Daily Archives: March 20, 2016

Warren-Green Pays off Bronco Bet After Rousing All-Russian Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

Calin Lupanu plays Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto this week with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.

March 17, 2016, Charlotte, NC – For the first time in nearly two years, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra presented an all-Russian concert. These two programs were elegantly linked by the appearance of CSO concertmaster Calin Lupanu playing one of Sergei Prokofiev’s two violin concertos on each occasion. Or that was the intent, because after conducting Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3, music director Christopher Warren-Green was obliged to pay off a wager he had made in early February, prior to his previous appearance in the orchestra’s classics series. That was the weekend of the Super Bowl, when the Carolina Panthers squared off against the Denver Broncos. Well, since both orchestras are led by Christophers and abbreviate themselves as the CSO, it was natural that the friendly municipal pre-game wagering would not be limited to our mayors. Amid an online exchange of jovial slurs and vaunts, Warren-Green declared that, if the Panthers lost, he would conduct the Broncos’ theme song, Copland’s “Rodeo,” wearing Bronco quarterback Peyton Manning’s iconic No. 18 jersey. Keeping his word, Warren-Green capped an evening that began by intoning the Satanic revels of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” with the sunshine and mirth of the quintessential American composer’s ballet music.

Warren-Green’s prime objective with Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s macabre classic was very much like it was in 2009, when he conducted the piece as part of his audition for the music directorship. Then and now it was quite obvious that Warren-Green felt that the concluding calm of the piece, beginning with the churchly tolling of the tubular bells, was normally undervalued. Fortunately, the orchestra took a more dynamic path this time around than they did seven years ago, when they drained the tone poem’s familiar opening of all its wonder and terror. Now instead of smoothing it over, Warren-Green was exaggerating the contrast, speeding up the tempo of the rampaging strings and calling forth more volume and sforzando snap from the brass and percussion. The effect veered way too far from Bela Lugosi toward video game, but the onset of the bells was far more miraculous this time around. Accompanied by Andrea Mumm’s harp, the violins suddenly sounded mournful and exhausted after the wild Witches’ Sabbath, eventually modulating toward calm and restoration after poignant solos by clarinetist Drucilla DeVan and principal flutist Amy Orsinger.

You could hardly ask for a sweeter opening than Lupanu’s for the Prokofiev Violin Concert No. 2 – even from the justly lauded Maxim Vengerov recording with Rostropovich and the London Symphony. But I wanted more muscle as the tempo speeded up. We occasionally lost the soloist’s line behind the French horns, but the sinew of Lupanu’s playing emerged in the Allegro moderato when the lower string sections moved into the background, very persuasive in the higher passages. Although it couldn’t be confused with Philip Glass’s work, there is intensive repetitiveness at various points of the soloist’s part in Prokofiev’s outer movements, which may explain why Lupanu felt compelled to bring the score with him onto the Belk Theater stage.

Subscribers who are persnickety about such things, expecting their guest artists to memorize their pieces, were probably more pacified by Lupanu’s soulful performance of the Andante assai inner movement. After the stealthy intro from the woodwinds, gently weighted toward the clarinets, Lupanu’s lyricism excelled again in the upper regions. Over a leisurely 3/4 accompaniment, the music swelled to anthemic strength with Lupanu gliding and somersaulting above. Muted trumpets then pulsated, quickening the pace as the soloist broke into a gallop. When the accompaniment resumed its previous repose, Lupanu wove some high filigree and pizzicato work into the fadeout. The jauntiness of the 3/4 tempo was most pronounced in the closing Allegro ben marcato, punctuated by a snare drum, a set of maracas, and the brass pumping a merry oompah behind Lupanu’s lusty fiddling. There was a final burst of intensive churning where Lupanu snuck a glance or two at the score, but he ended admirably with a virtuosic flourish at a blistering tempo.

The CSO program booklet is utterly confused about the orchestra’s only previous performance of the Rachmaninoff A-minor symphony, for the 2009 date ascribed to guest conductor Leslie Dunner was actually the date of Warren-Green’s aforementioned audition with its woeful “Bald Mountain.” No, it was during the twilight of the Clinton Administration, January 1999, when I greeted the only previous performance of Rachmaninoff No. 3 as “turgid, clichéd movie music, grandly entertaining and flamboyantly superficial.” But the allusion to Warren-Green’s is curiously apt because once again, the CSO maestro has improved upon a previous CSO flop.

Where Dunner stumbled in his attempts to “civilize and homogenize” Rachmaninoff’s abrupt shifts of mood and tempo, Warren-Green succeeded brilliantly, rehabbing the music as effectively as my Mariss Jansons recording with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Again the middle Adagio-Allegro movement stood out as when Dunner performed it, with principal French hornist Frank Portone ably caressing the forlorn intro once more. This time, with Lupanu sitting out the second half of the concert, it was Joseph Meyer in the concertmaster’s chair following up so beautifully on the violin. Not only did Warren-Green navigate the rollercoaster shifts of the outer movements more convincingly, he also held the inner logic of the middle movement together more securely. When we circled back to the solos by Portone and Meyer, there was a satisfying sense of an epic circle being completed, crowned by more tasty solo work by Terry Maskin on the English horn and Eugene Kavadlo on the clarinet.

© 2016 CVNC

Spymaster With a Shopping Cart

By Perry Tannenbaum

I’ve seen over 200 productions by Children’s Theatre of Charlotte since I began covering the local scene in 1987, but only a handful have been as emotionally powerful as Danny, King of the Basement, now at the Wells Fargo Playhouse through Sunday. Grim realities pursue Danny Carter and his mom, Louise, who are fleeing from her latest bad decision when we first see them, an abusive boyfriend. That makes eight moves in the last two years, according to Danny, who keeps a more diligent count than Mom.

Danny’s disintegrating confidence in his mom and the wandering, often homeless nature of his life combine to push him into a world of fantasy – where he’s perpetually undercover as a juvenile spy, always an outsider looking in, always preparing for the next hasty getaway. So much always seems to be hanging by a thin thread in Canadian playwright David S. Craig’s penetrating script. To get their crummy new basement apartment, Louise has lied to the new landlady, pretending to be single and childless.

It’s only by speaking with Penny, the landlady’s daughter, that Danny discovers the deception. We can understand Danny’s wariness about his mom’s landing a job and not foolishly spending the little money that they have, since we’re a bit skeptical ourselves. While Danny remains uncertain about whether his mom will be able to make next month’s rent, his situation becomes more anguished because he’s actually making friends with Penny and another new neighbor, Angelo.

These other kids also have their woes. Angelo can’t seem to please his dad, whose presence is signaled by a lion’s roar that occasionally emanates from behind the entryway to his apartment. Dad might respect Angelo more once he scores his first hockey goal, but where is the confidence needed to score that goal going to come from?

Penny seems to be confident and affluent enough, but her parents are divorced and her dad is delinquent with support payments, spooking the cashflow. When Mom and Dad bicker over money, they do it through Penny, who carries two cell phones to field their calls. At one point, when she has both combatants on the line, Penny wraps the two phones together and drops them in a trashcan so they can duke it out.

Craig finds an even funnier way to defuse the seriousness of Angelo’s problems, as Danny and Penny perform a mock brain surgery that removes the bad thoughts ruining his self-confidence. Danny carries a shopping cart filled with carefully curated junk that becomes an eccentric toy chest that beautifully serves the kids’ pretend games.

The camaraderie cemented by this rollicking surgery unravels when Danny goes to school with his new chums. Instead of dutifully reading when his teacher calls on him, Danny cuts up and improvises his own story, earning himself a swift trip to the principal’s office. The smokescreen may bamboozle the new teacher, but Angelo and Penny see through it instantly – the collateral damage of Danny’s unsettled ramblings is a lingering illiteracy. It will be cataclysmic when Danny’s new chums call him out on it.

Beneath all of his spymaster tale-spinner façade, Danny is deeply ashamed – of his mom and of himself. He prides himself in being able to make friends, even best friends, in the space of a day. Yet Danny has moved around so much that he has never truly realized that the friends he makes can be a support system. That’s the deeply moving aha moment we witness here.

The only parent or teacher we actually see onstage here is Danny’s mom, but she is so flawed, so prone to unwise decisions and failure, that we’re apt to see her as under Danny’s care rather than the other way around. It’s a world of children we’re seeing, with adult intrusions but hardly any adult perspective or authority. With adults portraying all of these roles, there’s a fascinating crossroads of empathy that makes this a special experience, even for the ImaginOn fantasy palace.

Under Mark Sutton’s finely nuanced direction, the cast immerses itself into these kids and their interactions without regressing into them. Even the lighter, sillier moments aren’t tainted with excess mimicry. I was especially impressed with Scott Miller’s rendering of Danny, his guarded slouch persisting even when he resolves to do something remarkably brave. Danny’s vulnerability remains near the surface no matter how merry the moment, so his sudden disintegration comes as no surprise.

As Penny, Veda Covington must change from her kid-on-the-street self to her daughter personality each time one of her cellphones rings. There’s a little of the spoiled brat to the kid, but as the ambassador between her bickering parents, she isn’t always the submissive child. Sometimes she’s the real grownup. With Angelo, the differences are perhaps more subtle for Rahsheem Shabazz. There are different shades of inferiority that he feels toward the affluent Penny and his abusive dad, but it’s wariness rather than superiority that dominates his attitude toward Danny.

Leslie Ann Giles has so often been the grownup in the room during her 10 seasons with the Children’s Theatre touring company, particularly in their various Commedia lampoons. So it’s interesting to see her going against that grain as Louise, the wayward adult who needs to beg for a second and third chance – from her son! Giles obviously revels in the opportunity to be so complicated, wanting to be the good mother and provider but frequently sliding backwards in those uphill battles.

As hard as some parents struggle to maintain the illusion that they’ve got everything under control, I wonder how uncomfortable taking their children to see the Carters might be. Danny could be the perfect medicine for such parents. I know that I felt myself rooting ardently for both Danny and Louise.