Daily Archives: February 24, 2017

Side-by-Side, Davidson College Symphony and Charlotte Symphony Perform Schubert’s “Great”

Review: Schubert Symphony No. 9 in C Major (“The Great”)

By Perry Tannenbaum

There are members of the Theatre Department at Davidson College who will tell you – off the record, of course – that Duke Family Performance Hall, notwithstanding its fine physical appearance and advanced technical capabilities, presents formidable acoustic challenges for their dramatic and musical productions. It’s difficult for actors to project their voices to the back of the hall and up to the highest balcony, more so when musicians in the orchestra present a further barrier. So it was with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation that I attended my first purely musical event at the Duke. Considering that this was a Side-by-Side concert by the Davidson College Symphony and the Charlotte Symphony, I had to do a double-take when I saw our CVNC listing that specified Tyler-Tallman Hall as the venue. I’d gone to concerts at Tyler-Tallman on numerous occasions and, even with its balcony overhang, the room seats less than 200, hardly ideal for a confluence of two orchestras with 98 musicians listed on the program. So after my double-take, I made sure to double-check.

Now I don’t wish to exaggerate. When Christopher Warren-Green took the stage to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Jurists’ March followed by Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, I never counted more than 91 musicians at one time from the combined ensembles. The Schubert actually thinned out the ranks, for the phalanx of five percussionists for the Tchaikovsky was reduced to one principal from the college ensemble when we reached the symphony. You might think that the dampening effect that bedevils theatrical productions at the Duke might actually benefit such a mighty orchestral armada, but that hypothesis wasn’t tested in my presence. The hall was outfitted with an acoustic shell that prevented sound waves from escaping to the wings of the stage or to the impressively tall fly loft above.

In a hall that hardly seats more than 600, less than a third of the size of Belk Theater in Charlotte, a little more breathing room for the sound would have been welcome. The blare of the nine-piece brass section at various points in the Tchaikovsky could be especially unnerving. Davidson College Symphony director Tara Villa Keith had told us in her opening remarks that the last Side-by-Side rendezvous of the orchestras had been ten years ago, so the Tchaikovsky seemed to turn into an adjustment period for both the musicians and the audience. Compounding those adjustments was the unfamiliarity of the music. With only a single oft-anthologized recording to be found in searches of Spotify and Amazon, it’s unlikely that anyone who wasn’t onstage or in the college’s music department had ever heard of the D Major composition before.

More clarity amid the assaults of percussion would have made this new experience more enjoyable, along with greater precision when the 67 strings played at maximum speed. Along the way, introductions to the main theme and its reprises, sounded very much like similar episodes in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and other ballet suites, and the brass steadied themselves in the latter segments, especially the trombones, so I was encouraged as I became more accustomed to the acoustics. Hopefully, this performance was a tune-up for a future encore at the Belk, where I doubt this march has ever been played.

As the Schubert Ninth (“The Great”) unfolded, I found that I was able to ignore the acoustics for a while. When the passages verged on fortissimo, I found that I’d occasionally recover my objectivity and reaffirm that there was little more warmth or clarity in the music than you might hear on an old broadcast where the radio had been turned up to an unwise volume level. Yet in between those trying fortissimos, Schubert’s grand tapestry contains plenty of passages that allowed individual sections and soloists to shine. That didn’t happen immediately in the Andante section of the opening movement. Violas and cellos were sleek and mellow, but the brasses were collectively smudged and the French horns, so crucial at the very beginning, were somewhat fuzzy. Order prevailed with the first marching episode and hints of the big tune to follow when Schubert would decisively plunge into his Allegro ma non troppo section. Numerous relapses into muddiness plagued the music until the trombones entered with a firm, focused sound. Only one treacherous episode marred the rest: in a work scored for two flutes, the five who played together here – two from Charlotte, three from Davidson – sounded mushy and shrill. The speed-up led by the clarinets helped us forget this discomfort and the reprise of the trombones was even better.

While the ensuing Andante con moto wasn’t all quietude, it wasn’t pocked with the fearsome fortissimos we had to weather up until then, so the performance became rather pleasurable. Early and late in the movement, there were some gorgeous passages delivered by Davidson’s principal oboist Katherine Copenhaver, discreetly backed by principal clarinetist Ava Pomerantz. The tutti were far crisper at reduced volume and the sforzandos, punctuated by principal Davidson timpanist Cole Warlick, struck with a zesty exhilaration. Section work from the French horns and the flutes – only three playing here – snapped into a sharp unison. After a lovely hush, the entrance of the cellos over pizzicato violins propelled us toward a deftly managed resolution. The penultimate Scherzo movement swayed attractively in its 3/4 tempo with occasional detours into gravitas that made the prevailing lightness all the more beguiling. Warren-Green deployed four of the trombones here, one more than specified in the score, and he once again ventured to field five flutes. Everything remained under superb control, and the tutti at the end of the movement was the best so far.

Clarinets and woodwinds had their finest moments igniting the Finale, where Schubert’s valedictory C Major Symphony truly becomes “Great” for me. Copenhaver and Pomerantz had more fine moments here, especially when we arrived at my favorite theme, which always strikes me as having a circus or carnival essence when it gathers its full force. But there is also an exotic beauty to this memorable tune as the woodwinds majestically marshal its pace to full cruising gear. The full brass section was very fine with its answering heraldry, but the trombones, used by Schubert with unprecedented daring, were exemplary – all six of them sharing the spotlight here. The trumpets also shone when their big moment came, just after the oboes signaled for the circus parade one last time.

Exactly half of the musicians listed in the program were from the Davidson College Symphony, so this was truly an equal partnership. Presumably, the Duke is a more convivial venue when this Symphony is 49 members strong instead of 98, but there were likely some hidden benefits to the collaboration process even if more of the rehearsal time should have been spent in Davidson. Early last month, the Charlotte Symphony performed the Schubert Ninth at Belk Theater as part of a larger program that included Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture and the world premiere of Leonard Mark Lewis’ percussion concerto. However intense or organized the college students’ participation in that earlier rehearsal may have been, it surely enriched the overall collaboration in a unique way, a win-win-win for the Charlotte Symphony, the Davidson College Symphony, and all of the devoted patrons who filled the Duke for this Side-by-Side effort.

Will Eno Makes Indecision an Honorable Way of Life

Review:  Middletown

By Perry Tannenbaum

“Daytime. Night-time. Enough. I get it.” Folks in Will Eno‘s Middletown may remind you at times of the stark simplicities of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. There are definitely absurdist and existential ideas running amok in Eno’s quaint American village, but there were other modernist ideas vying for our attention as actors in the nine-member ensemble swerved in and out of character, broke the fourth wall, or simply joined us in the audience as loudmouth spectators. Disbelief was not to be suspended for long in this amiably odd student-directed production by the Davidson College Theatre Department at the Barber Theatre. Nor was information very useful here, though the question of where we were was quickly addressed and muddled. Among the candidates instantly put forth by Google in Connecticut, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, or Rhode Island, Eno’s Middletown is none of the above – or possibly all of the above. “Middle” can certainly mean average in an Our Town way, or it can mean between in an existential way, at the crossroads between the past and future, the intersection where all times meet. Now.

cop

Eno’s playfulness wasn’t long in coming. His Cop broke the fourth wall in welcoming us as “Ladies and Gentlemen,” but the rest of the ensemble, planted in the audience, went about exhausting all the other possibilities of whom the Cop might be addressing – to such an epic length that we might have forgetten this catalogue was nothing more than a greeting. Then we came to the scene that most reminded me of Waiting for Godot. Sauntering out of the audience, the Cop encountered the Mechanic who was loitering in the middle of the stage. The interrogation that followed mixed silliness, slapstick, and brutality in a fashion that resembled the Beckett recipe. It also served to introduce us to the two subspecies that inhabit Middletown, those who have settled positions in life and those who are in transition, in between what they used to do and what might come next. Not surprisingly, Eno had us empathizing with his unsettled middle people. Indecision seemed to equal sanity in his universe.

Dressed as a mechanic, the Mechanic was no longer working as one. Perennially holding a beer bottle in his hand, Sam Giberga showed us that the Mechanic might have a buzz going, but not enough for Matt Hunter as the Cop to toss him in the slammer. The costume and the beer bottle also told us, as the evening rolled along, that despite the Mechanic’s search for a new direction in life, he wasn’t pursuing it at warp speed. Near the end of this bittersweet comedy, a parade of other actors – out of time or in a dream – came by and dressed the Mechanic in something emblematic of his or her profession. One of the nurses helped the Mechanic into a lab coat, the Astronaut contributed his helmet, the Librarian draped a book bag on his arm, and the Cop surrendered his walkie-talkie. All directions were possible in this fantasia.

In subsequent appearances, Hunter managed to convince me that the Cop’s unexpected, random brutality toward the Mechanic had been as much the result of boredom as anything else. Actions by the Librarian, the Astronaut, and the nurses underscored the point that people are basically going through the motions at their jobs. The people who interested Eno the most were those in search of motions through with to go. Futility abounds: in a scene with a tour guide and two tourists, it was hard to tell who was trying hardest to help the other out. None of them had much of a clue.

librarian

After the Cop chased the Mechanic off the stage, Mrs. Swanson arrived, a newcomer to Middletown. Hers was a more consequential scene, for she not only met the Librarian, who was eager to fill in Mrs. Swanson on the nebulosities that form Middletown’s history (Vickie Williams was a marvelously professional and preoccupied Librarian), she also met John Dodge, another listlessly searching townsperson. Not yet visibly pregnant, Mrs. Swanson was the embodiment of expectation, but her husband was never around to share her anxieties or her bliss. John, on the other hand, was perpetually downcast and lacking in initiative. Knowing Mrs. Swanson’s story and hearing that she was naming her unborn son John, John still didn’t act on his obvious affection for her.

woman

These two central roles were the best suited for collegiate actors, and both Savannah Deal and Ryan Rotella were superb. Only Deal was truly age-appropriate last year when the two appeared in Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. Here, their unaffected styles made their scene work even more satisfyingly. Rotella’s hangdog approach to John gave the untethered man a cuddly, pathetic appeal, while Deal’s slight cheerfulness always seemed undercut by her disorientation, uncertainty, and profound loneliness. The common bond that united both subspecies of Middletowners, both the shiftless and the settled, was the loneliness that made Mrs. Swanson and John appear to be natural soulmates.

For this production, Barber Theatre was configured in stadium style, half the audience facing the other half with the stage in the middle. Scenic designer Neil Reda didn’t often have much to show us in the middle, but for Act I, he set up two colorful pairs of housefronts facing each other from opposite ends of the stage, about the size of a changing cabin you might rent at the beach. As the 10-minute intermission ended, ensemble members planted themselves at both sides of the house to discuss what they – as audience members – saw in Act I. It wasn’t a particularly enlightening discussion, of course, digressing into a guy on my side of the theatre marveling at the memory of one of the women on the other side. A latter-day Pirandello prank, perhaps?

During the interval, however, Reda’s two set pieces were swiveled around, revealing yet another aspect of what Middletown might be. On the other side of the exterior doors we saw in Act I, there were now two hospital rooms, one for Mrs. Swanson and one for John. In one room, there was an impending birth, while on John’s side, there just might be an impending death. Eno gives us a grimly humorous takeaway here: if you’re thinking about suicide and not absolutely sure you won’t have regrets, use a clean knife to better ensure your recovery.

Of course, the bigger takeaway was the one laid out before the audience. Middletown is that seemingly large space between birth and death, the entirety of our awareness. One of the ensemble members comes onstage to plant a little tree there, but it is whisked away before the important action resumes.