Monthly Archives: January 2018

African Children’s Choir Brings Youthful Exuberance, Wonder, and Hope to Mint Hill

Review:  African Children’s Choir

By Perry Tannenbaum

Unless you’ve seen them before, visited their website, or read their publicity releases, you might assume that the African Children’s Choir, singing at the Arlington Baptist Church in Mint Hill, was a group of inner city Charlotte kids spreading their wings to the edge of Mecklenburg County and into the suburbs. I was quickly disabused of that notion when I walked into the assembly hall, which doubles as a cozy basketball arena. There were three tables at the rear of the hall, on the near side of the sound and video equipment, peddling merchandise and brochures, including one that was selling a generous selection of the dozen CDs that the Choir has recorded over the past 25 years.

It all began in 1984, according to the website – and one of the film breaks in the Children’s Choir concert – during a visit to Uganda by human rights activist Ray Barnett, who was inspired to form the Choir “by the singing of one small boy.” By the end of that year, the first Choir, made up of boys and girls aged 7-10, was touring North America. Many of the choristers had lost one or both parents amid Uganda’s bloody civil war, and the entire 1st Choir had been born during the pernicious reign of Idi Amin. An overarching concern of Music for Life, the group that runs African Children’s Choir, is the education and welfare of the children – and impacting the future of the continent – so Music for Life has established children’s homes across the seven countries they serve.

Mint Hill was the fourth stop – and the fifth concert – on the 48th Choir’s current 34-city, 40-concert tour, their last stop in North Carolina until the penultimate concert in Fayetteville on April 5. With just a couple of exceptions, the performances will be given in churches, so the format I witnessed is presumably typical. It began with lead pastor Rick Whittier offering an invocation and introducing choir director Alice Nambooze, who shifted focus from prayerful thanksgiving to firing up the audience so that we’d greet the 18-member Choir enthusiastically. Enthusiasm was certainly warranted, for the children were clad in unmistakably African costumes, free-flowing prints filled with bright yellow, red, and green accents. Opening with “Rejoice,” the title song of their newest CD, the African Children’s Choir matched the liveliness of their costumes with the joy of their singing.

The ebullient ensemble more than counterbalanced what you don’t ordinarily encounter at adult choir concerts – appeals, collections, testimonials, and infomercials – with a multitude of energetic ingredients we should count on from grownups. All of these kids danced, banged on tin cans, rhythmically clapped hands, and twice changed costumes, a radical departure from the staid and colorless decorum that adult choirs with their dignified directors impose on us. Some of the kids beat on the drums, Africa’s iconic instrument, some of them introduced the songs, some performed solo vocals, some interjected chants or recitations, and others hawked merch during the most charming commercial break. All of them – this was also adorable – introduced themselves. Nor was the music religiously live and a capella. Prerecorded soundtracks for most of the selections helped keep the kids on the same beat.

Seated in front of the stage, Nambooze directed the children with a minimum of fuss, returning to the spotlight on just a few occasions, most notably to sing a lead vocal after launching a wake-up tableau and to preside over the more extended break halfway through the concert, when donations were asked. The head teacher who travels with the group, Timothy Kawuma, identified himself as “Uncle Timothy” and turned out to be the most bodacious drummer we would see. Kawuma and Nambooze also offered personal testimonies, linking themselves with the beginnings of the Children’s Choir – when both were members of Choir 19 – and ending by proudly announcing the college business degrees they had earned, she in administration and he in statistics. Future of Africa.

The present in Mint Hill leaned heavily on tunes from the new CD and familiar old favorites, each of them delightfully Africanized. Very appropriately, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” was punctuated with handclaps – patty-cake style to add an extra childish tang leading into intermission. “Amazing Grace” was deceptively conventional through its opening stanza, but it grew suddenly catchy and I daresay groovy when the arrangement became a gleeful call-and-response. For their encore, the kids sang “This Little Light of Mine” with such celebratory gusto that I have to wonder how much longer it will be missing from their discography.

Songs from the newest album came with a little more zest in live performance, without any loss in choral richness. The glee-club energy of “Rejoice” showed harmonious maturity in its latter stages, but with only drums for accompaniment, the shorter “Njuba” took me more convincingly to Africa with rich harmonies resembling those of the famed Ladysmith Black Mambazo group – and with purely African lyrics. The other two newborns were more anthemic, mixing English and African into their lyric tapestries. “Our God” bounced along more jauntily, with more youthful exuberance, over a simpler soundtrack featuring guitar, keyboards, and percussion. “Cornerstone” started with an African refrain from the full chorus, breaking into English with a boy’s solo vocal after a solemn instrumental vamp. The whole choir repeated the boy’s stanza, presumably translated into African, before we reached the powerful “Christ alone, cornerstone” refrain. The arrangement kept building and, in the final repetitions of the refrain, the choir split in half, as the English “Cornerstone” chants overlapped the original African one. In a way, it capsulized what Barnett had set out to achieve 33 years ago.

With all the bright costuming, African percussion, and synthetic prerecorded sounds, Children’s Choir still carved out a precious moment when the mood became sacred in a purely Western way. I couldn’t find the African Children’s Choir version of Psalm 139, but it’s a very satisfying setting, discreetly stripped of the more bellicose – and unchildlike – verses between 1-18 and 23-24. There are so many lines and songs that sound strange or awkward coming from children. Others sound to us like something we already know, vividly refreshed. But the wonder and youthful hope of these lines, lifted and not let down by the melody and the widely smiling singers, reminded us of what is most unique and cherishable in the hearts of children.

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Amid a Record Cold Wave, Nosky Brings the Heat of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”

Review:  Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

By Perry Tannenbaum

With only string players on assignment, Charlotte Symphony was a noticeably smaller orchestra at Belk Theater last Saturday night. But with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the program and redheaded Aisslinn Nosky both playing the violin solos and guest conducting, the house was as unusually full as the stage was empty. People don’t merely adore Antonio Vivaldi’s signature set of concertos. If WDAV, Charlotte’s notably successful classical FM station, has it right, they also dig all things baroque.

Aside from an excursion into Felix Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia for Strings No. 1 – written when the prodigy was a boy of 12 – that’s what Nosky brought to the podium. Nosky is one of the pre-eminent authenticists on the continent, having served as concertmaster for both Tafelmusik in Toronto and the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston. Historical practices and authentic historical instruments are her customary métier.

So is rocking a punk hairdo, flaming pink or fuchsia on some nights, and anchoring I Furiosi, an avant-garde quartet. With fellow emissaries from H+H, Nosky has gigged at Le Poisson Rouge, one of the hippest clubs in Greenwich Village. An aura of unpredictability shimmers around her.

Of course, Nosky adapted to Symphony by playing a modern violin, but tantalizing stylistic questions needed to be answered on how she would approach the music and Charlotte’s classical audience. Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1 provided answers at the top of the program.

Nosky’s tone on the modern violin was laser thin and strong, most attractive just before her highest notes and infectiously cheerful with Symphony’s strings. The brisk pace that Nosky called for added to the sunniness of the opening movement, yet there was no superficiality to the lightness. When we moved to the middle Andante movement, Nosky entered with an exquisite pianissimo that was barely audible at first, swelling to full bloom while still allowing the cellos to dominate with their spare accompaniment. Spikey hairdo or not, Nosky subtly sculpted the closing Allegro, achieving a fine balance between her violin and the ensemble, building almost imperceptibly to the climax with gradual acceleration and crescendo.

As her concert-black outfit had signaled, Nosky wasn’t out to create outré sensations. The warmth of her chat with the audience, introducing Georg Philipp Telemann’s Don Quixote Suite, was an extension of principal cellist Alan Black’s earlier intro to the whole baroque program. Nosky reminded us that pianists and violinists, many doubling as famed composers, had led orchestras through most of classical music history, and she dished on the friendly rivalry between Bach and Telemann.

Notwithstanding the spikey punk do, you could bring this redhead home to meet your Republican dad.

I’ve found a CD, played and conducted by Jan Stanienda, that programs The Four Seasons and Don Quixote together, and the pairing makes sense. Both pieces are very imagistic, so the Telemann served as a fine foreshadowing for the Vivaldi. It would have been helpful, especially in the absence of any detailing from Nosky in her intro, to have seen the descriptive titles of the eight segments of the suite on the page with the program listings.

Flip ahead to the program notes, however, and the titles printed there would have better prepared you to fully savor the woeful waking of the Don, his adoration of Princess Dulcinea, Rosinante, Sancho, and the renowned windmills. What came through best without these prompts were the horsey flavors of the suite, the stately cantering of the overture, the quarter horse sprint of the windmill sketch, the sudden crowdpleasing interjections evoking Sancho’s donkey (effects Haydn would perfect), and the farewell gallop of the finale, ending not with a Rossini-like bang but with a surprising, slightly affecting fadeout.

Spearheaded by Nosky, the Symphony strings made an excellent case for the outer movements of Mendelssohn’s C Major Sinfonia, the second Allegro particularly impressive for its precocity. By comparison, the middle Andante in A minor struck me as moribund. Or I should say that it hardly struck me at all.

Nosky jokingly told us that, in view of the record cold weather outside the concert hall, she had considered only playing Vivaldi’s “Summer” concerto to warm us up. Then she promised there would be additional heat in the other Seasons – even in “Winter” – and there was. Written within the framework of four Italian sonnets, conveniently translated in our programs, the musical imagery of Four Seasons is probably best followed by playing a CD with the text in front of you, so Vivaldi’s backtracking refrains and mood-shifting don’t make you lose your place.

Not an absurd expectation at all: Symphony’s pre-New Year’s email blast to subscribers not only offered concertgoers a link to the translated poems, it also provided a Spotify playlist to The Four Seasons and the rest of last week’s Classics concert. Another handy subscription for Symphony supporters. Lack of such prep accounted for the major glitch of the night, when the audience applauded prematurely, forcing Nosky to confide that “Winter” was yet to come.

At the beginning of Four Seasons, “Spring” crests with a thunderstorm in the second half of its opening Allegro, and the onset demonstrated that there was sufficient artillery onstage at Belk Theater for the fireworks and hailstones to come. Nosky was at her most soulful in the middle Largo as the goatherd lay down to sleep in the meadow, and the sweetness lingered into the concluding pastoral dance with a nice attention to the strings’ harmonies.

Forebodings of the ultimate storm in the “Summer” concerto spread dramatic contrasts throughout the first two movements, both of which have fast sections, but it wasn’t until the concluding Presto that Vivaldi and Nosky reached their fullest fury. Here the flaming redhead was clearly torching the Red Priest, finally breaking into her bacchante mode, sustaining the lightning with a sizzling cadenza.

She is too authentic to linger in sensationalism, and there was plenty of artistry to display in the remaining concertos. Soloing in “Autumn,” it seemed to me that Nosky was caricaturing one of Vivaldi’s drunken peasants with a witty twist of her glissandos, and she made sure to emphasize the fadeout at the end of this season, reminding us of the kinship between Vivaldi’s sketchings and Telemann’s.

“Winter” was not only the most shivery season, it was also the darkest, bleakest, and loneliest as Nosky gave us a wan cadenza backed only by Black on cello. North winds howl in the final Allegro, allowing Nosky and Symphony to whip up one last tumult. Maybe the sun didn’t quite shine through this icy gloom, but the joy and warmth of the music did, just as the Red Priest prescribed.

“School of Rock” Sports Heavy-Metal Vulgarity

Review:  School of Rock

By Perry Tannenbaum

Dewey Finn is not your model citizen. A wayward adherent to the religion of hard rock and heavy metal, Dewey is vastly self-absorbed. When he gets booted out of his No Vacancy band, presumably for stealing focus from the shirtless lead singer, Dewey sponges contentedly and thanklessly off former bandmate Ned Schneebly. Worse, when an opportunity opens for Ned as a substitute teacher at a prestigious private school, Dewey steals it.

Masquerading as Ned, Dewey remains true to his slovenly egocentric creed, arriving to his first day at work late and hung over. More alert on Day Two, he discards the normal schedule and curriculum, ditching math and social studies in favor of turning his students into a rock band. Dewey remains steadfast in his ambition to qualify for, compete in, and emerge victorious in the upcoming Battle of the Bands.

After heroes and antiheroes that included the biblical Joseph and Jesus, the Phantom of the Opera and Grizabella, Evita Peron and Norma Desmond, you could say that Dewey Finn shattered the mold for Andrew Lloyd Webber protagonists when School of Rock opened on Broadway in December 2015. Although it never became anything like the moneymaker Phantom still is after 30 years, Rock is still running – while subsequent revivals of Cats and Sunset Boulevard are not.

From what I could see at Ovens Auditorium on opening night, word-of-mouth in Charlotte will concur with the Broadway verdict.

What makes Dewey appealing is his sheer vulgarity, which nearly reaches full John Belushi proportions. But there’s more, mainly the unsavoriness of all the other adults onstage, beginning with the No Vancancies who let Dewey go. Ned is preternaturally wimpy, more dependent on his inhaler than a meth addict, and his girlfriend Patty is dominatrix-grade hostile.

At school, Dewey’s colleagues are suburban bland. At home, the students’ parents are variously unloving and/or unsupportive. The principal, Rosalie Mullins, is the essence of by-the-book rigor, believing that this is what those wealthy parents are paying for. Winning Rosalie over is the key to realizing Dewey’s hard rockin’ aspirations, and he hits upon the perfect scheme, asking her out to a local dive and plying her with cheap beer and Stevie Nicks.

Scenic and costume designs by Anna Louizos have the same look on tour as they had on Broadway – as far as Ovens will allow. When the School of Rock band finally gets their shot at the Battle of the Bands showdown, there’s no visible spot for the skeptical parent to sit – like, say, the box seats at Belk Theater? – while the kids prove themselves.

The size of cavernous Ovens, seating over 60% more than the Winter Garden on Broadway, makes it more difficult to hear Dewey’s fifth graders clearly – and more difficult for most ticketholders to see the mutually beneficial relationship developing between them. Really, I couldn’t find any distance between Rob Colletti’s disheveled charm on tour and Alex Brightman’s on Broadway, nor were the kids’ talents any less precocious than those I witnessed at the Winter Garden.

But the mojo that starts happening in the classroom with “You’re in the Band,” as Dewey matches students with their instruments (no, I don’t know how he snuck in a complete drum kit), seems comparatively muted and diluted in the vast Ovens space. Here’s where the kids get their first fix of that you’re-really-good intoxicant their sub is dishing out while Dewey gets his first inkling of how fulfilling it can be to do something for somebody else. On Broadway, this is where I knew that Lloyd Webber was onto something when he decided to adapt the 2003 film starring Jack Black. At Ovens, we’re still unsure.

We never tap in quite as intimately to Dewey’s growth and transformation. It hits us more at big moments that are outsized signposts along the way. Fortunately, there are enough of these broad advances in Julian Fellowes’ adaptation of Mike White’s screenplay to add up to a satisfying jolt when the big crises hit midway through Act 2. The essence of these advances is the beneficial effect he has on the kids, on Rosalie, and even Ned – a medical miracle, since the wimp suddenly tosses away his inhaler and become a mean rockin’ machine – along with new outbreaks of generosity, tact and caring.

Colletti carries the show on his broad sloping shoulders, his big belly, and purest chutzpah, but it’s the kids who give the show its impish, wholesome Monkees energy. Dynamic Phoenix Schuman on guitar, nerdy Theo Mitchell-Penner on keyboard, grumpy Theodora Silverman on bass, and hipster Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton on drums are a cornucopia of musical precocity. The mini character roles have the same Broadway excellence, bossy little Ava Briglia emerging as company manager, effeminate John Mitchell Pitera finding his passion in costume design, and withdrawn Gianna Harris breaking out of her cocoon with a smashing a cappella “Amazing Grace.”

There’s a latent sexiness to Lexie Dorsett Sharp as Rosalie that peeps through early on when she exits Dewey’s classroom after a precise and military left-face. Our principal also displays a formidable soprano in “Queen of the Night” excerpts, though the highest note in the Magic Flute aria is always scaled with the aid of a student tapping a triangle. There’s a certain British delicacy in the way Sharp eventually melts, removing her glasses but never letting her hair down.

Director Laurence Connor allows more latitude to Dewey’s put-upon hosts with only middling results. Patti is a fairly standard-issue shrew, and Emily Borromeo does little to transcend her, pitch-perfectly annoying in her yammering. Matt Bittner, so hopelessly asthmatic early on, does deliver a shocking metamorphosis when he grows a pair. Maybe he could survive in a classroom!

There are no memorable power ballads from Lloyd Webber this time around, but he’s clearly having fun, stealing from Mozart and Deep Purple in the same score – and proving, in case you’ve forgotten, that he really can rock. “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock” cooks at medium heat to start things off, and later, “Stick It to the Man” and “You’re in the Band” actually achieve a slight metallic edge.

Implausibly, the climactic title tune misfires. Lloyd Weber’s melody, perhaps to satisfy demands of the plot that don’t need satisfying, doesn’t reach the anthemic stature we’d expect from a revelatory rock band’s signature tune. Glenn Slater’s lyrics, reliable throughout the evening, are dreadful here, incoherent and not at all believably from a fifth grader’s imagination.

Not to worry, Weber hasn’t lost it at the end. Order is restored when he reprises the crowd’s favorite, “Stick It to the Man.”

A Flaming Redhead Scorches the Red Priest

Preview:  Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

By Perry Tannenbaum

Even in Charlotte, the would-be crown of the New South, you occasionally hear the grumblings backstage – or in the boardrooms of our leading performing arts companies. Our audiences are graying. Who ya gonna call? For Charlotte Symphony, this week’s startling answer is their guest soloist, Aisslinn Nosky, a redheaded violinist – sometimes fire engine red when the mood hits – who usually rocks a punk hairdo.

A blatant appeal, you could say, to younger people who might otherwise be wary of a formal concertgoing experience or just plain classical-averse. But that’s hardly half of the Nosky story. Far from dolling up and dumbing down the music she plays, Nosky is highly regarded as one of today’s prime exponents of music by Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Franz Joseph Haydn.

Canadian born, Nosky has strong ties to three of the most important groups in North America that specialize in this music. She’s a core member of the Toronto-based I FURIOSI Baroque Ensemble and the concertmaster at Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society. Nosky’s 10 years with the famed Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra culminated in the 2015-16 season when she toured as their featured soloist.

Although she’ll be playing a modern violin when she teams up this weekend for a concert that will showcase works by Bach, Telemann, and Mendelssohn – while headlining Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – Nosky usually plays authentic period instruments when she performs and records with H+H or Tafelmusik. She dismisses the notion that there’s some kind of disconnect between her punkish stage persona and her punctilious preservation of authentic practices.

“I can see how on the surface it might strike some people as a jarring contradiction,” Nosky admits. “What our current audience may not know is that the idea of classical music being a highbrow/conservative art form was born entirely in the 19th century. In the 18th century, the star singers of the opera world and the most famous instrumental performers were treated like rock stars. One need only read contemporary accounts of audiences’ reactions to someone like the great opera star Farinelli to have a glimpse into the excitement and glamor which was a part of experiencing Western art music in the past.”

Many other classical musicians, conductors, or academicians are on the record with similar observations about classical music’s less stuffy, more spontaneous past. Nosky separates herself from those laments, living that bygone spontaneity right now. Check out the I FURIOSI website if you have any doubts. Or watch Nosky rockin’ out on Bach with Tafelmusik in a YouTube video.

Something unusual there: Nosky is not only playing with the ensemble, she’s directing it. That’s the plan for this weekend at Belk Auditorium. In both the Bach Violin Concerto No. 1 and the Four Seasons, Nosky will be soloing while leading the orchestra. Although the ensemble doesn’t figure to be as small as Tafelmusik’s, with 19 full-time members, you can count on Charlotte Symphony to field a smaller armada of musicians than the one that played Brahms and Beethoven back in November.

Trimming the size of the ensemble performing Haydn and Mozart became a routine practice at Symphony during the aught decade when Christof Perick wielded the baton as music director. But aside from Bach’s B Minor Mass (2002 and 2009), a Vivaldi Piccolo Concerto rearranged by and for percussionist Evelyn Glennie (2005), nothing written before Papa Haydn was presented at the Belk to Symphony’s Classics Series subscribers during those years.

Curiously enough, that Vivaldi Piccolo Concerto was conducted by Christopher Warren-Green, five years before he took over as Symphony’s maestro for the 2010-11 season. So it figured that Warren-Green would be programming more baroque at the Belk than his predecessor.

“Musicians of a symphony orchestra are expected to be extremely versatile and be able to juggle different musical styles,” says Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, Charlotte Symphony’s concertmaster since 2003. “We usually switch from a classical repertoire to a more jazzy or Broadway type of repertoire, from modern classical to baroque. Especially with the arrival of Maestro Warren-Green in Charlotte, the number of baroque programs has increased. I am sure that Aisslinn will bring her own interpretation and expertise to the stage.”

What might seem unusual, a concertmaster leading an orchestra while he or she plays the solos, is often the practice when performing Four Seasons, according to Lupanu. That didn’t happen the last time Symphony presented Vivaldi’s most famous composition in early 2010. Lupanu would know. On that January night, with Michael Christie as guest conductor, Lupanu himself was the soloist.

Oh, and this just in: Lupanu kicked off a new Charlotte Symphony chamber music series in October at Tate Hall on the CPCC campus, leading a “conductorless” concert of works by Elgar, Britten, and Shostakovich. So for the record, he set the precedent.

Nosky has a different perspective on compounding her instrumental work with conducting, reminding us that before the 19th century, concertmaster and director were interchangeable titles.

“Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra was directed from the concertmaster’s chair by Jeanne Lamon,” Nosky recalls. “It never occurred to me that playing baroque and classical music needed to be done any other way. In fact, after a lot if research into the subject, I can say positively that the majority of orchestra music before the 20th [century] was directed by either the concertmaster or the keyboard player. People may forget that Vivaldi and Telemann and Bach initially achieved their enormous fame as performers!”

Both concertmasters, Lupanu and Nosky, cite chamber music as central to their tastes and training, so both are comfortable in reduced-size ensembles where all the musicians must keep a sharp ear out to blend and synchronize with their colleagues. Where the two seem to part company is in the outré flair that Nosky brings to the task.

“In a culture that is geared towards young performers playing for an older audience,” Lupanu observes, “someone of Aisslinn’s quality can be extremely helpful in bringing more of the baroque and early music repertoire in the concert halls. And – why not? – maybe having the younger audience attracted to this kind of music.”

Nigel Kennedy? Peter Sellars? Peter Pan? Nosky pushes back against the notion that her spiky hairdo is modeled on anybody else’s – or that it’s calculated to position her as a Pied Piper for a new generation of classical audience.

“All I can say is that my inspiration comes completely from what makes me feel comfortable when I perform. I couldn’t possibly try to look like or be anybody other than myself. If I did, I would not be true to myself. Or the music.”

Nonetheless, when Nosky moves from Handel and Haydn to the music of Vivaldi, her spiky red do inevitably takes on the tinge of an homage. Born in 1678 and ordained in 1703, Vivaldi was nicknamed the Red Priest because of his curly red locks.

It’s uncertain how much red Nosky will be sporting onstage as she plays her concertos and leads Charlotte Symphony in a Sinfonia by Mendelssohn and a “Suite from Don Quixote” by Telemann. There’s a 2013 video of Nosky clad in red lapels when she played with an H+H quartet at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. On second glance, maybe those silky lapels were fuchsia.

One thing is certain: Just being herself, Nosky will surely be a redhead playing the Red Priest, often at a fiery clip. It will be interesting to see how many other punks show up.