Monthly Archives: January 2020

Barefoot in Carnegie Hall, Conqueror at the Knight

Review: Charlotte Symphony and Pianist Conrad Tao Perform Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto

By Perry Tannenbaum

2020~Beethoven's Emperor-11

Celebrations of Ludwig van Beethoven don’t really need to lean on a convenient excuse. Just before celebrations broke out worldwide on January 1, 2020, commemorating the great composer’s 250th birthday, New York City’s WQXR played out 2019 with their traditional New Year’s Eve countdown of their audience’s top 100 favorites, culminating in a marathon tribute to Beethoven. Not only did Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony No. 9 take the top spot yet again at the flagship classical FM station, six works by Beethoven were in WQXR’s top 10, including the top three. Charlotte Symphony certainly wasn’t standing in back of the line of orchestras poised for celebration as the new decade began.

Returning to Knight Theater from a tour of Southeast Asia with the London Chamber Orchestra, maestro Christopher Warren-Green capped the first full week of 2020 with a double-dose of the birthday boy’s compositions, the “Leonore Overture No. 3” and the “Emperor” Concerto No. 5, which finished No. 10 in the latest WQXR popularity poll. In between, we heard the Symphony No. 7 in C by Jean Sibelius, perhaps the first time that the Finnish composer’s final symphony has been performed in Charlotte. Pianist and composer Conrad Tao made his Charlotte debut with the orchestra.

We don’t have too many instances of rewrites among Beethoven’s published works, but his lone opera, Fidelio, and its overture are prominent exceptions. The three Leonore overtures (plus a “Fidelio Overture”!) testify that Beethoven not only fussed over the music for his opera, he also fussed over the title. Leonore, Creatures of Prometheus, and Coriolan are the overtures most favored as fillers on CD collections of the symphonies, and Warren-Green programmed Coriolan in an all-Beethoven concert in 2012. As far back as I can trace, this is the first time Symphony has separated the “Leonore Overture” from Fidelio, but our musicians likely recalled rehearsing it for an opera-in-concert version conducted by Christof Perick in 2004 and when Opera Carolina offered us a fully-staged Fidelio in 2015.

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Musicians were perhaps too amped-up for the celebration as the Overture kicked off the concert. The opening sforzando over a timpani beat and the mysterious fadeaway that follows that burst were beautifully played. Woodwinds blended effectively and the flutes had a wonderful rapport before forebodings of the big tune rippled through the lower strings. But the crisp delivery and sleekly calibrated dynamics we have come to expect from this orchestra were missing on the first pass through the main theme, and there was no room left to dramatically turn up the volume later when the big tune repeated twice more. Thankfully, the ensemble steadied immediately afterwards – for the entire evening – sharpening their focus. Winds and horns remained tightly knit, principal flutist Victor Wang continued to charm, and principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn, deployed deep in the balcony, brought us forlorn pathos before concertmaster Calin Lupanu, playing fervidly, triggered the final galloping reprise and climax.

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Other than interpolating how exhausted he still was after conducting the Leonore, Warren-Green was all about Sibelius when he picked up his mic for the first time in 2020, pointing out that the Finn was battling two illnesses as he wrote the piece over a 10-year stretch: depression and alcoholism. He also drew our attention to the trombone solos with insights gleaned from the original 1924 manuscript. The winds and strings, particularly the violins, drew a sweetness from the music that I hadn’t found on either of the CDs in my collection, and there were definite hints in the darkest passages, where the violins played low in their range, of the illnesses that afflicted the composer – and possible promptings for the way Shostakovich would register WW2 in his symphonies. Only the flow and the full grandeur of my Ashkenazy recording with the London Philharmonia were missing in Warren-Green’s reading. As for principal trombonist John Bartlett, the orchestral wreath surrounding his contributions – along with the embroidery Sibelius weaves with the winds – might cause you to overlook his unquestionable excellence.

No such danger threatened Tao as he emerged in his colorful attire. Only later admitting that he had begun the new year by packing negligently and forgetting his formal attire, Tao attacked his opening cadenzas with swashbuckling panache, and his phrasing proved to be no less audacious and individual than his attire and attack. Clearly, Tao has heard this soaring masterwork in his own way – but without perversely differing with traditional interpretations or seeking to draw undue attention away from the composer. Warren-Green and the orchestra responded vigorously to the young soloist, as much in the forefront of the epic opening Allegro movement as the piano. Of course, Tao impressed us more in the softer passages than the accompaniment here, but Symphony was certainly an equal partner in the magical Adagio that followed. The upper strings, delicately supported by pizzicatos from the lower strings, solemnly and lyrically cleared the way for Tao’s ethereal entrance – with a clarity that I’ve never heard on a recording. A bit of subtlety and nuance eluded Tao here and there in his phrasing, but Warren-Green and his ensemble remained marvelously simpatico in sustaining the sublimity.

For those of us who love this piece, Tao’s way with the ingenious transition between the Adagio and the Rondo finale likely sparked the most controversy and admiration. He certainly took his time, not playing the ending quite as softly as the usual pianissimos I’ve heard, but the sforzando burst to launch the concluding movement still had a satisfying snap and éclat. Symphony was as zestful as ever in its response, and Tao parleyed a playfulness and a muscular power we had not seen from him earlier, conclusively proving he could punish a keyboard.

Two more Beethoven masterworks, his Missa Solemnis and “Pastoral” Symphony, highlight the remainder of the 2019-20 mainstage classics series, the latter to be led by JoAnn Falletta. Symphony certainly had the appeal of their Tao program nicely gauged, scheduling an extra Sunday matinee after the usual pair of performances. Of course, Tao may have been kidding us when he spoke of forgetting his formalwear. In his enthusiastic New York Times review of Tao’s Carnegie Hall debut back in November, critic Anthony Tommasini couldn’t help noting that the pianist was clad in black slacks, a black jacket, a black T-shirt… and barefoot!

Farewell, America

Review: Come from Away

By Perry Tannenbaum

9195_The First North American Tour Company of COME FROM AWAY, Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2018

Traveling to Europe by air, you may recall the animated maps that flash onto the seatback screens facing you, orienting passengers during the flight as your pilot follows the great circle route over the Atlantic. At the very eastern edge of North America, you’re likely to notice the name of Gander, a Newfoundland outpost oddly mixed among the names of larger, more familiar cities.

So when all of North America’s airspace was shut down during the emergency of September 11, 2001, and 38 commercial and 4 military flights were diverted to the Gander International Airport, it was the next-worst thing to forcing more than 6,600 civilians and soldiers to wait it out on the ocean. Passengers almost had to bid America farewell. It was no picnic for the citizens of nearby Gander, either, who suddenly discovered that their airport had been transformed into a major immigration hub – while the population of their sleepy town mushroomed by over 66%.

Yet somehow, the hubbub sorted itself out beyond all expectations. At the time when news hit of the warm-hearted welcome strangers were experiencing in the wilds of Newfoundland, it was the feel-good story to break through a tsunami of anger, grieving, finger-pointing, and Islamophobia. A little island of hospitality in an ocean of hostility.

Sixteen years later, when Canadian husband-and-wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein retold the story in a Broadway musical, Come from Away, the time was ripe for the Gander love-in to strike a nerve once again. When the show opened for previews in mid-February 2017, less than a month after Inauguration Day, an infamous Muslim ban had recently gone into effect, a thousand-mile Southern border wall was still a political imperative – most intensely among small town rustics, it seemed – and a wave of anti-immigration sentiment was sweeping Europe.

In that climate, Come from Away must have seemed like a rallying cry, hearkening back to a time when Christian values hadn’t devolved into round-the-clock xenophobia. This week, as the touring version of the Broadway hit rolls through Belk Theater, there hasn’t been a politically-charged photo op from an internment camp in recent memory. Iran, Ukraine, Russia, or our pathetic Panthers are more likely to inflame our passions than any imminent threat from Guatemala.

We’ve turned the page, right? I wondered if the warmth of the quirky Canadians and their spontaneous connection with a global hoard of uninvited guests would still resonate, especially when the storytelling turned out to be so objective, bland, and non-confrontational.

As studiously as Sankoff and Hein avoid controversy, analysis, or agonized post-mortems, they do go into admirable detail about the logistical challenges of accommodating thousands of detainees in the middle of nowhere. Pandemonium may have broken loose near Ground Zero, but airspace across the continent was in virtual lockdown, security precautions around aircraft especially tight. Our first peeps inside a passenger cabin, as planes languish on the ground until proper processing can be set up, show us people going stir crazy during the 28 hours they must wait before deplaning – separated from their checked luggage in an information blackout.

The North American Tour of Come From Away Photo Credit Matthew Murphy_0423-Edit

Raiding their supply cabinets and freely handing out booze is one remedy a crew might try to ease the tedium, even if it doesn’t altogether restore quiet and calm – or appease the claustrophobic crone in the back row. Twelve actors draw the task of simulating all the global passengers and all the Newfoundlanders involved in this massive coping drill, so there’s an electric bustle as the actors switch from their traveler roles to townspeople.

While the passengers hovering over airstrips are disoriented, experiencing the surreal, on the ground in Gander, the impact is very much like a benign invasion has suddenly hit. An ordinary day that begins with the mayor ordering up his customary cuppa joe at Tim Horton’s is no longer pre-programmed. Instead of meeting with the leader of the school bus drivers to negotiate an end to their strike, he’ll be soliciting cooperation from this foe in transporting over 6,000 aliens from the airport to town.

Elsewhere, a school teacher will need to take charge of opening an emergency shelter and breaking the news of the attack to the passengers. Feeding, washing, and bedding all these travel-weary people must also be managed. The newcomers speak a host of languages and have a host of unforeseen needs – including kosher meals – and helping so many to simply check in with friends and relatives, by phone or by email, is a formidable challenge. It is almost comical when a local SPCA worker pops up, concerned about the plight of the cats, dogs, and monkeys stowed in the belly of the planes with the cargo.

In short, there’s a multitude of practicalities in the hurly-burly of this 100-minute musical that largely distract us from the two main things: the massive kindness that the Newfies showered on the newbies, and the massive changes to our world that came with the events in Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and aboard Flight 93. A few of the passengers remind us of the big picture. Beverley, a pilot, and Hannah, a mom, worry that loved ones may have perished, and there are multiple hints that the seeds of Islamophobia have already started germinating.

Otherwise, life goes on. Kevin T and Kevin J, a gay couple with personality differences, may or may not break up. A Texas woman and a British guy may get together, overcoming wariness, shyness, and the brevity of their acquaintance.

We aren’t deluged with one-on-one kindness from the friendly natives, but there are choice examples. The teacher, Julie Johnson as Beulah, bonds with Danielle K. Thomas as Hannah because her son is also a firefighter. Two Kevins walk into a Gander bar and find that their fears of Laramie homophobia are groundless – they’re accepted warmly and instantly. A nearby mayor invites the wary Bob to his home, opens up his liquor cabinet to the stranger, and helps him overcome his fear that he’ll wake up tomorrow without his wallet. Or how about the local store clerk? After thanking a first-time customer for shopping at Walmart, she invites her home to take a shower.

The North American Tour of Come From Away Photo Credit Matthew Murphy_0950-Edit

Beginning with “Welcome to the Rock,” most of the songs in the score are sung by the entire ensemble, choreographed with the right kind of vivacity by Kelly Devine, so we often get a sense that we are watching an energetic community response after all. With a script that doesn’t have the Twin Towers, al-Qaeda, radical Islam, Osama, or even terrorism prominently in its vocabulary, that communal energy seemed to be the most potent reason why Come from Away connected so viscerally with the near-capacity crowd at Belk Theater on opening night.

While there are plenty of feel-good experiences to be found on our current media landscape, including synthetic fantasies of communities bonding together and accepting one another, Come from Away comes to us at a time when we seem hopelessly fractious and divided, digging in against each other instead of helping each other out. And the comity of Come from Away strikes us as very real, very possible – and as a rebuke that isn’t saddled with a party label.

After the opening ensemble, there isn’t much in the Sankoff and Hein score to keep us airborne until we reach “Me and the Sky,” a showcase for Beverley, who turns out to be first female airline pilot at American Airlines. Marika Aubrey ably takes the controls here, counterbalancing the levity of the barroom scene that precedes. In that episode, we get the most genuinely communal spectacle of the evening, presided over by Kevin Carolan as the mayor.

The North American Tour of Come From Away Photo Credit Matthew Murphy_0503-Edit

While visitors get the opportunity to be initiated as honorary Newfies, Andrew Samonsky as Kevin T and Nick Duckart as Kevin J get to define their differences, while Chamblee Ferguson as the Brit and Christine Toy Johnson as the Texan get to share their first sloppy kiss. A local liquor, “Screech,” lubricates the zany ritual, along with a freshly-caught codfish.

Others in the cast who make an impression come across as the youngest – and maybe as surrogates or prompters for us as we watch. James Earl Jones II as the skeptical Bob registers his wonder at Northern hospitality most tellingly and holds our attention after he and his fellow passengers have returned home. When she isn’t clerking at Walmart, Julia Knitel is most notably a cub reporter on the local TV station, faced with the ginormous cataclysm of 9/11 on her first day in the field. Lanky, gawky, and adorable.

Sharone Sayegh may just be even more adorable as the SPCA zealot so mindful of the animals when all of humanity’s minds are elsewhere. No doubt about it, Come from Away comes to us with plenty of heart. Question is, will we come to Belk Theater to escape what we have become 18+ years later, or will we come to experience a reckoning? No matter which, audience reception on opening night seemed to hint that they had felt an unexpectedly positive vibe – an affirmation that, in the face of so much division and adversity assailing us, we can be better.

Jamie Laval Stages a Colorful, Varied, and Multilingual “Celtic Christmas”

Review:  Jamie Laval’s “Celtic Christmas“

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

Christmas Troupe 2018 -100 press

Unless you were already aware that Fiona Ritchie’s widely syndicated radio show The Thistle & Shamrock originated at WFAE on the UNC Charlotte campus in 1981, you might have been surprised to see that Jamie Laval‘s “Celtic Christmas: Music and Stories for the Deep Midwinter“ attracted a capacity crowd at Booth Playhouse on Sunday evening. Yes, long before WFAE became mostly news and talk, Charlotte was the cradle of the most listened-to Celtic music program on earth. As a 2015 concert at the Aunt Stella Center showed – and the Booth sequel confirmed – Charlotte remains a hotbed of Celtic music fandom.

Sporting a kilt and sporran, Laval took fine advantage of the larger stage upstairs at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. While the champion fiddler didn’t bring the same dance artillery along with him as we saw at Aunt Stella, Laval’s production was greatly enhanced with the projections and lighting design by Michelle Fleming. Projections were also useful at the top of the program as Laval, his instrumental ensemble, and vocalist Megan McConnell cruised through the first three selections on the playlist – two of which were medleys – without pausing. Fleming’s ministrations in the light booth, changing the snowy midwinter scenes that projected behind the musicians, provided visual bookmarks at key transition points.

Onstage, Asheville-based Rosalind Buda was the most chameleonic of the instrumentalists, the only holdover in Laval’s ensemble from 2015. Buda switched from pennywhistle to bagpipes during “Da Day Dawn (Shetland Air),” from bassoon to recorder during the “Round About Our Coal Fire / Cornish Wassail” medley, and back to a bassoon continuo during the “Medieval Dance Carols / Patapan” potpourri. That gave us only a sampling of her varied capabilities.

McConnell was also notable for her versatility, traversing a range of languages during the concert in song lyrics that hopscotched from English to Cornish to Breton and to Galician as she exemplified the full spread of Celtic culture. The Galician of “Fum, Fum, Fum” just before intermission was especially eye-opening and arguably McConnell’s zestiest vocal: I was not expecting to hear Spanish at a Celtic concert! When the soprano retreated from her vocalist microphone, there was a percussion station with an assortment of cunning little devices, including a wood block, finger cymbals, glockenspiel, and Quebecois wooden spoons.

Celic Christmas Press Photo

As the evening progressed, it became harder to overlook the versatility of Irish dancer Claire Shirey. When she wasn’t striving to replace the three dancers who had appeared with Laval in 2015, Shirey showed considerable expertise in playing the bodhrán, a Celtic drum. That seemed to be the full extent of Shirey’s range until the concluding “Jacobstowe Wassail / Reels” medley, when she brought a fiddle in from the wings and performed a duet interlude with Laval. When Laval fully took over the fiddling chores, Shirey deposited her violin offstage and returned, merrily adorned in silver spangled shoes that she put percussively to use, clacking away as the tempo accelerated. Nor were those the only fireworks in the finale, for in the wassail, McConnell and Buda hooked up in a lilting vocal duet in 3/4 time.

There was plenty of texture in the instrumental fabric throughout the evening, but the balance wasn’t always satisfying. Chronically undermiked, guitarist Eamon Sefton and cellist Franklin Keel were never really prominent in the tapestry. The same might have been said about Rachel Clemente and her Celtic harp, except that the harpist was showcased in both halves of the evening, playing glimmering preludes when Buda performed her poetry readings of “White Eyes” and “Snowbound.” Clemente was also the sole accompanist when the first of these poems transitioned to “Caleno,” a lovely McConnell-Buda vocal duet. When “Snowbound” dissolved into “Winter, Fire and Snow,” Clemente supplied a lyrical coda before McConnell alternated vocal stanzas with Laval’s instrumentals.

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Amplification was most complex for Buda and her array of instruments. When she picked up the bombard – defined very unhelpfully by the Oxford Dictionary of Music as “a type of shawm” – for the first time on “Joyful Mysteries (Breton Carol and Dances),” Buda made a glorious sound, somewhat akin to Sidney Bechet’s storied jazz recordings, a robust soprano saxophone timbre with an extra Middle Eastern tinge. Later, when she switched from bombard to a smaller sopranino bombard (or shawm) midway through “Kanomp Nedeleg (Breton Carol and Dances),” there was only the slightest diminution in volume, for these ancient reed instruments hardly needed amplification. Nor did the riq, an Arabian tambourine that Buda would brandish in “Patapan” prior to the “Kentucky Wassail/Gloucestershire Wassail” medley – and after intermission, in the “Gower Wassail.” But Buda’s bassoon, banjo, and bagpipes weren’t as prominent as I would have liked. More disturbing, I strained to hear Buda when she read the poems, a problem that hadn’t plagued the 2015 concert.

Leaving his guitar behind on this visit, Laval was less conspicuous in his versatility, confining himself to violin, spoken intros, and some very effective narration in spinning the “Saban the Woodfitter” yarn, where we had our best taste of the bagpipes during Buda’s intro. For those of us who have overdosed on Christmas music, Laval’s opening description of his program reassured us that the emphasis would be on a solstice celebration – even if that message undercut his “Midwinter” subtitle and Fleming’s cavalcade of very snowy projections. Laval was especially charming in discoursing about Brittany, the bombard, and the folkloric significance of wrens for the Celts.

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There was plenty of double-stopping and ricochet bowing from Laval throughout the evening, but his virtuosity peaked when he gave himself the solo spotlight for “Variations on ‘Deck the Halls.’“ There was a double-stopped variation in this bouquet, of course, followed by nods to Appalachian mountain fiddling, a pizzicato chorus, a Scottish bagpipe-like variation, a minor variation, a couple of reel segments, and a climax that shuttled between double-stopped and ricochet-bowed passages. As an artistic director, lest we forget that aspect of his artistry, Laval provided a surprisingly varied assortment of instrumental and vocal combinations. The evening was not so much a Christmas, or a solstice, or a midwinter celebration as it was a Celtic cornucopia.