Monthly Archives: November 2021

The Bechtler Ensemble’s Birthday Beatles Is a Big Hit

Review: The Bechtler Ensemble Plays The Beatles

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Celebrating her father’s 80th birthday, Tanja Bechtler and her string quartet found a charming way to mark the occasion, commissioning composer/arranger Mark Adam Watkins to produce a bouquet of a dozen new Beatle song arrangements for the Bechtler Ensemble. The gift was presented in the form of a world premiere concert, part of the Music and Museum series at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, where Andreas Bechtler, founder of the Museum, sat proudly and happily in the front row. Making the concert even more of an artsy (and family) affair, Polaroid shots of the Bechtler family taken by Andy Warhol in 1973 – and the artworks that resulted from them – were projected on the upstage wall, during the musicmaking and during Tanja’s meticulously researched remarks on the tunes and arrangements.

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Watkins’ arrangements gave due deference to the leader of the Bechtler Ensemble’s instrument, the cello, but they were remarkably even-handed in offering extended opportunities for violist Vasily Gorkovoy and second violinist Tatiana Karpova to excel. Lenora Leggatt on first violin hardly eclipsed her cohorts, so evenly were the labors divided, and guitarist Bob Teixeira joined this Fab Four on a couple of the tunes, becoming an honorary Fifth Bechtler.

Watkins lists Beyoncé, Al Jarreau, and Lou Rawls most prominently among his previous collaborations, but it quickly became apparent that he knew his way around arranging for string quartet. On the other hand, arrangements of “Eleanor Rigby,” “Let It Be,” and “Live and Let Die” underscored how much classical influence already infused the original Top 40 hits. Lesser known selections like “Julia,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “Blackbird” supplanted such imperishable earworms as “Yesterdays,” “Lady Madonna,” and “Penny Lane” in the Ensemble’s survey, making the daughter’s gift to her father more heartfelt and personal. Oftentimes in her intros, Tanja would also spotlight phrases or sections of a lyric that were meaningful for her.

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Not at all surprisingly, the Ensemble started off with one of the Beatles’ most familiar tunes, George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” the most streamed song on Spotify by the British rockers. Conceived as a song celebrating the joyous arrival of spring after “a long cold lonely winter,” Watkins seemed to imagine a more instantaneous scenario, sprinkling a series of pizzicatos across his quartet and then launching the melody from Bechtler’s cello as the plucking subsided – like his sun was emerging after rain showers. The melody itself never quite made it up to the violins as Gorkovoy carried us forward on viola, but there was a radiant aura of violins as the arrangement crested to its zenith.

Notorious for its cryptic and surreal John Lennon lyric – and its infusion of Eastern sitar by Harrison – “Norwegian Wood” became even friskier in Watkins’ hands as the bridge of the song, lugubriously slowed down by Bechtler, circled back to a lively intro that reminded me of a Latin street dance. Gorkovoy and Leggatt restarted the song, handing the melody back and forth until Bechtler checked back in. The Latin syncopation hung around stealthily in various guises underneath, maybe a sly suggestion of the song’s extramarital origin.

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There were other instances where Watkins reacted as thoughtfully to the lyric as to the music. Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” began very low in the cello with a mournful gliss from Bechtler, reminding us that the song was a breakthrough for a pop music confection in dealing with the loneliness and depression of the elderly. The inchoate intro of “Imagine,” as Bechtler pointed out, was like a blind groping for a melody – the cello seemed to hit the tune tentatively, and suddenly when it found the path, the sound became achingly sweet. “Revolution” started out like the four instruments were an inarticulate, unruly mob, but the melody lightened to a relaxed Western swing groove when Gorkovoy played it over volleys of triplets – as far from angry as Lennon’s lyric was from supporting violent revolution. When the violins took it to the next level, corresponding with Lennon’s “don’t you know it’s going to be,” the pulse was so swift that it sounded like the Gypsy jazz that violinist Stephane Grappelli pioneered with Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt. Karpova played the full-out licks, soaring high into the treble while Leggatt bowed ferociously behind her.

Hints of jazz lightened a couple of other Watkins arrangements. There was a bluesy boogie-woogie insistence from Bechtler, churning like the pistons of a locomotive or an R&B combustion engine, under the blend of the higher strings in McCartney’s “Drive My Car.” We nearly ended in jubilation when we reached the repeated “beep beep yeah” exclamations, but a wicked decelerating gliss instigated by Bechtler on her cello hinted instead that the car may have comically run out of gas. Karpova had the loveliest variants on the memorable melody of “Michelle,” the song McCartney serenaded the First Lady with at the White House, before Gorkovoy and Leggatt had a nice exchange over Bechtler’s jazzy pizzicato.

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Teixeira first appeared with the Ensemble to enrich the very classical-sounding rendition of McCartney’s “Let It Be,” and he returned, logically enough, for the grand finale, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Bechtler came most beautifully to the fore starting the melody, Leggatt was a fine exponent of the first violin’s role, and Karpova shone in some truly sublime treble, but Teixeira’s guitar was mostly relegated to a subservient strumming role, nothing at all like Eric Clapton’s electric exploits on the Beatles famed White Album. The Bechtler Museum’s lobby, where I was hearing my first classical concert after many amplified jazz concerts, wasn’t as kind to Teixeira’s acoustic guitar as it was to the other string instruments onstage. Bechtler, in fact, sounded far richer here on her cello than I’d heard her many times before upstairs at the Museum. Hopefully, Music and Museum will continue downstairs alongside the Jazz at the Bechtler series, but I hope more care will be taken in the future the next time Teixeira is called upon to mesh with the Bechtler Ensemble’s wonderful ecology.

Originally published on 11/14 at CVNC.org

Major and Minor Keys and Composers Besprinkle NC Baroque’s “Les fontaines de Versailles”

Review: Les fontaines de Versailles – Music @ St. Alban’s

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Yet another classical music ensemble, the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, has joyfully returned to the stage and the thrill of live performance. Led by Frances Blaker, who also presided as emcee and took a turn as a recorder soloist, the authentic-instrument players assembled at Sharon Presbyterian Church, which has happily returned to hosting and sponsoring concerts in their sanctuary. The title of the concert, “Les fontaines de Versailles,” deftly signaled that the baroque offerings would not be limited to works by the usual German and Italian suspects. Aside from pieces by Handel, Telemann, Vivaldi and Albinoni, we heard music by Michel-Richard de Lalande, André Campra, Johann Fasch, Michel Corrette, and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Lalande’s Les fontaines de Versailles wasn’t the pièce de resistance of the evening, but it certainly keynoted the multiple infusions of Gallic flavor into the program.

2021~NC Baroque-14Georg Friedrich Handel’s “Overture to Alessandro” was likely the most familiar composition on a warhorse-free playlist, so there were multiple reasons for us sitting in the Sharon Presbyterian pews to experience frissons of pleasure. We could be surprised by the unexpected familiarity of the music or by how wonderful a live baroque orchestra sounded in a sanctuary after more than a year-and-a-half of being deprived of the satisfaction. This place was what this kind of music was for, though the complete Alessandro was a somewhat comical opera of royal intrigue with Alexander the Great in the middle of a romantic triangle. Violins were at the center of the gorgeous orchestral texture at the start of the Overture, its stately gait blooming emphatically and effortlessly throughout the hall. Tempos sped up and slowed with an ebb and flow that suggested the full opera in miniature – responses by the wind instruments growing boldest in the swift episode before the music settled into its ultimate repose.2021~NC Baroque-02

Lalande’s little gem, with grand treble harmonies from trilling winds over dancing strings in 3/4 meter, was actually nestled between two multi-movement concertos by Georg Philipp Telemann and Antonio Vivaldi. Each of these concertos, in turn, featured multiple soloists. In Telemann’s E Minor Concerto for Recorder and Flute, TWV 52:e1, Blaker teamed with flutist Kathleen Kraft on the first two movements of the four-movement work. The opening Largo had a more balanced interplay between the soloists, with exquisitely intertwined melodies and harmonies, but Kraft was clearly at the forefront in the ensuing Allegro, delightfully fleet in her playing with Blaker surfacing most deliciously when her recorder blended with the virtuosic flute.

Vivaldi’s D Major Concerto for two violins and two cellos, RV 564, was presented in its entirety, two Allegro movements separated by a shorter Largo. Blaker added some engaging showmanship by calling upon a different pair of violinists for each movement, thereby showcasing most of the section. Tom Lajoie and concertmaster Martie Perry, playing the violin solos in the brisk opening movement, with churning violins and foreboding cellos behind them, proved to be a tough act to follow. The Largo, pairing violinists David Wilson and Janelle Davis, reminded me of Vivaldi’s most familiar Mandolin Concerto, and the closing Allegro brought us spirited exchanges between Annie Loud and Steph Zimmerman – with cellists Alexa Hanes-Pilon and Lisa Liske making their most distinctive contributions.

After a halved intermission that Blaker proclaimed would be seven-and-a-half minutes, NC Baroque demonstrated that multi-movement pieces would not be devoted exclusively to famous composers. Gleaned from Campra’s three-act comédie-lyrique of 1699, Le Carnaval de Venise, the ensemble played four instrumental excerpts, shuttling between slow and fast. The Ouverture began as a stately processional before the winds began mimicking the accelerated strings in canonical fashion, gliding into a dignified slowdown. Two “Airs pour les Arts” followed, the second noticeably swifter than the first, and then a “Marche de la Fortune” for the Followers of Fortune, achingly slow and mesmerizing. Two passe-pieds offered joyous compensation for this lull, closing out this charming sampler, both of them very sprightly, bringing smiles to those faces that weren’t masked.2021~NC Baroque-10

Looking forward to the oncoming classical period, Fasch’s Allegro, from his three-movement Concerto Grosso in D minor, FaWV L:d7, was the pleasant little departure that Blaker promised, retaining many baroque traits with its woodwind filigree, yet more homophonic in its string textures. At times, the wind voicings sounded almost brassy. In the French segment that followed, Blaker and the orchestra began with the “Rondeau – Danse exécutée par les sauvages” from Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes and moved smoothly into Corrette’s “Carillon des Mortes.” Compared with the most outré moments of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Rameau’s Danse was not savage at all, rather formal, and the alternate title, “Danse du Grand Calumet de la Paix,” is more accurately descriptive of this Rondeau, which was nearly as familiar to me as the Handel selection. Similarly, the back and forth of flutes in the Corrette composition was rather blandly descriptive compared to more percussive evocations of bells by modern composers. All in all, there was an amusing quaintness and restraint to these paired programmatic ventures.

Albinoni’s Sinfonia in G minor for two flutes, two oboes, bassoon and strings, Si 7, was a great way to conclude this concert, though I wondered why the wind soloists didn’t come downstage as Blaker and Kraft had done. On an I Solisti Veneti compilation of 12 concertos and three Sinfonias, conducted by Claudio Scimone, this G minor also concludes that program, so its appeal is far from subtle – which was likely why we heard much of the finest playing of the night in these three delectable movements, the whole of this petite symphony. Liveliness was apparent in the first notes of the Allegro, featuring some choice exchanges between bassoonists Chuck Wines and Hanes-Pilon, who abandoned her cello here. Flutes separated themselves melodiously from the full ensemble in the ensuing Larghetto e sempre piano, offered up in beguiling 3/4 time. We finished with what sounded like the fastest Allegro of the night, with especially dazzling ensemble bowing from the violins. This was not only a joyous return for NC Baroque, it was also a reaffirmation that Charlotte, with a return of our Bach Festival looming in 2022, is a hotbed for this music.

Originally published on 11/12 at CVNC.org

“My Dinner With Andrea” Takes Feminism to the Limit

Review: My Dinner With Andrea from Charlotte’s Off-Broadway

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Thanks largely to Anne Lambert and Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, the Queen City’s fiercest proponent of homegrown professional theatre and her spunky little company, we have now seen two provocative new plays by her sister, Susan Lambert Hatem. Not surprisingly, since Lambert is also a founding member of Chickspeare – “all female, all Shakespeare, all the time” was their catchphrase – both of the Hatem plays we’ve seen have been spiritedly feminist.

Lambert directed Confidence (And the Speech) at Spirit Square in 2018 and now takes on the title role in My Dinner With Andrea. Charlotte’s Off- Broadway has moved off-Tryon to The Arts Factory, the stand-in of choice so far for resident theatre companies at Spirit Square while that facility is reconfigured. In Confidence, we had a former presidential aide who was willing to recount her role in crafting Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence speech, but only on the condition that she and her questioner playact the narrative – with her playing the President and the questioner portraying the aide, a role and gender reversal.

Like Confidence, Hatem’s new play is a reaction to the 2016 election. You might presume that an initial reaction would be angry and visceral, leading subsequently to a more reasoned and pragmatic response. This playwright is flipping that order. She’s angrier, more irrational and visceral now than she was three years ago.

Then her heroine was an academic who helped Hatem juxtapose Jimmy Carter’s reasoned, cautious, calculated, and inclusive methods of policy- and decision-making with the infamous 45’s. Furthermore, she showed us how naturally a woman (could the playwright have had Hillary in mind?) would fit into that more intelligent, deliberate, and statesman-like mold.

The anger and impulsiveness of My Dinner With Andrea indicate that there’s more than a little 2020 in Hatem’s fuel tank, firing up her engine. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that Andrea, portrayed by the playwright’s sister, is a female Donald. Or an amalgam of the two 2016 candidates? A devious entrepreneurial maniac who is more ambitious than 45, more pragmatic and intelligent, and less likely to run off the rails and flame out.

After tasting the bitter fruit of whistleblowing, Julia Grace Brandt is a research scientist who can use a job that utilizes her talents without compromising her integrity. She agrees to meet with an old, somewhat estranged friend, Andrea Ranger, who has become a renowned A-lister, on a first-name basis with Serena Williams, multitudes of glitterati, and key influencers. Divorced twice, if I counted correctly, with no kids – and no-thank-you on the subject of motherhood.

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Andrea’s next great entrepreneurial target, one that Julia is supremely equipped to spearhead, is the development of a wondrous vaccine, distributed globally, that will wipe cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s from the face of the earth. Lurking behind those wonders will be a genetic side-effect of ridding mankind of men – or at least skewing the female-to-male birthrate ratio from 50-50 to a more comfortable 70-30, if not north of that.

“The future is female,” Andrea says, not kidding at all, though the phrase is familiar. As happens occasionally in dystopian sci-fi epics, she wishes to speed the process.

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Certainly, there are sufficient urgent crises facing humanity – and more than sufficient patriarchy screwups – to justify Andrea’s design and haste. Likewise, there are reasons why the highly principled Julia will sit there, hear Andrea out, and negotiate rather than simply walking away. For one, the fabulously wealthy Andrea will very likely make a fabulous salary offer to her old friend. More immediately – and temptingly – they are meeting at Miesha, the most chichi restaurant in all of Atlanta, and Andrea is having their waiter, William, bring out every single delicacy on the menu, from the appetizers to the desserts.

The meal of a lifetime for an unemployed lesbian.

So yes, the resemblance between My Dinner With Andrea and the 1981 movie, My Dinner With André (written by and starring André Gregory and Wallace Shawn), isn’t accidental. Hatem’s script is more purposeful, confrontational, and sexual, a pretty explosive combo in a space as small and intimate as The Arts Factory.

Utilizing the ubiquitous cellphone of 2021, Hatem can brief us on the upcoming action by simply having Julia confide in her partner by phone as she waits for Andrea to make a fashionably late entrance. Back in 1981, we needed Shawn’s voiceover, as he walked toward the restaurant, to clue us in.

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As the posh dinner and job offer unfold, Julia faces a couple of moral dilemmas informed by Hatem’s astute reading of 2020 and the Trump Era. Most obvious is the quandary that many who signed on to 45’s heinous administration ultimately faced. Should I risk soiling my reputation by joining this malignant organization, compartmentalize my work into the good that it might accomplish, and try to curb or sabotage its leader’s megalomaniacal schemes? Or should I distance myself from this creep as far as possible?

If Julia actually takes home Andrea’s prospectus and considers her devil’s bargain, she will probably be gauging her chances of subverting her vaccine development enterprise so that only good comes out of it. Or she may be simply fortifying her powers of self-delusion, finding excuses for allowing herself to be bought off, and placing herself in danger of being outfoxed by Andrea and other members of her brain trust, making her a duped accomplice in their diabolical scheme.

Adding some West Wing gravity to this tête-à-tête, Andrea has Julia ink a non-disclosure agreement before revealing how she plans to change the world. Enhancing the intrigue and giving us a little foreshadowing, William assists in preserving confidentiality by ceremoniously relieving Julia of her cellphone – and her smartwatch. We may think Andrea’s security concerns are frivolous and overblown, but then Julia suddenly comes face-to-face with her second moral dilemma, a climactic #MeToo moment that hatches more confrontation and dispute.

Echoes of that moment reverberated with me during the drive home, for I kept thinking how the incident would sit with Julia on her drive home and when she talked things over with her partner. Does what just happened potentially give her extra leverage down the road if she accepts Andrea’s job offer?

Tracie Frank plays Julia with such elegant cool that I could easily imagine her factoring this possible leverage into her ultimate calculus, for if the world isn’t in such dire straits that Andrea’s remedies are truly necessary, it could be if the psychopath makes headway. Maybe director Marla Brown could have called upon Frank to devour the culinary delights arrayed before her with more gusto to point up her susceptibility to temptation, but we see more than enough Epicurean enthusiasm to suspect there might be chinks in her armor. Frank’s is a nicely calibrated performance when you weigh it accurately, with the simmering rage of an unrepentant whistleblower often lurking beneath the surface.

Lambert has the juicier role as Andrea, seemingly with a green light to go all the way to a “Hillarump” Hillary+Trump if she pleases. Yes, we see her regally dangling all sorts of perks in front of her prey, flexing her wealth, but she also has a shrewd respect for Julia’s scruples, sees that bribery needs to be supplemented with down-to-earth charm and statistical persuasion to have her way. Brown doesn’t rein Lambert in to the extent that her confidence in emerging victorious – now at the restaurant and ultimately in the future – ever seems to wane, but she definitely credits Julia with being a formidable and admirable antagonist.

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Matt Howie rounds out the cast as William, nicely complementing his elders. His youth and suave servility give a nice edge to Andrea’s cougar tendencies while cloaking her true motives, and his smiling condescension subtly puts Julia in her place – maybe steeling her spine.

While My Dinner With Andrea compares favorably with My Dinner With André – and with her earlier Confidence – I do wish Hatem had been more thorough in her research, which would have made this Dinner richer in its logistics. Male birthrates actually outpace female birthrates in today’s world, particularly in Asian countries where cultural influences and social engineering are in play, skewing the numbers. You can compound the steepness of that climb with other hills, including the FDA, the CDC, and anti-vaxxers.

How would Andrea outmaneuver and circumvent all those obstacles? Concrete answers would certainly bring this archvillain’s fiendishness to a loftier level. Asking those questions would also sharpen Julia’s acumen.

Fully embracing those considerations, a Dinner 2.0 could be a provocative knockout. Meanwhile, without fully sweating the details, Hatem’s lively play certainly begins offers us a different path to discarding democracy for the sake of a better tomorrow. Sadly, it also makes more sense than the path pursued by 45’s insurrectionists.

Anthem, Summer, and Winter Bring Enthusiastic Charlotte Symphony Audience to Its Feet

Review: CSO Plays Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Charlotte Symphony had plenty to celebrate as their 2021-22 Classical Series began: they were playing on the Knight Theater stage for the first time since February 2020, they were beginning what is expected to be their first full season since 2018-19, it’s their 90th season, and it’s maestro Christopher Warren-Green’s farewell season as CSO’s musical director. Happy as Warren-Green and all the musicians appeared to be, there was no hiding that the return was not altogether smooth. The disconnect between what brochures in the lobby said the orchestra would be playing and the reality was fairly dramatic. All three of the selections originally scheduled in the “Russian Masters” program – including a Shostakovich symphony, a Glinka overture, and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, featuring Paul Huang – were dropped. Now we were three-quarters Italian, with works by Ottorino Respighi, Pietro Mascagni, and Heinrich von Biber served up before intermission and Huang switching off to Antonio Vivaldi’s beloved Four Seasons after the break.

When last season belatedly opened back in May at Belk Theater, in front of a socially-distanced audience, I wondered whether Warren-Green would honor Symphony’s tradition of playing our National Anthem to mark the first live concert. He declined then, and it seemed quite possible that he would hold off yet again, since the vaccinated audience, masked but no longer distanced, would be obliged to stand and sing together. But the mood was different now. Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu preceded the maestro to the stage, gesturing so victoriously that you would have thought the orchestra had won the Super Bowl. After Warren-Green told us how glad he and his orchestra were to be playing to a live audience once again, he indeed turned sideways to cue the drumroll for the Anthem. As we stood together singing, rounding into the final eight bars, Warren-Green’s previous hesitance felt justified. For after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the January 6 invasion of the nation’s Capitol, the affirmation that “our flag was still there” was more vivid now in a closely bunched crowd, suddenly fresh and renewed.

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All of the pieces that Warren-Green followed up with were musically descriptive in some fashion. Respighi chose three masterworks by Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli for his Trittico botticelliano. The first, “La Primavera (Spring),” offered a tasty comparison with the opening Vivaldi concerto, light and airy with little solo passages that reintroduced us to the orchestra’s worthy principals playing French horn, trumpet, celesta, glockenspiel, flute, and reeds. Beauty and liveliness were nicely counterpoised in the steady, brisk tempo until the strings imposed their serenity. “L’Adorazione dei Magi (The Adoration of the Magi)” belied its expected bustle and ecstasy as it began, dark and solemn as acting principal Joshua Hood began on the bassoon and principal oboist Hollis Ulaky layered on. After some lovely runs by principal flutist Victor Wang, the middle of this movement did become more hectic and dramatic, keyed by harp and percussion, with a gently quickened tempo as the strings asserted themselves. Wang returned to the forefront at the start of the climactic “La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus),” surely Botticelli’s greatest hit, but the slow massing and building of the judiciously trimmed string section, forcefully topped by the violins, was the prime wonder in this satisfying ending.

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With unerring instinct, Warren-Green programmed Mascagni’s “Intermezzo from Cavelleria Rusticana” between the more substantial Respighi and Biber compositions so the three-minute piece for strings and harp played like an interlude as originally intended. The throbbing harp gave this lyrical gem a heartbeat, while the singing strings made it affecting like an aria. Now it was time for some fun as Warren-Green reveled in introducing Biber’s Battalia à 10, an eight-part evocation of warfare with some astonishing quirks. Most of these were novel ways that the musicians were called upon to replicate percussion instruments, beginning with the entire ensemble stamping their feet. Fingerboards of the basses and cellos were wrapped in paper and rapped with bows to simulate marching drums in the “Mars” section while Lupanu impersonated the piper on his violin. “Bartók slaps” were inflicted on the basses to mimic canon fire in the climactic “Battle” section, made more bizarre when the cellists turned their instruments sideways like guitars – with added mock drama when the harpsichordist fainted comically over her keyboard. Vying with this spectacle for the most memorable aspect of Battalia – and certainly the most modernistic – was the Bohemian composer’s second movement, “The lusty society of all types of humor.” Evoking the drunkenness of a teeming tavern, Biber split his little ensemble into four parts, each one playing a different song and blithely oblivious to the others. Warren-Green half-turned to us during this unspeakable cacophony and gave a little shrug.

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Returning to Charlotte for the first time since his Symphony debut two years ago, when he played the Dvořák Violin Concerto, Huang did not pale at all in comparison with the charismatic Aisslinn Nosky when she played – and conducted – The Four Seasons in 2018, the last time it had been presented here. The magnificent tone Huang achieved on his coveted 1742 “ex-Wieniawski” Guarneri del Gesù instrument was nearly as impressive as his fleet-fingered virtuosity and intensity. Even on normal occasions, recordings do not nearly capture the excitement of a live Four Seasons performance. On opening night, the pent-up hunger of this audience was palpable enough for the soloist, the musicians, and Warren-Green to feed off, and in the most turgid moments of these four familiar concertos, there was a feverish frenzy to the onset of the wind and storms that Vivaldi brings on. After the final notes of “Summer,” the crowd sprang to their feet, either electrified by Huang’s bravura or convinced that nothing could possibly follow what they had just heard. There are 12 movements, after all, so any confusion was easily forgiven – and the string players also joined the ovation, tapping their bows.

Yet there was more to come, including some nifty double bowing from Huang in the first movement of “Autumn” and a sprinkling of “Bartók slaps” from the upright basses in the last. Nor was “Winter” at all anticlimactic as Huang reached hyperintensity once again as Sirocco and Boreas engaged in windy combat. The final standing ovation was no less deserved than the previous outburst, and it lasted longer.

Cox and Beilman Play the Changes, Guesting with CSO

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Wagner, Mozart, and Brahms

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Holding our collective breaths, subscribers can hope that the current Charlotte Symphony program represents the last retreats from the fare originally announced for the 2021-22 season. Although Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll replaced Zoltan Kodály’s Dances of Galánta and Johannes Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 replaced his Symphony No. 3, we still had guest conductor Roderick Cox and guest soloist Benjamin Beilman, though Beilman needed to be as flexible as the orchestra, switching from the Charlotte premiere of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto to Mozart’s “Turkish” Violin Concerto No. 5. Of course, Brahms himself might have laughed out loud at the hasty substitution, since he had been so famously averse to attempting a symphony while Beethoven’s shadow still loomed so large. Compounding the hilarity, the Serenade No. 2 may have been historic, possibly the first closing piece at a Symphony Classics Series concert to be played without violins onstage.

Written for his wife, Cosima, in 1870 and later dedicated to their son upon publication, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll isn’t extracted from any of his operas, though the music sometimes smacks of themes from The Ring cycle, especially Siegfried. It begins intimately enough, with a quiet string quartet, comprised of principals from the string sections, with concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu unmistakably the lead voice. So audience members at Knight Theater could easily imagine the romantic story of the music’s informal premiere, when Wagner stealthily placed his little orchestra (just 13 on that morning) on the stairway leading to Cosima’s bedroom while she was still sleeping – gradually awakening her as the music swelled. A couple of French horns and a trumpet eventually added force and volume to the composition, and principal oboist Hollis Ulaky played memorably in numerous spots.

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Beilman seemed to be even better matched with the Mozart than he had been with the Beethoven in his 2017 Charlotte debut. Hearing a live performance at this level was more rewarding than listening to my favorite recordings by Arthur Grumiaux, David Oistrakh, and Julia Fischer. By this time, it was quite obvious that Cox had taken the eleventh-hour changes in programming totally in stride, for the introductory orchestral passages of first two movements of the Mozart, an Allegro aperto followed by an Adagio, had a bloom that rivaled the most sublime passages in the Wagner, with no less polish. Beilman’s highest notes had admirable muscle, his pianissimos in that stratosphere were ethereal, and his midrange was as burnished as I had remembered from the Beethoven. The closing Rondeau showed us how truly ingratiating Beilman can be as he genially swayed us in a waltzing 3/4 tempo – then suddenly jerked us out of our comfort zone as he and Cox conspired, nearly halfway in, to bring extra drama to the sudden lurch into the “Turkish” section of this movement and its lively duple tempo. Try counting this section any other way than 1-2, 1-2, 1-2… I couldn’t.

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Unlike so many of the serenades inflicted on us – there, I’ve said it! – during the pandemic, Brahms didn’t limit either of his to strings alone. The Serenade No. 2 includes a full complement of woodwinds and a pair of French horns. Bassoonists Joshua Hood and Naho Zhu were unusually prominent in the reedy opening measures of the Allegro moderato, with flutists Victor Wang and Amy Orsinger Whitehead soon afterwards coming to the forefront. Violins over plucked cellos and basses heightened the intensity and made a pathway for Ulaky on oboe to shine again. Rigidly on-the-beat handling his stick, Cox made the ensuing Scherzo: Vivace more march-like than the acclaimed Michael Tilson Thomas recording, but the rhythmic thrust and liveliness remained unmistakable.

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Audience members should have noticed by this time that Brahms intended his clarinetists to switch between A, C, and B-flat clarinets over the course of this Serenade. Churning lower strings (remember, there weren’t any violins) ushered in the middle Adagio non troppo movement, but principal woodwind players had sufficient time to leave their imprints, including Ulaky, Wang, and – far in the treble – clarinetist Taylor Marino. With Cox taking a notably sprightly take, the penultimate Quasi menuetto was more of a trinket than the Scherzo had been, Ulaky and Wang excelling once again. Discarding all remaining restraint and tenderness that we might have expected from a Serenade, Cox and Symphony made the closing Rondo a rollicking romp from the first bars, clearly taking aim at compensating for the lack of a symphony on the program. Oboes, clarinets, and horns led the charge, with the low strings high-stepping right behind them. Erinn Frechette finally had chances to tweedle on her piccolo as the winds reached their maximum effervescence, but the congregation of strings eventually had their say, building to a satisfying ending.

Noel Freidline and Jon Metzger Deftly Distill the Essence of MJQ

Review: Noel Freidline Jazz Quartet @ St. Alban’s

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Celtic, classic, folk, and jazz – the Music @ St. Alban’s concert series at the acoustically splendid Episcopal church in Davidson has embraced a wide variety of music over the years. So it was interesting to observe their welcoming approach to resuming live performances after an abbreviated season of online events. For their first concert of 2021-22, the Noel Freidline Quartet’s tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet, St. Alban’s requested that all audience members be fully vaccinated and wear masks throughout the performance. No vaccination cards were checked at the entrance, while the series website invited anyone who wasn’t vaccinated to enjoy the live-stream of the concert – a trusting, responsible, and inclusive approach.

Any exploration of the Modern Jazz Quartet must begin with the special MJQ instrumentation and sound. Formed in 1952, MJQ always centered around its pianist-composer-arranger John Lewis and vibraphonist Milt Jackson, whose interplay and musical rapport were legendary. By 1955, the formula and sound congealed as percussionist Connie Kay and bassist Percy Heath replaced their flashier, starrier predecessors, Kenny Clarke and Ray Brown. The Freidline combo featured Jon Metzger playing the vibraphone, Rick Dior on drums, Zack Page on bass, and the leader at the keyboard. Clearly, it was Freidline and Metzger who cooked up the program between them, since Dior replaced the drummer originally announced on our events calendar. As for Page, Freidline exposed his unfamiliarity with the bassist when he presumed that none of the other musicians onstage was familiar with “Rose Room”: Page not only knew the tune, he had played it with his twin brother, guitarist Andy Page, in a “Gypsy Jazz” tribute to Django Reinhardt less than two years ago at Charlotte’s Stage Door Theater.

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Freidline and Metzger were savvier in their sampling of the MJQ legacy, which stretched over 40 years and 50 recordings. They played compositions that are musts for anyone coming to this music for the first time, including Lewis’s classically sophisticated “Django” and “Vendôme,” offset by Jackson’s funkier “Bluesology” and “Bags’ Groove.” There were also discriminating choices like “Concorde,” perhaps Lewis’s most challenging composition, and standards such as “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” “All the Things You Are” and “Summertime,” that crystallized the pianist’s arranging genius. The rest of the selections were less expected, almost equally fresh for longtime MJQ fans as they were for neophytes, including “Afternoon in Paris,” “Autumn in New York,” “Delauney’s Dilemma,” and “Blues in C Minor.”

One of the characteristics that made MJQ so unique was their pioneering conservatism. They preferred outdoor festivals and concert halls to seedy clubs, dressed up for their performances in matching tuxedos like orchestra musicians, and insisted on being listened to rather than being taken for granted as dance or background music. For a long while, these practices, not terribly outré nowadays, were viewed as outlandish and pretentious. Less notorious, but no less innovative, was their practice of offering spoken intros to each of their pieces as they performed. Freidline, without self-consciously noting MJQ’s influence, adopted this practice himself.

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Beginning with “Afternoon in Paris,” probably Lewis’s earliest jazz standard, the Freidline Quartet made it evident that there would be some give-and-take in terms of their replication of the MJQ sound and style. If you had ever heard the quartet live – or spent hours and hours of quality time with their most revered albums – the sound of Metzger playing his Musser vibraphone repeatedly seemed to bring the playing of Milt “Bags” Jackson back to life. Metzger’s tremolo may not have been as slow, and his sustains may not have been quite as long or rich, but the Jackson swing and flow kept on coming – chiming – wave after luscious wave.

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As a leader, Freidline doled out far more spotlight to his supporting players than Lewis, trading four-bar improvisations with Dior toward the end of the opening piece and giving Page a solo on the ensuing “Bluesology,” where Metzger sounded even more like Jackson in playing on the legendary vibes master’s famed composition. Freidline, on the other hand, was nowhere near as trim or spare in his soloing as Lewis, sounding more like Dave Brubeck at the keyboard, full chords showering down at times from both hands rather than single note phrases. It wasn’t until we reached “Summertime,” whose silences Freidline extolled in his charming intro, that the pianist came near to echoing Lewis’s single-note soloing style, which always contrasted so beautifully with Jackson’s deluges.

Lewis was not at all discarded otherwise, for Freidline delighted in playing the pianist’s arrangements framing the MJQ’s interpretations of the standards, and when it came to “Concorde” and “Vendôme,” presenting Lewis’s own compositions as written. Perhaps the most eloquent moment in Freidline’s intro to “Concorde” was when he held out its nine pages of sheet music and allowed it to unfold down to the floor. So we heard the Bach-like layering that opens “Concorde,” the contrapuntal prelude that gives way to “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” and the solemn chiming that leads us in and out of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” The most outrageous heresy of the concert, when Dior brandished sticks and played a full-out solo on “La Ronde,” wasn’t a heresy at all, for the group wasn’t referencing the hallowed European Concert version of 1960, featuring bassist Heath. They were hearkening back instead to the first MJQ recording, when Kenny Clarke was behind the drum kit wailing away in “La Ronde” from beginning to end – and soloing – on December 22, 1952.

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The tribute within the tribute, Lewis’s “Django,” was the highlight of the concert for me, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member who was moved by the composer’s hushed and sacred framing of the solos. Metzger was perfection in handling the transition between the bittersweet melody and the accelerated improvisations lavished upon it, turning the lament into a quiet celebration and making the lament all the more poignant as the Romani guitarist’s signature swing was wistfully evoked. Page had his best moments of the afternoon as he eloquently soloed, and Freidline was no less perfect than Metzger in his soloing and decelerating back to the mournful melody. Every note of this fine concert is preserved on YouTube.