Monthly Archives: February 2021

All-English Symphony Program Moves from Wintry Dreariness to Triumphant Jollity

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Holst + Elgar

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Assailed by the ongoing pandemic, the postponement of vaccinations, and a midwinter cold snap, we must be contented when we receive short rations of Edward Elgar without pomp or percussion and William Walton’s Henry V without winds or brass. In fact, since Charlotte Symphony music director Christopher Warren-Green often shuttles back and forth across the Atlantic to lead our Queen City orchestra and the London Chamber Orchestra, we’re rather fortunate just to have him on the podium at Knight Theater conducting an all-English program. Traveling by air between the UK and the US has become uncertain in recent months, due to the mutating coronavirus, and restrictions pushed Symphony’s Holst + Elgar offering from January 23 into February. Electricity can also be capricious when the Arctic is riled: Texas is merely the most notorious state plagued by power outages this month, not the only one.

We’ve heard more than a couple of Serenades since Symphony returned, string players only, reconfiguring its 2020-21 season and fine tuning on-the-fly. Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor was certainly not the peppiest or the most sweeping of the breed, but Warren-Green, stressing the harmonic blend of the piece instead of its rhythmic flow, gave us a drearier reading than I would have hoped for, particularly in the first two movements, a tranquil and dreamy Allegro piacevole followed by a sleepier Larghetto. Only in the concluding Allegretto did Warren-Green abandon extreme delicacy and pick up his baton. Only now did the orchestra’s energy compare with the more light-hearted Sir Roger Norrington recording of the piece. Here there was more melodic dialogue between the upper and lower strings, more satisfying swells in the sway of the dynamics.

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Although Walton’s Two Pieces for Strings from Henry V have been paired on commercial recordings, they are hardly a representative foretaste of the full musical score written for the 1945 film starring – and directed by – Laurence Olivier. Elsewhere in the score, in places such as the “Charge and Battle” and the “Agincourt Song” collected in more extensive suites, Warren-Green could parade Symphony’s winds, brass, and percussion. Mightily. “Death of Falstaff” and “Touch Her Soft Lips and Part” are soft, brief, and fragile flowers compared to those sturdy oaks, yet they were more affecting than the Elgar pieces. The Passacaglia for Sir John was quiet and grave, almost but not quite a dirge, and the “Soft Lips” was tenderly suffused with pure and chaste ardor, tinged with the sorrow of soldiers’ farewells. Count me as enthusiastically supportive if Warren-Green opts to program a fuller representation of this Henry V score when he can bring the full Symphony to the task.

If we longed for music that quietly reflected our mood during these cold, gray, homebound winter days and nights, then these Elgar and Walton works more than fulfilled their mission, but if it was uplift that we sought, then Gustav Holst’s St Paul’s Suite in C Major was a perfect tonic. Warren-Green’s anecdote about meeting Olivier and Walton after a performance of the Henry pieces was by far the most appealing of his intros. Warren-Green had been onstage as the concertmaster that night, and the actor and the composer had vied ridiculously with each other at the post-performance reception to be more modest about his contribution to that celebrated film. Yet the insight into Holst, when Warren-Green visited the St. Paul’s Girls School in London, was also fascinating. Holst taught at the school, eventually becoming its music director, and a soundproof room was built specially for him at the school where he composed his most famous work, The Planets, as well as this more modest suite.

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To be honest, St. Paul’s sounds more like it was written in the middle of the girls’ playground on a bright sunny spring morning with the children running and squealing in all directions around the composer, especially in the effervescent outer movements. Amid the lively opening Vivace, ebulliently labeled as a Jig, it was inspiring to see Warren-Green jumping up and down on the podium again, excitedly gesticulating after maintaining his British dignity for these many months. The liveliness spread across the Knight stage, and I strongly suspect that the masked faces of the Symphony musicians were smiling. Even the middle movements had a youthful élan. The second movement was a quiet Ostinato at a Presto pace, with concertmaster Calin Lupanu floating a melody over the subdued churning of the upper strings and pizzicatos from the cellos. Lupanu’s soloing resumed in the Intermezzo, where we slowed to Andante con moto and principal violist Benjamin Geller took a couple of turns in the solo spotlight. Here again, a Vivace interlude abruptly shed its orchestral sunlight before we reverted to a slower tempo, ending with a sedate string quartet led by Lupanu.

Jollity reigned when we arrived at Holst’s Finale, an Allegro that riffs on an English folk tune, “The Dargason,” sounding even merrier than the opening Jig, and certainly more familiar. Holst further enhanced the merriment and complexity of his composition by giving the cellos the undercover assignment of introducing the ancient melody of “Greensleeves” under the main theme. No problem if you missed “Greensleeves” while it was part of the cellos’ stealth operation, because it became gloriously dominant when it was reprised. The infectious “Dargason” was not to be suppressed for long, interweaving so well with “Greensleeves,” and Lupanu had one more tasty little cadenza before the full string orchestra pounced on the final fortissimo chords.

Wilde Gets a Manicure, Not a Makeover

Review: The Importance of Being Earnest in a Pandemic at CPCC

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Oscar Wilde fell on tough times after writing his comic masterwork, The Importance of Being Earnest, in 1895 – but whatever else he succumbed to, including humiliation and imprisonment that very same year, Wilde never faced the Spanish Flu, let alone COVID-19. Our supply of pandemic epigrams would have been unquestionably enriched if history had played out otherwise. So I did have hopes, when I signed up for CPCC Theatre’s webcast of The Importance of Being Earnest in a Pandemic, that history would be redeemed.

Compounding pandemic and winter woes, a ransomware attack on CP plagued this production, delaying its opening by a full week and ratcheting up my eagerness. Subtitling his three-act romp “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” Wilde could have had a field day opening a Pandora’s box of pandemic paradoxes. The new script by Don Zolidis, sad to say, performs little more than a manicure on Wilde’s popular script – nothing like the refresh or update a more ambitious and talented playwright might have attempted.

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Masks and social distancing are occasionally acknowledged during the CP webcast, ably directed and designed by James Duke. Since our comedy comes to us on the Zoom format, the formalities of signing in and out of the grid are observed – often with an odd doorbell ring that gets its own mini-screen among the human characters’. Pandemic or not, no other technology aside from those martialed by Zoom advances us past 1895.

Nobody specific seems to have died during the pandemic in London, where we meet at Algernon Moncrieff’s flat for Act 1. None of the proper folk he and his lazy manservant Lane receive – including the duplicitous “Jack” Worthing, his lady fair Gwendolyn Fairfax, and the imperious Lady Bracknell – seems to have suffered any grave losses. Bucolic serenity also seems to prevail when we adjourn to Jack’s country manor for Act 2, where we meet Worthing’s lovely ward, Cicely Cardew, who is pursued there by Algernon, posing as Jack’s invented brother.

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That’s odd, because Jack’s butler Merriman has disappeared during Zolidis’s tidying of the script. Couldn’t he have been in a susceptible age group or have been afflicted by a pre-existing condition before he was taken away from us so cruelly? As it is, we must skip over an accounting of Algy’s luggage when he arrives for his surprise visit – and poor Jack is left without a surrogate to quickly order a cab for the sly mischief maker.

Tidying is never really what happens here, for doling out a comedy onto an orderly Zoom grid messes it up irreparably. Two marriage proposals happen across multiple locations on paired screens, which oddly show Algy and Gwen and then Jack and Cicely facing us when they would normally be gazing exclusively and adoringly at each other. The screen kissing is an cute touch, I’ll admit. Pure pandemic. Later on, the simultaneous withholding of permission to marry from the ladies’ guardians crisscrosses our monitors on four separate mini-screens as seven of the eight cast members get involved in the climactic melee.

Anybody yearning for reruns of Hollywood Squares will be ecstatic during this flashy denouement.

It helps that Wilde provided us with two women who had already settled on the men they would marry before they proposed – in Cicely’s case, incontestably documented in her diary, before she had even met her Ernest. More than that, we are lucky to have both Algernon and Lady Bracknell on hand. Tatters in time and space mean nothing to these perfectly insouciant personalities. They each see the world around them with uniquely absurd viewpoints. Both are uniquely acclimated to absurdity.

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Andrew Blackwell is especially satisfying as Algernon, conducting himself with an equipoise that suggests that all is well with the world. Until it isn’t, when fretting and fussing must be immediately rejected as ways of fixing things. A cucumber sandwich or a good muffin seem as capable of bringing bliss to Blackwell as the hand of Miss Cardew. Sensible fellow.

At the other end of the spectrum, with even more certitude, is Lady Bracknell. Nothing is right with the world unless it has received her certification. Milady is one of the most celebrated creations of the British stage, a plum that leading actresses and actors have salivated over for more than a century. Brionna Knight isn’t merely confronting this heritage in tackling Lady Bracknell, she’s taking on the constraints of a cruelly decimated screen.

A small restricted screen, it turns out, is fully adequate for conveying the bliss of devouring a cucumber sandwich. Lick your fingers afterwards and nothing is lost. But ruling as a stern monarch over an empire? Lady B needs a stage, a big stage, and a larger-than-life portrayal. Crowding her computer monitor in front of a tastefully decorated green screen, Knight is rarely visible below her collarbones. A diva needs more, so we never find out whether Knight can be one.

Among the other players, only Miyoni Heard is comparably disadvantaged as Miss Prism, Cicely’s incompetent governess. Heard must content herself with a dull gray background each time she appears, along with a microphone that screams out for an upgrade. Nor does Duke illuminate his governess in a way that would prompt him to take credit for lighting design, settling for a dim silhouetted look that would suggest Miss Prism was in a witness protection program. Ironically, Prism becomes the key witness at the end of Act 3 as we unravel the mystery of Jack’s origins.

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Knight is at her best in launching Prism’s reckoning, but Jacob Feldpausch as Jack swoops in nicely at this point to help Heard prolong our suspense. Wilde himself contributes superb contrivance to sustaining the tension, one of those craftsy things that can emerge the seventh time you’ve enjoyed a great comedy. More than Jack’s exit to fetch an old handbag is involved as Wilde deftly pumps the brakes. Lady B must forget the name of a lost family member after 28 years, she must also have a clue, and Jack must own a copy of the Army Lists spanning the last 40 years to finally track it down.

Brilliant.

The remaining glitter in this production comes from the ladies who portray Wilde’s eccentric, cocksure bachelorettes. As befits a relation of Lady B, Mia Venuto as Gwendolyn can nonchalantly claim the adoration of all male Londoners as her birthright, never doubting her allure or her marriageability. On the other hand, Jeanine Diaz as Cecily is as adrift and insecure in her condition as Jack is on their country manor, equally given to doing the adoring.

Wilde finely calculates his romantic relationships, to be sure, but what elevates his comedy above the epigrams of Algy and Lady B, above how fate serves Jack up to Gwen on a silver platter, is how his complications set Gwen and Cicely against each other as mortal enemies, dueling with their diaries. When these betrothed ladies are most deceived and most misunderstanding of each other, Venuto and Diaz offer up their best work, carving a perfect circle out of their confusion and caprice.

Of course, this spitfire confrontation would be even more delectable if the women were face-to-face at CP’s Halton Theater and we were all sitting there, laughing at their raging befuddlement even as we understood it so well. On Zoom, it’s so easy for them to mind their manners and resist clawing each other’s eyes out! But what can we do? We’re all in this pandemic together.

Playing Its Trump Card, Four Nations Caps Valentine’s Day of Infernal Love With Médée

Review: Four Nations Ensemble’s Baroque Valentine’s Day Celebration

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Chamber Music Raleigh and their latest guest artists, Four Nations Ensemble, had a different idea for a Valentine’s Day concert than you might expect, disdaining both the saintliness of religious music and the Hallmark Cards sentimentality of sappy love songs and madrigals. Their Baroque Valentine’s Day Celebration took up the theme of “When Love Goes Wrong,” and like the “Treacherous Love” concert by L’Académie du Roi Solei that we reviewed two years ago, reminded us that early music had a raw side, not circumscribed by salons or churches. Four Nations did indeed roam Europe more widely than the Roi Soleil group, presenting music by Handel, Vivaldi, François Couperin, Barbara Strozzi, Michael Haydn, Jean-Paul Martini, and Giuseppe Tartini. Both groups played the same trump card for their finales, the Médée cantata for soprano and instruments by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault.

Andrew Appel, who directs Four Nations from the harpsichord, acted as our host and offered his first thanks to the Chamber Music Society of Detroit, who produced “When Love Goes Wrong” as part of their new CameraMusic series. In order to remain unmasked, he introduced all the pieces – and all his fellow musicians – before we saw anyone else onscreen, lingering over the two prima donnas in the music, Queen Dido from Vergil’s Aeneid and Jason’s scorned wife Medea, somewhat softened in comparison with Euripides’ tragedy. Appel found them both extremely attractive to baroque composers in the sense that both delivered high drama and sharp contrasts, the antithesis of mellow background music for a dimly lit romantic rendezvous.

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We could see the full Four Nations onstage (location never mentioned) when Appel began with a superb rendition of Couperin’s utterly gorgeous Prelude No. 5 from L’art de toucher le clavecin – on a lovely, ornate harpsichord that wasn’t quite as wide as his piano bench. The program was arranged in a way that gradually introduced us to the full Ensemble, with cellist Loretta O’Sullivan taking the lead on Couperin’s “Le Dodo ou l’amour au berceau,” a piece normally heard on solo piano or harpsichord to somewhat better advantage. By jettisoning the charming trill that infiltrates the recurring melody, O’Sullivan slowed the piece down and invited a downcast “Three Blind Mice” monotony, though Appel’s accompaniment was helpful.

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Energy rose conspicuously when soprano Pascale Beaudin joined lutenist Scott Pauley for Strozzi’s “Amor Dormiglione.” It’s unknown whether Strozzi was a courtesan, but the Venetian was incontrovertibly prolific as a songwriter and no doubt wanton, since the one formal portrait we have of her (clasping a lute) shows her with one breast bared. Appel pointed out the suggestiveness of the song, and lines like “Love sleep no more!” and “Arrows, arrows, fire, fire, arise, arise!” weren’t about a cute cuddly concept of Cupid awakening. This was indeed the sort of song that Strozzi, a renowned singer, might have sung in plying a lewd trade.

Curiously enough, Beaudin eschewed much of the song’s seductive drama by remaining seated beside Pauley, who was brilliant in accompaniment. Nor was that the best position onstage for her to be singing, from an acoustic standpoint. The soprano’s voice came to us muted with a distancing echo contrasting with the lute’s clarity, but we could already espy loveliness in her sustained notes. Beaudin foreshadowed her fitness for the Médée when she detoured into moments of pouty resentment and amorous longing.

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Shorter and darker than his previous Couperin solo, Prelude No. 2 was another beauty from Appel that perfectly bridged the importunate Strozzi and Handel’s more emotional “Credete al mio dolo” (Believe my pain). Discreetly, Beaudin switched chairs with Pauley while Appel soloed and rose while O’Sullivan played an aching intro on the cello, easily her most affecting playing so far. This put the soprano near the far end of the harpsichord, roughly parallel with O’Sullivan at the other side, by far the sweetest spot onstage for her to sing. Beaudin projected the opening ache of the song, intensified her expression for the crying midsection – after more affecting work from O’Sullivan – and returned even more appealingly to the plaintive theme.

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Following the pattern set by Beaudin, violinist Andrew Fouts remained seated in his chair as he made his long-awaited musical entrance, playing the lead in the Andante from Michael Haydn’s Divertimento in C major. Pacing was more in the Adagio range compared with other recordings I’ve sampled, but Fouts’s tone was a fruity delight up in the treble, and the interplay between him and O’Sullivan, seated to his left, was quite enchanting. Fouts sounded even more commanding in Tartini’s Sonata No. 10 in G minor, “Didone abbandonata” (Dido Abandoned). Nor did it hurt that this piece, originally written for violin and continuo, was expanded for Four Nations to include the entire instrumental quartet.

Standing near the middle of the harpsichord, Fouts delivered lively contrasts from the beginning of the opening Affettuoso, including some transporting double-bowing that made the suicidal queen’s lament all the more poignant. Backed by Appel’s thrashing harpsichord rather than a mere piano, Fouts brought more clout to the turbulent Presto movement than Oistrakh delivered in his Paris recital album from 1959. In this and in the dancing Allegro finale, where the heroic Aeneas has left Dido far behind, Four Nations sounded more like the Fabio Biondi recording of 1992, another full-bodied performance.

Between these two instrumental exploits, Beaudin sang “Plaisir d’Amour,” Martini’s greatest hit – and one of Elvis Presley’s greatest when it was transformed into “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Best authentic recording I’ve heard is Bidu Sayão’s radio performance from 1950, collected in 2009, and my all-time favorite commercial adaptation remains the incomparably sweet Joan Baez recording of 1961, uniquely sublime and heartbreaking. Like Suyão’s version, Beaudin couldn’t escape the comparatively earthbound lyric of the original work, brooding about the love and the lies of a faithless Sylvia, so anger and bitterness inhabit the middle of the song instead of bliss. Thanks to the lovely work by Appel at the keyboard, however, I was able to rediscover the two fine melodies so finely interwoven by Martini – and Beaudin’s anger augured well for the Medea that lay ahead.

 

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O’Sullivan moved over toward the middle of the harpsichord to take the lead in Vivaldi’s Sonata No. 4 in B-flat major, a spot that added echo to her cello. My favorite recording of this cello sonata by Jean-Guihen Queyras uses an organ and a theorbo to magical effect as opposed to the harpsichord-theorbo basso continuo offered by the Four Nations’ Appel and Pauley. The cellist sounded best in the even-numbered Allegro movements, while Pauley’s theorbo was most effective in the two odd-numbered Largos, particularly in the third movement, where his light strums and fingerings formed a halo around O’Sullivan’s richly forlorn playing. Appel’s thrashing harpsichord was most effective in the closing Allegro, combining with O’Sullivan’s nimble work on Vivaldi’s catchy melody to create the merriest music of the evening.

Both of the live Médée performances I’ve heard in the past two years, by Margaret Carpenter Haigh and Beaudin, have been more than equal to the best recording I’ve been able to audition, featuring Agnes Mellon. The spark of both these women, dressed to kill and spitting fire, bestowed a fierce energy on both live performances and ignited spirited accompaniment on both occasions. On my second go-round with the piece as Beaudin sang, I could pick up on two patterns of ebb and flow that Clérambault had crafted in his cantata. Structurally, the cantata shuttles between recitatives or preludes and arias, slowed fluid tempos and speed-ups that became increasingly dramatic when they recurred. Emotionally, the lulls corresponded with a narrator’s objectivity, with Medea’s nostalgia as she recalls her seduction and the sacrifices she made, with her retreat from murderous intent to poignant reconsideration as her heart rebels, and with the calm before the final storm when she contentedly observes that her spell has been cast. The quickenings connect with Medea’s remembrances of her betrayal; with her jealousy and her thirst for vengeance; with her renewed fury when she realizes how foolish she is to be hesitant, loving, and merciful; and with her summons as she unleashes the forces of Hell to mete out her revenge. Capping the portrayal, there was an ebb-and-flow within Medea’s frenzied wickedness as her outbursts of rage were punctuated with expressions of delight at the prospect of seeing her rival and her betrayer destroyed.

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Fouts was at the forefront with Beaudin’s deadly conjurations throughout this riveting performance, particularly when the last of the 12 sections turned into a frenzied witches’ sabbath, and he kept fiddling – at a furious tempo – long past the moment of Medea’s final words of hellish triumph. But perhaps the signature episode of Médée, and surely the most chilling, came when Fouts, Appel, and O’Sullivan – in a stop-and-go tattoo – cued up the march that became the undercurrent for Beaudain’s wicked sorcery. No doubt about it now, this “Cruelle Fille des Enfers” evocation was cold, calculated murder, not a sudden impulse. And in her ensuing deployment of her spellbound fiends, “Volez, Démons, Volez!” Beaudin became regal, delighting in the mayhem while sustaining her fury. Insanity! No, this Medea did not tweet “This is what happens” after completing her handiwork, but Beaudin’s majestic arrogance, as she stood there defiantly in the middle of the stage, emphatically stated that her Medea was capable of such monstrous vindictiveness.

CSO and Lupanu Debut a Harlem Nachtmusik, a Starburst, and Youthful Mendelssohn

Review: Mozart’s Night Music

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By Perry Tannenbaum

One of Mozart’s most beloved compositions and the inspiration for the title of a Stephen Sondheim musical, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is perennially popular on streaming sites, CD players, and classical radio stations. WQXR’s annual countdown of audience favorites listed Eine Kleine Nachtmusik at Number 38 in its Top 100 for 2020 – ahead of Mozart’s own Clarinet Concerto, his Symphonies 40 and 41, and two of his most familiar operas, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute. Yet if Charlotte Symphony is an accurate barometer, this Mozart masterwork is rarely heard in public. Until last Saturday night, the piece hadn’t been played in Charlotte on CSO’s classics series during the current millennium. The performances led by Christof Perick in September 2004 were played out of town at the Matthews United Methodist Church, Winthrop University in Rock Hill, and Davidson College.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has refocused our thinking about what music can be performed safely by symphony orchestras, while the BLM movement has been shuffling our thinking on what music should be offered. So it’s natural to conclude that Symphony’s dusting off of this old chestnut was purely in response to pandemic conditions, for the Nachtmusik is actually the 13th – and last – of Mozart’s string serenades, written in 1787 for string orchestra (or quintet).

Opting for safety first and omitting wind players from their recent performances at Knight Theater, Symphony must have found Mozart’s G Major to be an inevitable choice, especially since they’ve already dusted off Barber’s Adagio, the only piece for string orchestra that currently polls better than Nachtmusik. Notwithstanding this logic – and Symphony’s history – it must be remembered that Nachtmusik was already scheduled for a rendezvous at the Knight last April, under the baton of guest conductor Jeannette Sorrell, when the pandemic struck. So there may be an additional logic at work: very likely, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik rehearsals had already commenced. Certainly the musical scores were already in the string players’ hands.

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The real responses to 2020 and the “New Normal” actually lay elsewhere in the program, most notably in the resourceful pairing of Mozart’s famed Serenade with Leonardo Balada’s A Little Night Music in Harlem, premiered in 2007. The preamble to this Nachtmusik pairing on the program, Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst, was also noteworthy. Starburst was commissioned by The Sphinx Organization, a non-profit dedicated to the development of young Black and Latino classical musicians, and The Sphinx Virtuosi, who performed its 2012 premiere. Capping the live-streamed concert from Knight Theater, concertmaster Calin Lupanu spearheaded the Charlotte premiere of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D, a work discovered and premiered in 1952 by violinist Yehudi Menuhin, 130 years after it was composed. Like the Balada and the Montgomery, this excavated Mendelssohn was the antithesis of the utterly predictable Mozart revival.

Clocking in at 3:31 on Montgomery’s own Strum CD in 2015, “Starburst” was a perfect prelude to the lengthier nocturnal works that followed, cued by resident conductor Christopher James Lees with an effervescent vitality that augured well for the rest of the concert. The minimalistic repetitions didn’t last long enough to become stale monotony, churned our way with infectious enthusiasm. Strands of melody were sprinkled with pizzicatos, and the bracing celestial explosions came in collective four-note clusters at the tail end of cheery sawing from the violins.

After explaining the interconnection between the Mozart and Balada pieces, Lees drove the orchestra into the opening Allegro of the Eine Kleine Nachtmusik with the same zest he lavished on the Montgomery aperitif. There was a dramatic contrast between the delicate passages in the treble and the onset of the full orchestra’s robust responses, which always came back louder, accelerated, and edgy. While you might prefer the way Sir Neville Marriner interpreted the music with his Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields on their Philips CD, allowing the music to speak for itself, the CSO reading was more exciting. Lees not only hears the sturdiness of the melodies we so readily remember in movements 1, 2, and 4 (not performed) of the Nachtmusik – and their amazing simplicity, anticipating the miraculous opening of Symphony No. 40 – he hears the dialectic in Mozart’s idiom. Even in the ensuing Romance: Andante, where repose might be more readily excused, Lees had Symphony playing crisply, so this wasn’t a lullaby. The brief second theme had some zip to it, subsiding graciously into the more familiar strain.

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Born in Barcelona, Balada studied composition at Juilliard with Aaron Copland, began teaching at Carnegie Mellon University in 1970, and became a naturalized citizen in 1981 at the age of 48. The two Naxos albums of Balada’s music on my shelves; featuring concertos for Violin, for Cello, and for Four Guitars; both left me hungry for more. Both were recorded by the Barcelona Symphony, so it would have been easy to overlook Balada’s American ties if it weren’t for the Cello Concerto’s alias, “New Orleans.” A Little Night Music in Harlem, one blushes to say, was commissioned by the Hungarian Chamber Orchestra and recorded on Naxos by the Iberian Chamber Orchestra, underscoring the simple fact that Balada is underappreciated and neglected in his adopted homeland.

Music in Harlem is merely a peephole into Balada’s capabilities, but many of us who watched this Symphony webcast will not only accept Lees’ invitation to replay this performance online but also to seek out more of the composer’s output. A recurrent baseline through this composition, bowed or in plucked pizzicatos, could be construed as locals walking up and down Lenox Avenue or back and forth along 125th Street, also known as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Or it could just as easily be heard as the spirit of jazz clubs along that street, the pulsebeat of Harlem. Like Mozart’s Nachtmusik, perhaps even more so, Balada’s piece displays its layers, denser and more pictorial than the Serenade. Aside from Balada’s echoes of the second and fourth movements of Nachtmusik, the new piece evokes vehicular traffic with its occasional glisses and takes us underground for the rumble of the subway. Lees told us that he hears the extended whistling sounds toward the end of the piece as commuters emerging from a subway station whistling together. It was certainly an eerie, sad, and ethereal contrast with much of the big city bustle and cacophony we had heard before.

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Listening to Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D minor for the first time, I couldn’t help thinking that the reason it’s so rarely heard can be traced, like the absence of Mozart’s Nachtmusik from our concert halls, to its having been written for string orchestra. The biggest names to have recorded the work since the piece was discovered 69 years ago are Menuhin and Kyoko Takezawa. On the strength of their performance on Saturday, the CSO’s Lupanu, Lees, and the 22 string players onstage at the Knight can thus be counted among this concerto’s leading exponents. The sound from the orchestra was full-bodied and satisfying from the outset of the opening Allegro. After playing along with the others through most of the prologue, Lupanu showed that he was fully warmed-up, attacking the opening bars of his solo fiercely, bowing with bold panache, sharply punctuating the swiftest passages and then singing the lyrical sections with ardor, all the while producing the fullest, loveliest tone I’ve ever heard from him.

As the middle Andante movement began, I had momentary fears that Mendelssohn’s immaturity – he composed this concerto at the age of 13, after all – might have been too much of an impediment to achieving true excellence in a slow movement. However, soon as Lupanu ascended into the treble in his first solo, all doubts were dispelled, for there were no pedestrian moments afterwards. On the contrary, Lupanu’s soulfulness increased with his silvery pianissimos. The catchiest theme in Mendelssohn’s youthful concerto came in the final Allegro, enabling Lupanu to play with greater verve and virtuosity than ever. Lees and the CSO seemed to be lifted by Lupanu’s brio, maintaining the torrid pace set by the concertmaster while he rested briefly before his crowning cadenza. Some fancy bowing gave way to a final burst of ethereal lyricism as Lupanu circled back to the sunny main theme. The soloist and the orchestra tossed it back and forth with engaging spirit, triumphantly finishing in just under an hour.

Grace and Kindness Glow in Anna Deavere Smith’s Answers to Adversity

Review: A Deeper Dive Into Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy  – With a 2020 Refresh

By Perry Tannenbaum

 Winner of multiple Drama Desk Awards for her plays – and her solo performances in them – Anna Deavere Smith has forged a unique synthesis from her skills as a playwright, actress, journalist, and teacher. Her groundbreaking monologues, Fires in the Mirror (1992) and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 (1994), were skillfully edited from hundreds of interviews that Smith taped with people involved in two distinctively American events, the Crown Heights race riots of 1991 and the Los Angeles rioting of 1992 that followed the acquittal of police officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King. After compacting the taped interviews into taut monologues, Smith channeled each of her characters in performances of carefully crafted mimicry. In artfully distilling the essence of her characters, Smith cumulatively distills us with her art in a fascinating, unique way.

On a webcast presented by The Schaeffer Center for Performing Arts at Appalachian State University, “An Evening with Anna Deavere Smith: Reclaiming Grace in the Face of Adversity,” Smith came onscreen in a way that freshly meshed theatre, lecture, pedagogy, and discussion. Dr. Paulette Marty, theatre arts professor at App State, introduced Smith, instantly departing from normal theatre presentation. Marty and Smith joined in laying the groundwork for the evening’s theme, chosen so aptly in the face earth-shattering events that have rocked us all in the past year – for Smith had prologues of her own that preceded each of her three extended portraits. Of course, such a video conference would be a staid affair in 2021 without a stream of chatter rolling along the margin of our screens. Viewers of this free webstream had a chatroom for making comments – and afterwards, as Marty interviewed Smith, the professor lifted some of her questions from that chatline.

Apparently, a side benefit of all Smith’s researches is all the prime leftovers she can deliver from those hundreds of interviews. For her rendezvous with App State, to which she linked live from New York, Smith had distillations of interviews she had taped while researching Let Me Down Easy (2008). These dated back to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and included sitdowns with Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and the late Congressman John Lewis, who walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in the famed 1965 Selma March.

Before these well-known figures, Smith introduced us to Kirsa Kurtzberg, a white physician who worked at a charity hospital in New Orleans in the midst of the Katrina disaster. Smith wove together two strands of the Kurtzberg interview in crafting her monologue, a description of the “worst asshole” she had run across in her hospital work, followed by recollections of her patients’ cynical stoicism during the Katrina ordeal. That worst person turned out to be a doctor who was her superior: he not only demonstrated absolute coldness and distaste toward his patients, but when Kurtzberg called him out on his poisonous attitude, declared that she would inevitably come to feel the same way in time.

When Katrina inundated New Orleans, Kurtzberg watched the city’s reaction unfold as private hospitals were evacuated and the charity hospital was abandoned. Worse, they opened the levees on that part of town in order to save the more valuable real estate. It was not only revelatory to Kurtzberg that her patients, overwhelming black, would be treated with such disregard and disdain, but also that these unfortunates were not at all surprised, telling her in advance that the unthinkable would happen.

If we thought that these were the darkest perceptions we would need to entertain, Smith’s portrait of Bryan Stevenson proved us wrong. Since founding the Equal Justice Initiative, Smith reminded us, Stevenson has opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, commemorating nearly 4400 victims of “racial terror lynchings” between 1877 and 1950. What Smith then concluded about America is piercing, damning, and true – more indelibly now since January 6: we are a post-genocidal society. Smith’s interview with Stevenson spotlighted a failed attempt to obtain a stay of execution for a prisoner on death row who was intellectually disabled. This is the kind of work Stevenson has dedicated his career to performing, as well as the famed case, exonerating a wrongly convicted murderer, that became the cornerstone of his memoir, Just Mercy, and the film derived from that book.

The question that Stevenson repeatedly asked in court with respect to the intellectually disabled, “Why do we kill broken people?” morphed into another question when the Supreme Court rejected his appeal at the eleventh hour. “Why do I do this?” His self-reflection yielded a brutally honest answer, “Because I’m broken, too.” This realization was illuminated by a childhood memory of the frustration, violence, and humiliation that broke out when he, his mother, and the black community stood in line – at the back of the line – waiting to be vaccinated for polio. Like his mom, Stevenson concluded, he was seeking a way not to be silent about this perennial brokenness.

The portrait of Congressman Lewis, eulogized just last summer by three former American presidents at Ebenezer Baptist Church, was the most hopeful and conciliatory in Smith’s trilogy. “Brother” also featured the most rewarding stretch of Smith’s acting skills as she adapted Lewis’s slow, distinctively accented drawl. He spoke of his yearly pilgrimage to Selma, a ritual that included stopovers in Birmingham and Montgomery, but unexpectedly, the moments of grace that he gleaned from this commemoration shone a spotlight on white people upstaging him. The first was the current Montgomery Police Chief, who publicly apologized for the beating that his department had inflicted upon him decades earlier. It was the first such apology that Lewis could remember.

What touched Lewis equally was that the Police Chief took off his badge and offered it to him. Then the moments of grace, for when Lewis answered, “I cannot accept your badge – I’m not worthy,” the chief insisted, saying. “I can get another.” An additional opportunity to forgive came to Lewis after an event that had happened even longer ago, on May 9, 1961, when the future Congressman was brutalized in Rock Hill. The son of one of those cops came to Lewis’s office to ask for forgiveness, and Lewis granted it immediately. They hugged, called each other brother, and by Lewis’s count, met 49 times afterwards.

While the post-performance discussion wasn’t my prime reason for attending, it provided a soft landing from the heights of Lewis’s moments of grace and a chance to hear some of Smith’s views head-on. Among the topics she tackled so ably, in response to Marty’s probing and pertinent questions, were the pathology of America’s police, the media’s addiction to big pharma and the auto industry, the plight of black artists, the need for a public health rethink, and the enduring need for theatre now and post-pandemic. She even dropped a suggestion on Marty, App State, and academia to deal with our times. “You might laugh,” she said, “but we need a department of kindness.” Out of nowhere, there was a religious distinction to be made. “Jesus wasn’t nice. He was kind.”