Monthly Archives: April 2017

Art and Business Clash in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

By Perry Tannenbaum

Few playwrights, black or white, would write a line so richly laden with poignancy as “Somewhere the moon has fallen through a window and broken into thirty pieces of silver” only to bury it in the silent text of his prologue. Just to ensure that such a line would be spoken out loud, Tennessee Williams would have temporarily deputized one of his characters as his mouthpiece so that this line would have a life in our ears.

Yet somehow, the “Somewhere” line dropped into the intro of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom perfectly describes the setting of August Wilson’s 1984 drama. Ma Rainey, her entourage, and her jazz quartet gather at a one o’clock rendezvous with Ma’s nervous manager, Irwin, and record studio boss Sturdyvant. While Irwin is careful not to rouse Ma’s mighty temperament and ego, Sturdyvant’s regard for Ma extends no further than to the pieces of silver her recordings can stream into his coffers.

So I can think of a personal as well as an artistic reason why Wilson elected to inter his telling line. A man who conceives of a ten-play series of plays that will chronicle the history of his people through every decade of the 20th century probably wouldn’t preserve, shepherd, and showcase a 30-pieces line like that with the same urgent care that we might. Or frankly, surveying the crew he assembles for this 1927 studio session, Wilson could have soberly concluded that none of these folk, black or white, had the discernment or eloquence to deliver such a lyrical line.

What comes out of Ma’s mouth is almost always salty, bitter, and infused with rage, while her nephew Sylvester, a stutterer, struggles to say anything at all – even as Ma, laying on more pressure, insists that he deliver the spoken intro to her “Black Bottom” recording. These are the two people who present the most daunting challenges for the whites in the recording studio.

But as the split layout of the Pease Auditorium stage faithfully discloses in Jennifer O‘Kelly’s shambling set design, this CPCC Theatre production of Ma Rainey is very much an upstairs-downstairs story. We spend as much time downstairs in the musicians’ rehearsal room – Cutler on trombone, Toledo on piano, Slow Drag on bass, and Levee on trumpet – and the latter half of the tragic denouement unfolds there.

Needless to say, there is as much tension downstairs between the musicians as there is between Ma, the truculent Sturdyvant, and the ever-appeasing Irvin. Cutler seems to run the show downstairs from a business standpoint, accountable for getting the band to show up on time, distributing the pay, and counting out the downbeats. Levee is the young buck with the big ideas, confident that his arrangements of Ma’s tunes will be preferred to her own, and planning to sign on independently with Sturdyvant so he can record his own songs with his own band.

Although the inevitability of a clash between Ma and Levee isn’t exactly trumpeted when we first meet them, it is deep-set into the structure of the script. Both Ma and Levee arrive significantly later to the gig than Sturdyvant or Cutler expect – though Ma’s arrival is later, louder, and more tumultuous. So the outcome of these prima donnas’ collision is also fairly predictable.

Since at least 1998, Corlis Hayes has been involved in several August Wilson plays around town, including The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Fences as both a player and a director. Although line problems cropped up occasionally in the rehearsal room, lengthening the production to a running time of nearly 2:20 plus intermission, Hayes directs with a sure feel for Ma Rainey’s moody, spasmodic pacing, and Tony Wright’s fight choreography aptly points up the climaxes.

Jonavan Adams first teamed up with Hayes in 2008, when I felt that The Piano Lesson should have been more forte. As Levee, there are welcome times when Adams goes fortissimo on us, particularly in his mighty monologues and crises. Yet there are still a few moments when we’re getting to know Levee that Hayes should whisking Adams downstage so that we can hear him better and other moments that Adams zips through unclearly. More forgivable toward the end are the moments when Levee is desperately talking to himself.

Clearly, this is a man who is haunted by his childhood and partially imprisoned by it – very emblematic of his people.

Pitted against Adams as Ma is Shar Marlin, who made her first splash on the local scene six years ago as the matriarch in George C. Wolfe’s “Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play” and hasn’t looked back. With both Bessie Smith and Zora Neale Hurston’s Blues Speak Woman in her rearview mirror, Marlin takes on another outsized personality with perfect aplomb. Called upon to sing Rainey’s signature blues, Marlin delivers ornery volume laced with gutsy growls. And believe me, the force of her first entrance is worth waiting for.

With trombonist Tyrone Jefferson tackling the roles of Cutler and this production’s musical director, the jazz behind Rainey – and behind the scenes downstairs – has a unique authenticity. When Cutler gives his oft-repeated “One… Two…You know what to do” cue, three musicians respond from somewhere offstage while he himself delivers the trombone fills. Jefferson, the arranger and musical director behind numerous recent productions, proves to be quite capable as an actor.

Gagan Hunter turns pianist Toledo into a slightly starchy back-porch philosopher, which seems about right, and soft-spoken Willie Stratford – who really needs to be brought downstage – brings an abundance of cool to Slow Drag. In real life, Ma Rainey was indeed the Mother of the Blues, and there was also a notable New Orleans bassist named Slow Drag Pavageau who got his nickname from his dancing prowess.

The white folk are both exploiters, but it’s Tom Scott as Sturdyvant who is far and away the more cruel and noxious. His presence is so toxic that we can easily forget the looming clash between Ma and Levee. Scott always seems to be close to boiling over when he considers Ma’s sense of majesty and entitlement. Hank West as Irvin is the conciliator, but just when he verges on becoming sympathetic, a thin steely mean streak appears in a very nuanced portrayal.

No such subtlety beclouds Carol J. McKIenith’s wantonness as Dussie Mae, Ma’s companion. But there’s an interesting combination of meekness and determination, pride and shame, in Danius Jones’s portrayal of the stuttering Sylvester that makes him unexpectedly rewarding.

In another burst of unheard poetry, Wilson quotes blues great Blind Lemon Jefferson in his epigraph. Because “they tore the railroad down,” sings Jefferson, “the Sunshine Special can’t run.” Confronting this catastrophe, Jefferson plans to “build me a railroad of my own.” Ma and Levee have the same yearnings deep in their bones, to break away and blaze their own musical trails. But it’s still 1927, the traditional tracks are still sturdy, and their people don’t own them.

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“Stupid F@#%ing Bird” Mashes Chekhov With Giddy Modernism

Review: Stupid F@#%ing Bird

By Perry Tannenbaum

If you’re looking for clear outspoken themes and messages onstage, there are better places to look than the aching comedies of Anton Chekhov. Among his contemporaries, Count Leo Tolstoy found the best works of Chekhov difficult to grasp yet full of insights into “the inner workings of the human soul.” Chekhov’s mix of clinical objectivity and soul-searching empathy would become touchstones of modern drama and modern acting technique.

So it’s no surprise that Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, irreverently retitled Stupid F@#%ing Bird, is so willfully modernistic. Conrad Arkadina, nee Konstantine Gavrolovich Trepleff in the original, doesn’t merely write the bad script we see performed early in Act 1. He’s also the author of this play that we’re watching and will pause to tell us about it from time to time. But that doesn’t mean his mom, film producer Emma Arkadina, or his Uncle Eugene – a dying doctor – won’t also address us and lay bare their ostensibly fictional souls.

We can almost go around the complete cast in this Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production simply by cataloguing their unrequited loves. Mash, who is madly in love with Conrad, is desperately beloved by Dev. But Conrad burns for the beautiful Nina, who offers body and soul to the famous writer Trigorin, who is in a committed relationship with Emma – until he isn’t. Passion for other people or for art is the essence of futility among this crowd, often leading to self-loathing. Even Trigorin, slightly weary with his own fame, has restless longings that go unfulfilled.

If you already know The Seagull well, the idea of Conrad being our author is more than slightly absurd, for in the denouement, his spiraling depression begins with his ripping up all his manuscripts when he realizes he can never have Nina. Compounding the absurdity, Conrad frankly tells us of the catastrophe to come.

Assuming that you can find the Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus near Myers Park Traditional School, you’ll find that director Chip Decker – with his own fantastical set design and Hallie Gray’s lighting – has grasped the zany bittersweetness of this script remarkably well. The mixture of wholesomeness, naïveté, candor, and earnestness that Chester Shepherd brings to Conrad further ensures success. Somehow, in this blizzard of fiction and reality, where Conrad is both the playwright and his protagonist, Shepherd can come to his audience for advice and handle our spontaneous feedback.

He realizes that Nina, a rather bad actress who sustains a career, is not particularly worthy of his love. Hell, Mariana Bracciale as Nina is well aware of her shortcomings as an actress, with a slight Julia Louis-Dreyfus charm wrapped into her maddening flightiness. Scott A. Miller as Trigorin realizes Nina’s shallowness as well as anyone, his mind at odds with his loins in his struggle to decide what to do about her, yet he also grasps that his rascality is as much of his charm as his talent.

Emma suffers in her relationship with Trigorin and in her lack of aptitude for parenting Conrad, yet Becca Worthington is most disarming in her acknowledgement to us that she’s the meanie in this story, unlikely to redeem herself. Every one else lurks on the periphery, adding to the impression that our main characters are living in a teeming world. I was fairly smitten with the comedy of Carmen A. Lawrence as Mash, for she mopes so hopelessly – and needlessly, since the loving, patient, and wise Dev is crazy about her.

Peripheral or not, Jeremy DeCarlos as Dev combines with Lawrence to give their scenes a Midsummer Night’s Dream giddiness, for neither of them is among our gifted characters. Yet DeCarlos, more goofball here than I’ve ever seen him before, seems to have the knowledge that his waiting game – and his faith that Mash will come to her senses – will be rewarded. It’s a part of his calm wisdom, which occasionally reminds Conrad (and us) what an unbalanced, disturbingly normal hysteric he is.

Hope Prevails With Quatuor Ébène at Savannah

Ébène and Daniel Hope at Savanah Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

Celebrated for their recordings of Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel, the Quatuor Ébène have shown themselves to be equally comfortable in repertoire by Haydn, Mozart, Bartók, the Mendelssohn siblings, Jobim, Piazzola, Sting, and Erroll Garner. The string quartet is currently touring the US with new infusions of Beethoven, culminating with an all-Beethoven program at Carnegie Hall on March 31 and a Beethoven-Debussy mix at the Kimmel Center six nights later.

Yet Savannah Music Festival artistic director Rob Gibson and violin colossus Daniel Hope, the festival’s associate artistic director for classical programming, could legitimately claim a coup for the Ébène’s return to Savannah, where they had played an all-French program in 2011. Wowed by their performance of the Ravel, Hope had prevailed upon the quartet to join him and pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips in Ernest Chausson’s Concert in D Major for Violin, Piano and String Quartet.

Prior to intermission, the program foreshadowed what New Yorkers will hear on Friday at Carnegie: the String Quartet in B-flat, Opus 18, No. 6, followed by the String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Opus 95, “Serioso.” Based on the performances we heard down in Savannah, New York concertgoers need only fear that what follows after intermission might be anticlimactic.

Having listened to the great recorded Beethoven traversals of the past by the Takács, Tokyo, Guarneri, Juilliard, Italiano, Alban Berg, and Budapest quartets, I still found the live performances by the Quatuor Ébène at Trinity United Methodist Church astonishing. Part of the wonder, no doubt, was the church’s acoustics, even friendlier to strings than to either vocal or keyboard performances – though I’ve never heard its gilded organ pipes in action.

More decisive were the ensemble’s creamy approach to the harmonized sections of the score, the conversational interplay of the musicians, and the sheer excellence of first violinist Pierre Colombet. Of the recent surveys I’ve listened to, only the Belcea Quartet comes close in their recording of the B-flat Quartet No. 6 to matching the relish that Ébène took in the harmonious ritardandos of the opening Allegro con brio movement, which usually sound like lulls between the fireworks. That same attention to detail was also evident within those fireworks as the quartet zestfully leapt upon the opening exposition, varying tempos and dynamics with restless precision.

What surprised me most, from musicians making their first forays into Beethoven’s quartets, was the liveliness of their interplay. Adrien Boisseau sounded buoyant when he peeped in on viola, and the dialogue between Colombet and cellist Raphaël Merlin was even richer, the first responses by the cello playful and the last answer delivered with abrupt, prankish ferocity. Colombet’s artistry was more exquisite in the ensuing Adagio, as he floated lyrically above the soft accompanying trio before gracefully landing with a couple of delicate pizzicato chords.

In the bubbly Scherzo, Colombet and second violinist Gabriel La Magadure drove the music, darting around unpredictably while the lower strings were restrained. Any worries that the Ébènes might not be up to the demands of heavier Beethoven were largely dispelled in the “Malinconia” section of the final movement. Slow, and darkly harmonized, Merlin’s cello was especially morose as the instrumental lines diverged, until Colombet ignited a quicker, folksier tempo.

While no one questions the position of Quartet No. 6 as the last of Beethoven’s early Opus 18 period, offering tantalizing hints of the more turbulent middle period ahead, the No. 11 “Serioso” seems to lie slightly on the cusp. Nearly all quartets group the F Minor Opus 95 with their Rasumovsky and “Harp” recordings from the middle period, but a few let it lead off their compilations of the Late Quartets.

With the onset of the opening Allegro con brio, the Quatuor Ébène emphatically let us know, in a stunning wave of collective turbulence, that their most intense ferocity and flame throwing still lay ahead. Not immediately, of course, for middle Beethoven is ever mercurial, and we’re never sure if he’s wickedly mischievous with his surprises or divinely deranged. The opening storm soon gives way to reflective unrest, enabling a second onrushing wave to be more ferocious – cycling back and forth to a quiescent close.

Quiet returned throughout mournful Allegretto, beginning with Merlin’s lachrymose intro on cello, transitioning to a fugal section launched by Boisseau’s viola, and growing exquisitely slow and eerie with Colombet softly ascending the treble. Now came the time for peak ferocity, a final fury somehow kept in reserve, as we moved without pausing into the signature Allegro assai vivace ma serioso movement.

Diabolically, the pause missing at the start of this movement gets transferred to the middle – more than once after comparative lulls. Even when I knew another sforzando was coming after the second pause, it came with a jolt. Lacking the same fury as the Serioso movement, the concluding Larghett0-Allegretto might have been sorely anticlimactic if it weren’t so melodious and joyful, the contagious tune handed to each of the musicians as part of the jocund farewell.

It isn’t the last we’ll be hearing of Beethoven’s music at the Savannah Music Festival this year. The special Ébène event came between two “Beethoven and Beyond” concerts fronted by violinists Hope and Benny Kim with pianists Crawford-Phillips and Sebastian Knauer, backed by a quartet festival regulars. Each of those concerts had a Beethoven piece paired with works by his musical contemporaries or descendants – before and after intermission. My deadline for this review strikes in the middle of another mammoth Beethoven event, Stewart Goodyear’s three-concert “Sonatathon,” presenting all 32 piano sonatas in a single morning, afternoon, and evening.

A kind of closure with Beethoven will happen this Saturday when the Dover Quartet follows the latest of Mozart’s “Prussian” quartets with two late Beethovens, No. 13 in B-flat and the Grosse Fuge. Cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han add a charming coda next week when they perform the 12 Variations on Handel’s “See the Conqu’ring Hero” in the middle of a program that includes pieces by Bach, Shostakovich, and Rachmaninov.

Amid a 17-day festival that also embraces jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, pop, and world music, the aforementioned are barely half of the classical offerings. Tops among other headliners include pianists Jan Lisiecki and Knauer, violist Lawrence Power, and the Atlanta Symphony under the direction of Robert Spano, presenting an all-Rachmaninov program with Stephen Hough playing the Piano Concerto No. 1.

All of these will struggle to eclipse the éclat of Hope, Crawford-Phillips, and the Quatuor Ébène in Chausson’s Concert in D. After three harsh opening chords from Crawford-Phillips, the quartet’s entry was happily ominous, still restless when the piano part suddenly became rhapsodic. Hope soared above this conflict, and while the quartet – individually and collectively – continued to make telling contributions, it was Hope and Crawford-Phillips, playing off each other, who built to a climax of resounding joy, ecstatic joy, yearning joy, fulfilled joy, and purely sweet joy. That was merely the epic Décidé, Animé movement, with three more to come.

In the splendor that followed, the Quatuor Ébène ran the gamut from orchestral might to mute passivity. These extremes were crystalized in the final Très animé. After some galvanic fireworks from the keyboard, the sliding ensemble work with looping crescendos and decrescendos made me think that Chausson could have easily added a extra o to his title, for here his Concert seemed to have the fullness of a piano concerto. Moments later, the quartet wasn’t playing at all during an extended episode that was a fiery Hope/Crawford-Phillips violin sonata. None of the Quatuor members bothered to hide their frank awe of the violinist standing before them.

Joining in after this violin sonata eruption, the quartet played with a richness that made me wish to hear them taking on Dvořák’s quartets. Then a pizzicato shower as Hope and Crawford-Phillips crested to peak intensity again. No, there was one more detonation from the keyboard – and yet another before the final satisfying chords.

Thrilling was almost an adequate description of the first Chausson Concert that I heard at Spoleto Festival in 2002 and two others that followed, most notably with Chee-Yun and Anne-Marie McDermott in 2009. With Quatuor Ébène behind them, Hope and Crawford-Phillips set the bar even higher.

Last night at “Beethoven and Beyond, Part II,” Hope and Crawford-Phillips came perilously close to topping themselves – with Keith Robinson playing cello – in Shostakovich’s harrowing Piano Concerto No. 2. Prior to the concert, Gibson revealed that the festival’s 2018 slate had been set. He divulged only two tantalizing bookings: Pinchas Zukerman is on the guest list, and (after taking over the reins of leadership from Sir Roger Norrington) Daniel Hope is bringing the Zurich Chamber Orchestra to Savannah.

Everything I’ve heard at Savannah Music Festival this year has been encouraging, especially the music. That’s why I’m filing this review early and making sure I don’t miss a note of Goodyear’s “Sonatathon.”

A New “Raisin” Is Set to Explode

Review: Raisin in the Sun

By Perry Tannenbaum

At a distance of 58 years, people who read Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and its familiar epigraph, “A Dream Deferred,” may get the idea that the playwright was exhuming a poem written by Langston Hughes back in his heyday during the Harlem Renaissance. Truth is, Hughes published this poem as part of his Montage of a Dream Deferred in 1951, a quarter of a century after his first book of poetry appeared.

When Hansberry seized upon it, “A Dream Deferred” could hardly have been anthologized more than a couple of times, let alone become an acknowledged part of America’s literary heritage. Hansberry’s script and the performances by Claudia McNeil and Sidney Poitier as Lena and Walter Lee Younger – in both the 1959 Broadway production and the 1961 Hollywood adaptation – were almost surely the bridge that carried Hughes’s poem across that gulf.

And was Raisin perhaps the key link between Langston’s “Dream” poem and a certain speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King?

The questions of how prescient or pivotal the works of Hughes and Hansberry were in anticipating or sparking the Civil Rights advances that followed are temptingly open to conjecture. What the current Theatre Charlotte production shows us to be indisputable is Hansberry’s intention to show us all of the possible answers Hughes offers to his poem’s opening question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” She clearly opts for the idea that the right answer to Hughes’s multiple choices is all of the above.

Yes, we see all that is festering and rotting within the Younger family in Walter Lee’s deteriorating relationships with his mom Lena and his wife Ruth. But thanks to Natasha T. Wall as Lena and Jermaine Gamble as Walter Lee, we see the most compelling and decisive turns that deferred dreams take. It’s Lena who is most sensitive when the dreams of her family, including her own, begin to dry up like that raisin, and it’s Walter Lee who personifies the explosions that can occur after a lifetime of being thwarted and disrespected.

In her Theatre Charlotte debut, director Kim Parati wisely scales down these two titans to less mythic, more human dimensions. With Wall, there’s also a subtle update: this matriarch isn’t crossing the stage to slap her daughter Beneatha when the spirited collegian implies that God no longer resides in the Younger household. But this Lena does take firm hold of her daughter and give her a firm shaking.

So okay, maybe Parati has discreetly tossed the sagging “like a heavy load” aspect of deferred dreams off the shoulders of the elder Youngers. The less-burdened Gamble becomes a less monumentally whiney Walter Lee than we usually see, more of a victim and less of a screw-up. I noted with surprise that this Walter Lee actually seems to have given some thought to his liquor store scheme. I find more in Gamble’s failure that makes me think that Walter Lee feels like he let his father down as much as his mother.

Of course, we never see dad, though set designer Tim Parati hangs a strategic photograph near the Younger front door that must be him. It’s the $10,000 from his life insurance that fuels the newborn hopes and storm clouds that besiege the Youngers in their undersized apartment, where Walter Lee’s son Travis conspicuously sleeps on the couch. If that merely seems cute, then there’s also the spectacle of the family racing out the front door to snare the bathroom that they share with their neighbors.

A real newborn threatens to make the living situation worse as the family waits for the big insurance check to come in the mail – Ruth is pregnant with a second child that she dreads telling Walter Lee about. There’s a dark conspiratorial tone to the way Hadassah McGill as Ruth talks about the prospect of abortion, reminding us of the prehistoric life-of-the-mother era before Roe v. Wade.

Now I can’t defend Hansberry from the charge that she neglects the “stink like rotten meat” line in Hughes’s poem. Yet Parati seems very keen on giving new emphasis to the most cryptic outcome of deferred dreams – if “crust and sugar over Like a syrupy sweet” is the bluesy, jazzy sublimation I think it is. When Beneatha puts her newfound African music on the phonograph and starts dancing in the African garb that her Nigerian beau Asagai has given her, the temperature is already pretty warm because costume designer Tiffany Eck has done her work in sparkling fashion.

More importantly, Silka Salih El Bey as Beneatha knows exactly how to shake what needs to be shook. Layer on Walter Lee staggering into the apartment after a daylong bender he’s been on since Mama’s rejection and Ruth’s news, and you have a virtual orgy. For Walter quickly imagines himself as one of the warriors that Beneatha’s folk dance is welcoming back to the village, joining his sister in her primitive dance – before exiting to puke. The joy and the warrior spirit merged here like I’d never seen it before.

El Bey is a stunning actress for her age (a senior at Northwest School of the Arts), but she gets plenty to play off of. Not only is there rawness and seething fury from Gamble – as a sibling, a son, and a husband – there is also charming equipoise and bemused detachment from Gerard Hazelton as Asagai, most pointedly when he chides Beneatha for her assimilationist dress and her straightened hair.

There’s a visible age difference between Hazelton and El Bey, so her eagerness to make herself over to his liking still plays credibly. But the takeaway between this Beneatha and Walter Lee doesn’t sustain itself so easily. When El Bey is backing down against Mama about God still residing in their home, there’s too much vivacity in her to think she’s crushed. And when Walter Lee so memorably comes into his manhood in the final scene, his assumption that Beneatha must get his permission before following Asagai back to Nigeria no longer seems to have the weight it had when Poitier laid down the law in 1961.

Among the many satisfactions of this Theatre Charlotte Raisin is its clear vision. Parati and her cast know what still holds strong, what parts can stand stronger emphasis, and where to mute some attitudes that would soon lapse after Hansberry’s time. There’s even a character we’ve never seen before, neighbor lady Mrs. Johnson (an intrusive, snoopy, and hint-dropping Eryn Victoria), who drops by and quickly overstays her welcome.

The scene, discarded from the show before it originally opened on Broadway, doesn’t add to the power of Hansberry’s script. But it ensures that this Raisin is like none you’ve ever seen before

Steinway Concert Injects Jazzy New Notes Into Aging NC Bach Fest

Review: NC Bach Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

Now concluding its 38th season, the North Carolina Bach Festival has a big name and a rich history. But when its new artistic director, Dr. Roman Placzek, asked his Charlotte audience at the Steinway Piano Gallery whether anyone had ever heard of the festival before, he confidently expected no hands to be raised. That’s because the festival, previously staged exclusively in Raleigh, hasn’t run long or traveled far until this year’s edition. Consisting of one featured artist concert and a small youth concert, the NC Bach was barely larger than the BachFest at St. Alban’s Church in Davidson or Charlotte Symphony’s Bachtoberfest, neither of which sport statewide pretensions.

Placzek fixed that in 2017, for there had been two guest artist concerts in Raleigh after the February 26 youth concert, with each of these subsequent concerts spotlighting another award-winning young instrumentalist chosen by the Festival. Featured artists were Placzek and guitarist José Manuel Lezcano on March 4 after pianist William Wolfram had been featured the previous evening. Placzek and his cello, along with NC Bach Festival youth program director Elena Nezhdanova, proceeded with the most notable trailblazing, spreading the good news of the Bach Festival to the Steinway Gallery in Greensboro on March 5 and to the Steinway Gallery in Charlotte the following Saturday. Above the duo’s names in the program booklet, pianist John Salmon appeared. That began to make very good sense when Dr. Salmon took over most of the hosting chores.

The ensemble offered the same all-Bach program at both Steinway Galleries – but most of the offerings were boldly rearranged by Salmon. You don’t expect jazz to predominate at a Bach festival, and perhaps not at a Steinway gallery. Many of the hour-long concerts in Steinway Piano Gallery Live series have, in fact, featured jazz artists, and the mingling of jazz improvisation with works by Bach dates back to the Swingle Singers’ landmark Bach’s Greatest Hits album that won two Grammy Awards in 1963. If you’re tempted to check the Swingles out on Spotify, the Jazz Classical Crossings channel will stream more of the same. As for Salmon, he’s been jazzing up Bach for a few years, too. On the faculty at the UNC Greensboro’s School of Music since 1989, Salmon has published Jazz Up the Sinfonias, Jazz Up the Inventions, as well as a more varied Add on Bach. At the Steinway concerts, Salmon targeted the Sinfonias seven times and the Inventions five.

Whetting our appetites and barely hinting at the mayhem to follow, Salmon began with the Partita in B-flat, BWV 825. Contrapuntal lines in the opening Praeludium came through with admirable clarity, and Salmon had no problem at all dramatically quickening the pace of the Allemande and keeping tempo brisk in the Courante. We began to see what Salmon would be about in the elegant Sarabande where the pianist subtly modulated that halting tempo. But it was in the two Menuets and the concluding Gigue that Salmon’s playing became noticeably freer.

Tempo modulated more openly in the first Minuet and there was an interesting mix of freedom and rigidity in the second, but as he accelerated gleefully into the Gigue, there was an even more daring concept. In addition to the tempo modulations, Salmon overlaid a long decrescendo followed by an equally long crescendo, adding new drama. Next he played the Invention No. 1 in relatively traditional fashion, adding ornamentation that would probably not have scandalized 18th Century listeners. Only at the end did Salmon add an extra coda, finishing with a faintly bluesy chord – one that became bluesier after he confessed his crime to the audience and gave a brief demonstration.

Prelude No. 1 from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, wasn’t appreciably jazzier, but here Salmon added a bass-line for the cello that was a nice introduction to the warm tones that Placzek can coax from his instrument. Next came a before-and-after pairing of two arrangements that Salmon has done for Invention No. 8, both of them calling for two pianos. With the first No. 8, done for the second piano in a Baroque continuo style, Nezhdanova appeared totally relaxed and unchallenged, but the second arrangement was a radical change that noticeably increased her alertness and involvement.

Subtitled “Great Bach’s Afire,” Salmon swept from Baroque and past jazz, landing firmly in the rock-and-roll style of Jerry Lee Lewis, though I didn’t actually catch the melodic link between Jerry Lee’s “Great Balls of Fire” and this Bach standby. But goodness gracious, the Lewis fire was definitely in evidence, so much so that, as Salmon was clanking the keyboard at the end, I signaled to him that he needed to sweep the keys with his elbow. That’s what Lewis, nicknamed “The Killer” in his rowdiest heydays, would do at the keyboard before his signature finish, lifting a leg and pounding the last treble notes with his heel.

Invention No. 6, scored for all three players in the style of a Baroque trio, was more than a little anticlimactic after these fireworks, for Nezhdanova didn’t even need to raise her left hand to play her part. So the last Invention on the program, the same No. 6 turned into “There’s A Banjo in the House,” turned out to be the jazziest so far, with Salmon tossing off some pleasurable improvisation and the ensemble sounding more like a jazz trio than a bluegrass ensemble. Moving forward into Salmon’s Sinfonia arrangements, the music stayed jazzier with no more relatively ancient and tame variants preceding the arranger’s quirkily titled ones.

The Steinway Gallery was best acoustically when one of the pianists played and/or Placzek gushed forth his mellow sounds. The two dovetailed Steinways looked so perfect together that I needed to assure my wife that they were two separate pianos (even though I wasn’t absolutely sure). But while Salmon’s keyboard was further away from my front row seat to my right, his soundboard was closer. That made a difference when he and Nezhdanova played together.

With his jazz and rock proclivities, Salmon was already the more gregarious player, but the placement of the two pianos double-underlined the difference. Nezhdanova was fairly buried in the C-Major Sinfonia No. 1, renamed “A Rush of Happiness Is Here and Makes Me Want to Spread the Joy.” She had better chances to show her mettle in the introductory portions of the “Ray Brown, Come Lay It Down” reincarnation of Sinfonia No. 2 in C Minor, and in the “You Are So Nice” remake of Sinfonia No. 3 in D, where Salmon divided the melody line into call-and-response form.

The Nezhdanova-Placzek duo shone brightest in the final piece, Salmon’s charming transformation of Sinfonia 10 in G into “Scamper ‘Round and Make Some Sound.” Here the pianist and cellist were allowed to languish in their accustomed classical mode while playing the long introductory episode. In a sense, by giving his accompanists this space before he roared in with his improvisatory licks, Salmon was observing a longtime tradition in the jazz world. As often as not, the leader of a combo at a club date will allow every member of the band to solo during the final tune.

Yet the jazziest collaboration of this trio happened in the penultimate arrangement of Sinfonia No. 8 in F, newly minted as “Double Time Times Two.” Both the title and the arranger warned us that this would be fast, and it was. Even after the second concert with Salmon, NC Bach artistic director Placzek seemed to be marveling as much as we were, cooling down behind his cello – but for a different reason. “Every one of the notes I just played was what Bach wrote!” he told us. So he can return to Raleigh with another new idea. While Wolfram playing the complete Goldbergs and even Lezcano playing Fernando Sor’s Fantasie in D are what we should expect at a Bach Festival, it might not be amiss to look for fresh new ways our state’s annual Bach celebration could be more celebratory. More festive! With Salmon and Nezhdanova at his Steinway concerts, Placzek certainly hit the right notes.