion of the dialogue. But ‘twas contrabassoonist Lori Tiberio as the Beast who unquestionably conquered the beauties in musical derring-do. Keeping these lighthearted moments in the middle of all the somber moods surrounding it proved to be the right choice.

“The Book of Liz”: A Bifocal Satire of Life in the Heartland

By Perry Tannenbaum

Life on the prairie in small towns is pretty much how Garrison Keillor has been describing it for so long on NPR, except in university towns scattered across the Midwest and the occasional religious enclave. I sampled both during my sojourn at the U of Iowa in Iowa City, visiting the nearby Amana Colonies on a couple of boring weekends. Breaking the monotony of one of my drives back from a winter break, I also took a tip from my mom and looked in on the Amish in Pennsylvania.

Those humble years in America’s heartland came back vividly last week as I watched The Book of Liz, the second piece that Donna Scott Productions has performed at the Charlotte Art League. If you’re familiar with the other pranks by the playwriting siblings who conspired on this script in 2001, Amy and David Sedaris, you’ll readily guess that laughter far outweighed my nostalgia.

A stern ascetic strain is readily apparent in the Sedarises’ portrait of the Squeamish who live in the seclusion of Clusterhaven. Yet the script steers deftly around religion, aiming its satire primarily at the stodgy sexist patriarchs who rule the colony and their absorption with Clusterhaven’s prime product: cheese balls, traditional or smoky.

Both varieties of the colony-sustaining cheese balls are crafted by Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, following her own secret recipes. Reverend Tollhouse doesn’t seem to appreciate Liz’s kitchen artistry, and when young Brother Brightbee arrives in town, he sternly decrees that Liz hand over the cheese ball recipes – and all of the manufacturing responsibilities – to the sparkish newcomer. Already suffering from a profuse sweating problem, the redeployment sends Liz into crisis. She not only leaves the recipes behind in the community kitchen, she abandons the colony entirely and sets off into the real world.

The odyssey that follows is as circumscribed as Liz’s experience, education, and audacity. Even if she doesn’t get as far as Chicago – or even the Quad Cities! – we see the outside world, its zaniness and insularity, colored through the lens of Liz’s inner purity. It’s a picaresque journey or a bifocal satire; take your pick.

On the road, the first person she runs into is dressed as a Planter’s Peanut, trying to offer samples to passing motorists. We instantly get the idea that Liz’s adventure will juxtapose her with an outré character or two, and Oxana, the woman inside the ginormous peanut shell doesn’t disappoint us even when she sheds her costume, a Ukrainian immigrant with an English accent dwelling in a trailer with husband Yvone.

Thanks to Liz’s innate kindness, both women soon find new jobs. The situation – and the costumes – are slightly less outrageous as Liz comes to work at Plymouth Crock, a Pilgrim-themed restaurant that just might be trading off the proximity and cachet of Clusterhaven. Purposely or not, Liz’s new world resembles her old world in the way Oz resembled Kansas, and so does its effect.

Any temptation to take all this too seriously is quickly defused by director Glynnis O’Donoghue and her mischievous cast. Costumer Luci Wilson spares all expense in outfitting Reverend Tollhouse and Brother Brightbee with their beards, attaching them with crude elastic. The Pilgrim finery at the restaurant and Oxana’s peanut shell provide additional roasting as we move along.

Matthew Corbett begins double-underlining Rev Tollhouse’s starchiness and pomposity before anyone joins him onstage, offering some oddly phrased praises to his savior as he prays. A mercifully inserted blackout sweeps us along to the 38th of these “compliments” before Liz enters, with Tonya Bludsworth double-underlining her naïveté and her squirming diffidence from the outset. With Corbett’s imposing size, they’re instantly feeding off one another in a comedy symbiosis that dates back to Laurel & Hardy.

All isn’t quite as the Sedarises intended. Field Cantey enters with a perfectly calibrated excess of self-regard as Brother Brightbee, but it is Scott as Sister Butterworth, Liz’s associate, who is salivating in a subsequent scene at the very thought of seeing the heralded newcomer. Scott is also dialed in, since nasty, petty busybodies are her longtime specialties. What’s curious is the lack of reaction from Liz, a more natural indifference from our heroine if she were 20 years older than Bludsworth, as the playwrights prescribed – but this age misalignment only becomes glaring in the Act 2 denouement.

Corbett, Cantey, and Scott all reappear in multiple guises after Liz flees Clusterhaven, their slipshod costume changes adding further fizz to the story – but not before we come upon Tania Kelly, clearly the ideal nut topping for this cheese ball comedy. I’ve been raving about Kelly’s comedy prowess for nearly eight years, and she still never fails to delight and surprise. Here she makes up for her tardy arrival by taking on four varied roles.

During her travels, we wonder if Liz will find a cure for her sweating disorder – and whether reconciliation at Clusterhaven and appreciation from the Squeamish will be possible. The resolution isn’t likely to be exactly as you imagine, which is why you’ll probably be happy to find that the whole story turns out to be very much like a secret recipe revealed.


Hollywood Brings out a Sunnier Neil Labute

The Money Shot and Diana Grisanti’s The Patron Saint of Losing Sleep (nee Inc.)

By Perry Tannenbaum

More than a couple of Neil LaBute plays have waltzed through Charlotte in the past dozen years, including Fat Pig, Reasons to Be Pretty, The Mercy Seat, Autobahn, Some Girl(s), and the suite of Mormon one-acts, Bash, that introduced the BYU grad to the Queen City in 2003. They aren’t teeming with admirable heroes — or even evil folk we might acknowledge as rogues. In Fat Pig, Reasons to Be Pretty, and Some Girl(s), LaBute was chiefly adept at showing what boorish, sexist assholes men can be. Comedy rarely intruded in LaBute’s world. When it surfaced, in a brief two-hander that was part of the Autobahn suite, results were quite tepid.

No, LaBute was funniest when he shocked us with how unabashedly crass and unapologetically cruel his boors could be. I’ve never seen LaBute as bent on comedy as he is in The Money Shot, the newest of his plays to hit town in a smart Queen City Theatre Company production at Duke Energy Theater.

With three women and just one guy in the cast, the demo has altered somewhat in this latest LaBute effort, but what triggers the playwright’s newfound comic vein are his decisions to amp up their egos while tamping down their intelligence.

Although outnumbered here at co-star Karen’s plush home, Steve wields the most clout and drives the plot. He’s a former Sexiest Man Alive and a bona fide Hollywood action hero, but his career desperately needs a reboot. So he has reached out to a trendy European director, hoping to bring new artsiness to his image by way of a new film that Steve will be executive producing.

If you are already familiar with what a “money shot” is in the realm of porn flicks, then you already have a good idea why Steve and his glam gold-digging wife Missy are calling upon Karen and her butch partner Bev, an established film editor. Otherwise, you would need to wait until we’re fairly deep into this 108-minute production — or have read some pre-publicity or this review — before Steve and Karen broach the point of this get-together.

So, there will definitely be drama here, but not until we’ve crossed plenty of comical character-study terrain aimed at taking down Hollywood’s pretenses of sophistication and culture. The key specimens are the co-stars. Steve follows in the footsteps of LaButean louts, but with his wealthy arrogance — compounded by his ignorance of the location of Belgium, the lineage of David Crosby, and the western march of civilization — he brings a unique suavity to the loutish breed, its aura further magnified by his bimbo wife’s worship.

Karen’s vapidity seems to have a more specific target: the shameless self-promotion of Hollywood celebs through branded products, business enterprises and endorsements. She already has a restaurant, a fashion line and a website extending her marketability. After the upcoming film, Karen has visions of launching her own line of sex toys! So yes, if you haven’t already guessed, it’s a raw sex scene — not a simulated one, mind you — that will crown the upcoming Steve-Karen hook-up with artistic legitimacy.

Missy is already enthusiastically on board with her husband’s scheme, giddy over the prospect of soon reaching their first anniversary (with the assistance of their marriage counselor). But beware, Missy has artistic aspirations of her own, and you will be obliged to endure a portion of her capabilities, as she reprises an episode from her role in a high school production of The Crucible.

Bev is the only true obstacle in the way of Steve and Karen copulating onscreen, since she’s hard-working, intelligent and saddled with a modicum of modesty and decency. There probably wouldn’t be quite as much friction within this foursome if Steve weren’t so boorishly tactless and homophobic, except that Bev brings so much righteous political correctness to the table that she’s almost as irritating as he is. Furthermore, Bev’s petulance toward Karen is so toxic that, at one point, even the dimwitted Missy can see that her marriage counselor might be helpful.

How all this plays out is pretty wild and delicious, thanks to an energetic cast directed by Glenn T. Griffin, who keenly amplifies the effervescent comedy. You may not think that J.R. Adduci is old enough to be pretending he’s only 45, but once we’re rolling, that hardly seems to matter. He brings such charm to Steve that he personifies the Hollywood paradox: a pantheon of demigods we worship while fully grasping their shallowness. As Adduci sat there on the couch, desperately googling on his cell to back up his contention that Belgium is not in Europe, I found myself feeling sorry for the schmuck.

Michelle Fleshman captures even more of the pathos of Hollywood’s fading stars, brilliantly brittle as Karen, especially poignant as she affirms her bisexuality to her sneering guests. You’ll also like Karen’s assorted meltdowns when she fails at mediation and conciliation. In so many ways, Iesha Nyree’s steely portrayal of Bev brings uneasiness to the piece. She’s sufficiently abrasive to make us wish that Steve and Karen will have their way, and when the gloves come off, she convincingly emerges as the alpha predator.

Nobody comes off nearly as shallow as Karen Christensen in her exuberantly silly portrait of Missy. Many of Griffin’s directorial excesses are lavished on this bleached blonde, whether she’s shamelessly spooning with her new husband on the hosts’ couch or when she finally turns on him in the denouement.

The ills of Hollywood may be crass and clichéd. Yet they pepped up David Mamet’s work when he wrote Speed-the-Plow — and they’re ministering a similar therapy here for the misanthropic LaBute. This may be the sunniest piece he ever writes.

Playwright Diana Grisanti won first prize again for a staged reading of her new script at last winter’s NuVoices festival, so Actor’s Theatre is bringing The Patron Saint of Losing Sleep (nee Inc.) back to Stonewall Street for its fully-staged world premiere. I wasn’t among the judges who thought Inc. was the best script at NuVoices, but I thought it was distinctively better than Grisanti’s previous winner, River City, which premiered here last September.

Unfortunately, Grisanti’s rewrite has degraded her product — particularly her title heroine, Ada, who might be described as the patron saint of catastrophic interventions. Back at divinity school, Ada intervened on behalf of a college pal, who was fielding some sexual harassment from her advisor. Memories of this intervention, which merely resulted in Ada’s dismissal from school, are dredged up when she stages a more harmful intervention while working at a customer service phone bank.

Nicia Carla gives us a vivid account of Ada as she deals with the insomnia stemming from her misdeeds; and her supporting cast, meticulously directed by Elissa Goetschius, stir up a lively mix of comedy and drama. But Grisanti has botched her formula and lost moral focus, making Ada less savory while tilting the overall tone toward comedy. Just because Ada pierces (stigmatizes?) her hands with a fork, Grisanti and the college chum seem to be granting the meddlesome sinner forgiveness for causing the death of an unborn child.

Nope, I wasn’t cool with that.

BachFest Freshens Its Mix and Ensemble in a Lively Music @ St. Alban’s Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum                    

September 13, 2015, Davidson, NC – Neither of the BachFests that I’d attended previously at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, in 2010 and 2011, suggested that program selections hewed religiously to a settled format or exclusively to works that emerged from the prolific Johann Sebastian and his family. Composers and instrumental mixes varied nicely within each of the two concerts, with a noticeably different look in successive years. Yet I still found myself surprised by how different BachFest X was from those I’d attended before.

There were no violins or wind instruments to be seen throughout the 2015 concert, and aside from the Music @ St. Alban’s artistic director, cellist Barbara Blaker Krumdieck, no familiar faces. Nicolas Haigh played the only other instrument I’d seen at a previous BachFest, a harpsichord. The theorbo played – and punctiliously tuned – by Williams Simms was similar to the archlute that made a tantalizing appearance at the 2011 fest, but this baroque instrument was more massive in size, more robust in sound, and more in the spotlight over the course of the afternoon.

All of these musicians took turns as featured soloists, and so did the vocalists who rounded out the ensemble, mezzo soprano Tamsin Simmill and the harpsichordist’s spouse, soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh. The vocalists made the biggest difference for me between this BachFest and those I’d reported on before, not only dominating the selections performed by the full ensemble but also making them the most festive.

Kicking off the fest, Krumdieck led the group through the audience down the center aisle, and they all jumped into Barbara Strozzi’s “Merci di voi” when they reached the chancel. Singing at the opposite end of the ensemble from the mezzo, Haigh had more of the ornamentation than Simmill and, when the vocal passages echoed or overlapped one another, it was usually Haigh who led the duo into them. The duet, from the composer’s First Book of Madrigals (1644), had a pleasing arc, starting at a loping andante pace, speeding up briefly before luxuriantly subsiding. Neither of the vocalists had any difficulties with the challenges of the work – an excellent harbinger, since there were six more pairs of quotation marks in the program booklet.

Simmill took on the first of these, Purcell’s “Music for a While,” after a beguiling intro from Simms on the theorbo. The choice suited the mezzo well with its veiled references to snakes, Alecto (one of the three avenging Furies in Greek mythology) and her whip, part of Purcell’s incidental music for the adaptation of Oedipus Rex (1679) by John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee. Performing with reading glasses and a minimum of gesture or facial expression, Simmill seemed altogether acclimated to the concert stage.

Notwithstanding her many concert, consort, and recording credits, Haight sang Purcell’s “If Music Be the Food of Love” as if she were a moonlighting opera diva, making no effort to suppress her acting urges. Even without any elaborate contextualizing from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the situation and emotions soon came through vividly in Haight’s performance. Haight’s long, velvety vowels at the start of her song created a languid intimacy, and the quickening of her pace brought on a heightening of the excitement.

The contrast between Simmill’s and Haight’s styles was most interesting – and effective – when they took on key roles from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1642), with Simmill as the Emperor Nero and Haight as his newly crowned Empress, the title character, in their climactic “Pur ti Miro” duet. This blissful duet drew the most attractive singing that I heard from Simmill all afternoon and the sweetest vocal harmonies, more like the concord you might expect in the boudoir some hours after Poppea’s coronation.

Sticking with Monteverdi, Haight performed a solo madrigal, “Si Dolce e’l Tormento” (1614) that acquired a duet-like flavor with a couple of prolonged interjections from the theorbo, lovingly played by Simms. There was a little more bite to Haigh’s Italian here, a clear signal that she was also having a good time. But the most rousing ensemble of the afternoon occurred when Simms switched to baroque guitar for “Zefiro Torna,” a gem plucked from Monteverdi’s posthumous Ninth Book of Madrigals (1651). His strumming took on a percussive edge that swept the two vocalists into a fandango fever.

With Oedipus, Shakespeare, and an adulterous Emperor on hand, we could be tempted to forget we were in a church until the closing ensemble, “Wir eilen mit schwachen” from Bach’s Cantata No. 78 (1724). Krumdieck had her best moments here as an accompanist, but the festivity clearly emanated from the vocalists, with delicious harmonies that were eclipsed only by the duet’s contrapuntal delights. Yet neither Bach nor Krumdieck was overlooked before we reached this giddy, worshipful finale.

Two formidable Bach solos came from the instrumentalists, beginning with a surprise from Haigh, who was listed on the program as a harpsichordist only. Instead of playing the Sinfonia from Bach’s Partita No. 2 (1726) on that instrument, he retired to the far wall where he sat down at the church organ. It’s not the mightiest I’ve heard, but Haigh was able to give the dense opening some real ferocity. Then in the more nimble midsection, Haigh chose a softer voicing from the St. Alban’s organ so that it stood apart in soothing mentholated relief. The conclusion was no less impressive when Haigh maintained the accelerated tempo while returning to the organ’s more robust timbre, for here there were some knotty fugal passages, and the organist controlled both hands (and strands) beautifully.

Krumdieck ventured boldly where so many of the world’s great cellists have left their imprint, giving us the four last movements of Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1 (1717), which became lovelier with each movement, reaching its zenith in Menuet 1 & 2. Slightly quickening the pace of the Sarabande so that we arrived at a medium tempo, Krumdieck graced these movements with more control and admirable lightness – exactly the word that Rostropovich used to describe the entire suite.

Simms could have wandered almost as extensively through works that Bach wrote for unaccompanied lute, but he chose more exotic terrain, playing a D Major suite by Robert de Visee for theorbo (1716). Reaching the fourth of the six pieces that he played, a Sarabande, the music began to transcend divertimento status and acquire some truly engaging lyricism. The Chaconne des Harlequins had even more zest while retaining some of the Sarabande’s quiet dignity. Simms smartly inserted the Chaconne before the Gigue instead of after. By doing so, Simms crafted a performance of the suite that ramped up continuously in liveliness and invention, ending merrily in 3/4 time.


CPCC Theatre Bests Broadway in Beautifully Steering “The Trip to Bountiful”

By Perry Tannenbaum

BWW Review: CPCC Theatre Bests Broadway in Beautifully Steering THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFULNow nearly qualifying for senior citizenship, Horton Foote‘s quirky 1953 idyll, The Trip to Bountiful has always been a delicate little shrub. Imprisoned in a three-room Houston apartment, where she’s watched over by her sickly weak-willed son Ludie and her temperamental daughter-in-law Jessie Mae, Carrie Watts yearns to revisit her ancestral home in Bountiful, Texas, just a short liberating bus ride away. Stymied in previous attempts to fly the coop by train, the pensioner’s dearest wish is finally achieved, largely through the kindness of strangers – who perceive virtues in Carrie that her family has grown blind to.

It’s a rather bland tale that challenges a director to perk up the drama, which threatens to vanish once we must pull away from the close-ups on Carrie that TV and movies so readily provide. In the current CPCC Theatre production at Pease Auditorium, Charles LaBorde has a more satisfying way with the script than Michael Wilson did in the recent Broadway revival.

Casting is crucially important, for both of the Watts women’s roles are tasty. It was Jo Van Fleet who won the first Bountiful Tony Award as Jessie Mae. But the lead role has long since asserted trophy dominance, with Geraldine Page taking the Oscar for the 1985 film adaptation, Lois Smith taking multiple awards in the 2005 off-Broadway revival, and – inexplicably to me, since I witnessed her performance – Cicely Tyson winning the Tony when Bountiful returned to Broadway in 2013.

Corlis Hayes gives us an autumnal Carrie, far more lively and likable than Tyson’s wintry rendition, which was chronically underpowered and often unintelligible. There is a beautiful distillation of frailty and determination from Hayes that continuously sparks this Carrie on the rocky road to her little victory, so we see more readily what the helpful strangers – a small-town sheriff and a fellow bus passenger – are finding so appealing.

Wilson’s idea of perking up Foote’s script called for turning Cuba Gooding Jr. as Ludie into a wheedling henpecked husband, yielding with barely a whimper to the beauty queen vanity and near-S&M tyranny of Vanessa Williams as Jessie Mae. Carrie and Ludie both seemed to be suffering under the same oppressive regime, except that Gooding seemed to be playing his subservience for laughs.

Jonavan Adams gives us a different kind of weakness. We not only get more of the sense that Ludie is still on the mend after a long convalescence, we also get the idea that his apparent weakness is less a fear or worship of his wife than his touchy walking-on-eggshells position as the eternal peacemaker between his warring wife and mother. Nor is Tracie Frank quite the implacable goddess that Williams made out of Jessie Mae. Frank is more petulant and resentful than domineering in asserting control over Ludie, and except for Jessie Mae’s insistence upon going to the beauty parlor weekly, she pretty much discards the Broadway vanity.

All of these adjustments make a significant difference after Carrie reaches her ruined ancestral home, both in the climactic confrontation between the two women and in the ultimate message of Carrie’s story. On Broadway, Carrie seemed to capitulate entirely to Jessie Mae, and when Jessie Mae made her concessions to Ludie afterwards, they seemed like crumbs she could afford to toss his way once she had triumphed.

Here there is a richer sense that Carrie has really gotten all she wanted and needed when she beheld her childhood home one last time. In this production, I can also believe her claim that she has no more reason to rebel against Jessie Mae. And when she sees her son making demands upon his wife, LaBorde and Adams craft a moment that reminds me of A Raisin in the Sun, when Lena sees her son coming into his manhood in the denouement.

So instead of the dark takeaway in the Broadway revival that intimated a parallel between the disintegration and extinction of small towns and the slow dying away of the good people who came out of that simple prairie life, we’re left with something far sunnier and personal. It’s an argument between Ludie and Carrie that’s decided in Mom’s favor: while it might be morbid to wallow in the past, it’s better to keep connecting with your past and your roots from time to time than to be eternally trying to deny and sever yourself from your heritage.

Supporting players radiate their sympathy toward Carrie without oozing it. Amy Wada as Thelma is Carrie’s first enabler when she meets her at the bus station attempting her getaway. Foote is resourceful in getting Thelma to warm to Carrie, sending Jessie Mae to the bus station hot on her prisoner’s heels, and it’s delightful to watch Wada picking up these cues and evolving Thelma’s attitude.

A couple of obstacles that Foote tosses in Carrie’s path after she boards the bus will make her more pitiful, yet there’s a nice restraint to the sympathy that she gets from Al England as Roy, the station manager, when she debarks in the middle of the night at the Harrison station – because the bus no longer stops at Bountiful. Contrasting with England’s cracker-barrel geniality is Tom Scott‘s crustiness as the Harrison sheriff, so when he yields to Carrie’s entreaties to take her the rest of the way to Bountiful, his softening is all the more affecting.

Of course, Scott has a lot more reason to be accommodating, for on the threshold of completing her journey, Hayes is far more willing to surrender her dignity and beg for the sheriff’s help than Tyson was. When it came down to that crucial moment, the Tony Award winner wasn’t willing to go that far, even if that was closer to where 1953 Texas truly was for an African American.

Spare and weathered, James Duke’s set design for Bountiful – nicely illuminated by Duke’s sunny lighting – is pure poetry compared to the bumper-car set pieces that cast and crew roll around the Pease stage as we journey from the Wattses’ apartment to the Houston bus station. Noticeably simpler, the Harrison depot strikes us as an apt halfway point in this retro TRIP.

Jamie Varnadore’s costume designs seem most dignified when we reach the old crumbling homestead, wordlessly making a point that the Broadway revival labored so hard at. That rickety porch and the home beyond it were places where we could be most human, most ourselves. We lose something of our essence cooped up in a tenement or herded together – and segregated – at a Greyhound terminal.

Constantly Under Siege, Hurston’s Heroines Retain Their Admirable “Spunk”

👤By Perry Tannenbaum

Growing up in an all-black Florida town, Zora Neale Hurston faced – and distilled – hardships in her youth that weren’t about race. So in the canon of black literature, Hurston has had to wait her turn for the full value of her strong, understated feminism to be appreciated. By 1990, a full 30 years after she was buried in an unmarked grave, Hurston’s star had risen sufficiently that George C. Wolfe, already prominent at New York’s Public Theatre, adapted three of her sauciest tales for a production at the Public Theatre’s New York Shakespeare Festival that he called Spunk (actually the title of a fourth Hurston story), complemented with a blues score by Chic Street Man.

Hurston’s career actually shuttled between literature and anthropology, with stints as a folklorist before one of her last documented jobs, a substitute drama teacher at North Carolina College in Durham. If you read her most-anthologized story, “The Gilded Six Bits,” which is among the three Wolfe adapted, you’ll notice some shuttling in her style. As a narrator, Hurston is a precise detached observer with only a sliver of idiom impinging on her prose. Once her characters begin to speak, however, she’ll fracture grammar and spelling as zestfully as Mark Twain ever did.

“It is suggested,” Wolfe says in his intro to the published playscript, “that the rhythms of the dialect be played, instead of the dialect itself. A subtle but important distinction. The former will give you Zora. The latter, Amos and Andy.”

In the current On Q Performing Arts production at Spirit Square, director Jermaine Nakia Lee and his ebullient cast aren’t altogether intent on heeding Wolfe’s warning. Masks and puppets that appear in “Sweat” make no attempt to evoke Africa rather than minstrelsy. Jelly and Sweet Back, the hilarious self-pimping gigolos in “Story in Harlem Slang,” may be better dressed and better spoken, but they could still pass for Amos and Andy’s cousins. And while Shar Marlin as Blues Speak Woman cuts a figure very much like her previous onstage incarnations as Bessie Smith and Shug Avery, we have to take in Gabriel Jules as Guitar Man through the filters of a boater hat and a painted gray beard. Grayface?

Set in Hurston’s childhood home of Eatonville, “Sweat” is about the torments that Sykes Jones inflicts upon his wife Delia – parading a mistress around town, bombarding Delia with verbal abuse, and bringing a venomous snake home just because it terrifies her. Physical abuse might have been added to that list if Delia hadn’t gotten her hand around a frying pan. While outfitting the townspeople with masks and puppets further telegraphs to us that Sykes’ tyranny will be short-lived, the cracker-barrel flavor of the narrative is as much Uncle Remus as it is fairytale.

Lee’s style, flirting with downright offensiveness, is actually quite edgy, taking up the idea that, if whites can mock their country cousins as trash or rednecks, Northern blacks can claim the same liberties with their Southern brothers. In this respect, “Harlem Slang” has the same viewpoint as the opening story. Before fully rejecting the flatteries of Jelly and Sweet Back, with a scream worthy of a white woman, the Harlem washwoman (same profession as Delia) unmasks the two oozing sponges as Southerners who have moved North so they can sweet-talk their way through life instead of holding a job.

Fortunately, our savvy washerwoman takes her time rebuffing Jelly and Sweet Back, for they are quite the comedy combo vying for her favor. Omar El-Amin and Quentin Talley have been honing their onstage rapport for over seven years, mostly as the title protagonists of Miles & Coltrane, but this little one-act with its Jelly-Sweet Back foppery is the funniest they’ve been.

They remain antagonists after intermission, yet Hurston is flipping the geography thematically when we return to Eatonville for “The Gilded Six Bits.” All the false glitter comes from Chicago in the form of Otis D. Slemmons, played by Talley, who comes to town and opens up an ice cream shop, dazzling Missy May with his sweet talk and his rich façade.

As moody and nasty as El-Amin was as Sykes in “Sweat,” that’s how moody and virtuous he is as Missy May’s husband Joe in “Six Bits” – sufficiently stung by her infidelity to leave her, yet loving her deeply enough for there to be a path to forgiveness. There’s a naïveté to Nicole Watts’s portrayal of Missy Mae that puts me in mind of Nora, flitting around in her gilded cage as The Doll’s House begins, an innocence that has carried over into marriage. But she’s pathetic, melodramatic, and saccharine enough in her guilt to remind me of the smarmy urban fairytales of O’Henry.

Combined with the grim grit Watts brings to her earthy Delia and the sassy ripostes she tosses off eluding her pursuers in “Harlem Slang,” there’s enough variety and spunk from Watts to match up well with El-Amin and Talley – maybe enough to establish her two washwomen and a mostly dutiful housewife as authentic feminist heroines. But the style Lee brings to the production doesn’t completely commit to placing Hurston and her protagonists up on that high pedestal. Remembering how Wolfe had lovingly lambasted the pieties of A Raisin in the Sun in his Colored Museum, I suspect some lingering ambivalence was exactly what the playwright slyly intended.

The blues songs that suffuse the storytelling, rooted in sadness and suffering yet somehow bursting with joy as Marlin sings, underscore this rich gumbo of conflicting moods. It takes blues, grit, pain, spit, and spunk to “Git to the Git,” the song that frames the evening. From a revolutionary’s perspective, celebrating the struggle may be copping out, but Wolfe lets Blues Speak Woman interpolate some remarks into her swinging intro that explain Hurston’s viewpoint. These three stories, she says, “celebrate the laughin’ kind of lovin’ kind of hurtin’ kind of pain that comes from bein’ human.”

Sounds about right.

Hip-hop, the Blumenthal, and the Queen City Are Breakin’ Convention

By Perry Tannenbaum
The Ruggeds from the Netherlands (Photo by Belinda Lawley)
The Ruggeds from the Netherlands (Photo by Belinda Lawley)

BirdGang Dance Company from the UK. (Photo by Belinda Lawley)

BirdGang Dance Company from the UK. (Photo by Belinda Lawley)

Strange things are brewing in Uptown. In the shadow of buildings named for Wells Fargo, Duke Energy and Hearst, there will be dancing in the streets. In the lobby of a building blessed by our most PC philanthropists, the Knight Theatre, they’re decking the hall with graffiti, setting up for our dopest DJs.

There’s more. The president of Blumenthal Performing Arts, that Brooks Brothers-ish man about town — yes, Tom Gabbard, y’all! — is spouting words like cypher, poppin’, waacking and the whole beatboxing vocabulary of hip-hop.

Of course, Charlotte’s hip-hop community is already hip to what’s happening. But whoa. Those folk who spin on their heads, float like robots across floors, move their arms impossibly behind their backs, and thoughtfully shake spray cans? They’re also changing: embracing the challenges of storytelling and theater.

Bro, it’s Breakin’ Convention, spinning into town this weekend — indoors at Knight Theater and Spirit Square. Spilling into the outdoors at Levine Avenue of the Arts Plaza and the old Goodyear Tire parking lot. Scissoring Spirit Square in its parking lot and alleyway. You, your parents and maybe your parents’ parents — and definitely your kids — need to check this festival out.

Hip-hop began some 50 years ago on the streets of New York, in the borough of the Bronx, without any theatrical aspirations. Twelve years ago, the Breakin’ Convention brand of hip-hop took shape in London at Sadler’s Wells, arguably the pre-eminent dance presenter in the world, where they added the elements of narrative and drama while framing it all with the prosceniums of their three stages.

Breakin’ Convention first crossed the pond and returned to its birthplace in 2013, expanding the mission and outreach of the legendary Apollo Theatre on the sacred ground of Harlem’s 125th Street. This year, Blumenthal Performing Arts is partnering with the Apollo in bringing the international artists who will headline the Breakin’ Convention premiere here this week and at next week’s encore in and around the Apollo.

The big-name crews on the Knight Theater stage this Friday and Saturday include The Ruggeds (Netherlands), BirdGang Dance Company (UK), Antoinette Gomis (France) and Compagnie Phorm (France/Argentina). On each of these nights, local crews from Charlotte and the USA will share the bill, including Street Kingdom, Aquaboogy, Breakers for Life, collectiveUth, NCDanceDistrict, the Nouveau Sud project, Queen City Bittys, Reliablebrother #TwinNation and The Vongolas.

You’ll need tickets to see all these proscenium performances, but everything outside Knight Theatre — including the Knight’s lobby — is open and free to the public. Breakin’ Convention breaks out at a bunch of locations, so here’s an overview.

Friday and Saturday

Beginning at 5 p.m. — Obey Your Verse Stage at Levine Avenue of the Arts.

5-7:15 p.m. — Graffiti Jams at the former Goodyear service station at the corner of N. Tryon and E. Stonewall.

6-7:15 p.m. — Tiny Totrock sessions, DJ and Dance Cyphers and a Graffiti Zone at the Lower, Main and Upper Lobbies of Knight Theater, respectively.

7:30-10:15 p.m. — The main stage performances at Knight Theater, punctuated by a 45-minute intermission at 8:30.

8:30-9:15 p.m. — The bodacious intermission: Totrock, Cyphers and Graffiti Zone resume in the Knight Lobbies while food trucks invade Levine Avenue of the Arts outside the Knight.

Saturday only

10 a.m. to 4 p.m. — Street Jam at Spirit Square: Graffiti Jam, Dance Cyphers, Drum Circle, food trucks, instructional sessions presented by Zulu Nation and workshops piloted by Gomis and The Ruggeds.

This massive project is really the first true arts festival to hit town since JazzCharlotte left the Uptown in 1994 and ignominiously bit the dust in the swamps of Carowinds. There was plenty of trepidation, preparation and mutual scouting in London and Charlotte before the new Blumenthal-Sadler’s Wells partnership was forged. Without hip-hop artist and entrepreneur Jonzi D, the Sadler’s visionary who pioneered the idea of elevating the art form with narrative and drama, the deal would not have been done.

“We brought him here,” says Gabbard, “about a year and a half ago to spend four days — to evaluate the hip-hop community, the size of it, what it was and their willingness to work with us. And we found out that there was a lot of enthusiasm for partnering with Blumenthal on this. Then this last May, Jonzi came for 10 days, and it was really just to work with the local community developing relationships.”

The 2015 Breakin’ Convention is just the beginning — for both the Blumenthal and Sadler’s Wells. Upstaging the Apollo, which is bringing the festival to Harlem in alternate years, Gabbard has signed on with Sadler’s for three consecutive years to see if Breakin’ takes with the public. He envisions transplanting a chunk of the festival to Romare Bearden Park for 2016, and he’s optimistic that other cities’ performing arts centers, after scoping out our event, will climb aboard and share costs for a 2016 Breakin’ tour. In the meanwhile, Jonzi will be staying in touch with the Queen City, performing Open Art Surgery, a weeklong workshop that will create a new hip-hop dance theatre piece.

Local hip-hoppers are already impressed.

Best remembered as the DJ narrator of Children’s Theatre’s wild, wild production of The Red Badge of Courage in 2013 — and, oh yeah, the winner of Best Rapper honors in Creative Loafing’s Best of Charlotte that same year — Mason “Quill” Parker raps again this Friday, performing his latest project, Loose Leaf vol 2.

Booked by Boris “Bluz” Rogers, the poetry slam guru who will emcee Obey Your Verse, Parker appreciates the creative energy that Jonzi is bringing to town: “the ideal he represents has helped mold four generations of hip-hop here in Charlotte and the world over. It is pivotal that it be promoted properly across cultural lines in order to flourish in the full fruition of the vision.”

Ana Ogbueze and NCDanceDistrict burst upon the scene about three years ago when the company she founded, The Dance District, was asked to perform at Taste of Charlotte. They began with seven dancers, have grown to 30, and will be featuring 13 onstage at the Friday show at Knight Theater.

She first met Jonzi last year when he came to a meet-and-greet with Charlotte hip-hop choreographers and teachers at the Blumenthal PAC, where he presented an already-completed Open Art Surgery piece.

“That really opened my eyes to this emerging world of hip-hop theater,” says Ogbueze. “I distinctively remember parts of the piece that made the entire room pause with a slightly perplexed sigh, followed by, ‘Did he just do what I thought he did?’ I loved it. From that moment on, I knew I had to see what this whole Breakin’ Convention was about. Honestly, I left feeling so crunk to learn more about the movement, Jonzi actually invited me up to London that following month to check out Breakin’ Convention first-hand! Thanks to the Blumenthal, I had the privilege of attending, and it was absolutely amazing.”

The rest of us get to see the Promised Land this week.

Cyrus Chestnut and the Quirky Music of Monk Transform the Turtle Island Quartet into a Jazzy Piano Quintet

<b>Turtle Island String Quartet</b> | Classical Musicians/Music | Pinterest
Cyrus Chestnut

By Perry Tannenbaum

Among contemporary crossover string quartets, Kronos and Turtle Island stand out as the most accomplished, commercially successful, eclectic, well-connected, and adventurous touring groups. Both are committed to proving that string quartet repertoire is anything but antique, that ensembles are capable of far more sonic variety than we hear on recordings of Beethoven and Haydn, and that the aggregation can meaningfully engage all musical idioms.

Notwithstanding these heroic exploits over the last 30+ years, I must confess that I’d rather hear a piano trio, a violin sonata, or chamber music where the blending of strings is spiked with the intrusions of wind or brass instruments. The dominance of string quartets in chamber music repertoire is as inexplicable to me as landscape-oriented computer monitors. So when I heard that Turtle Island Quartet was rolling into Halton Theater, opening Charlotte Concerts’ 2015-16 season with the wondrous Cyrus Chestnut along for the ride, it was music to these jazz-loving ears. More than one of chamber music’s greatest cathedrals is a piano quintet, and Chestnut’s pedigree includes stints at the keyboard of combos headed by Wynton Marsalis, Terrence Blanchard, and Betty Carter – jazz giants all. The program, entitled “Jelly, Rags, and Monk,” promised to deliver intriguing collaborations and excavations.

There was more variety to the program than its title embraced, including compositions by Debussy, Bob Mintzer, Jimmy Van Heusen, Bud Powell, Chestnut, and Turtle Island founder David Balakrishnan. Showing laudable deference to their guest, the Islanders preceded him onstage – Balakrishnan and Mateusz Smoczynski carrying violins, Benjamin von Gutzeit toting a viola, and Mark Summer schlepping a cello – playing a couple of tunes from their vast songbook in rather tame arrangements. The presumption seemed to be that the sound of string quartets lay in their audience’s comfort zone, so Turtle Island would deftly navigate a voyage beyond.

From a classical standpoint, the arrangements for Bob Mintzer’s “Windspan” and Balakrishnan’s “Rebirth of the Holy Fool” (an homage to Miles Davis’s landmark Birth of the Cool recording) lay in familiar waters, with occasional episodes of improvisation from each of the players making waves. From a jazz perspective, these were tighter arrangements than either Birth of the Cool or those played by the hard-bop combos piloted by Horace Silver, who set the gold standard for balancing the foundations of written scores with the flights of improvisation they should inspire. Summer and Smoczynski impressed me most with their first licks, Summer because jazz improvisation is such a rare commodity on cello and Smoczynski because his sound put me in mind of jazz fusion master Jean-Luc Ponty.

I wasn’t immediately encouraged when Chestnut made his entrance and explained the title of the program. It was to be a selection of tunes by Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk, and – for knowledgeable folk, the only part of the title needing explanation – Scott Joplin. “Jelly, Joplin, and Monk” would have been more euphonious, but it would have bred disappointment from Janis Joplin fans expecting to hear “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Ball and Chain.”

Even with Chestnut aboard, we still weren’t weighing anchor with the two pieces that followed – Morton’s “Jungle Blues” and Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk.” Morton’s “Blues” was encouraging for demonstrating von Gutzeit’s ability to swing with his viola, and Balakrishnan tossed in some funky flavor that established his mettle, but Chestnut was content to lurk in the background, and our visit to Debussy’s Children’s Corner was pure transcription without improvisatory exploration.

Then, to paraphrase the most beloved eccentric in jazz, in walked Monk. The glow that came to Chestnut’s eyes as he narrated how he first encountered Monk’s music was very much the same glow that illuminates Marsalis’ face whenever he speaks of the great bebop guru. You really don’t have to go into the many-splendored weirdness of the man, beginning with his habitual trancelike dancing around the stage whenever he performed in concert; you just need to hear the music.

Everything became looser after Chestnut called the first tune, “Little Rootie Tootie.” After Summer began the soloing, von Gutzeit played his viola solo over spirited percussion from Smoczynski – chucked on the body of his violin. When Chestnut began to solo, we were decisively adrift in a sea of jazz, reveling in the wrong notes that always seem so jubilantly right in Monk’s world. Von Gutzeit embraced the weirdness with a pithy solo, closing the piece over Chestnut’s accompaniment.

The Turtle Islanders smuggled some classical cargo onboard for the voyage so that the next two pieces, Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear” and Powell’s “Bouncin’ With Bud,” bore a kinship with the Third Stream Music of the late 1950s that sought to fuse jazz and classical music. Both arrangements began with traditional string quartet intros, the one for “Bouncin’ With Bud” so elegantly antiquated that I had to laugh. While Chestnut didn’t change the tempo when his turn to solo came on “Ruby,” he gave that impression by playing sixteenth notes – and a sprinkling of trills – instead of the quarters and eighths we were hearing from von Gutzeit and the two violinists.

When Smoczynski took his second solo, he was even looser than he’d been in “Rootie Tootie,” laying down his bow and plucking his violin as if it were a guitar, his quartet cohorts playing pizzicato accompaniment. Taking us to intermission, “Bouncin’ With Bud” probably swung the hardest of any tune at this concert. Yet the piece abruptly changed after each of the jazz solos with composed quartet interludes that served as launchpads for the next solo. In fact, the arrangement was more like those on the Birth of the Cool album than the tune Balakrishnan dedicated to it.

There was still one more configuration to see after the break – and one more promised composer. Chestnut came out by himself to solo on Van Heusen’s “It Can Happen to You,” but so much of the piece was spent noodling, half seriously and half comically, on “Yankee Doodle” that it could be justifiably labeled a medley. The only real doldrums in the second half occurred when the quintet finally came around to Joplin with “Pineapple Rag.” On his second soloing attempt, Chestnut managed to swing lightly, but the string players couldn’t manage to do much with the quaint theme in this humdrum arrangement.

On the other hand, our second sampling of Morton in “Turtle Twist” was more pleasurable than the first, Balakrishnan presenting the melody with a bluesy zest and von Gutzeit taking the first solo over Summer’s cello percussion before Chestnut doused the tune with rollicking beer hall spasms. From there, we unexpectedly turned to a pizzicato solo from Summer that looked and sounded like those you hear from a jazz bassist. Monk’s “Bye-Ya” was a delightful case of role reversal. Beginning with von Gutzeit’s weird harmonics on the viola, it was the Turtle Islanders who sounded more like the jazz artists and experimenters, for when they fell silent, Chestnut’s solo was more like the cadenzas we expect in classical concertos.

I had no objections to sticking with Monk’s music for the final selection, “Rhythm-a-ning.” The loose arrangement, providing ample opportunity for all the band members to improvise, was typical of arrangements that conclude jazz concerts or nightclub sets, including a spirited exchange of four-bar salvos that gave everyone a last chance to shine at the end of the performance. Even musicians who haven’t improvised all evening long – say the drummer or the bassist – traditionally get a moment in the spotlight, often as the leader calls out their names. So it was quite appropriate to see Balakrishnan unveil one last tool in the ensemble’s toolkit when the group was trading fours, playing a mini percussion solo on the body of his violin.

The Charlotte Symphony Plays a Joyous Concert of Copland, Shostakovich, and Haydn

Grandes Pianistas - <b>Lukáš Vondráček</b>. Foto: Patricio Melo

Performed by CSO (Christopher Warren-Green, conductor); Lukas Vondracek, piano; John Parker, trumpet

By Perry Tannenbaum

November 6, 2015 – Charlotte, NC: One of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra‘s signature moments happened the last time they performed Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring at Belk Theater, in 2009. Acknowledging the cheers and doling out the bows, guest conductor Larry Rachleff did something I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since. He proceeded to stride over toward concertmaster Calin Lupanu’s music stand, where he grabbled the score and lifted it high in the air for our approval. (For me, this tributary gesture held extra meaning because the previous CSO performance of Appalachian Spring I’d attended – in 1993 – was among the most wretched and lifeless I had ever heard from the ensemble.) Rachleff’s gesture took on a triumphant aspect, as if the orchestra had reached a previously unattainable mountaintop.
Six years later, with music director Christopher Warren-Green on the podium, the orchestra seemed even more securely perched at that summit as it reprised Copland’s ballet suite. That impression wasn’t diminished as we moved deeper into the concert with Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano and Trumpet, with CSO principal trumpeter John Parker joining guest soloist Lukáš Vondráček downstage. After intermission, Warren-Green demonstrated his affinity with Haydn’s “London” Symphony No. 104.

While it might be profitable to ask what Warren-Green has learned from conducting an American orchestra when exploring the folksier and jazzier moments of Copland’s suite, the Britisher has certainly had much to impart to Charlotte’s musicians in the hushed vernal and sacred sections. Woodwinds were beautifully integrated in the dawn-like introduction, with poignant spots from Hollis Ulaky‘s oboe, Amy Orsinger Whitehead‘s flute, Eugene Kavadlo‘s clarinet, and Joshua Hood’s bassoon gilding the music.

Jumping into the next section with revivalist zest, the brass gave the ensuing religious episode a forceful dramatic thrust. Expectancy was built up far more gradually for the onset of the big “Simple Gifts” tune, the violins communing poignantly with the piano, Ulaky’s oboe standing out from a thicket of woodwinds, and Kavadlo modestly singing out the Shaker hymn on the clarinet. Then after the kind of hushed pause I’d imagine precedes an earthquake, the whole orchestra, aspiring to the full majesty of Appalachia, chimed in. Kavadlo and Whitehead keyed the ethereal aftermath, capped by an exquisite plink from harpist Andrea Hamm, who had distinguished herself in far more demanding passages earlier on.

Off the beaten path of orchestral repertoire, the Shostakovich concerto – with string orchestra only – had never been presented at Belk Theater before, its first and only previous appearance having been on a CSO program 27 years ago. It isn’t for a pianist who prefers to ease his or her way into the most intense passages, yet Vondráček was noticeably more eager than Martha Argerich to plunge into a manic fever. He and Warren-Green took a more lurching path into the opening Allegro moderato than Argerich in her DGG recording, which has little of the sweetness to be found in her Warner version. Really, Vondráček and Warren-Green seemed to extract the best of both interpretations, the éclat of the DGG and its balance between the soloists conjoined with the more satisfying coherence of the Warner.

Counterbalancing Vondráček’s jagged modernism, Parker was a poised and comparatively traditional interlocutor. The two soloists sounded far more simpatico in the Lento movement after the violins floated over the strings, Parker adding a mute to his instrument as Vondráček made his entrance with exquisite old-school delicacy and gradually built to rhapsodic lyricism. Parker wasn’t in evidence in the interstitial Moderato, which is a ruminative keyboard solo leading to a more florid exchange between the strings and the piano, but he played a leading role in the comically festive Allegro con brio. Shostakovich rummages among various melodies for the trumpet, including a quote from the folksy “Poor Jenny,” and Parker played them all as if they were stolen from a Spanish village. Meanwhile Vondráček was no less attuned to the humor of the score, clanking extremely high on the keyboard’s treble and reveling in the quirky, raggy chromaticism.

Congratulating us first on laughing at the funny parts of the Shostakovich, Warren-Green made a point of telling us that London wasn’t merely the place where Haydn wrote his Symphony No. 104, for the city is boisterously embodied in the music, not greatly different from the London of today. The first violins were very sweet, answering the violas and second violins in the Adagio intro, joining in a sprightly leap into the Allegro, and justifying Warren-Green’s intimation that we would be hearing street cries. Trumpets, winds, and Leonardo Soto‘s timpani added to the vitality. Soto played a key role again in the Andante when the small-scale early passages, with their simple bass line from the cellos and contrabasses, abruptly veered into dignity and grandeur.

The stop-and-go of the Menuet probably makes it the most memorable movement of this symphony. Whitehead’s flute and Hood’s bassoon stood out in the winds’ frolicking leading up to that familiar episode, and when we reached the moment where Haydn begins to fracture the 3/4 tempo, the orchestra ably captured Papa’s warmth, humor, and charm. Haydn’s Finale to his entire mammoth symphonic output may have the biggest sound of any movement he ever wrote, as richly festive as anything you’ll find in Beethoven’s “Pastoral.” The CSO’s violins had a particularly Londonesque edge here, but Warren-Green has also meticulously sculpted the dynamic contrasts and tempo changes for maximum visceral effect, while Soto delivered his concluding bombs with pinpoint accuracy.