Monthly Archives: March 2021

Ehnes and Weiss Deliver a Full-Length, High-Energy Concert – and a Memorable World Premiere

Review: Duke Performances’ The Show Must Go Online series

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Broadway has been closed down for nearly a year, opera remains in hibernation, while symphony and chamber concerts have slimmed down and gone virtual. Local theatre works, when they aren’t masked or outdoors, have diminished to Zoom or Skype proportions, modest in length and ambition. The preeminent pre-pandemic buzzwords, premiere and debut, when they’re used at all, are now applied by publicists to hurriedly-produced series of webcasts rather to performers or works.

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How refreshing, then, to come upon the latest installment in Duke Performances’ The Show Must Go Online series, which sported the Duke debut of two-time Grammy Award-winning violinist James Ehnes and the world premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Sonatine for Violin and Piano. After acknowledging in his opening remarks that Duke Performances was “trying to celebrate its 75th anniversary,” Chamber Arts Society of Durham director George Copen proclaimed that the Kernis piece would formally premiere “this very hour.” That’s about as precise as you can be on a webcast that remains continuously accessible to ticket holders for three days.

Fleshed out with additional sonatas by Schubert, Prokofiev, and Saint-Saëns, the video stretched out for over 90 minutes, almost epic for a webcast. There was no intermission, of course, and the estimable Orion Weiss, no stranger to Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium, was at the keyboard. Weiss remained in the background during Ehnes’s intros, but as soon as the duo launched into Schubert’s Sonata in G Minor, it was clear that he was a full partner in the musical collaboration. There were extended passages in the opening Allegro giusto when Ehnes was quietly sawing away while Weiss merrily carried the main load. Conversely, when Ehnes had the lead, Weiss was churning away behind him, probably more challenged in his backup chores. A syncopated three-note phrase that the men played together at the outset was the only turbulence on the otherwise placid flow of the movement, recurring intermittently along the way and reprised emphatically to crisply close out.

An early work written at the age of 19 but only published after Schubert’s death, when the composer had left us far mightier works, this sonata and two others written even earlier were called Sonatinas when they were originally published – and Jascha Heifetz hasn’t been alone in retaining that title in recordings. But Schubert comes through in the Andante as the imaginative melodicist we associate with his maturity, and it was pleasurable watching Ehnes and Weiss as they took turns embracing the enchanting lyricism. The ensuing Menuetto: Allegro vivace proved to be the shortest and swiftest movement. Yet this little movement, despite its sonatina scale, developed a pair of themes and delivered some of the most rugged moments overall. Three thumping chords introduced the final Allegro moderato, like an invitation to dance, and the celebration slowed down for romantic episodes a couple of times, swept aside by the prevailing party spirit.

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Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D was originally written for flute and piano in 1943, but violinist David Oistrakh was so enamored with the piece that he had the composer adapt it for violin, with extra trimmings (double bowing and harmonics), by the following year when he premiered it. Having already recorded the piece twice with different pianists, Ehnes probably didn’t need to say that he preferred the violin version, but the declaration certainly raised my expectations, since I’ve loved the piece ever since the vinyl recording by Jean-Pierre Rampal with Alfred Holeček became one of that great flutist’s first albums to grace my collection. In recent years, I’ve acquired two Oistrakh recordings of the piece as well. Ehnes didn’t fall short of any of those recordings, so I can only envy those who might hear this piece for the first time in his performance. On violin, the opening Moderato is more tender with more pent-up passion in the agitated passages; on flute, the music is more soaring, soulful, and serene.

Thrilling, exuberant, and frantic as it was, Ehnes’s bravura on the ensuing Presto did not bear out the violinist’s claim that Oistrakh had called for a brisker tempo than you would hear on flute. Some of the recordings I’ve tracked down on Spotify present this Scherzo as an Allegretto, to be sure, but the label on Rampal’s vinyl has said Presto for upwards of a half century. It wasn’t just a madcap romp in Ehnes’s hands, for there are tender moments amid the frenzy with wicked interjections, and Weiss was also very impressive here, responding assertively right up to the movement’s abrupt conclusion. Ehnes showcased the extra tenderness of this violin version most emphatically in the lovely Andante, dramatically tamping down the pulse of the piece and finding sensuous allure in the sinuous melody. The concluding Allegro con brio was brimful of triumphal zest, bursting with energy and virtuosity. Even the contemplative second theme built to a proud passion.

The diminutive suffix for Kernis’s Sonatine, Ehnes revealed, came from the composer’s mischievous determination to rhyme his title with his daughter’s name, Delphine. As the kaleidoscopic markings of the opening movement prove – including Oracle, Larkspur, and Delphinium – the composer was keenly aware of the geographic, mythic, and botanical associations with that name. Additional markings in that movement, Cetacea and Dolphinic Syncopation, hint at the probability that the girl has acquired an aquatic nickname at home or in the schoolyard. Although there is a Delicato embedded among the tempo markings, “Oracle” is anything but delicate – or feminine – at the outset, moving from fury to foreboding with enough energy to fray the horsehair on Ehnes’s bow. An ominous, somewhat uncomfortable lullaby followed a complete stop. Eventually, we circled back to tempestuous drama, capped with a vicious pizzicato.

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The middle movement, “Shaded Blue,” was intimate, personal, and once again allusive. Taking his cue from Delphine’s tendency to dye her hair blue, Kernis gave this slow movement a sad opening, lightly textured with the blues. Some of the slower, quieter passages were downright eerie and despondent, building to anguished shrieks before descending to another depression that distilled into a long, sustained harmonic note – almost as memorable an ending as the pizzicato had been. Once again, the concluding movement’s title had personal and musical connotations. “Catch That Train!” recalls the composer’s anxiety the first time he and his wife allowed Delphine and her twin brother to ride the New York subway by themselves – using the kind of train rhythms common to bluegrass and boogie-woogie. Of course, it was Weiss at the keyboard who was most propulsive in taking the musical train from a standstill to full steam. But if Weiss was the rhythm of the rails, then Ehnes was surely the train whistle, with wailing double bowing and fadeaway glissandos. Ehnes also drew a hefty share of the rhythm, fiddling furiously at times in bluegrass mode and even strumming for a while and producing a hollow banjo sound. No, Kernis’s “Train” wasn’t the most New York in spirit, but it was definitely rousing and entertaining.

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For their closer, Ehnes and Weiss presented the most often recorded piece on their program, Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, ruefully nicknamed “The Hippogriff Sonata” by the composer when a mere human violinist couldn’t cope with its technical challenges at the 1885 premiere. A special alertness is necessary to review the piece, for two of the three divisions between movements occur without a pause. Ehnes and Heifetz are among the heavyweights who have tackled the “Hippogriff” in the recording studio, a roster that also includes Sarah Chang, Gil Shaham, Pinchas Zukerman, and Salvatore Accardo. Listening to the Ehnes recording with Wendy Chen in the wake of this explosive performance, I found that Weiss was an edgier partner, drawing more snap and ferocity from Ehnes, making for more excitement in the majestic Allegro agitato. After that opening, Weiss subordinated himself more than Chen did in the Adagio, mixing more of an accompanist’s role into his reading, where Chen maintained more autonomy.

Chen’s approach yielded sweeter, happier results in the pivotal Allegretto moderato, whereas Weiss was more impish, moody, and modern. Rounding into the beehive buzz of the Allegro molto finale, Weiss offered more puckish punctuation amid Ehnes’s awesome cascade, working into a more feverish mode when the violin began floating above in more of a legato. There was more intricacy to the interplay in the middle of this movement as Weiss and Ehnes handed over dominance to each other. Then the ending built and built and built, each flurry from Ehnes delivered with more fire and fury than the last, Weiss prodding him on with more intensity, quicker pace, to a final explosion.

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To be sure, the audio engineering by Christopher Scully-Thurston captured the sound of this concert with studio-level clarity; and filming by John Laww and Saleem Rehsamwala, edited by Rehsamwala, was beautifully conceived, varied but never gimmicky. What was perhaps most memorable and encouraging, however, was that Kernis proved he belonged in this company of titans as much as Ehnes and Weiss. Another Grammy nomination likely awaits the Kernis-Ehnes team when a recording is released.

On Your Toes for a Lively Mix of Mozart, Meyer, and Wirén

Review: Burgeoning optimism could be found in Symphony’s most recent Mozart + Wirén concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Unless a fourth wave of COVID-19 takes us by surprise and the 2020-21 season has to be “reimagined” yet again, Charlotte Symphony seems to be moving slowly, cautiously back towards full-sized concerts with their entire orchestra. Later this month, principal harpist Andrea Mumm will be reunited with the string players, taking a lead role in Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane, and next month, we can look forward to Mozart’s beloved Symphony No. 40, presumably with a full complement of woodwinds. As I sit down to write, Haydn’s Symphony No. 64 has been announced for May, bringing us oboes and horns. Meanwhile a fresh series of five outdoor concerts has been scheduled this spring at the NoDa Brewing Company, all on Tuesdays, with a discreet 7:00pm starting time, improving our chances of keeping warm.

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Another harbinger of spring and burgeoning optimism could be found in Symphony’s most recent Mozart + Wirén concert. Back in February at the Holst + Elgar concert, only Holst’s St. Paul Suite was lively and sunny enough to get musical director Christopher Warren-Green jumping up and down on the podium. Check out the webcast of the Mozart + Wirén program, still replaying online, and you’ll find that both of these composers had the same effect, Mozart with his Divertimento for Strings in D major and Swedish composer Dag Wirén with his Serenade for Strings. In between these two, Warren-Green offered the Charlotte premiere of Jessica Meyer’s Slow Burn, a piece originally devised two years ago to accompany a burlesque dancer in Saratoga. Jumping was probably not the proper response.

Mozart wrote no fewer than five Divertmenti in D Major, so it’s necessary to add that this was the earliest, K. 136, written at the age of 16 – or that it’s the one Divertimento that Yehudi Menuhin recorded in his Mozart collection for Virgin Classics, leading the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne. The youthful energy of the piece burst immediately upon us in the opening Allegro, with churning propulsion from the lower strings and lithe buoyancy from the violins and violas. Dynamics undulated with the floating grace of a glider as the steady churning continued below in rhythmic waves. The sound of the Knight Theater space added the faintest echo, and the airiness of the sound recording was close to the standard set for this piece by the Seiji Ozawa recording of 1994.

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Coming after this sunny effervescence, the middle Andante was so sweet and nostalgic, reminding me of one of the first Mozart pieces I was able to master on the piano more than 60 years ago. Lovely as it is, it was the only one of the three movements that could be imagined as royal background music, which is how a divertimento is normally regarded – and what resident conductor Christopher James Lees warned us against expecting in his introductory remarks. Attcked by the strings with at least as much zest as the Allegro, the closing Presto commanded attention, six staccato notes followed by the kind of explosive ignition we associate with Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which Symphony performed just a month ago. Along with the exciting flux of dynamics, there were also zigs and zags of tempo navigated by Warren-Green, layers of repetition from the three main string sections overlapping one another. The ensemble surpassed themselves with their legerity and clarity in long, swift sweeps of melody.

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Slow or not, Meyer’s dancer evidently preferred to ply her trade in a steady 4/4 time as the piece began, with suggestive gestures from principal violist Benjamin Geller, principal second violin Oliver Kot, and concertmaster Calin Lupanu. Action halted before these solo voices – and after slaps on the double basses that sounded like whip cracks. Resuming the Burn, the music slid into swooning glissandos that allowed the dancer to surrender as much as her audience. Urgency and fury crept in as the tempo accelerated with frequent slaps on the basses, alternating with jazzy pizzicatos. The next halt gave way to a longer statement from Geller on viola that triggered a more frantic acceleration from the orchestra than before, this final gallop prodded by a constant cracking on the necks and sides of the two basses. What a dancer would do at this climax was enticing to imagine. Certainly it would be more like a flamenco flowering than a bump and grind.

Wirén had never crossed my radar before this Charlotte Symphony debut. He merits only a brief paragraph in my two music cyclopedias and only three entries in my last copy of the Penguin Guide, which did declare Wirén’s Serenade of 1937 to have been his greatest international hit. Apple Music is a better place than Spotify to hunt for it, but Symphony’s account was as exemplary as its previous two performances. Lees peeped in for another intro, describing the piece as a blend Mozart lightness and 1930s Paris, where Wirén studied composition. With long sweeping melodic phrases from the violins conveying Mozartian lightness, the opening Preludium had the urban bustle of Gershwin’s Paris – or the Londons evoked by Eric Coates and Noël Coward – and Symphony was not at all tentative about zooming into the cityscape. The cellos and double basses actually injected a heavy, foreboding undertow at times, as if a spot of rain were on the way or the specter of a traffic jam.

The rustic quality presaged by Lees in his intro was further delayed by the Andante espressivo, which began softly with pizzicatos spanning the Knight stage followed by an outbreak of melancholy from the second violins. First violins only intensified the poignancy when they layered on with their bowing, taking us further into solemnity and coloring it faintly with regret. A second round of pizzicatos from the lower strings led into deeper keening from the violas, intensified by another onset of the violins. Cellos blended with violins before a concluding pizzicato hush. The ensuing Scherzo was where Wirén finally fulfilled Lees’ rustic description, though I’d have to guess that the composer had Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony closer to heart than anything Mozart wrote, and a few notes struck up by the second violins had a kinship with “Willow Weep for Me,” written five years earlier by Ann Ronell and dedicated to Gershwin. Amid the hairpin turns of this impetuous movement, interspersed with the laughter of the violins, the cellos took over briefly with their sobriety.

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With violas, cellos, and basses beating their bows on their strings, the beat of the final grand march began, reminding me most vividly of Coates’s British pomp. But here we swerved dramatically, slowing down for our first genuine B section of the evening before circling back to the forceful main theme. This Marcía is the movement that is most excerpted from this most popular Wirén work, and there’s nothing subtle about its appeal. Little strums from the basses thicken its pulse and there are moments when the beat is so strong that you could suspect a drum or two lurking somewhere offstage. Its giddy spirit had Warren-Green on his toes, waving his arms with the sweep of it all, and ultimately jumping. For joy, no doubt.

“Hadleyburg High” Takes Streaming to School

Review: Hadleyburg High at Little Theatre of Winston-Salem

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By Perry Tannenbaum

 We’ve only had a year, at most, to acclimate to the restraints imposed upon theatre and performing artists by the pandemic – and to wrestle with the sensible precautions imposed on audiences. Even that slim amount of time becomes constricted when you consider the amount of time it takes for an artist to come to grips with COVID conditions and navigate what he or she can feasibly create.

Adjustments have been further constricted by the time required for a presenter to navigate the practicalities of production, schedule an event, shoot and edit and upload a livestream, and reconnect with an audience whose attention may have drifted away to Play Station and Roku. Still when something like Hadleyburg High from the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem comes along, getting so many things so right and making all of its answers to problems that have stumped so many other theatre companies seem so simple and obvious, I found myself wondering why it had taken so long.

Up until Hadleyburg High, streamed theatre productions I had reviewed existed in a binary universe. Companies either recorded their actors onstage wearing masks or they squeezed their actors onto a ZOOM grid, as many as eight wee rectangles cramped into one larger screen designed to hold 12 participants. The only escape from masking and ZOOMing has been a one-person monologue. But as Chad Edwards’ adaptation of Mark Twain’s “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” amply proves, masking and ZOOMing aren’t the only paradigms available to a resourceful theatre artist.

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From the outset, Edwards expands the possibilities, presenting his vengeful mischief-making narrator, The Stranger, as a podcaster who can quite naturally fill our screens – and proceed as soon as we key in the proper passcode. Instead of her planned episode, “New York’s Five Most Haunted Places,” on her Stranger Than Fiction blogspot, The Stranger plans to tell us of an exploit that she herself is somewhat surprised at pulling off, the hoodwinking of Hadleyburg High.

Sadly enough, The Stranger had not been able to fit in during her sojourn at the perfect school, where perfect students got perfect grades, lived perfect lives, and won every state championship worth winning. Everybody had known everybody else at Hadleyburg, but nobody troubled to welcome her or get to know her during the semester she spent there. She couldn’t wait to leave Hadleyburg when the semester ended, and she couldn’t wait to devise her vengeance – by exposing the pretense and corruption beneath the perfect students’ perfect veneer.

Now in Twain’s 1899 short story, telling a fable that happened “many years ago,” a whole proud and pretentious town, not a mere high school, was exposed by an offended stranger who had passed among the townspeople. Twain’s story was served up from an omniscient narrator rather than from a snarky, disaffected teenage girl. When Edwards, who also directed, plunges into his narrative, The Stranger disappears until we’re deep into the denouement. Without our narrator’s voice guiding us, point of view regained its original omniscient form, as Edwards adopted a split-screen format for the dialogues that ensued, simulating a series of video calls on the Hadleyburg High students’ laptops. A huge leap of the imagination wasn’t necessary as we switched gears from The Stranger’s first-person account.

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The Stranger’s locked box with a note attached – the famed “temptation” of Twain’s tale – is delivered to Casey, the Student Council president. Conferring with Tammy, her bestie, Casey makes it clear that she hopes to keep the locked box and the riches it contains a secret from the rest of the school, which would thwart The Stranger’s scheme. Tammy, however, is a relatively straight arrow, not the greedy politician that Casey is, so she’s leery of conspiring with her friend, though she prides herself on having the computer skills necessary to break the code that will unlock the box.

Denied by Tammy, Casey turns to Brent for help in getting out the word of The Stranger’s quest to discover the student who had offered the advice that had helped create the fortune contained in the locked box, a tempting $100,000. Each student who believed he or she had given this advice was to submit a form to Mrs. Calloway, the teacher that The Stranger trusted most, stating word-for-word what the exact advice was. Keyed into box, the exact words would unlock the cash prize.

Edwards isn’t shy about injecting some fresh comedy into his retelling, along with altering a plot twist or two. When Tammy changes her mind, getting a bit greedy, Brent turns out to be a bit of a screw-up when Casey tells him not to send out the announcement after all. And The Stranger’s affinity with Mrs. Calloway turns out to be justified by the teacher’s deep flaws. Another nice touch is Frances, reporting for “Hadleyburg Student News” about the amazing giveaway, as Edwards reverts to his podcast format.

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Reactions from various students to the bulletin, intercut with Frances’ report, helps to widen the roster of imposter Samaritans who will submit their entry forms and set the stage for the catastrophic reveal. All of the students at Hadleyburg know that they didn’t donate the $20 that seeded The Stranger’s fortune, but an email sent out by The Stranger explains why each of them deserves the prize. Edwards was able to preserve most of Twain’s original design in baiting this trap. Like Twain’s letter writer, Edwards’ email correspondent has just returned from Mexico.

The famous advice is also replicated – exactly. Edwards finally goes to ZOOM format when the trap is sprung. He added Calloway to preside over the reading of the students’ entries, a Mr. Banks to be caretaker for the digital lockbox, and a Mr. Caldwell as the school principal. What Edwards couldn’t do in a ZOOM format was to underscore the shame of the tempted hypocrites to a whole town, or even to a full high school student body and faculty. Only eight students, eventually including The Stranger, are crowded onto the ZOOM grid with the adults. After the podcasts and the video calls, this climactic scene did seem populated by a throng. Nor did Edwards disappoint me in dealing with the fallout from the public disgrace, resourcefully adjusting his plot.

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Performances weren’t professionally polished down to the smallest cameo, but you’ll find that Edwards’ design bends to such imperfections, particularly when Hadleyburg High students are reacting for a newscast. It was also interesting to watch how emphasis shifted from Casey as Council president to the morally ambivalent Tammy as the action proceeded. Playing the typical stuck-up high school queen bee that we know so well from teen comedy flicks, Adair Addison had most of the zingers in the early action as Casey, reveling in her smugness and sense of privilege. It’s a fun role to play. Tammy’s trials, however, more closely echoed the struggles that Twain’s most upstanding citizens had in his Hadleyburg, and as the webcast proceeded, I appreciated Sabrina Layman’s ambivalence and vacillation more and more, particularly after the ZOOM meeting took an unexpected turn.

Ella Kiser framed the production nicely as The Stranger, assuming an outsider’s sense of resentment from the moment she addressed her podcast audience as “deviants.” Unlike Olivia Samuels, who was so polished as Frances in her newscasts that she could pass for a TV anchor, Kiser retained a nerdy vibe and we could easily imagine her sitting alone, in front of her laptop, with her teen angst and defiance. Screw-up or not, Noah Goldstein was the coolest and most relaxed of the Hadleyburg students, squinting and bending toward us each time he was messaged or emailed, so we really did think of him as lounging in front of his laptop in his tacky bedroom. Addison was such a diva as Casey that we delighted when Goldstein and Layman pushed back in bargaining for their share of the undeserved cash.

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All of the adults were very fine, though only Bethany Schultz as Calloway ever garnered a substantial share of our screens. Schultz was a fascinating study, never surrendering her dignity to Tammy no matter how much Calloway was compromised, yet layering on a nervous, impulsive edge. Ken Ashford as Principal Caldwell and Mickey Hyland as Banks did most of the heavy lifting in reacting to the mass humiliation of Hadleyburg’s perfect students. As the principal, Ashford registered the steep descent from pride to shame – with plenty of surprise and outrage in between. Hyland remained the respectable adult in the room, mostly concerned with damage control as the school’s disgrace metastasized.

We could sense that Casey hadn’t received the comeuppance she truly deserved when the ZOOM meeting adjourned. This and other loose ends were neatly tied together with late-breaking podcasts from Tammy and Frances before The Stranger returned with a final update on her Stranger Than Fiction blogspot. While Edwards decided to detour around Hadleyburg’s memorable temptation motto, the path he chose otherwise was almost perfect.