Monthly Archives: November 2022

Joy and Akinmusire Cap SeixalJazz 2022

Review:  Ambrose Akinmusire and Samara Joy at SeixalJazz 2022

By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Portugal-190At SeixalJazz, across the graceful April 25th Suspension Bridge from Lisbon, Portugal’s renowned capital, the festival must go on. The last couple of pandemic editions, in annual two-meters-apart format, had been muted echoes of the expansive new direction SeixalJazz had taken in 2019, when Kenny Barron, Ralph Towner, Peter Bernstein, and the John Beasley Monk’estra had all been headliners – while afternoon and latenight concerts had been added at separate venues.

After a strategic retreat to an all-Portuguese lineup in 2020, the 2021 festival celebrated its 25th anniversary with a stellar smorgasbord for its socially-distanced audience, including Seamus Blake, Melissa Aldana, Ted Nash, and a high-powered Billy Hart Quartet that slipped in Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson. But it was SJ 2022 that turned on the burners full blast once again at the Municipal Auditorium of the Seixal Cultural Forum, discarding the social-distancing of previous years and restoring the alternate slate of free-admission “Clube” programming at the Sociedade Filarmónica Democrática.

2022~Portugal-186Monty Alexander, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Samara Joy were the big names ready to cook at the Municipal. Breaking our own personal travel bans, my wife Sue and I had already shortlisted Portugal as an attractive autumn destination. Seeing Joy perform with guitarist Pasquale Grasso in August, at Charlotte’s Middle C Jazz Club, pretty much cinched our decision. The opportunity to also see Akinmusire, whose albums I had supported on multiple JazzTimes Critics Picks lists in past years, made the closing weekend at SeixalJazz even more irresistible.

If that weren’t enough, the 10:00pm starting time for all Municipal Auditorium concerts left us free to tour as we wished during daylight hours without being rushed or constricted in our evening dining choices. Across the Tagus River from Lisbon, atop an imposing slope overlooking the shore, the Municipal sports a hillside parking lot that could likely accommodate an audience of 1000. We were rather surprised when the hall, unlike most festival spaces we’ve experienced, had a cozy capacity of 400 or less – completely sold out on both nights we attended.2022~Portugal-196

Akinmusire was actually more familiar with the Municipal than we were, having played on closing night of SeixalJazz 2014 with two other members of his current quartet, pianist Sam Harris and drummer Justin Brown. Missing in action from that gig eight years ago were tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and bassist Harish Raghavan, staples in the trumpeter’s formative years, replaced by Joe Sanders wielding the upright.

So the rapport between Akinmusire’s bandmates – and between the band and their festival audience – figured to be solid. Knowing each other for more than 20 years, the returning members of the Akinmusire Quartet could hearken back to the leader’s earliest recordings, play off on the tender spot of every calloused moment, Ambrose’s latest release, and even play a new composition for the first time. Adding to the band’s comfort level, no doubt, the acoustics and the sound crew at the Municipal quickly proved to be admirable, and the audience’s energy and courtesy were outstanding.2022~Portugal-066

While the sound of Akinmusire’s band put me in mind of the Miles Davis Quintet that astounded me at the Village Vanguard in the mid-1960s, with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock in the lineup, the shape of the compositions and the composer’s arrangements were freer in form. Meters, tempos, moods, and dynamics could all change abruptly during each piece on multiple occasions. Except perhaps for Sanders’ occasional bass solos, bars and choruses seemed to be an arcane concept when the soloing players took the spotlight.

Nor did Harris or Brown diligently withdraw into accompaniment when handing off the lead to each other – or even when Akinmusire was had the reins. Because Harris and/or Brown were so persistently expressive instead of subordinating themselves, the very definition of soloing was often in flux as each arrangement organically unfolded. It was as if all were so eagerly joining in on a narrative – and so comfortable with each other – that nobody ever hesitated to speak up or interrupt.2022~Portugal-072

Yet the Quartet’s volatile brew never gave any sign of devolving into cacophonous chaos. Most freely expressive was Akinmusire, growling, squealing, whining, sighing, or ranting – angrily or urgently or plaintively – with his horn. Nearly always, he had the last word, more like a soliloquy than a cadenza. Pieces often seemed to end after a moment of reflection when Ambrose decided he had said exactly enough.

The crowd was only thrown once by the Quartet, three pieces into the concert, when a cooldown Akinmusire offering was followed by a titanic solo by Brown. It was so epic that the hall burst into wild applause when the drummer simply paused for a breath and a mood shift – followed by a briefer trumpet solo crackling with fury. “Mr. Roscoe (consider the simultaneous),” for composer and multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell, was the most cerebral and rigidly arranged nugget on the playlist, showcasing Harris in a wonderfully thoughtful vein.2022~Portugal-062

That provided a perfect segue to Akinmusire immersing us in his ballad mode with “Roy” for trumpet great Roy Hargrove, also from the most recent album but in a live version that was more extended and virtuosic. Not having seen Ambrose playing live before – or even on YouTube, I’ll confess – I was more than a little surprised that this brass player, unlike Wynton Marsalis or Wycliffe Gordon, didn’t bring a collection of mutes, plungers, or assorted doodads onstage to help him produce that wide array of signature sounds he perfected.

And of course, I was impressed. Even Miles had his famed Harmon mute in his arsenal.

Nestled at the bottom of the hilltop commanded by the Municipal Auditorium, a gaudy riverboat with a gangway leading down to it stood gleaming on the shore. Our first night at SeixalJazz, we mistook the riverboat for the ferry from Lisbon, which had its last run of the night when festival concerts began. As it turned out, the posh vessel was the Lisboa à Vista, a truly fine seafood restaurant where we had booked reservations for the following night – and where we first encountered Samara Joy and her band, already seated at the table next to ours.

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My wife recognized her first, but I soon felt compelled to confront jazz’s newest diva with a question that had been nagging at me all the way across the Atlantic. Since Joy had favored us back in August with a song she had written in French for a previous concert abroad, could I get a scoop on a new song she had written in Portuguese?

Not quite. Joy hadn’t written a song in Portuguese for tonight, but she assured us that she would be singing one.

Joy’s career has certainly been in high gear over the past few months, so I’ve needed to shift into overdrive just to keep up with the news. At Middle C, she was signing pre-release copies of Linger Awhile, and eight weeks later when she sang at Seixal, the new album was rapidly climbing the charts. By the time we returned stateside, Linger Awhile was #1 on the Jazz Week airplay chart. Two Grammy nominations came in shortly afterwards, including Best New Artist, and word of a seven-city Big Band Holidays tour with the Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra was posted online, to be followed with a stint on the 2023 Jazz Cruise.

At the Municipal, the contour of Joy’s set was very much as it had been back in North Carolina, about half of the songs from her two albums, leaving her plenty of space for pleasant surprises – and leaving us plenty of additional delights to discover in her new album if we hadn’t heard it. Unlike Akinmusire (one Grammy nom, we should mention), who started off full steam and never let up except for his well-placed but no-less-intense balladry, Joy started off at a high level, less chatty and playful than she had been at Middle C, but there was a gradual build in the second half of her set list.2022~Portugal-218

Once again, “Can’t Get Out of This Mood” was near the beginning of the program, unmistakably echoing the Sarah Vaughan arrangement from her landmark In Hi-Fi album of 1950. This time, pianist Ben Paterson instead of Grasso was Joy’s prime collaborator, so the performance was far closer to the sound of the Grammy-nominated studio version. On the other hand, Grasso – like Paterson, a major voice on Linger Awhile – had played the intro and instrumental solo on “Nostalgia (The Day I Knew)” where Joy has added fresh lyric to Fats Navarro’s 1947 solo on the Tadd Dameron original. So that tune got a fresh twist in Seixal, with a Euro edge as French bassist Mathias Allamane and Danish drummer Malte Arndal rounded out Joy’s rhythm.

“’Round Midnight” has a bigger horn arrangement in the studio version, so I preferred the intimacy that Joy established with her audience in both of her live performances here and abroad, though I’d be eager to hear a J@LC arrangement. The other Monk tune, with Joy’s vocalese on “San Francisco Holiday (Don’t Worry Now),” hasn’t been recorded yet. Both Grasso and Paterson were exemplary when I heard them, so it will be interesting to see which one Joy will choose for her studio take.

With his work on “If You Never Fall in Love With Me,” swung with Joy more confidently and energetically than “This Mood,” Paterson made his case that the vocalist’s eponymous debut album, cut exclusively with Grasso’s trio, could have benefitted from his presence. The lingering rush of adrenalin from that uptempo romp provided a perfect moment for Joy to spring her Portuguese surprise, a lyrical tribute to Lisbon’s own “Queen of Fado,” Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999).2022~Portugal-201

Not attempting to emulate the fadista’s oft-imitated style, Joy charmed her audience with her sincerity, humility, and individuality. Clearly, she was buoyed by their response, for after rocking the house with a newly-minted “Blues in Five,” Joy ripped my heart out with the best “Guess Who I Saw Today” I’ve heard from her, better than the cut on Linger Awhile and better than her Middle C encore. I can’t honestly say the same about her rendition of the title song: it flashes by so quickly every time, like lightning – ironically, the shortest track on both Joy’s and Sassy Sarah’s Linger Awhile albums.

The truest measure Joy’s growth over the past couple of years – she’s still only a tender 22! – was her valedictory rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” with multiple levels of depth beyond what you’ll hear on the opening track of last year’s Samara Joy debut. Coupled with her extraordinary voice and command, she seems to possess an unquenchable urge to seek out the purest essence of the music and the lyrics she sings.

Photos by Perry Tannenbaum

DREAMers on Guard in Three Bone’s “Sanctuary City”

Review: Sanctuary City @ The Arts Factory

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In the wake of the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, as lethal smoke and dust afflicted policemen, firemen, and medics who converged upon Ground Zero, a wave of xenophobia began to sweep across America. Muslims and air travel were the prime targets of paranoia and impulsive policy adjustments in the early days, with follies in Iraq and Afghanistan soon to follow. As Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City demonstrates, the seismic shock of the attack and the insidious xenophobia it unleashed were keenly felt across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey, where her two teenage protagonists face uncertain futures as undocumented Latinx immigrants.

Adapting a thrust-stage configuration at the Arts Factory black box, director Caroline Bower places the audience close to the action – and to the hearts of Majok’s teens as they navigate their treacherous paths to adulthood and possible US citizenship. We may look down pityingly on the adolescent recklessness and naivete of B and G, the rather generic names our playwright assigns to her main characters. G has a litany of fictional excuses for her serial truancies at school, but she can still coach B on his math homework.

Yet there’s plenty here in this Three Bone Theatre production to rattle our smug complacency. Humble and ignorant as they may seem, both B and G often school us in the brambly terrain of daily life in a Sanctuary City and the vagaries of US immigration law. As we will see, their paranoia wasn’t over-the-top in 2001, when most of us would have been skeptical, and their fears proved prophetic 15 years later when MAGA morons began to dominate our national discourse.202211205681389164319280691

G needs to fabricate reasons for skipping school because the welts and bruises that keep appearing on her face and limbs might be noticed by teachers, prompting a home visit from social services, a check of her mom’s immigration papers, a disclosure that her work visa expired years ago – and a swift deportation. Instead, B must tell G’s teachers that she is bedridden with flu until her black eye has cleared up.

Nor does B have it easy just because his mother isn’t tyrannized by a drunken, sadistic SOB. He and his mom can be easily shortchanged on their wages, since they have no legal recourse unless they’re willing to risk deportation. Indeed, it’s B’s mom, not G’s, who gets collared and deported. Paradoxically, Northerners can be smug and complacent in their convictions that such deportations define the inhumanity of red border states in the South, and that heartless Immigration feds are to blame for cruelly separating Latinx families.

Wrong on both counts, Majok reminds us. By not seeking out Federal assistance in clearing out undocumented immigrants, Sanctuary Cities do not prevent the Feds from swooping in, and it’s federal immigration law that discriminates between parents and their children. When B learns that his mom has been nabbed, he must make the painful call on whether to board the plane with her.

Bad news or good news often arrives suddenly as G climbs up the fire escape to B’s bedroom after dark and he mimes a window to let her in. Or occasionally the simple Bunny Gregory set design transforms and B visits G’s place to bring her some urgent news. Neither B nor G has any furnishings until years after B’s mom has been deported and he’s forced to survive on his own.Gus Zamudio

Meanwhile, G’s mom evolves, after seeming to be a hopeless doormat according to her daughter’s early reports. She sheds her abuser, secretly studies for – and passes – her citizenship exam, and achieves the naturalization that eluded B’s mom. In the blink of an eye, G is a legal as well, able to pursue higher education beyond a Newark community college when she graduates high school. Just as suddenly, since both of them know the laws, G can help B reach the same goals. Citizenship plus education.

Isabel Gonzalez sparkles in the rapidfire scenes with Gus Zamudio that open Sanctuary City. Some are brief flashbacks and flash-forwards, others a series of riffs on recurring events, and still others are jump cuts between parallel events in the illegals’ lives. Zamudio, who lived out a real-life DACA deportation drama chronicled by local media in 2017, taken into ICE custody just before he graduated from Northwest School of the Arts, has no problems at all internalizing B’s plight – or still passing for 17.

Making her Charlotte debut last year, portraying 10-year-old Paloma in Children’s Theatre’s Tropical Secrets, Gonzalez doesn’t have to regress nearly as far to bring us all the adolescent vitality, anxiety, and ambivalence of G. Somehow, it’s through Gonzalez and her wary intimacy with her bestie that I began to grasp why Northerners and Southerners alike fathom so little about how immigrants live in citizenship limbo. They’re a secret – and secretive – society who can only truly trust each other.Grant Cunningham and Gus Zamudio(1)

When Grant Cunningham entered as Howard deep into the second half of this no-intermission production, more than a couple of notable shifts came into play, including two new plot twists and an abrupt change in pacing as Majok’s script settled into one extended closing scene. All three actors quickly rev up intensity as the cluster of revelations forces them to rapidly shift their perspectives on each other. You couldn’t help feeling impressed by the melee and how well Cunningham fit into it, and you couldn’t help smiling when you saw the blind spot they all shared, for we have seen the social and political progress that can happen in less than two decades.

Howard, the first character we encounter here with a full name also comes equipped with a fuller character. Yes, he seems far more confident that he belongs here, and as a law student, far more definite about who he is and what he aspires to be. Gradually, he brings out one of the playwright’s salient points, that B’s plight not only focuses him sharply on the niceties of immigration law and enforcement, it makes him adept at attaching himself to people he can use to help his cause.

But really, I didn’t think arriving at that point was as important as the basic heartbeat of what Majok leaves us to speculate about: what specifically are these DREAMer hopefuls’ dreams? What aspirations stir their souls as they struggle to emerge from the shadows into full American lives?

A little more of that kind of intimate disclosure would have helped the emotional magnitude of Sanctuary City to align better with its cerebral clout. Even the dimwitted Lenny in Of Mice and Men had his rabbits to break our hearts. So even a Lin-Manuel Miranda bodega would help Majok’s taut drama – with a few stray spritzes of comedy – to sprout a little more Latinx color. And we shouldn’t have to Google a New York Times review or call upon Three Bone Theatre’s playbill to inform us that the drama is happening in Newark.20221111578320097703585702

More urban and aspirational detail would certainly make Majok’s brew more combustible, but Gonzalez, Zamudio, and Cunningham deliver plenty of firepower. Sarandon Shindon steps in to play G at the Wednesday and Thursday performances, with Gonzalez returning to close out the run on Friday and Saturday.

Rhiannon Giddens Returns to Charlotte and Leaves Plenty of Music in the Air

Review: Rhiannon Giddens with Charlotte Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

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November 5, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Since the long-anticipated world premiere of her new opera, Omar, at Spoleto Festival USA back in May, composer-singer-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens has hopscotched the worlds of folk, jazz, and classical music. Her Spoleto apotheosis down in Charleston was embellished with a sit-down interview event and an outdoor concert with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, her collaborator on They’re Calling Me Home, the 2022 Grammy-Award-winner for Best Folk Album. Among Giddens’ many gigs since then, she has headlined at the San Francisco Jazz Festival and Carnegie Hall before entering downstage at Belk Theater for a rendezvous with the Charlotte Symphony and resident conductor Christopher James Lees. As you might presume of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, Giddens is not easily pigeonholed.

2022~Rhiannon Giddens-23Yet the Greensboro native co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops, her first Grammy Award exploit, and now has an opera firmly rooted in the Carolinas to her credit, so an audience studded with black ties and tuxes had no difficulty embracing the polyglot Giddens as their own – even as she navigated a songlist that included Parisian and Celtic selections. They may not have realized that Giddens had played Charlotte before, as far back as 2008 when I caught her with the Chocolate Drops at Northwest School of the Arts. Turrisi and bassist Jason Sypher, who shared the Cistern Yards stage with Giddens at the College of Charleston in May, accompanied her once again, though Lees and Symphony lightened their load. Nor was it obvious that Turrisi would be playing piano until late in the concert when he insinuated himself upstage.

As soon as my QR code scanner brought up the evening’s program, I could see that the Symphony offerings would be more eclectic, accessible, and daring than the set Giddens performed at Spoleto. Even before Giddens led her trio onstage, Lees and the orchestra demonstrated that they would not be content to trot out the stale and familiar, following up on John Williams’ brassy Liberty Fanfare with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Overture to Hiawatha, referencing a half dozen episodes from the composer’s trilogy of Longfellow-inspired cantatas. In the wake of the fervid Fanfare, a little more finesse could have been applied to the opening of the African Britisher’s evocation of the primeval American classic, letting the harp sound more clearly, but Lees was certainly simpatico with the shifting moods and tempos afterward. Violins were gossamer-light in “The Wooing” section, the waltzing section that followed had admirable propulsion, and the cello corps warmed the tenderest episode, before the big build in the “Reunion” finale.2022~Rhiannon Giddens-31

The truly treasurable experiences began when Giddens strode onstage and picked up her banjo; for her first song, “Spanish Mary,” was co-written with Bob Dylan, with a fine orchestral arrangement for Lees and Symphony to luxuriate in. Shedding the banjo, Giddens followed up with “Julie’s Aria” from Omar, co-written with Michael Abels, reminding us of her own capabilities as an operatic soprano. Yet within minutes, Giddens was delivering a smoking-hot version of “Water Boy,” the pile-driving prison song immortalized in recorded versions by Paul Robeson, Odetta, and Harry Belafonte.

No doubt, Giddens has listened repeatedly to all three of these cultural touchstones, for the simple hammering arrangement was borrowed from Odetta and Belafonte while the lyrical clarity hearkened back to Robeson. The Odetta recordings of “Water Boy” are unparalleled, particularly when it caps a medley begun with “I’ve Been Driving on Bald Mountain,” shot through with explosive grunts and gasps from the hammer-wielding prisoner. But Giddens has found her own path toward heightening the intensity at the end, and the orchestra beats delivered by Symphony added jolts of electricity throughout the piece that simple guitar strums couldn’t match. Better still, Giddens’ preamble, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” was certainly a coupling with “Water Boy” that civil rights champion Odetta would have appreciated, repeatedly delivering a “you can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood but not my soul” mantra.

2022~Rhiannon Giddens-19“Mouth Music” was all we needed to hear if we needed assurance that Giddens could make a credible showing at a jazz festival, and there would be more to follow. Lees ceded the stage to the guest trio, lightening the vibe, and Giddens picked up a viola and yielded some of the spotlight to her bandmates, especially Turrisi when he sizzled on his accordion during one of the fiddle tunes. The merriment faded when Lees returned to the podium, replaced by the romance of “Autumn Leaves” en français until Giddens favored us with the English lyric as well. If you hadn’t glimpsed the program, just the tropical sway of the violins was enough to announce our return to the Carolinas and “Summertime” from the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, sweetly sung. Plenty of space was afforded to both Giddens and Symphony in the arrangement of “La Vie en Rose,” and the singer did not seem to be straining to sound like Edith Piaf, which was more than OK with me.2022~Rhiannon Giddens-15

Homing in on the end of the evening, Giddens and Symphony tacked toward the spiritual. With Turrisi at the keyboard, Giddens embarked on this final journey with “He Will See You Through,” followed by “Wayfaring Stranger,” opting to travel through this world “alone” rather than “below” or “of woe” as others have sung. These songs of faith certainly cleared the way for the affirmation and joy of Giddens’ final two selections, an irresistible pairing of “That Lonesome Road” and “Up Above My Head,” a perennial YouTube favorite that can’t be found on her albums. The last of these was memorably inspired. We all heard so much “music in the air” that we could leave more than satisfied, even without the planned encore.

“Hadestown” Serves Up a Jazzy, Godly Nectar

Review: Hadestown at Blumenthal PAC

 By Perry Tannenbaum

2296_Hadestown North American Tour 2022_photo by T Charles Erickson

In Blumenthal Performing Arts’ Encore playbill, the distance between Anaïs Mitchell, who created the music, lyrics, and script of HADESTOWN, and Rachel Chavkin, who developed and directed Mitchell’s creation, is a scant three-and-a-quarter inches. Inside that space are the neatly typeset names of 42 actors, designers, and organizations who have helped bring their vision, the 2019 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, so vividly, raucously, and meaningfully to life.

You get the idea that, in crafting and concepting this marvelous retelling of the Orpheus-and-Eurydice myth, Mitchell and Chavkin became even closer than those 82+ millimeters. Together they have created a work that is slick and glitzy, yet we find primal and profound truths amid the razzle-dazzle.

Those truths can sting, particularly when we descend into the dark underworld ruled by Hades and his abducted queen, Persephone. While Mitchell and Chavkin discard the #MeToo aspect of the royals’ union, reimagining them as formerly true lovers, they point up King Hades’ inclinations toward greed, exploitation, oppression, and mindless acquisition, layering on prejudice and xenophobia for good measure.

So when Matthew Patrick Quinn as Hades brought down the curtain on the first act with “Why We Build the Wall,” written years before The Donald took up politics, the satire bit hard enough for the MAGA morons seated in front of us to get up in a mighty huff at intermission, never to return. Yet this concept of Hades, casually linking his excesses to global warming and climate change, isn’t really an absurd overreach. Why shouldn’t Mitchell and Chavkin portray him as the vilest of plutocrats, when Pluto is actually Hades’ most familiar alias?

And plutocracy is where we’re at.

Mitchell enriches her devilish brew with a score steeped in the decadence of New Orleans jazz, repeatedly underlined by a doo-wop trio of Fates whose only moral failing is going along with the flow. These stylish female backups are ultimately more successful in getting into the impoverished Eurydice’s head than Orpheus, who is preoccupied with finishing the song he believes will restore springtime to the world. Quinn’s basso sleaziness is given a robber baron vibe with an infectiously chugging railroad line running directly to his realm, and the combination of Rachel Hauck’s scenery and Michael Krauss’s costumes makes our dystopian world seem nearly as nocturnal as the netherworld.2022_(from top left clockwise) Matthew Patrick Quinn, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Chibueze Ihuoma, Nathan Lee Graham, Hannah Whitley and company in the Hadestown North American Tour 2022_photo by T Charles Erickson

Presiding over the action and gleefully shattering the fourth wall again and again, Nathan Lee Graham as Hermes keeps us from forgetting – graceful and gliding charmer that he is – the artifice and theatricality of all we see. At the same time, he is frequently seconding the ethereal voice of Chibueze Ihuoma as Orpheus, asserting the power of music in changing our world by envisioning a better one, reminding us how music and language intertwine in the ancient ritual of storytelling.

Singing has always been key in preserving our world and our heritage. Musical narrative, after all, isn’t a recent discovery championed by Verdi, Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. It dates back to King David’s psalter, anonymous campfire bards, Orpheus’ legendary lyre, and the Homeric Hymns, where the story of Hades and Persephone was originally told. By design, three of the pivotal songs Orpheus sings are grouped as a series of epics.

Potentially, as we find here, songs have magic. Consequence. “The Wedding Song,” a beguiling duet early in Act 1 where Orpheus responds to a sequence of challenges from Eurydice, is as memorable as Hades’ sardonic affirmation of walls. “Epic I” from Orpheus, the embryonic song he is working on, is enough to establish his magical power and win Eurydice’s belief in him. Doesn’t last when Hades comes personally calling with his saucy come-hither, “Hey, Little Songbird.”2260_Chibueze Ihuoma in the Hadestown North American Tour 2022_photo by T Charles Erickson

But Orpheus is able to march into hell for a heavenly cause (a recurring theme in world literature and religion, it would seem) when he melts Hades’ heart with his completed “Epic III” after intermission, transporting the steely King back to his tender courting days and reconciling him with Persephone. It’s here that the Fates get into Hades’ head as effectively as they had gotten into Eurydice’s earlier, so that the King of the Underworld attaches one pesky condition that prevents Eurydice’s release into Orpheus’ care from being unconditional.

Ihuoma’s naivete and spontaneity turn the moment when he succumbs to sudden heartbreaking tragedy, beautifully staged as everything freezes into silence. The essence of that heartbreak registers so poignantly in Hannah Whitley’s eyes as Eurydice, so achingly close to restoration, almost clearing the threshold of the railroad car that must now take her irrevocably down. All of Belk Theater and all of creation seem disappointed in that moment, even the lively and cynical Fates (Dominique Kempf, Belén Moyano, and Nyla Watson).

Paradoxically, when all stops for a precious few heartbeats, we may realize most keenly that the working relationship between Chavkin and choreographer David Neumann has been as close and precisely calibrated as the relationship between the director and Mitchell. Indeed, our director, composer, and choreographer are involved in perhaps the most delicious conspiracy of all in HADESTOWN, those precisely chosen beats when an unseen centerstage circle suddenly begins to revolve or abruptly halt.

Most of the players, particularly the drones who make up the Workers Chorus, are swept round and round by the wheel. Others like Hades and Orpheus walk at the precise pace that makes them seem like they’re stationary as they move, floating on air. Then the wheel stops, and on they go, like clockwork. Or since the subplot of Persephone’s arrangement with Hades is a mythic explanation of the cycle of the seasons, the circular motion we see is clockwork.2282_Matthew Patrick Quinn, Chibueze Ihuoma, and Maria-Christina Oliveras in the Hadestown North American Tour 2022_photo by T Charles Erickson

As fine as the Fates are in moving about the stage, sometimes while wielding musical instruments, our eyes are most intently riveted to the lithe movements – and eye-popping costumes – of Graham as Hermes and Lana Gordon as Persephone, bringer of springtime and wicked beverage. Graham and Gordon are both electrifying performers, so it’s rather amazing when Quinn, after brooding quietly in the background for most of the first act, instantly proves himself their equal.

Together, they are the spice, the heady godly nectar that helps us savor the purity and fragility of the mere humans, Eurydice and Orpheus, all the more.

Charlotte Ballet Roars into a New Era With FALL WORKS

Review: Fall Works by Charlotte Ballet

By Perry Tannenbaum

Under the Lights_Taylor Jones

Knight Theater should have been abuzz last Friday night. Yet somehow, a year after Charlotte Ballet’s 50th-anniversary celebration – celebrated a year after the company’s actual 50th anniversary – my excitement wasn’t reflected by the community at large. A night after Opera Carolina had opened its 2022-23 season at Belk Theater to an empty upper balcony and a disappointing crowd, the curtain went up on Ballet’s new era with a similarly sparse turnout.

Our takeaways from this phenomenon need not be terribly dire, for it may be up to OpCar and CharBallet to learn a simple lesson: don’t open your seasons on the same night! Or on the night that a megahit like Hamilton – or the NBA season – is opening down the block. Your two companies collaborate every December on The Nutcracker, so you ought to be able to ace October.

It can be disheartening for performers to see the curtain rise on a hall pocked with vacant seats, but the effect seemed more noticeable on the soloists singing Tosca than on the dancers bringing us FALL WORKS. Understandable. Charlotte Ballet is a more resident company, devoid of prima donnas who swoop into town for one rehearsal and one weekend, they’ve worked hard perfecting their moves at their own studio, and nearly 40% of them have been in the company for less than two years.

They can be as excited to be working with new comrades and new partners as we are to see the diverse new faces. Implacable prerecorded music – synced to crucial interactions with other corps members – keeps them in step, and they don’t need to worry whether their voices will betray their nerves. Or hold up through Act III.

We can question the wisdom of reprising two works that premiered here within the past three years. Both Helen Pickett’s IN Cognito and Crystal Pite’s A Picture of You are fascinating, edgy pieces, neither one saddled with music we might readily recall months or years afterward. Although the choreographies jogged my memory, the freshness of the experiences was enhanced by watching different dancers perform them, especially after missing opening night to attend the opera.

OK, so I must admit a little frustration that, more than six months after he was named CharBallet’s new artistic director, we still haven’t seen any of Alejandro Cerrudo’s choreography here in Charlotte. After all, it’s over eight years since I lobbied specifically for our most prestigious performing arts company to take up Cerrudo’s work when I first saw it at Spoleto Festival USA, tabbing it a “winner” after witnessing Hubbard Street Chicago’s staging. Nor have I yet seen Cerrudo onstage to address his company’s loyal audience.Anna Mains_Ben Ingel_UTL_by Taylor Jones

Instead, we could take consolation in getting the local premiere of Under the Lights by Christopher Stuart, the new director of Charlotte Ballet II. After the heaviness and intensity before intermission, Stuart’s medley, set to nine tunes by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, was a light and lively chaser. A couple of dancers from Ballet II occasionally infiltrated the frontliners in this entertaining suite, adding their youth to the bustle and effervescence onstage.

Similar incursions occurred over the course of Pickett’s IN Cognito, which proved to be the most free-flowing work of the evening, hardest to follow, and by far the easiest to forget. As a result, the impact for me was almost as fresh as Stuart’s piece, a good thing, and I didn’t find myself comparing the dancers of 2022 with those who gave the world premiere performance in 2019. Only one of the nine I saw on Friday had danced it two years ago. I hardly ever knew what was coming next, but when it came, it usually struck me as familiar – and the flow of the piece seemed far more organic this time.

So much was going on with the dancers, in multitudinous permutations moving hither and thither, that I often lost track of the props and furnishings whisked onto the stage and then off to the wings. One of the two table lamps would suddenly be missing, lounge chairs might multiply while the sofa exited, or a quartet of mismatched chandeliers might arrive randomly from the fly loft without reason. The dancer hiding behind the shrub – incognito? – would exit elaborately, crossing the entire upstage to the opposite wing, making herself absurd.

Sarah Lapointe_Ben Ingel_UTL_by Taylor JonesDancers communicated and coordinated. They partnered, interacted, and created beauty together. Yet they never connected, perhaps incognito to each other and to everyone else. Busy and beautifully baffling, very much like the modern world.

A Picture of You Falling, with choreographer Pite also supplying the biting prerecorded text, was edgier, more satirically impersonal. At times catatonically repetitive, this strange pas de deux imprints itself readily and deeply – an almost sinful delight, since it lays bare the careless ways we talk about love and romance. Sarah Lapointe and Ben Ingel first connect by accidentally bumping into one another. We’re speaking literally here, as they walk in opposite directions across a geometrical space outlined at regular intervals by strobe lights.

When Ingel falls, he literally falls, and his heart literally hits the floor when he is smitten and when the makeshift couple breaks apart. Unlike the score that Pickett cobbled together to move and regulate her dancers, the original music by Owen Belton never seems to register as a pulse or an emotional coloring, particularly when Pite tells us “This is the place” and “This is how it happens” – over and over.

What lighting designer Robert Sondergaard creates with his symmetrical formation of strobes is emphatically not a space. Nor can we be sure whether Pite is telling us again and again and again that this is how this ephemeral intimacy happens or whether – in some kind of condensed or looping timeframe – it’s actually happening again and again. Focus does shift for a while from Ingel to Lapointe in the moments of intimacy leading to the breakup, but this is ultimately the man’s story. Or a picture of what men have made out of love.Maurice Mouzon Jr_Shaina Wire_IN Cognito_by Taylor Jones

We confronted a couple of filters between ourselves and the music of the Cashes in Under the Lights. The least discordant of these was Stuart’s choreography, which briefly stumbled with his blithe setting for “Folsom Prison Blues,” when his five men carried on merrily during the vocalist’s confession that he “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” a jarring disconnect. More problematic were the recordings of The Man in Black’s signature songs by Sugar + the Hi-Lows, most egregiously lightweight when they missed the gravitas and drama of “Hurt,” leaving Nadine Barton little to work with, though she worked it well.

James Kopecky got us off to a charismatic start with “I Walk the Line” as it dawned on us what we would have to cope with from the Bi-Los. Anyone who had heard a definitive rendition of “Ring of Fire” or “Jackson” could empathize with the struggles Stuart faced, but Sarah Hayes Harkins didn’t flinch at all as she joined Kopecky for the coolish “Fire,” and a couple of winsome couples, Isabella Bertolotti with Humberto Ramazzina and Meredith Hwang with Oliver Oguma, redeemed the Mississippi superficiality.

Sugar plus or minus the Hi-Lows was hard for me to swallow, which may account for my liking Stuart’s settings best for songs I was least familiar with. “Two Day High” offered us three dynamic duos, Isabella Franco with Maurice Mouzon Jr., Shaina Wire with Luke Csordas, and Olivia Parsons with Juan Castellanos. With “I’ve Got You Covered,” we got a glimpse of Amelia Sturt-Dilly partnered with Kopecky, just one night after she danced A Picture of You, the CharBallet commission she premiered a year ago. Stuart’s best pas de deux by far.

“Tennessee Quick” was the most attractive track I heard from Sugar +, complemented by some really rousing ensemble work from Stuart and a swarm of 14 dancers. Couldn’t imagine Johnny singing that one. That harmonious taste of “Tennessee” was a perfect setup for Stuart’s stomping ensemble finale, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” fronted by Kopecky, the hardest-working man in Charlotte that night. Johnny didn’t get to that golden nugget until late in his career, so it wasn’t among his best recordings, but to hear the Hi-Lows attacking that traditional come-to-Jesus song with an electric guitar was almost as much of a kick as Kopecky and his backups.