Daily Archives: March 21, 2022

“The Falling and the Rising” Offers a Kaleidoscopic View of the Military Experience

Review: Opera Carolina Presents The Falling and the Rising

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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March 11, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Four men give their lives to save just one woman soldier, a woman so severely injured that she must be placed in an induced coma to give her any chance of continued survival or even partial recovery. The math and the logic may not seem to add up unless you’ve served in the military or you’ve witnessed The Falling and the Rising, a fairly new opera by Zach Redler and Jerre Dye that may impact Opera Carolina audiences more freshly today than when it premiered in 2018.

Before COVID and Ukraine, when the White House was occupied by a grifter who labeled people who signed up for battlefield duty as “suckers,” the mentality passionately advocated by The Soldier protagonist – that military service is not only a commitment to give your life for your country but also a commitment to give your life for your soldiering comrades – may have seemed rabid, over-the-top, or naively gung-ho. After witnessing the bravery of so many healthcare workers routinely facing the perils of a deadly transmissible disease for the past two years and, more recently, the inspiring popular resistance of so many outgunned Ukrainians, we can likely view that military mentality – and those four soldiers’ sacrifice – as making more sense.2022~Falling and Rising-07

This brash Opera Carolina production, conducted by Emily Jarrell Urbanek and stage directed by Sam Mungo, brings the company to a new venue, the Sandra Levine Theatre in the gorgeously renovated Sarah Belk Gambrell Center, while it brings subscribers a radically different experience. Once the female Soldier is comatose, we’re carried along with her for the bulk of the opera on a kaleidoscopic cavalcade of dream sequences, so the military experience is conveyed to us not only by soldiers in battle and trauma, but also by dedicated doctors and anxious family.

The immersion begins in the Gambrell lobby, where you can pick up info on the Montford Point Marine Association and the Blue Star Mothers of Charlotte. You can also peep in on artworks and obtain a comprehensive coffee table book produced by Bullets & Bandaids, a non-profit veteran and civilian art project. Immersion couples with education at the Gambrell, so it’s fitting that the complex is on the Queens University campus, for the world premiere of The Falling and the Rising was also on academic soil at Texas Christian University, one of seven organizations that commissioned the piece.

A new work set in wartime might trigger a couple of red flags for traditional opera lovers averse to chaos and cacophony. But you’ll find that Redler’s score is comfortably tonal and melodic when soprano Melinda Whittington begins singing a birthday video into a laptop computer for her daughter’s upcoming thirteenth, apologizing and commiserating because they will not be together to celebrate. In fact, when Redler has Whittington pivoting to a shuffle beat, you might briefly wonder whether the composer has crafted a score that’s too casual and accessible.

The roadside IED explosion, with a striking video montage by designer Michael Baumgarten (lights/scenery/video), puts that worry permanently to rest. After the hospital huddle of doctors and a ZOOM consultation where the induced coma is prescribed, the opera is largely a series of extended arias and duets until we reach a closing paean to the men and women who serve, joined by a pre-chosen brigade of vets parading up to the stage from the audience.2022~Falling and Rising-23

Sound at the Levine is noticeably more resonant than the Belk Theater and marginally warmer than Knight Theater, halls where we normally hear Opera Carolina and Charlotte Symphony. Although directors might be tempted to mic student plays and musicals in this 1000-seat space, all of the soloists projected quite easily on opening night to Row M, where we were seated. Redler’s orchestration for 11 musicians balanced well with the singers, and Urbanek had no difficulty in coaxing a hearty variety of colors from her band, which included a French horn, clarinet, guitar, piano, two percussionists, and strings. There is an orchestra pit at the Levine, but it doesn’t protrude far – or impinge on the bond between audience and performer. When baritone Kenneth Overton as the Homecoming Soldier concluded his church sermon, seated in a wheelchair in front of a large wooden crucifix, it didn’t feel like he was calling across a wide gulf when he asked us for an “Amen!”2022~Falling and Rising-11

Gathered from interviews at Fort Myer, Fort Meade, and the famed Walter Reade Military Medical Center, Dye’s libretto was suffused with authenticity and often riveting. Mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock exuded intensity as Staff Sergeant First Class Toledo, steely and tough as her nickname, which figures into the boot camp segment of her aria. Dominic Armstrong took us to the skies with his heroic tenor voice as Jumper, a First Sergeant who mixes hard-nosed honesty with patriotism as he readies Soldier for her first parachute jump. Parting words: “Don’t forget to pull the string!” After that uplift, bass-baritone Peter Morgan brought us back down to earth as Colonel, seen in civvies in his living room, hoping that his military wife will survive.2022~Falling and Rising-17

Each of these monologues was substantial enough to give Whittington a chance to rest her voice before she joined in duet, a mercy when you consider the extra decibels she can pour out. The most brutally honest testimony in this cavalcade came from Overton in his wheelchair as the Homecoming Soldier, ideally placed by Dye at the juncture of his libretto between the last of personal testimonies and our protagonist’s emergence from her coma. Also artful were the spins that Dye put on his title, for we quickly learned that The Falling and the Rising wasn’t simply, as we expected, about the traumas and dramas of battlefield injury and recovery. We first encountered “The falling and the rising” in the Soldier’s memories of her daughter, back when she was an infant and Soldier was simply a mom watching her baby’s breathing as she slept. Later it was the impending leap from an airplane, with all of its danger and exhalation.

So there is music and drama in this latest Opera Carolina production – and poetry as well.

Originally published on 3/13 at CVNC.org

Ukraine’s Colors Shine Through Charlotte Symphony Celebration

Review: Dona Nobis Pacem at Belk Theater

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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March 12, 2022, Charlotte, NC – When 57 musicians gathered at the Carolina Theatre on Tryon Street to present the inaugural Charlotte Symphony concert on March 20, 1932, none of them could have possibly predicted how the orchestra’s 90th anniversary would be celebrated in 2022. Three of the five pieces that Christopher Warren-Green conducted, nearing the end of his distinguished tenure as Symphony’s music director, hadn’t been written yet, and one of the composers hadn’t been born. Even last May, when CSO’s 2021-22 season was announced, Warren-Green himself couldn’t have predicted how grimly appropriate Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem would be for the occasion. As originally conceived, the program was an olive branch from England to America, three British composers conducted by one of the Crown’s finest, two of the pieces paying homage to Walt Whitman, our greatest poet.

A small dent in the all-English lineup turned up when Symphony’s Australian second trombone, Thomas Burge, finished enough of his to-be-continued “Charlotte Symphony Fanfare” for it to serve as a preamble to the orchestra’s celebration. What truly turned the tone of the anniversary festivities upside-down was Vladimir Putin’s horrific invasion of Ukraine, lending Dona Nobis Pacem – “Grant us peace” – unforeseen pertinence and meaning. With St. Patrick’s Day weekend revelers teeming along the sidewalks and spilling over onto Tryon and Fifth Streets, there was a dramatic contrast for concertgoers who became pedestrians shortly after hearing Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and the Dona Nobis at Belk Theater on Saturday night. The most festive of the night’s festivities were outside the hall.

Burge’s new composition will no doubt impress more when it takes its intended place at the launch of a future Symphony’s classics season and the composer’s showy post-pandemic staging can be realized: three brass choirs spread out across the Belk balcony. For the 90th, the brass battalion was confined behind the masked string sections, but the peep we had into the work-in-progress was sunny and glorious. Gustav Holst’s Walt Whitman Overture, a youthful piece completed in 1899 when the composer would turn 25, was arguably the most sustained celebration of the evening, though it might be somewhat deflating to learn that Holst had been dead for over 48 years when the piece was first performed in 1982. The transparent violins at the beginning, hovering over churning basses and cellos before flutes and brass peeped in, struck me more like Schubert than any American or British music. When the brass first broke through, however, there may have been a glint of Sousa, and the final swell of the piece was in a grand Victorian vein.

The Four Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), premiered in 1957, were clearly the most winsome offering of the evening, shuttling between slow and fast tempos – not only between dances but sometimes within them. Inspired by Louis Armstrong more strongly than by Whitman, Arnold’s music displayed a more American élan, geniality, and broad humor than the other Brits’. If your head wasn’t spinning from the abrupt acceleration that Warren-Green called forth in the opening “Strathspey Pesante,” which ended with a pedestrian “shave and a haircut” phrase, then the slowdown in the ensuing Vivace (Reel), initiated by Joshua Hood galumphing on his bassoon, would certainly have caught your ear. And if that weren’t sufficient mischief, Warren-Green’s hambone slacking and slouching at the podium added a visual cue. Perish the thought that Maestro Warren-Green’s predecessor, Christof Perick, would ever have tainted himself with such levity.

After these pranks, which reminded me of the Western merriment in Copland’s folksier pieces, the work of principal harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell, principal flutist Victor Wang, and oboist Erica Cice was sublime in the penultimate “Hebridean Song,” shining through the shimmer of the strings. The concluding “Highland Fling” had as much Scottish flavor as the “Pesante,” rushing at us unabated with sudden shifts in volume, the tweedling of the high woodwinds answered by onrushes of orchestra colored with fiery alarms from the trombones.

If the customary programming conventions for galas were being observed, I’d strongly question the wisdom of delaying the comparatively solemn and serene Tallis Fantasia until after Arnold’s suite, which would have sent us off to intermission in a lighter mood. But Symphony president David Fisk had already solemnized the occasion by dedicating the concert “to Ukraine and the courage, strength, and resilience of its people,” a theme that would subsequently be echoed in the digital program and by Warren-Green, when he prefaced his performance of the Dona Nobis. By coincidence surely, Vaughan-Williams composed his 1910 Fantasia very similarly to Burge’s spanking new “Fanfare,” dividing his aggregation of strings into three parts, two string orchestras with a string quartet within the larger orchestra. Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu had the last and most eloquent solo among those doled out to the four principal string players, but kudos should also go to principal violist Benjamin Geller, whose solo launched the memorable quartet episode.

What will stand out for me, however, was the extraordinary alchemy of this performance. Whether it has always been baked into Vaughan-Williams’ orchestration, maybe something special that Warren-Green was able to elicit from his musicians, or whether it was the unprecedented high placement of the small string orchestra on the platform where the Charlotte Master Chorale would soon sing, flush against the upstage vestigial pipes at the Belk… I could have sworn that there was a softly playing organ in the orchestral mix. Needless to say: amazing.2022~Dona Nobis Pacem-27

Those organ pipes were more verifiably involved in the culminating performance of the Dona Nobis Pacem, after more than 40 Master choristers filed in, followed by our two guest soloists: soprano Christina Pier and, in his Charlotte debut, bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch. It was then that Warren-Green dedicated this piece to the valiant, freedom-loving people of Ukraine. Between the moment that the maestro turned away from us and Symphony began to play, those silvery pipes, illuminated until then entirely in blue light, suddenly became halved into stripes of gleaming blue and yellow gold, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. A proud moment for us all.

Whether prescribed by COVID protocols, Warren-Green’s decree, or the unmasked singers’ personal preferences, Pier and Okulitch sat further apart than the vocal soloists we usually encounter at Symphony concerts. With Pier mostly singing the “Agnus Dei” refrain that contains the Latin title, and Okulitch confining himself in the middle movements in Walt Whitman’s English – and Old Testament translations in the Finale – the separation between the singers wasn’t awkward at all.

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Pier tended to sing with the orchestra and the choir, but there was an extended stretch where Okulitch, standing to Warren-Green’s right, was accompanied solely by Lupanu, seated to his left. So the tableau enhanced the intimacy of their duet. What was really unfortunate and compromising for us were the vast stretches of incomprehensible text from the chorus that Vaughan-Williams had scored so splendidly. If there had been supertitles above the stage or printed programs in our hands, the experience would have been even more powerful. Those of us who were able to download the digital program were adequately equipped, but the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center has had repeated problems with transmitting these copious, colorful, and informative materials.

In future performances where we’re expecting to follow along at the Belk, I will try to download the digital materials before I leave home. Clearest of all was the chorus’s mighty “Beat! Beat! Drums!” refrain from one of Whitman’s most metrical Civil War compositions. Even when we might be lost in the less familiar words of other war poems by the Good Gray Poet (“Reconciliation” and “Dirge for Two Veterans”), the music, the voices, and the colors of the fighting Ukrainians’ flag landed on us forcefully. It was thrilling.

Originally published on 3/14 at CVNC.org