Review: NC School of the Arts Alum Jessica McJunkins, Rebranded as Lady Jess, Returns to Winston-Salem
By Perry Tannenbaum
When she graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree in 2009, Jessica McJunkins was already known at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts as a promising violinist. Returning to her alma mater as winner of UNCSA’s 2020 Alumni Artpreneur Award, the guest soloist at the Watson Chamber Music Hall was established in a career that has extended beyond the classical genre into theatrical and commercial music – and beyond music performance into contracting freelance artists and promoting racial diversity in the industry. And she returned as Lady Jess, somewhat scrambling my expectations.
The name change was not the only last-minute alteration of the program that hit my Inbox on the morning of the concert. Two groups that we had listed on our CVNC calendar, the Brandenburg Ensemble and the Amadeus Players, had withdrawn from the program along with two faculty members. Other than that, only the venue had changed, from the Stevens Center to Watson Hall. The Bartók Ensemble, under the direction of Winston-Salem Symphony associate conductor Karen Ní Bhroin, would play the previously announced works by Paul Hindemith and Samuel Barber, and Lady Jess would appear with the alumni quintet and UNCSA students who had rehearsed with her in two works by Joseph Bologne (1745-1799). Faculty member Kevin Lawrence shared soloing honors with Lady Jess in the Symphonie Concertante for Two Violins.
Ní Bhroin and the musicians seemed to adjust more readily to the venue change than the audio engineers, for the sound, which seemed to satisfy a scattered live audience at the Watson, was often rudimentary at the other end of the online webcast through my loudspeakers. The new W-S associate conductor had a microphone with her on the podium as she introduced the pieces by Hindemith and Barber that she and her 14-member ensemble would perform, yet the streamed volume was hardly adequate and the clarity of her voice was far from studio quality.
Of course, Ní Bhroin’s COVID mask and her Irish accent weren’t helpful, but here the advantages of Livestream came instantly into play. If your setup at home is like mine, you simply pick up a remote control and increase the volume on your home theatre receiver – or you can replay the whole concert later at your leisure. Now it may have made some of the Bartók group uncomfortable to hear their leader quoting Hindemith on the subject of composing for amateur musicians, but it was certainly illuminating for me.
Yet it quickly became clear that Ní Bhroin had no intentions of going easy on her students even if Hindemith had titled his 1927 compositions Schulwerk. Nor was she inclined to be servile or worshipful toward the music, for the opening Slow movement wasn’t as slow as it could be, and the second movement, marked Slow – Fast, seemed to almost flip the order of these tempos in the Bartóks’ performance, rather brisk from the outset. Ní Bhroin was equally aggressive in shaping her ensemble’s dynamics, adding to the freshness of her approach. She chose the first three of Hindemith’s Five Pieces, ending with the first of two sections marked Lively. There’s an extended stretch where only the first violins are pitted against the violas, before the second violins, cellos, and double basses enter the fray, and the Bartok Ensemble delivered a fine account of the contrast, so the dramatic effect of a finale was achieved.
Barber’s 1936 Adagio for Strings, originally a movement from the composer’s String Quartet that was famously magnified for orchestra at the request of Arturo Toscanini, doubly fits our moment. It’s well-aligned with performance restrictions imposed statewide and by the CDC, and it’s attuned to our mood – and the need to voice our feelings as the holiday season approaches and the pandemic worsens. My thoughts ran to it recently when Charlotte Symphony performed the Andante religioso movement of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, and it was certainly welcome to hear such a heartfelt rendition from the Bartók Ensemble. Here the sculpting of the dynamics by Ní Bhroin was far subtler and more gradual, peaking to a dramatic full stop before subsiding into a musical sigh and returning to its signature mournful plaint.
Surely, a couple of 18th century allegros was exactly what a doctor would order after the lugubrious Barber and an intermission, but webcasts, where live and pre-recorded performance seamlessly intermix, need not be saddled with intermissions. UNCSA chancellor Brian Cole sat down with Lady Jess – who sported a completely different mask, dress, and hairdo from what she would be performing with just minutes later. It was definitely a visual sampling of what the lauded alumna’s branding was all about. Cole described the Artpreneur award as recognizing grads who are “business savvy and technologically aware.”
The conversation not only highlighted Lady Jess’s eclectic musical and business interests but also how UNCSA had nurtured them during her undergrad years. Her aims, like those of Yuja Wang and Lang Lang, are to boost classical music into mainstream culture, though the pop stage name seems to take Lady Jess’s pursuit to a more aggressive level. She is also focused on making classical music, the arts, and society more receptive to African Americans – voicing her goals with a certain amount of eloquent, muted impatience as she looks forward to a time when black people have the cultural equity they earned long ago. Her down-to-earth Promised Land is a place where overdue respect is “not something we need to roundtable every time someone dies at the hands of police.” The only sour note in this fascinating colloquy came when Cole lauded his guest as a Fighting Pickle, an albatross all UNCSA alumni must bear.
Born a little more than 10 years before Mozart, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was certainly a fine figure for Lady Jess to champion – and to emulate. As Ní Bhroin rightly observed in her introduction, Bologne was more than a fine composer and violinist who was regarded as “the Black Mozart” (and likely a Mozart mentor), he was also a champion fencer, knighted by the King of France. A few things she might have added to make him worthier of emulation and attention: he was an important orchestra conductor, an important political activist, and a charismatic military leader.
As a promoter, Bologne prevailed upon Haydn to accept the commission for his “Paris” Symphonies. For her Bartók Ensemble, now gone from the Watson stage, she could have added that Bologne had starred in composer François Gossec’s Le Concert des Amateurs orchestra. The rest of us, in the live audience or watching the webcast, would have benefited from knowing that Bologne’s most famous opera, The Anonymous Lover, is currently streaming as a free digital experience at the L.A. Opera website through November 29.
If you’re familiar with Anne-Marie McDermott’s audacious 2013 recording of three Mozart piano concertos, accompanied by only a string quartet plus double bass, you already know how effective such reductions can be. Playing the Op. 13 Symphonie Concertante in G for Two Violins and Orchestra, Lady Jess and Lawrence enjoyed the advantage of being able to join their accompanying mini-orchestra in playing the intro to the opening Allegro and to rejoin them between their soloing episodes. Unfortunately, the two soloists were not equally well-miked, disadvantaging Lady Jess.
Only one microphone was visible in the video feed, suspended from overhead, slightly right of center. Lady Jess was further left of center, and her solo passages, often repeating what Lawrence had just played, consistently sounded softer and thinner. The five UNCSA alums, with a string quartet spaced evenly around the mic and the double bass in the opposite corner from the soloists, projected nicely. Hints of Lady Jess’s silvery brilliance came across in her first foray, but Lawrence was mellower and turned up his intensity as the movement climaxed, demonstrating that the prof could still keep pace with the alum.
Compared with the London Symphony recording on the Columbia label, the UNCSA performance most noticeably fell short of capturing the beauties of the Symphonie Concertante when the two soloists duetted. Balance and clarity are most important in these exquisite passages. The Watson Hall setup, evidently a work-in-progress if we consider how suddenly the venue was brought into play for this Livestream, was better suited for the Violin Concerto No. 1, which saw Ní Bhroin return to the stage and Lady Jess move closer to centerstage. Both of those moves were helpful, while Lady Jess’s mini-orchestra was beneficially fortified with the addition of two student oboists and two French horns. The wind players were unmasked, of course, housed behind a phalanx of four plexiglass cubicles.
The Violin Concerto seemed to challenge and excite Lady Jess more than the Symphonie Concertante, offering her longer solos that frisked in the treble and called forth more virtuosity in her fingering and bowing. From the beginning, Ní Bhroin spurred the tempo into its Allegro without letting the pace slacken as it does on the comparatively lackadaisical recording I was able to track down on the Oehms label played by Yura Lee. The ensemble was more spirited here than previously, crisp when their pizzicatos occurred, and buoyed by the wailing of the French horns.
Because of her placement onstage and perhaps because she was so often iterating what the other soloist had just played, Lady Jess seemed to wilt when matched with Lawrence. Alone in the spotlight and allowed to gather more steam, the violinist showed us some true Lady Jess swagger. Throughout the Concerto, she seemed to relish the dialogue with her mini-orchestra, particularly as the tension of the Allegro built at the end with rapidfire exchanges with the alumni army. More than ever, I was convinced that we need to hear more of Joseph Bologne – and more often.