Monthly Archives: August 2019

Free Reign’s “Saint Joan” Handsomely Shaves a Shavian Tragedy

Review: George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Didacticism and verbosity are probably the chief reasons why George Bernard Shaw has fallen out of favor, even if those charges are often overblown and undeserved. The Anglo-Irish playwright’s works, faithfully presented each summer in rotation at the Shaw Festival in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake up in Ontario, can seem musty and intimidating compared to today’s snappy sitcom dialogue or yesteryear’s sleek Oscar Wilde epigrams.

Of course, the more didactic and verbose a GBS play might be, the less a director might feel she or he can reshape it. So there’s often a backstage disinclination to wrestle with Shaw’s once-revered scripts that conspires with the audience fear factor.

Maybe that explains why the last two Shaw productions I’ve seen, nearly five years apart, have both been Saint Joan. My first live encounter with Shaw’s only tragedy was at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre in New York in a lively Bedlam Theatre production. Almost instantly, I could see that this is one play where the playwright has loosened his tight grip on his stage characters. Here the story has a grip on him, and even before I found it confirmed in his humongous preface (more than half the size of the play), it was obvious that he not only deeply researched the exploits of Joan of Arc, but he had also meticulously studied the transcripts of her witchcraft trial.

Saint Joan at Duke Energy in CharlottActor/director Eric Tucker and his Bedlam cast had a field day with the script, divvying up 25 roles among four actors. Shaw’s contention that there was no villain in the Maid of Orleans’ undoing came through vividly in an evening that mixed some fun into the high seriousness – but the evening was three hours long, hardly making a dent in GBS’s notorious loquacity. The new Free Reign Theatre production, currently at Spirit Square, brings Saint Joan more fully into the realm of accessibility. Director David Hensley noticeably shaves the Shavian discourse, and company founder Charles Holmes has free rein to ply his fight directing craft. Multiple episodes of spirited swordplay are sprinkled amid the wordplay.

Hensley deploys four times as many actors on the drama, allowing it to breathe more naturally than Bedlam’s insane reduction, where one of the actors might actually change roles mid-sentence and reply to himself. A more benign form of such absurdity persists with Free Reign, where the same French faces we saw opposing and abetting Joan’s miraculous rise to military leadership suddenly transform into her enemies in the angry and confounded English camp.

In a role that has been mainly populated by the great dames of theatre history rather than precocious teens, Amy Cheek makes an amazing splash the first time I’ve seen her in Charlotte. There were times, over the course of the evening, a relatively svelte 2:15 at Duke Energy Theater, when I felt that her excellence was all that was necessary. There is, as her elders say repeatedly, something about her – an ardent belief that infuses a Peter Pan cocksureness yet never crosses over into presumptuous arrogance.Saint Joan at Duke Energy in Charlotte

At times, the light radiating from within, kindled for Joan by the voices of the warrior archangel Michael and Saints Margaret and Catherine, made me believe Cheek was the ideal age for this role. Predecessors have included the likes of Uta Hagen, Katharine Cornell, Sybil Thorndike, Judi Dench, and the aforementioned Redgrave.

It tickled me that most of the other Free Reign players did so well – and that Hensley decreed that they aren’t all men. Five women flit through this surprisingly nimble evening. Particularly delightful was the idea of having the pert and diminutive Alexandria Creech portraying the timorous Dauphin, the future King Charles VII of France. The holy coronation at Rheims Cathedral can only happen if Joan can prod him into standing up for himself and forcefully claiming his rightful throne. With Russell Rowe thundering as the Archbishop of Rheims, Holmes glowering as military commander-in-chief Monseigneur de la Trémouille, and both of them towering over Creech, chances for an upswell of valor from the Dauphin look slim.

Saint Joan at Duke Energy in CharlottCreech can not only hide behind her courtiers when the Dauphin stages his first audience with Joan, she can nearly disappear. But Cheek also towers over this Dauphin – a little bit – so it’s a nifty tug of war for the future king’s favor. Holmes retains his bellicosity when he briefly appears at the English encampment as the Black Prince, but he becomes slightly more sympathetic at the trial as Peter Cauchon, somewhat doubtful that La Pucelle is a witch but absolutely certain that she is the worst of heretics.

Rowe follows a more interesting arc when he changes into an Englishman, becoming the implacable and somewhat stupid Chaplain John de Stogumber, who believes so rabidly in Joan’s witchery that it’s alarming. At the trial, he appears to be a mashup of the Chaplain and the Canon de Courcelles, who zealously brings over 60 charges against The Maid to the bench. Stogumber seethes mightily when Cauchon trims those charges to a mere 12, violently advocating that Joan be burnt at the stake – until he actually sees her on fire. He was so shaken and chastened by the spectacle that I almost pitied him, a truly wrenching turnaround.Saint Joan at Duke Energy in Charlotte

The Maid attracts believers and followers along the way, of course, and the most impressive of these are the hulking David Hayes as Bertrand de Poulengey, Joan’s first champion, and Robert Brafford as the wily renegade Dunois, who shrewdly sizes up her military acumen. Hayes resurfaces at La Pucelle’s side in the pivotal battle scenes before drawing a fearsome, taciturn role as her Executioner. Brafford sheds his good heartedness but retains his craftiness when he becomes The Earl of Warwick. The coolest of Joan’s enemies, Warwick is willing to offer a bounty to anyone who betrays The Maid – not the most dramatic thrust in Shaw’s script, so I suspect the suave and calculating Brafford was the most victimized by cuts to the script.

Every now and then, as in Boeing Boeing, we get the treat of seeing Emmanuel Barbe in a French role. As Robert de Baudricourt, the first nobleman to be won over by Joan’s eloquence and spunk, Barbe helps to get things off to a flavorful start. By the end of the first scene and its exhilarating little coda – and miracle! – this Free Reign production had already captivated me. As Shaw well knew, Joan’s story has that power.

 

Matt Lemmler and a 10-Piece Band Ignite a Stevie Wonder Sampler, Aided by Three Guest Vocalists

Review: Matt Lemmler Plays Stevie Wonder

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Anyone who seriously follows the work of jazz instrumentalists and vocalists has likely realized that, for the last 30 years and more, the compositions of Stevie Wonder have become as much a part of his contemporaries’ songbooks as the works of George Gershwin were for Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Ella Fitzgerald. Jazz covers of certain Wonder songs like “Sir Duke” or “All in Love Is Fair” are so ubiquitous that it came as no surprise that the latest Jazz Room concert presented by JazzArts Charlotte, Matt Lemmler Plays Stevie Wonder, should set out to explore the superstar’s songs for the length of a full concert at the Stage Door Theater. What did take me a little by surprise was that those songs – as well as “Superstition,” “Higher Ground,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Boogie On, Reggae Woman,” “Living for the City,” “Keep on Running,” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” – could all be omitted from Lemmler’s playlist without crashing the quality of his concert. Perhaps we all take the bounty of Wonder’s output for granted.

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Lemmler brought plenty of artillery to the occasion, leading a 10-piece band from the keyboard and deploying four vocalists to the singing chores, including his own tonsils. For his opening and closing tunes, Lemmler showcased his band, rotating his vocalists for the intervening eight songs. Beginning the set, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” was the only purely instrumental offering penned by Wonder, readily identifiable in a fairly long ensemble arrangement before Lemmler soloed and we had our first sampling of David Lail’s zesty tenor sax. The ensemble continued to be a substantial part of the mix when the vocalists appeared. A plucked bass intro kicked off Lemmler’s arrangement of “Ribbon in the Sky,” followed by some pleasing back-and-forth between the brass and the piano before the vocalists took over. Lemmler took the first vocal and his first guest vocalist, Matt Kelley, took the second. “Ebony Eyes” drew an even more colorful arrangement as Lemmler layered on another vocalist, Robyn Springer, into his chart, limiting his own role to the piano and giving trumpeter Eleazar Shafer some solo space. “I Just Called to Say I Love You” spotlighted Kobie Watkins’ percussion, Dave Vergato’s bass, Darrel Payton’s muted trombone, and some nice section work from the saxes around the vocal.

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After Kelley returned with “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and Springer had joined with him on a more satisfying “You and I,” punctuated by solos from Lemmler and Lail, I was expecting to pronounce that Springer had outsung Kelley on this night. But a couple of unexpected twists – and a whole new level – lay ahead as Lemmler introduced a third guest vocalist, Kevin “Mercury” Carter. Wait a second. Isn’t it a law that, after any vocalist you’ve introduced to your audience makes a second entrance, no new vocalists shall be introduced? Apparently not. Compounding the singularity of this moment, Lemmler was playing his first set in a three-night, six-performance engagement, and was apparently only fleetingly familiar with Mercury’s talents. He introduced him as “Mercedes Carter,” which really threw me, since I was totally unfamiliar with this singer. On the one hand, I’ve only heard of women named Mercedes; but on the other, despite a coordinated Afro-flavored outfit that was gender-ambiguous, Carter was sporting some serious facial hair.

So we seemed to be floating outside of binary territory when Carter lit into “Isn’t She Lovely,” scaling substantially into the treble clef after Lemmler’s vocal and Lail’s tenor with a smoothness that recalled Michael Jackson, the best vocal so far. But after a solid rendition of “Overjoyed,” Kelley returned and forced me to shuffle my vocal rankings once again as he absolutely torched a wondrous arrangement of “Part-Time Lover,” embellishing the wordless riffs on Wonder’s original recording to the point that they became a more freestyle scat. In between Carter’s two choruses, the last followed by a prolonged scat outro, there were exciting solos from Shafer and Payton, the latter unmuted this time on his trombone, and Lemmler’s best piano solo of this set.

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Off that high, Lemmler came down to earth with his own original dedicated to Stevie, “S’Wondersong,” yielding the instrumental spotlight to Lail, Watkins, and alto saxophonist Harvey Cummings. It’s a bit awkward for a 10-piece band to go through the ritual of vacating a stage and returning to do an encore after wild audience applause. Lemmler opted to skip those formalities and, after the perfunctory coaxing from the JazzArts Charlotte emcee to justify our presumed reward, it quickly became obvious that Lemmler’s Storyville medley was an integral part of the show. Not only did the medley give the leader/arranger a chance to extol his New Orleans roots, it carved out space for all of his band members to toss off a valedictory solo. It also brought Lemmler home to the places where his vocal style sounds most forceful and comfortable, “The House of the Rising Sun” and “St. James Infirmary.”

 

Simmering Cauldrons in a Lonely Desert Town

Review: The Band’s Visit

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Loneliness. Isolation. Boredom. Stagnation. No, those aren’t the ways we think of the Middle East when all the newsclips we see splatter blood, anger, violence, terrorism, explosive devastation and mass migration in our faces. But in 2007, Israeli screenwriter and director Eran Kolirin explored a different side of the region in The Band’s Visit, a film that unearthed all those sorrowful and solitary dimensions we hadn’t seen before. Critics had no problem in perceiving that Kolirin was onto something, and the film garnered awards at festivals far beyond its native land in Cannes, Zurich, Montreal, and Australia – to name a few.

Nine years later, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, a musical adaptation of The Band’s Visit opened for a monthlong run Off-Broadway, moving to Broadway in 2017 after copping the Obie Award for best musical. Loneliness, isolation, boredom, and stagnation were still unapologetically intact, a rather lowkey brew for a Broadway musical. But 10 years after Kolirin’s film premiered, The Band’s Visit carried home 10 Tony Awards, a rather loud success.

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Against such éclat, you’ll need to brace yourself for heavy doses of calm, quietude, and smoldering ennui in the touring version, now entering its second week at Knight Theater. The story begins at a Tel Aviv bus station, where the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra is expecting to be greeted by emissaries from Petah Tikva, where the band is scheduled to keynote the opening of a new Arab cultural center tomorrow evening. A two-minute wait on the Broadway stage is equivalent to a numbing five-hour vigil in real life. So instead of waiting any longer, the bandleader, Tewfiq, decides that the ensemble will take the bus.

Oy vey.

Just as the English language doesn’t have a consonant like the guttural “h” at the end of Petah, Arabic doesn’t have an authentic parallel to the “p” sound, which was added to contemporary written Arabic to accommodate such foreign words as Pepsi (and Palestine). When the dreamboat trumpet player Haled goes to the ticket window, he returns with tickets to Bet HaTikva.

Now Petah Tikva is a real city with nearly a quarter of a million people, less than seven miles east of Tel Aviv. Bet HaTikva is another story – a fictional one – a dusty little town somewhere in the middle of the Negev Desert. It seems to boast a street café, a restaurant, a roller-skating rink, a pay phone, and a park bench that passes for the town’s park. But no hotel, and the next bus out of town isn’t coming till the following morning.

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POV is a powerful tool, but it can also be a subtle one. By the time the Police Orchestra arrives in Bet HaTikva, clad in powder blue uniforms that might remind you of Paul McCartney on the cover of Sgt. Pepper, we can empathize with the disorientation of this Egyptian band. Because at one time or another, we’ve likely had that same sinking feeling of tourists who are lost in a strange place – and because the Egyptians don’t seem to be carrying any political beliefs in their baggage. These musicians carry themselves with dignity and a blend of meekness, restraint, and regimented discipline. Just what you would expect from cultural ambassadors who will be held accountable when they return.

The Bet HaTikva natives buy their story, but what are they to do with their visitors? Dina, the café owner, takes the lead – in cuing her friends on what tone to take toward their guests, distributing band members among neighboring households for their overnight stay, and in romantically pursuing Tewfiq. From there, the story splits into three, tracking Tewfiq, the more gregarious Haled, and Simon, one of the two clarinetists in the band.

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Contrasts between the band and the townsfolk are obvious, but they aren’t always what you would expect, and they never boil over into outright Arab-Israeli hostility. Here it’s the Egyptians from Alexandria who are the urban sophisticates while the Israeli desert dwellers are the rubes. Haled’s hosts are nonplussed when he repeatedly asks if they know Chet Baker, even after he imitates the trumpet legend’s vocal on “My Funny Valentine.” On the other hand, Tewfiq is incredulous when Dina reveals that she listened to music on Egyptian radio as a child and confesses her crush on Omar Sharif.

Music is the obvious bridge between the two peoples, deepening when Dina coaxes Tewfiq into singing the Arabic song he once sang to his now-deceased wife. There’s more rapprochement when Simon, staying the night with Itzik and his resentful wife Iris, soothes their crying baby with a lovely little half-tune on his clarinet, disarming Iris’s hostility on the spot and leading to the couple’s reconciliation after an earlier blow-up.

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Curiously, that little tune is emblematic of the less obvious bridge that binds these people together: inertia. Simon wrote the beginning to his concerto a while ago, but he has no special desire to continue or finish his composition, no matter if people keep telling him it’s damn good. Dina broke up with her husband sometime back, once had ambitions of becoming a dancer in her Tel Aviv days, and doesn’t know why she stays in this in this one bus-stop town. Tewfiq is in no special hurry to move on from sorrowing over his family tragedies, and Itzik and Iris’s upward immobility, quarreling, and reconciliation seem to be in an endless loop.

ugq_LgmPMost absurd is the Telephone Guy, who stands vigil at the outdoor pay phone night after night, waiting for his long-gone girlfriend to ring him up.

Like a boring family get-together, The Band’s Visit has time to coast through a recital from Itzik’s father-in-law on how he and his wife bonded over the Gershwin brothers’ “Summertime.” The livin’ is easy in this cumulatively powerful musical, and tempo is certainly not rushed under David Cromer’s deft direction. But there’s nothing lazy about the way Scott Pask’s scenic design slickly whisks us from location to location, indoors and out, with a turntable to speed up the skaters. I half expected a bus to ease onto the stage when it came time for the band to depart.

There’s unquestionable DNA from the 2007 film in the current tour, with Sasson Gabay returning to his award-winning role of Tewfiq and his son Adam Gabay scooping up a smaller plum as the painfully shy Papi. Sasson established admirable chemistry with Chilina Kennedy opposite him as Dina, absolutely definitive, but 12 years after that film, the age gap between him and his leading became conspicuous. If Tewfiq is so tentative and unwilling, why doesn’t Dina hasten to go after the younger bucks who might be more receptive and responsive?

More problematic on opening night was Sasson’s energy shortage and Kennedy’s tendency to mute her sassiness to be more compatible. I’ll need to read the script or watch the film to get the full gist of their Omar Sharif intimacies. On the other hand, when Kennedy gets to belt and vamp on “Omar Sharif” and “Something Different,” she shows us that there’s a tender, sensuous side to the tough and brusque sabra she first reveals at her café. And even at low volume, Sasson’s restrained emotion comes through powerfully when he sings “Itgara’a” in a cappella Arabic.

Pleasant surprises come from the humbler members of the supporting cast as Papi’s panic attack on a blind date at the roller rink becomes a “Papi Hears the Ocean” showstopper for Adam Gabay, and Mike Cefalo comes vividly to life as The Telephone Guy with a potently plaintive “Answer Me.” Throughout this intermission-less treat, Yazbek’s score shuttles between familiar showtune style and Arabian exotica, percolating with pluckings from a lute-like darbouka (Roger Kashou), a mandolin-like oud (Ronnie Malley), and – what truly does boil over here – the pounding of Arabic percussion (Shai Wetzler).

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Given Haled’s cool Chet Baker proclivities and his brash breaches of police decorum, we shouldn’t be surprised that when Joe Joseph sings “Haled’s Song About Love” to calm Papi’s panic attack and supply him with encouragement, he sports the hip jazzy sound of early Frank Sinatra, late Baker, and contemporary Seth MacFarlane. Took me by surprise, because it’s so smoothly different from everything else we hear. Spoiler: it definitely works when Joseph sings it, with a kind of Zachary Levi charm.

Both Kennedy (Beautiful) and the elder Gabay (Band’s Visit) have starred in Broadway productions, albeit in replacement casts, so the top-tier quality of this touring edition begins at the top – when the co-stars aren’t allowing their energies to flag. Small and relatively quiet with its nine-piece instrumental ensemble, this Yazbek-Moses gem manages to cover a fairly wide swathe of Israeli life. We get perceptive sectors on midlife yearnings and regrets, bachelor urges and trepidations, and the simmering cauldron of domesticity. With Pomme Koch as Itzik and James Rana as Simon, the two knowing husbands we see onstage, the top-tier quality extends far and deep.

ATC’s Outdoor “Midsummer” Is Electrifying Fun

Review: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Aside from sporadic Chickspeare ventures in the NoDa Brewing parking lot and a tentative CPCC Shakespeare on the Green production up at their Cato campus two summers ago, we haven’t seen anybody commit to an annual series of outdoor Bard since the Queen City’s second Charlotte Shakespeare bit the dust in 2014. If you’ve been hankering for some good Shakespearean comedy under the moon, with a refreshing beverage in your beach chair’s cup holder and a trusty cooler at your side, the long drought is over.

Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has made good on their promise, announced at the dawn of their new residency relationship with Queens University, that they would launch an annual Midsummer Nights @ Queens series, starting with the most logical choice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now Shakespeare hasn’t exactly been in Actor’s Theatre’s wheelhouse during its first 30 years. Nor has any classic playwright dating further back than Edward Albee. Perhaps for that reason, ATC executive director Chip Decker tamped down expectations when he first unveiled his plans, saying this would likely be a cooperative effort featuring students in the Queens U theatre program.

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He lied. Directed by Chester Shepherd, this Midsummer is as professional as any homegrown Shakespeare production we’ve seen in the Metrolina area since the first Charlotte Shakespeare folded in the early ‘90s. Even though admission is free, production values are not at all cheap. Costume designs and props by Carrie Cranford are literally electrifying in a few instances and, while there isn’t any scenic design, Shepherd leads his players up and down, up and down, taking advantage of a bush here and a tree there, borrowing the stone stairway and entrance to campus building for the Athens scenes and kidnapping a toddler from the audience when we adjourn to the forest and the fairies.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some serious economies, but they don’t include forswearing playbills, which are handed out to audience members by wingèd ushers. Although the roles of Athens royals Theseus and Hippolita are often doubled with those of Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen, here we’re confronted with an orgy of doubling – nine actors in 18 roles. Except for Peter Finnegan as Bottom, all the mechanicals are moonlighting as Athenian nobles.

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So the looney lovers who are confounded and enchanted in the woods by the fairies cannot mock the mechanicals when they present their “Tragical History of Pyramus and Thisbe” – they’re performing it, you see. Their lines disappear with them, part of a shrinking process that yields a playing time of less than 100 minutes. That’s another economy. Anybody who has memorized the lines uttered by Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed will notice that these fairies have also been vaporized – or compressed into the generic Fairy played by Kerstin VanHuss.

Steven Levine is certainly manly and commanding as Theseus and Oberon, but he is upstaged by the antics of Sarah Molloy as Puck and the misplaced amorousness of Nonye Obichere as Titania – not to mention their outré costumes. Obichere has only to swish her illuminated blue cape to dazzle us, and Molloy’s outfit is even wilder than Bottom’s. Of course, Finnegan’s hambone bravura must begin before Puck mischievously transforms Bottom into an ass, and we benefit from the minimalist design decision not to obscure the actor’s face when Titania plies her charms.

Finnegan really takes over when he stars as Pyramus for Theseus and Hippolita. More than one actor has made the death of Pyramus into a full meal. Finnegan aims for a banquet.

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Among the befuddled lovers, the women get the most comical opportunities. Iesha Nyree as Hermia and Anna Royal as Helena both make good on their mightily distressed episodes, and Shepherd hasn’t erred in stressing the height differential between them in his casting. With so much thunder stolen from their benighted partners, it’s actually fortunate that Adam Griffin and Jonathan Ford, Demetrius and Lysander respectively, get to moonlight as mechanicals, Griffin as Snout and Ford as Flute.

The caution that free insect repellent was available at the theater site proved to be unnecessary on Saturday night, but in the early part of the evening, I found it welcome to have some cold liquid at hand. Microphones consistently operated well, so you can expect audibility to be less of a challenge than Elizabethan English. The plenitude of physical comedy supplies ample translation.

A couple of real concerns: handicapped access begins on Selwyn Avenue, to the left of the Queens U traffic circle, not in the traffic circle itself. And counterintuitively, the worst seating is in the middle of the greensward facing the stage. The further you sit toward either side, the more easily you’ll see past obstacles in the center, namely a table, a slatted bench, a soundboard, and the technician standing over them.

Get there early, select a good sightline, and your Midsummer Night @ Queens should be quite dreamy.

Charleston Heatwave and Steamy “Salome” Set Spoleto Ablaze

Review: Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, SC

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Hold your horses! That was the directive that went out to operators of horse-driven carriages that usually swing Memorial Day tourists around Charleston during Spoleto Festival USA. It takes readings of 95º or higher for tourism officials to order the drivers and their carriages back to their stables. During this year’s festival, the mercury hit that mark on the first Saturday and eclipsed that high for five consecutive days afterwards. On Memorial Day – and the next day– official highs hit 100º, the first times that plateau had ever been reached during the month of May.

Naturally, the heatwave was the hottest topic among concert audiences and operagoers during the first week of Spoleto. The sensational – or sensationalized – new production of Richard Strauss’s Salome was a distant second in generating buzz, while the proliferation of new music at all of Spoleto’s music venues hardly generated a peep.

You could say that grumblings about new music had receded because new opera at Spoleto had retreated. Although the directing team of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, rethinking their 1987 approach to Salome, had made their modernized version steamy enough to rival the weather, it stood alone. There were no new operas at the festival, such as last season’s Tree of Codes or Quartett from the year before, both given their American premieres. Nor were there any exciting excavations like the past two seasons’, when we saw Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei and Vivaldi’s Farnace in American premieres.

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On the other hand, you could also say that orchestral director John Kennedy, Westminster Choir leader Joe Miller, and chamber music director Geoff Nuttall have opened the gates to new music to such a degree that it now permeates Spoleto’s classical programming. At Dock Street Theatre, the chamber music venue dripping with antiquity, I don’t recall an after-concert buzz that quite equaled what I heard when Karen Gomyo made her festival debut. On the heels of a gorgeous Bach sonata from flutist Tara Helen O’Connor and an exhilarating Concerto for Two Celli by Vivaldi, featuring cellists Joshua Roman and Christopher Costanza, Gomyo gave an electrifying account of Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy” that left me trembling.

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That performance seemed the obvious choice when I reached the outdoor courtyard, probably no warmer than 98º, and I overheard one guy asking his lady which piece she had liked best. After a couple of seconds of reflection, she answered, “I think I preferred the quartet!” That piece was When the Night for Cello Quartet by composer-in-residence Paul Wiancko, with Roman, Costanza, the composer, and Nina Lee in her Spoleto debut. Introducing the piece, Nuttall outed Lee as the musician who had asked Wiancko where his title had come from. Then he had Wiancko play the bass intro to Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” and, to complete Lee’s hazing, asked everybody who knew the first three words to sing them. We were fairly loud responding to our cue. Twice.

Like Charles Wadsworth before him, Nuttall feels no compulsion to solemnly match the mood of his intros to the music that will follow. So it’s typical of his hosting style that, while pranking the newbie, Nuttall also let us know that the three movements of When the Night would be ethereal and serene.

Wiancko’s previous pieces had been more multicolored in mood and instrumentation. Closed Universe, written in the wake of the 2016 election, pondered the dark days to come with Costanza tilting the instrumental makeup of a piano quartet toward his solo cello. The composer added another intriguing twist, playing a second cello and a glockenspiel, which chimed in to signify the glimmers of hope he felt amid the gloom. On Program III, oboist James Austin Smith and the St. Lawrence String Quartet premiered Wiancko’s newest piece, Faults. It was also the brightest of the works played during the composer’s residency, with abrupt shifts between lyrical beauty and discordant chaos – with a little mischief tossed in. Smith seemed to be having fun on the bumpy terrain, particularly late in the piece when he and St. Lawrence violist Lesley Robertson performed a clapping accompaniment for the other players. Playing first violin with his quartet, Nuttall was so gleeful that he seemed like a kid.

In the more traditional repertoire, Nuttall was playing with more fire and flair than we had seen from him since he took over as chamber music director after the 2009 festival. Following on the heels of Closed Universe in Program I, Nuttall absolutely scorched the first violin part of Ernst von Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet, smiling as he burned with pianist Stephen Prutsman and the St. Lawrence. Nuttall and the St. Lawrence also played the coveted finale spot – with its guaranteed standing O – in Program II, Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet, after the violinist’s alert that the “Deutschland über alles” melody was upcoming in the quiet second movement.

If we can accept that Ben E. King would go on to upstage Carmen, then I’m emboldened to proclaim that Prutsman turned the St. Lawrence’s heroics with Haydn into something of an anticlimax in his rendition of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. Nuttall’s intro stressed the range of emotions we were about to experience, warning the Dock Street audience that the opening Adagio sostenuto might bring them to tears. My tears actually welled up in the closing Presto agitato, one of my favorite piano pieces, for I’d never heard it played live with such white-hot ferocity and fury.

As far as audience favor that afternoon, that may have been secured by the chunk of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that bassist-composer Doug Balliett so charmingly modernized in his Echo and Narcissus, with countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo singing both of the title roles and the composer narrating. Prutsman was literally upstaged in Program IV when he performed a rollicking film score for piano quintet – with Nuttall doubling on a cheesy toy trumpet – that he composed for Buster Keaton’s 1927 silent film, College. At the start of the concert, Nuttall promised that anybody who didn’t laugh hard at least once could ask for his or her money back at the end of the show. Projected on a fairly wide screen while the musicians played off to the side, Keaton’s antics prevailed. Even if I hadn’t been comped, I couldn’t have collected.

Prutsman also had a salutary impact on Kennedy’s more militantly modern Music in Time series, which split its four concerts between the funky Woolfe Street Playhouse, with its Bohemian cocktail tables and faux candles, and the Simons Center Recital Hall with its clean-room sterility. Looking very much at ease at Woolfe Street, Prutsman introduced his 30: An American Kaleidoscope and left the performing to a string quartet comprised of four Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra members – except for the pre-recorded soundtrack that the composer provided for accompaniment. The idea was to simulate a road trip across the US, the quartet acting as the riders and Prutsman’s audio imitating the sound of a car radio as the travelers sped in and out of the wavelength of stations that they passed. Sped might be an understatement, since Prutsman claimed to have condensed snips of some 400 songs into his soundtrack, far more than he stole for his feature-length College score.

Kaleidoscope was somewhat unique in the “Rebellion in Greenery” concert, since Britta Byström’s title piece, Pauline Oliveros’ From Unknown Silences, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s were all more tranquil nature studies, not speedy at all. was easily the most exotic, with bass flute and bass clarinet included in the texture, and punctuations on the piano that included hitting the strings with a mallet. Percussionist Ye Young Yoon had even more outré assignments: rubbing a drum with a disc, bowing a vibraphone, applying a crumpled piece of paper to gong, and simply crumpling a second piece of paper! Except when Yoon banged the bass drum, the music hardly rose above a whisper, mesmerizing.

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Dedicated to bringing rock instrumentation to new – and old – classical music, The Living Earth Show was more rowdy, raucous, and crowdpleasing in their second Spoleto appearance. Both members of this Left Coast duo, stoked percussionist Andy Meyerson and slightly mellow guitarist Travis Andrews, took turns personably introducing their repertoire along with one or two of the many instruments that littered the stage. By far the most unusual of these was the electric percussion instrument Myerson played with mallets during Dennis Aman’s Prelude #5/Fugue #4, based on Bach. It seemed to be fashioned from three plastic disks, about the size of an old studio tape reel, each of which sported four blobs of primary colored Jell-O – lemon, lime, blueberry, and cherry – sufficiently solidified so they wouldn’t splatter.

Living Earth’s exploration of what is possible was fun. Before Nicole Lizée’s Family Sing-A-Long and Game Night, I’d never seen anybody bowing a guitar, and before Raven Chacon’s Tributary, I’d never contemplated the musical possibilities of smashing a drinking glass into a bucket and mucking around with the broken shards. Also memorable was Sarah Hennies’ update of Bolero, emphasizing the snare drum tattoo until the piece dissolved into a percussion orgy.

As opposed to the more retro and conservative music performed at Woolfe Street, mostly by female composers, the slate at Simons was strictly modern, often minimalistic, and exclusively male-composed. In the “Stay on It” concert, the title piece by Julius Eastman was preceded by two more recent works by Steve Reich, Pulse and Runner. Before conducting, Kennedy prefaced the Reich works, comparing Pulse (2015), in particular with the late symphonies of Haydn for its clarity. A bit of a stretch, I thought when the piece was done, so the whoops of enthusiasm that welled up from the audience took me a little aback. Patches of fanatical support enlivened the entire Music in Time series.

Written for two orchestras, each deployed to one side of the stage, Runner (2016) struck me as livelier and more engaging, but the Eastman piece, exhumed from 1973, had the most color and chaos, with stretches of jungle riot and jazz. Soprano saxophonist Jeffrey Siegfried led the ensemble, playing with and without his mouthpiece and reed, contributing the elephant roar to Eastman’s sonic Africa.

After my Spotify preview, I had somewhat dreaded staying an extra day for Georg Friedrich Haas’s in vain (2000), but Kennedy hinted that seeing the work staged would add an extra dimension, and he was right. Aside from its tuning complexities, this apocalyptic work, over an hour in length, was written to be played through two extended periods of total darkness. Not only did the 24 musicians from the Spoleto Orchestra need to memorize long stretches of their parts, they needed to play them together without Kennedy’s direction, shifting dynamics and tempos by listening to each other.

I found myself getting more accustomed to the gloom during the second episode of darkness, able to see Kennedy’s motionless silhouette – and also able to more keenly perceive the musicians’ striving for unity and community. Their struggles were all the more poignant when brief flashes of light pierced the darkness without providing any help.

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Kennedy was one of five conductors at the podium for Spoleto’s larger musical productions. After serving as assistant director for the 2017 production of Eugene Onegin, Michelle Rofrano made her formal debut conducting a groundbreaking Classical Showcase concert that brought the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra out of the pit and onto the stage at Dock Street Theatre. She also brought Fanny Mendelssohn’s Overture in C on board to share the stage with works by Bach, Stravinsky, and Beethoven. A hefty piece it was, for there were more musicians exiting after the Mendelssohn than entering for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1.

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Memminger Auditorium, where Amistad, Peony Pavilion and Paradise Interrupted have been staged, was the right choice for Michael Gordon’s City Symphonies trilogy, paired with films by Bill Morrison. Kennedy took on this edgier fare, getting wonderful work for the Festival USA Orchestra, but the most provocative elements of this evening were Morrison’s depictions of New York in Gotham, LA in Dystopia, and – let there be color! – Miami in El Sol Caliente.

Aside from the customary Westminster Choir concerts, which included touching tributes to their late former director Joseph Flummerfelt, Miller and his Princeton-based ensemble were unusually active. Before and between the two choral potpourris at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, there were two blockbusters at Gaillard Center, Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles and Bach’s St. John Passion.

Stage directed and set designed by John La Bouchardière, Spoleto’s Path of Miracles took a score that wasn’t intended for the stage and plopped it down at St. James the apostle’s tomb in Santiago and the Camino de Santiago path across Spain that pilgrims take to the shrine to be healed and shriven. Talbot’s music handed out 17 different vocal lines to the Choir, set to a Robert Dickinson libretto in seven languages. Seven, including Basque.

path-of-miracles_47954465041_oA circle of rocks onstage seemed to allude to the circle of stars that originally helped a hermit to discover what is called Santiago de Compostela – Saint James of the field of stars. Having seen so many Westminster concerts before, I was probably more disoriented than anyone. La Bouchardière began with a procession of choristers parading down the aisles to the stage, skipping over the miraculous 9th century discovery of St. James’s tomb and introducing us immediately to the flocks of pilgrims trudging there on foot.

Didn’t La Bouchardière know that Miller does that same processional shtick at the beginning of every Westminster concert? Yes, he did it this year, too.

Somewhat overshadowed by Caurier and Leiser’s bold restaging of Salome – and the outstanding cast he was fortunate enough to lead – Steven Sloane did not instantly emerge as the most outstanding conductor at the festival this year. Sure, the score absolutely crackled under his baton, but the new twists were sensational, Salome baring her breasts as she attempted to seduce Jokanaan and a “Dance of the Seven Veils” set to a full ten-thrust sexual encounter with Herod. Hail, Viagara! The modernized rooftop set design by Christian Fenouillat became spectacular when he dropped Jokanaan’s entire bedroom down on it, glowing against the nighttime sky.

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Scenery and stage directing screamed audacity, but consider: Sloane’s Salome, soprano Melanie Henley Heyn, was singing professionally for the first time ever in a full-length operatic production – and she was amazing, validating the awesome risk of casting her. Heyn wasn’t a temptress; she was more of a petulant Salome, a privileged teen accustomed to being worshipped. So she wasn’t tasked with performing diva exploits when she came on to rich-voiced baritone Erik Van Heyningen in Jokanaan’s bedroom, and she could be unusually passive – if not absolutely a victim, since she knew she would be repaid! – when tenor Paul Groves dropped his pants for the “Seven Veils” dance.

The hauteur and conceit of Salome came across best when she prevailed upon the helplessly enamored tenor Zach Borichevsky as captain of the guard Narraboth (easily on a par with Groves and Van Heyningen in this admirably deep cast) to let her visit Jokanaan in his cell – and later when she demanded his head, stretching his name each time to seven chilling syllables. Caurier and Leiser stumbled a bit after Herod hitched his belt, for they didn’t make a serious attempt to equal the shock value of Salome’s failed seduction and faux dance when she claimed her prize. Heyn and Sloane were arguably most impressive there, because the succeeded in making up the slack.

Newly appointed as music director of the Jerusalem Symphony, Sloane may have been the most underappreciated conductor at Spoleto this year in his mostly underground performance, but Evan Rogister vied with him for excellence in a program of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. He also has big things in the works as the newly appointed principal conductor of Washington National Opera. What all these conductors accomplish with the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, young professionals and grad students freshly gathered through nationwide auditions every year, is routinely astonishing.

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But with selections from Prokofiev’s two Romeo and Juliet orchestral suites, what Rogister achieved was unique for me. What I heard at Gaillard not only eclipsed every live or recorded performance I’d experienced before, it made me admire and thrill to music that I had strained to tolerate before, beginning with the familiar “Montagues and Capulets” theme that had grown hackneyed and noxious for me. I can hardly explain the difference other than to say that Rogister had channeled the youthfulness and energy of this orchestra and somewhat pierced through to the soul of the gritty, grudgy, and utterly rhapsodic story Shakespeare had written, a story whose essence is youth. Of course, the proficiency of the musicians and the acoustics of the hall didn’t hurt.

A window into how Rogister accomplishes such wonders may have been opened when he prefaced the Orchestra’s rendition of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. He went beyond talking about Shostakovich’s tribulations during the Stalinist regime, the framing of this symphony as a penitential offering, a step toward political and cultural rehabilitation. Rogister took an additional moment to pay tribute to three virtuosi who made so much of modern Russian music possible with their encouragement, sponsorship, and artistry – cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, pianist Sviatoslav Richter, and violinist David Oistrakh.

That’s valuing musicians to the highest degree.

ShakesCar’s Dystopia Is as Serious as a Cartoon

Review: Shakespeare Carolina’s production of Mr. Burns at Spirit Square

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

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If your Simpsons erudition doesn’t extend far beyond Bart, Homer, and “D-oh!” you likely haven’t the foggiest notion about who the evil owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant might be. Good reason for boning up on the 30-year-old animated TV series before you go and see Shakespeare Carolina’s production of Mr. Burns, Anne Washburn’s strangely imagined “Post-Electric Play,” at Spirit Square.

The Simpsons is very much at the heart of Washburn’s myopic dystopia, beginning not too long from now, somewhere south of devastated Boston – at a safe distance from obliterated Pennsylvania. Not an ardent lobbyist on behalf of nuclear power, Washburn doesn’t trigger her nuclear winter with weapons unleashed after treaty breaches, miscalculated escalations, or some jerk’s pudgy finger on the nuclear hot button.

Instead, we seem to have been decimated by a chain reaction of nuclear reactors.

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Certainly, the evil Mr. Burns has triumphed over humanity in Washburn’s scenario, but it’s unclear whether she views that as her ultimate horror. For as a few survivors sit around a campfire, we might gather that The Simpsons has outlived all other recognizable trappings of civilization. Matt, Jenny, Maria, and Sam aren’t preoccupied with reaching out to other clusters of survivors or isolated wanderers – or in re-establishing the nation’s electrical grid. Rather they’re engaged, sometimes excitedly, in piecing together an old episode of The Simpsons that they have all watched years ago.

Presumably a rerun, for the “Cape Feare” episode, the core of the reconstruction, first aired in 1993, twenty years before the off-Broadway premiere of Mr. Burns.

A newcomer named Gibson wanders into the campsite with the bad tidings from Boston. He is also familiar with this seminal episode of The Simpsons and contributes to the group reclamation. Aside from a ritual sharing of possible survivor info, that’s pretty much all of the Act 1 action.

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Not at all interested in adhering to established theatre traditions, Washburn gives us two intermissions instead of the usual one. And if you think the opening act was a bit impersonal, wait till you see the acts that follow. It’s seven years later and Colleen, recumbent and silent throughout Act 1, has become a post-electric TV director, and the company has grown to seven with the addition of Quincy.

We see the group rehearsing an odd amalgam of quick TV sitcom blackouts and commercial breaks, where “Cape Feare” has evolved and commercials are no less revered for their nostalgic content. Apparently, touring with such rudimentary fare has become a cutthroat industry. Lines, slogans, and episodes are licensed, and competition for rights to them is fierce – and perhaps more important than the quality factor.

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Zoom ahead 75 years and, under Amanda Liles’ ritualistic direction, you’ll be able to visualize “Cape Feare” as either a solemn religious rite or as an eerie melodramatic opera, for most of the music written by Michael Friedman to Washburn’s lyrics resides here. Liles and the ShakesCar cast also leave the ending ambiguous. We’re either watching the near-revival of the electrical grid or a re-enactment of the original flameout.

Mr. B finally emerges emphatically during this savage spectacle, not as the evil and greedy capitalist of yore but as a demonic destroyer. Homer, Bart, and Marge are now as foundational as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – though their sacrificial fates bring in a New Testament flavor. Stray wisps of Washburn’s referential comedy still remain, though, as when the Simpsons make merry with new lyrics to The Flintstones’ theme song.

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My suspicion is that enjoyment of Mr. Burns will be proportionate to how readily you can see yourself sharing in the opening bursts of enthusiasm that the nuclear holocaust survivors have in reconstructing “Cape Feare” on The Simpsons. Lacking more than rudimentary Simpsons erudition – Homer’s voice will send my hand flailing toward my remote a bit more quickly than Bart’s – I’ll have to admit that I struggled. My memories of Homer’s zenith had faded into forgetfulness long before 2013.

An apocalyptic landscape such as Washburn’s is obviously frill-averse, so if Jess Clapper’s costume designs look somewhat makeshift, no harm done. The cylindrical blue headdress that Jen Jamsky-Pollack wears as Marge works fine, recognizable in an instant for The Simpson faithful, while Rasheeda Moore’s get-up as Bart looks comparatively thrown together. Viking shoulder plates? Why not.

Nor does an outdoor campsite in the middle of the night – or the scenes to follow – require that Liles seek out a set designer, though the final flashes of zonked light presumably required some technical derring-do from James Cartee. The design and tech needs of Mr. Burns really do jibe well with ShakesCar and their fundamental Elizabethan fare.

Except that, in Mr. Burns, we never become more than superficially acquainted with anyone onstage. In Act 2, we can at least conclude that we’re watching a director with a company of actors, all of whom discuss the production they’re rehearsing and the biz. In the outer acts, Shakespearean ripeness is pretty much deep-sixed. The characters they’re portraying or debating are more important than who Matt, Jenny, Gibson, Colleen and the rest really are. By the time we’re 75+ years hence, when all these folks are sporting various configurations of face paint, they can’t really be the same people we were introduced to.

It’s not just a surrender to a debased pop culture that Washburn seems to be sketching – it’s a surrender of identity. Maybe that’s the point that the playwright wants to make, irrespective of nuclear threats, and maybe she was worried that we wouldn’t notice or be alarmed.

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Most people who enter Duke Energy Theater for an evening with Mr. Burns – or the actor who plays the actor who eventually portrays Mr. Burns – will likely wish that Washburn were a little more worried about our perceptions of her script and a little more proactive. While I may need to evolve into a post-critic to properly evaluate Washburn’s post-characters, I’ll start with David Jamsky-Pollack as Matt, the geekiest Simpson preservationist in Act 1.

Although he lays relatively low in the middle act, Matt morphs into Mr. Burns, and more than anyone else, Jamsky-Pollack incorporates the pop-eyed essence of The Simpsons into his portrayal. That creates a credible bridge with Matt, whom Jamsky-Pollack makes the most hyper and paranoid of the people around the campfire. As Colleen, Corlis Hayes is another near-person we pay attention to, primarily in Act 2 while she is the company director and Matt is in eclipse. Hayes is moderately bossy, a bit yielding when her authority is challenged – everything her role demands.

Dervin Gilbert is arguably the nearest to a three-dimensional person as Gibson in the first two acts. With multiple guns pointed at him as he enters the campsite, we can empathize with his trepidations and attempts to ingratiate himself, and seven years later, Gibson is Colleen’s leading man, a temperamental artiste in an arts wasteland. Matt Kenyon as Sam/Homer, Melody McClellan as Maria/Lisa, and Jen Jamsky-Pollack as Jenny/Marge are most memorable during the sacred Simpsons rites, successfully achieving and slightly transcending cartoon reality.

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Among the latter-day Simpsons, I was most taken with Moore, who doesn’t arrive until after the first intermission as Quincy, a singer with as much artistic pretension as Gibson. It does make sense that Quincy would get to chew nearly as much scenery as Matt when the Simpsons ritual becomes a life-or-death struggle between good and evil. Cartoon or not, Moore’s writhing, struggling, despairing, and rallying are key reasons why we see the horror in Mr. Burns, whatever it may mean.

EMF Finales Deliver a Double Dose of Strauss and Fun

Review: Eastern Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Head over to Greensboro for the Eastern Music Festival and you’ll find multiple orchestras and multiple concert series sprinkled across the annual five-week celebration. Peep in on the last nights of EMF and you can expect multiple symphonic finales, the Young Artists Orchestras offering their valedictories followed by the professionals of the Festival Orchestra on closing night. Of course, among the primary reasons for making the journey, both for students who populate the youth orchestras and for audiences who come to see them, are the bold programming choices by EMF music director Gerard Schwarz, who marked his 15th year with the festival in 2019.

Led by José-Luis Novo and Grant Cooper, the Young Artists performed Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) and Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé Suites, not the longest concert that I’ve heard on the bosky Guilford College campus at Dana Auditorium. Schwarz took over the Dana stage the following night last Saturday, conducting a program that was epic in length, culminating in a memorable performance of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Before reaching that summit, Schwarz premiered his own orchestration of Anton Webern’s Langsamer Satz (or Adagio) and guest artist Horacio Gutiérrez played the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2.

Cue up a recording of either of the Strauss tone poems presented at the EMF finales and you’ll quickly hear why it’s essential to hear them in live performance. Even with headphones, you hardly hear anything, let alone the rich low textures that Strauss swaddles us in so softly before he builds. Nor is either one of these pieces heard even infrequently in the concert hall, so the jolt of discovery doesn’t stop at the lip of the stage when a performance is offered, especially when played by an orchestra with musicians aged 13-23. Cooper and his ensemble admirably brought out all the instrumental voices and textures in the introductory section of Death and Transfiguration, where Strauss depicts his protagonist on the verge of death. The tingle of revelation onstage and in the hall was nearly palpable.

Almost two minutes passed before a faint oboe and a glimmering flute emerged over the strings with a pair of harps, just before the clarinet asserted itself. In bolder relief, the principal oboe and flute shone before we heard the concertmaster’s eloquence. At the first tumultuous life-death struggle – where I hurriedly turn the volume knob back from 2 o’clock to 10:30 on the acclaimed Karajan recording – the violins vied stirringly with the mean trombones. Through the quiescent respite granted to the dying man and into the fourth and final section where the heavens open up to him, sounds of glowing nostalgia and immanent death gave way to exquisite sunlit violins and waves of serene luminescence, the stately linearity of the winds and brass contrasting effectively with the gilded haze of the strings.

Intermission saw a mass exodus of musicians, instruments, and instrument cases as Cooper’s orchestra – likely 80 or more strong – gave way to Novo’s equally large ensemble. Some of the same thrill of discovery for the Strauss carried over to the Suite No. 1 from Daphnis and Chloé, so rarely performed live and far less captured on recordings than Suite No. 2. Where that ballet originally sets a nocturnal pastoral scene with Nymphs dancing and Daphnis competing against a rival for Chloé’s kiss, the music was as delicate and impressionistic as we expect from this composer, so the “Danse Guerrière” – the onset of pirates – was likely doubly startling for listeners who haven’t delved deeply into Ravel. Sometimes, it’s more accurate to link Ravel with Saint-Saëns than with Debussy. Suite No. 2 delivered the same kind of duality, its “Lever du jour” dappled with birdlike flutes and the concluding “Danse Générale,” heralded by harps and swirling flutes, unleashing a powerful Bacchante fury, with Novo’s orchestra undaunted by the invigorating 5/4 metre.

With the world premiere of Adagio, Schwarz was revisiting a Webern piece that he had already orchestrated in the early 1980s, some 20 years after its rediscovery. Then he had retained its original title, keeping and enlarging on the parts written for string quartet while adding a bass part. Modestly modified though it was, Schwarz’s version, released on his 1994 recording with the Seattle Symphony, was at least three minutes longer than any string quartet version that I’ve tracked down, an expansion of more than 30 percent. In a sense, that was chiefly what Schwarz was aiming for, according to the helpful notes in EMF’s program book, for the maestro felt that a full orchestral version was necessary to bring out its Mahler-esque poignancy – and to play the piece as slowly as needed for maximum impact.

The new orchestration builds handsomely and colorfully upon Schwarz’s previous enhancements, adding significant parts for wind and percussion along with notable highlights for flute, clarinet, piccolos, and timpani. No less audaciously, Schwarz modified his string writing, giving the principal violist, cellist and the concertmaster moments to shine. The result was noticeably livelier and more dramatic with a far wider dynamic range, delivering a larger dose of Mahler majesty. Even the cymbals’ clash during the final swell meshed seamlessly with the overall concept.

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My first exposure to Horacio Gutiérrez was 20 years ago, when he performed the Prokofiev No. 2 with the Charlotte Symphony under Peter McCoppin, emphatically demonstrating that his artistry and power were tough to follow. At Dana with the EMF Festival Orchestra, Gutiérrez somewhat upstaged Schwarz even before he appeared. Or at least his piano did, awaiting his arrival. Inside the auditorium’s acoustic shell, the musicians filled the stage beyond the proscenium, so bringing a piano in from the wings would have required an intermission rather than a discreet break.

Gutiérrez’ musical entrance came quickly enough in the opening Allegro non troppo, charming us in the little exchanges with the French horn before spasms of febrile keyboard eruptions summoned the full orchestra. While the acoustic shell at Dana kept the sound moving out toward us instead of partially evaporating into the wings and backstage, the effect on Brahms’s more linear sound wasn’t as flattering as it was for Strauss’s tone poem or Ravel’s impressionistic blends. Bass and treble weren’t as separated coming from the piano as I have experienced in other halls, but the lack of definition had a more telling effect on the orchestral parts. It was gratifying to hear more crispness from Gutiérrez and the ensemble as the movement climaxed.

The ensuing Allegro appassionato was more receptive to the natural pedal effect of the Dana acoustics on the piano, and Gutiérrez’ virility contrasted effectively with the Festival Orchestra’s delicacy. Against a finely becalmed backdrop, the soloist became livelier and more rhythmic, yet together orchestra and soloist crested in grandeur as the movement ended. The slow Andante movement was even more ideally suited to the hall as a skein of cellos, settling over a mist of violins, added introductory magic. Before we heard from the pianist here, violins and winds deliciously ratcheted our anticipation upwards. Gutiérrez did not disappoint, surpassing himself with his lyrical outpourings, two dreamy perorations sandwiched around a reminder of his thunder. In the concluding Allegretto grazioso, he played with a geniality that suggested all difficulties had already been overcome. Rhythmic aspects of Gutiérrez’ keyboard work were more merrily emphasized than before, with a treble that truly gleamed.

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Never having seen a live performance of Eine Alpensinfonie before, I’ll have to admit that a glance at the program booklet filled me with dread. There are no fewer than 22 parts to this mountain journey with no pauses, and apart from unmistakable signposts, how could I be sure where we were? Maybe that disorientation explains why this epic symphony is so rarely given a live hearing! Well, I needn’t have worried. Supertitles to the rescue! After the nearly self-explanatory “Night” to “Sunrise” sequence, with a starburst nearly as glorious as the famed Also Sprach Zarathustra opening, navigation was effortless across forest, stream, waterfall, and meadow as titles projected over the proscenium marked the beginning of each new stage of our Alpine tour.

Offstage horns were now contextualized as we began “The Ascent,” and we could be surer that the lonely oboe or English horn signaled our arrival at “The Alpine Pasture,” speckled soon afterwards with birdlike twitterings of a flute. Reaching the “Summit,” “Sunset,” and the final onset of “Night” were predictable glories lying ahead, but a large aluminum sheet hanging down over the percussion section upstage was a sure forecast of stormy weather. Looking at the adult musicians playing during the “Thunder and Storm” section of Alpine Symphony, I felt like they were having as much fun as the students had the night before as they revealed the mysteries of Death and Transfiguration.

I found over 80 faculty artist biographies for members of the Festival Orchestra – most of them printed in the rear of the festival’s 156-page program book and most of them without photos. So it was pretty much by accident that, thumbing through the book and surveying previous concerts, I was able to match principal percussionist John Shaw with his picture. Shaw had been the featured soloist on the previous Friday, a week before the Youth Orchestra Finale, playing Joseph Schwantner’s Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra with Cooper and his youngsters. Now in the heat of “Thunder and Storm,” he may have been exerting himself even more strenuously, cranking a wind machine that vied in volume with the clamor of that large thundering aluminum sheet. Shaw hadn’t bothered to take off his formal white jacket to execute his mighty cranking labors, yet there was a big wide smile all across his face. He was the kid this time.