All posts by perryt77

No Joke: Al Fresco Continues in a Modern Vein With “Romance of the Viola”

Review: Al Fresco concert under COVID

By Perry Tannenbaum

On the day of the latest Al Fresco concert, Charlotte Symphony had good news and bad news. Getting ready to set a YouTube reminder for my Chromecast hookup to the 7:30 webcast, I was encouraged to discover – on the Al Fresco webpage – that the Wednesday night series had been extended through at least July 29. Unfortunately, that good news may have been an outgrowth of the bad news announced earlier in the day: Symphony had canceled their Three-Week Summer Festival, slated to begin on August 7. All of the Festival events – a finely judged assortment that included Beethoven’s “Pastoral,” The Best of James Bond, Peter and the Wolf, On Tap at the Triple C brewery, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a free community concert – had been scheduled at indoor venues, running afoul of public assembly restrictions mandated in Raleigh and still in effect. It was merciful that Al Fresco concerts are pre-recorded, for host Alan Black and his “Romance of the Viola” guest musicians would have certainly been downcast if they were giving a live performance in the wake of this daunting setback.

As the latest program began in Black’s bosky backyard, with the CSO principal cellist in conversation with violist Kirsten Swanson, the series’ subtitle, “changing venues for changing times,” more than ever seemed to evoke an escape from Charlotte’s barren cultural climate under COVID siege, a welcome oasis in the musical wasteland. Adding to the freshness, Swanson and Black were discussing a pair of composers few Symphony subscribers had come across, Kjell Marcussen (1952-   ) and Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979).

Black admitted discovering Marcussen a mere three weeks earlier while combing the internet – and, presumably, streaming services – in search of music written for the unique viola-cello instrumental combo. As a cursory YouTube search will confirm, the Norwegian composer does favor viola among orchestral instruments. Black could easily have found Marcussen’s “Berceuse” there, for it’s the first video that comes up in a Google search for the composer, but the composition also pops up readily on Spotify in a 2017 album, Dedications, recorded by the same Duo Oktava musicians, violist Povilas Syrrist-Gelgota and cellist Toril Syrrist-Gelgota. In solo compositions, Marcussen gravitates toward his own preferred instrument, the guitar, so it’s not at all surprising that guitarist Anders Clemens Øien shares the spotlight on the CD.

After watching Swanson and Black perform the “Berceuse,” I must say that I found the Oktava video stuffy and pretentious by comparison, and I’m only finding a new way to praise Bob Rydel’s audio engineering when I say that the sound at this Al Fresco concert was richer and more detailed than either the YouTube video or the CD (available on Apple Music as well as Spotify). Black gets a rich dark tone when he moves to the forefront in the exposition of this morose lullaby, but he’s more varied in his dynamics – and the pace is quicker, cutting more than 25 seconds off the Oktava’s fastest performance. The real difference maker, though, is Swanson when she takes the lead in the concluding half of the work with her lighter tone, making for a far more poignant experience than the Norwegian duo can muster. To be fair, I should say that I’ve been captivated – and perhaps swayed – by the open-air informality of the Al Fresco format, which certainly accentuated the élan of Black’s approach.

I have no record of hearing or reviewing Clarke’s music before March 2019 at the Savannah Music Festival, where chamber music host Daniel Hope reprised the composer’s Dumka, a piece the famed violinist had played on a Naxos recording of Clarke’s music. That estimable album, recorded in 2007, showcased Clarke’s most famous work, her Viola Sonata – played by violist Philip Dukes. As you may know, Dukes would have succeeded Hope as the chamber music director at Savannah Music Festival this year if the 17-day event hadn’t been canceled. Black and Swanson discussed Viola Sonata in the context of Clarke’s stature among her contemporaries. Clarke herself was a world-class violist (and violinist), and she submitted her chef d’oeuvre to a 1919 competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge at the Berkshire Festival. Ernest Bloch and Paul Hindemith were also among the 72 entries, Swanson noted. Depending on which account you read, Clarke either tied Bloch for the Coolidge Prize until Coolidge bumped her down to second place, or she took the runner-up spot outright.

The piece that Swanson and Black would play, “Lullaby,” was more modest in its aspirations than the brooding, turbulent, three-movement Sonata – its epic first movement is marked Impetuoso! – but this more abbreviated work probably dates from the same period, in 1918. Black was quick to point out the piece’s accidental relevance to today, written during the Spanish Flu pandemic, and though Swanson remarked on how such periods of confinement often prove fertile for creativity, this “Lullaby” had an unmistakably mournful sound, not unlike Samuel Barber’s more funereal “Adagio,” with a similar peak before taking a breath for the last third of the piece. As beautiful as the playing is, from Black in particular, this duo’s interpretation lacks the contours you’ll find on the excellent Centaur recording of this work, where both cellist Moisés Molina and violist Kenneth Martinson assert themselves more forcefully and emotionally.

With Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960) taking us back to the brink of the modernity with his 1902 Serenade in C Major for string trio, Al Fresco completed its second consecutive concert of music written entirely since the dawn of the 20th century. Both Swanson and Black lauded the solos Dohnányi had written for viola at the outset of the Romanza second movement and toward the end of the theme-and-variations fourth movement. Submitting his regrets for sitting out the trio, Black was replaced onstage by cellist Marlene Ballena and associate concertmaster Joseph Meyer.

I found this performance more likable, in the early movements and in the Rondo Finale, than on my 2003 Naxos CD with members of the Spectrum Concerts Berlin, where the players sounded too slick and harmonious after hearing the fresher, livelier Charlotte trio. The Symphony musicians skipped over the middle Scherzo movement and didn’t find nearly as much emotion in the Tema con variazioni because their pacing and dynamics were more monochromatic. Yet in the passages extolled by our host and Swanson in their conversation, the violist lived up to the hype. Even so, it can be said that Swanson’s softly accompanied solo in the Romanza, about 75 seconds in length, became a launchpad when Meyer entered with his violin, picked up the pace, turned up the volume, and soared. Between Swanson’s best bits in the Tema con Variazioni, Ballena had her finest moments. Rydel’s engineering also merits special praise here, for the entire trio is subtly encased in a warm concert hall ambiance.

With the cancellation of Charlotte Symphony’s Three-Week Summer Festival, extension of this Al Fresco series was obviously a logical move. But it should be remarked that, with the cancellation of six upcoming programs, and with no orchestral programming on the near horizon, more of Symphony musicians’ energies can be devoted to future Al Fresco concerts. In their sound and musicianship, they can’t get much better, but in their scope, we can certainly anticipate bigger things to come. If there’s anything to carry away from Al Fresco – and carry over to CSO programming when it returns to our familiar concert halls – it’s the notion that repertoire isn’t merely a balancing act between what the public craves and what Symphony’s maestro longs to present. As we’ve already seen, Symphony’s musicians also have some entertaining and rewarding ideas.

Symphony’s Al Fresco Doubles Its Originality With “All-Lamb Jam”

Review: Al Fresco “All-Lamb Jam” Webcast

By Perry Tannenbaum

Charlotte Symphony’s new Al Fresco series had already reached an admirable level of originality in its first four installments. Although they had launched many inventive series in the past, chamber music had been off-limits programming before the current pandemic, and we can only attribute the birth of an online-only series to the necessities of our current plight. But thanks to two multi-talented Symphony musicians, principal cellist Alan Black and French hornist Bob Rydel, weekly Al Fresco webcasts have not only been judiciously programmed and masterfully played, they have risen to admirable distinction with Black’s insightful interviews and Rydel’s remarkable audio engineering in an outdoor setting and his immaculate video editing.

The original touches enhancing all this artistry and virtuosity have been in Black’s emphasis on the musicians’ point-of-view in interviewing his guests and in the creative editing of each episode. Unlike a concert in real time, a prerecorded concert can dispense with scenery changes as we shift from one set of players to another – or from interview mode to performance. Beyond that, Black and Rydel have occasionally flipped the chronology of interviews and performances in their episodes. That innovation allows Black to discuss performances we’re about to see with his fellow musicians – as in the previous “Viennese Serenades” concert, where Black and two Symphony violinist discussed what it was like to play a swift Haydn divertimento while wearing masks.

The latest Al Fresco concert, “All-Lamb Jam,” added new layers of originality, an entire program of new compositions by Symphony cellist Jeremy Lamb and interviews with the composer that took us through how his music came to be written. After a brief welcome to us and an intro to Lamb, now a member of Symphony’s cello corps for three-and-a-half years, Black plunged right into the unique titles of the three-part Lamb Jam Set. As it turns out, they had a lot to do with the musicians that Lamb wrote the piece for, cellist Sarah Markle and bassist Taddes Korris, with whom he bonded shortly after joining Charlotte Symphony.

A prime motive for writing all the pieces on the program turned out to be the scarcity of music previously written for two cellos and a bass. Both Markle and Korris, Lamb soon found out, were vegans, so “The Hempeh Tempeh Jam” was an outgrowth of Lamb’s learning curve as he struggled to remember the difference between the two soy products. The entire Lamb Jam was itself an outgrowth, the composer revealed, of a melody that hit him during work on A Ride on Oumuamua, the more ambitious piece that would conclude the concert.

As for Lamb’s anecdotes about the other titles in the Lamb Jam, “A Stroll Down Alpha Mill Lane” and “Keepin’ It Schwifty,” those would have to wait until I replayed the episode later. Weather at my viewing location, across the state line in York County, scrambled the audio and visual signals that followed in this conversation between Black and Lamb. Fortunately, I was able to recover the YouTube channel in time for the music to begin. “Hempeh Tempeh” sported the back-and-forth feeling that might have been evoked by its title, for the harmonized melody line of the two cellos drew shuffling answers from Korris’s bowed double bass. In the next chorus, Lamb and Markle played higher and longer, and the Korris answer bridged the end of this chorus and the beginning of the next, where the cellos were now answering him. Lamb was clearly the lead afterwards as the music grew bluesier in the closing chorus. It was only after I replayed the episode that I heard Lamb’s confirmation that his template for “Hempeh Tempeh” and the ensuing “Alpha Mill Lane” was a 12-bar blues. As you could expect, “A Stroll Down Alpha Mill Lane,” named after the street where Markle and Korris reside, ambled along at a medium-speed loping gait, and you might find it (at the Al Fresco webpage) even jazzier than the opening piece in the Jam, with a nifty Korris glissando launching the final chorus.

The “Schwifty” title derives from the cartoon world of Rick and Morty, a realm where my erudition is limited to an animated 87-second clip on YouTube. It’s easily the most free and provocative movement in Lamb’s suite – and the one that most decisively deserves to be called a jam. It began with a Korris pizzicato intro, taken up by Markle as Lamb carried the melody. Two of the sections had the feel of an accelerating locomotive, with Markle emphatically seizing the lead at cruising speed the first time around as Lamb sawed a propulsive ostinato. Korris also had some telling licks during the fray, which was driving and bluesy in the medium-tempo sections. The rocking sway of the most memorable passages were even more reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s “Any Way You Want Me” than parts of “Alpha Mill Lane” had been.

Named for the first interstellar stellar object to have ever been observed passing through our solar system, A Ride on Oumuamua ambitiously chronicles the birth of the object (estimated in 2017 at perhaps more than a half-mile in length), its epic journey through space, its arrival in our solar system, its flybys the sun and the Earth, and its voyage beyond. In his second conversation with Black, Lamb credited a Glass-like riff that he heard Korris playing for inspiring his Oumuamua, but in his opening section, “In the beginning, the motion of the stars,” Korris contributes richly yet sparingly, his long, widely spaced notes simulating the primordial darkness in which the cellos’ arpeggios play out. With the opening notes of the ensuing section, “Oumuamua is hurled away; the journey begins,” Lamb has already broken free from Glass’s minimalism. Other notable sections follow before Oumuamua reaches our solar system. Korris has a fine melodic lead in “…icy worlds appear,” where the cellists both get chances to sing, and in “…a lonely voyage; calling out,” there was a forlorn cadenza for Lamb that seemed to float in deep space.

Because the titles flash only briefly onscreen, in thin white letters spread across an orange brushstroke design, you might miss some of the 14 section titles on your first viewing. That’s the only significant production flaw I’ve found so far in the Al Fresco concerts, requiring me to “rewind” numerous times as I documented the titles that flashed on and off the bottom of the screen. Oumuamua went on to make Lamb’s strongest case for composing music for this unique instrumental combination – and a strong argument for applying Glass’s hypnotic arpeggios to space travel. In the course of “…Earth appears,” “…Earth fades into the distance,” and his concluding “…infinite vistas: time loses meaning,” Lamb reminded me more than once of the sensation of interstellar travel that Star Trek delivered on TV, his fadeaways particularly evocative. Yet Lamb didn’t conclude with a fadeout. Instead, he seemed to circle back to the cello arpeggios that had signaled Oumuamua’s birth, stopping abruptly when the reprise had barely begun. The more I thought about it, the more appropriate it seemed.

New Al Fresco Series Delivers Fine Sound, Gorgeous Music, and a More Personal View of Symphony’s Musicians

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Al Fresco Concerts

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’ve learned so much about our nation’s leadership in the past few months – and perhaps even more about ourselves. Much of what we’ve seen has been disheartening and infuriating. Aside from the horrifying death and economic devastation, sweeping the globe and becoming so intense here in North Carolina, I’m most heartbroken by the spectacle of what has happened to arts and education. Vitally important to our quality-of-life and our future, both arts and education have been forced to retreat into self-imposed isolation while politicians and citizens have so catastrophically bungled our response to COVID-19. Virtuality has often been our refuge, a poor substitute for so many plans we made. One by one in May, my mom’s 100th birthday, Spoleto Festival USA, and a class reunion dropped off my event planner, so like many of you, I’ve had revelatory experiences in recent months coping with the quirks of ZOOM meetings and discovering new frontiers in streaming. Neither of these comes close to matching the benefits of live meetings and performances, but they do offer consolation.

Occasionally, the necessities of confinement and social distancing have mothered some worthwhile inventions. Celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday in April, the Chickspeare theatre company began with a fairly common 24-hour new play format, issuing a prompt to a select group of playwrights and expecting original 10-minute plays by each of them to be written, cast, rehearsed, and presented 24 hours later. Instead of the community projects I’d seen in past incarnations of this format, the new works were household creations – written, acted, and recorded by small groups of people, usually pairs, who were quarantining together. The results showed that these writers, actors .and stage directors were also quite adept at filming and wielding video editing software. Chickspeare had broken into an entirely new medium.

Charlotte Symphony’s new Al Fresco series of chamber music concerts has been similarly revelatory. The webcasts began steaming weekly on Wednesday nights on June 10, in a more relaxed environment than Belk or Knight Theater, where Symphony’s classics series is presented, and on a more intimate scale. Not surprisingly, the Al Fresco series is the brainchild of principal cellist Alan Black, a longtime catalyst for chamber music programming in the Charlotte area, beginning with a monthly series at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church back in the ‘90s and continuing with more acoustically pleasing seasons of Sunday afternoon concerts at Tyler-Tallman Hall on the Davidson College campus. The new series, subtitled “changing venues for changing times,” is performed outdoors in the backyard of Black’s bosky Davidson home.

Fortunately, while choosing his programming and recruiting personnel, Black brought French hornist Bob Rydel into the process for a set of wind quintets by Josef Haydn and Robert Muczynski. As Black tells us during the “Winds in the Woods” program, first streamed on June 24, his original concept called for recording the concerts with an iPhone or two, tools we have seen so very often behind the scenes at ZOOM meetings and guerilla theatre productions. Operating the Acoustic Mobility remote recording service, Rydel has been able to bring his engineering expertise to the task with state-of-the-art microphones, digital recording, and editing equipment. Video production has been a tack-sharp as the audio, boasting HD quality, with at least three cameras superbly integrated in the editing mix.

Before tuning in to “Viennese Serenades,” I had caught up on the previous Al Fresco concerts at their convenient webpage [https://www.charlottesymphony.org/csoalfresco/], playing the first three concerts through my home theatre system on the YouTube channel with a Chromecast streamer. This “Viennese” concert was already posted when I looked in on the site on Tuesday, so I was able to set a reminder at YouTube that worked perfectly, counting down the minutes to showtime. At exactly 7:30, a two-minute timer flashed colorfully onto my TV monitor, with jazzier old-style movie graphics counting down the final 10 seconds. In a rather elegant touch, you hear wind chimes when the opening title flashes on the screen.

The atmosphere is relaxed and informal, with Black invariably dressed in jeans, already sitting as our show begins. One or two other musicians are also seated on the small stage, which is still sufficiently large to devoutly maintain social distancing. They will talk before they play. In an earlier show, Black explained how he has chosen to deal with masks: if one of the musicians wishes to don a mask, all must. Only wind instrument players draw an exemption, so on a previous “Music in the Time of Mozart” webcast, flutist Victor Wang played the lead in Mozart’s Flute Quartet without a mask while the string players were all masked. Interestingly, Wang had a special appliance attached to his instrument, a Wind Defender. The device was originally designed to help flute players to perform outdoors, but in his conversation with Black, Wang said he was finding that it was useful during the COVID-19 crisis in minimizing the spread of airborne droplets as he blew across the instrument.

Black’s conversations with his guests frequently veer toward the players’ experiences in performing the music rather than sticking with the customary descriptions of the music and how it came to be written. More intriguing, Black doesn’t stick to the convention of talking about the music before it’s performed. We might see an interview that was recorded after a performance shown to us before the music begins – or Black and Rydel might edit the webcast so that an interview segment airs between movements.

Altering the focus and chronology was particularly insightful when, prior to airing Haydn’s Divertimento No. 12, Black interviewed his “Viennese Serenades” guests, violinists Jenny Topilow and Lenora Leggatt, and asked them point-blank what it had been like playing their music with masks on. Leggatt was almost exclusively concerned with the heat that wearing a mask dictated and its cumulative oppressiveness, but both Topilow and Black cited multiple challenges and annoyances that illuminated physical aspects of playing stringed instruments and the added communication needs of chamber music performance that go beyond playing in an orchestra.

After revealing that the neck of her violin collided unpleasantly with the part of her mask covering her chin and jaw, Topilow went on to describe how visibility, breathing, communication, and cuing were affected. Black confided that he hoped that a portion of his performance, when the fingers of his left hand got stuck momentarily in his mask, would be edited out of the final cut. Visibility and breathing were linked problems for Black, who customarily wears glasses when he plays the cello. Because his glasses repeatedly fog up in performance, Black finds that he needs to time his breathing as he plays! He also finds that he needs to listen more intently when seeing is so spotty. For her part, Topilow finds it startling to realize how much she normally uses her face for communicating in a chamber music setting, yet she vows to continue wearing a mask when Charlotte Symphony resumes live performances. Next month? Hope so.

The individuality of the musicians’ conversations carries over to their musicmaking. Uniform dress codes have been discarded for this series, so the players can be showy and comfortable at the same time. Topilow and Leggatt were the first guests so far to opt for standing as they played their violins in Stamitz’s Trio in G, and while I can remember Topilow rocking a splotch of blue hair at the Belk, I’m sure that I’ve never previously glimpsed her tattoo. Facing each other from opposite corners across the front of the cozy stage, the two violinists blended exquisitely in the opening Allegro moderato while Black, seated upstage between them, added a rich undercurrent as the tempo never quickened far beyond andante.

The mellow sound of the ensuing Andante made the best case for earlier remarks emphasizing how much both Stamitz and Haydn reflected their era. Although we could see fronds and leaves swaying throughout this concert – and multiple clips holding Topilow’s score in place – the sound maintained a studio-quality presence without a hint of wind even in the quietest moments. In the concluding Rondo-Allegretto, I found the most persuasive proof that both violinists revel in playing fast. Topilow remained the lead voice, but Leggatt kept pace beautifully with the harmony. I wasn’t completely pleased with the way Stamitz abruptly transitioned to the slow section of this movement, where Black shifted to a suddenly somber pizzicato, but the slowdown at the end of this section and the accelerating return to jollity were very satisfying.

What I wrote about Black’s series of St. Peter’s concerts in the ‘90s, that they show off the virtuosity of Charlotte Symphony’s musicians more fully, remains true today. But now that this new series is actually a part of Symphony’s programming, I can further observe that it offers the opportunity to venture beyond the composers who figure most prominently in the orchestra’s rotation of classics. Beside the likes of Stamitz, Muczynski, and Ignaz Pleyel, whose music has already been featured in Al Fresco, we can add Haydn to the roster of the neglected, for only two of his symphonies – and none of his concertos – have been presented in the classics series since 2015, and none are on tap in the already-announced 2020-21 lineup. And how many of us have heard of Haydn’s Divertimentos – or knew that they were chamber music? My 11-CD set of Mozart Divertimenti on Phillips certainly didn’t prepare me for anything as small as the string trio configuration of Haydn’s No. 12, the second to be featured in this series.

It’s a beautiful piece from the start, a soulful Adagio that was more serious and tender than the Stamitz, with a yearning undertow from Topilow’s lyrical lead. Hardly a leaf was stirring as she wove her spell, yet Haydn brightened the tone and quickened the pace to andante in a more genial midsection of this movement. Topilow was most fully in the spotlight when she leapt into the ensuing Allegro, sawing away with plenty of verve. The weather wasn’t quite as tranquil where I was watching, but it only stressed the transmission here once. What looked and sounded like a split-second edit disappeared when I subsequently replayed the movement – twice to be sure. The final movement, Tempo di Menuet, seemed to be a misstep at its somewhat plodding start. Once the 3/4 rhythm was established, however, Haydn loosened the reins, and Topilow had ample opportunity to show off her dexterity and Papa’s joie de vivre.

The concerts, the conversations, and Black’s hosting style are all winners for Symphony’s new Al Fresco. I’m hoping for more sinewy music, like a Beethoven string quartet, if the series reprises after the traditionally lighthearted summer season, and I’d love to see programs at least as long as the 75-minute noonday concerts that are traditional at Spoleto Festival USA. But what’s so nice about the Al Fresco format and its webpage is that you can replay multiple concerts one after another. More than enough for an evening out – or in – is now very handsomely at our disposal.

Mom Is 100

Perry T.+Mom 6.16.18

By Perry Tannenbaum

She tells me that she has only met one other Mabel in her lifetime. Multitudes of people have told me that there is no one like her. Yes, my mom is unique. One in a billion. And in just a few hours, Mom will be 100. One century.

My dad, who died at a mere 97 years of age, was a fine man – and a devastating loss for Mom, who has now persevered without her soulmate since November 2012. At his funeral service up in Queens, New York, a dear friend of the family, calling upon his rabbinic wisdom, memorialized Harry Tannenbaum as a man who was “samé’ach b’chelko” – a man who was happy with his lot.

Mom was his happiness. His joy.

Spend a few minutes with Mom and you quickly see why. Mabel has a flair. Last week, she fell and cracked her head open on the edge of her night table, so she was rushed from the Brookdale Carriage Club on Old Providence to a nearby urgent care. Donning my trusty COVID mask after 1:00am in the morning, I sped up to the Atrium facility on Fairview Road to pick her up. The gushing wound had been neatly patched up with Super Glue, the nurse told me, obviously sad to see her go.

Before I could even fold up Mom’s walker and stow it in my trunk, the nurse felt compelled to pull me aside and tell me how special this woman is.

That’s nothing compared to one of Mom’s hospital exploits before she moved down here. This one happened a few years ago at the end of a solo visit from Mom at Passover. Most people would have a coughing fit in the privacy of their guest bedroom or, at worst, among friends and family at the seder table. Not Mabel Tannenbaum. She had her coughing fit inside an airplane cabin on the runway of Charlotte-Douglas Airport as her flight was readying for takeoff.

She stopped that show, sure enough, as they whisked her – sirens blaring, no doubt – to the Carolinas Medical Center in the heart of town. I was reviewing a premiere at Theatre Charlotte that night, so we didn’t hear about the calamity until after the show was over. Guilt-ridden and concerned, I rushed over to the hospital with my wife Sue and our friend Carol, worrying whether our precious drama queen was still alive.

You know she was. What might normally be a bustling, brightly-lit consultation area with desperate, clamoring patients and harried nurses rushing around them was now mostly vacant and dark. At one end of the room, haloed in bright backlight, was a crowd of excited staffers. As we drew closer, we could hear the laughter, and as we finally saw past the silhouetted heads or nurses and orderlies, we could see Mom – perched over the edge of a gurney, about 40 minutes into a 45-minute set of quips, anecdotes, travel misadventures, and bubba mysehs.

Mom with her makeshift nightclub audience.

Just a few weeks ago, I donned my mask and delivered our first CARE package of groceries and bagels to the front gate of the Carriage Club. The senior facility was already in lockdown and only employees were admitted into residents’ apartments. I went to the trouble of writing out Mom’s full name – and her apartment number – on labels that I stapled to each of the grocery bags.

The gatekeeper lady looked at me slightly askance.

“Oh, Mabel!” she burst out. “Everybody knows Mabel!”

Well, maybe not everybody. A few outliers might remain at Carriage Club who haven’t witnessed her holding court in the huge dining room with her late great friend Susan Cernyak-Spatz. If they haven’t sampled Mom’s ready wit, don’t you worry: Mom has no problem dipping into her catalog of greatest hits and immodestly retelling barbs she has levelled at a complete stranger on Broadway, a French waiter at a chichi Parisian restaurant, a hapless school administrator and numerous other accounts she has painstakingly perfected over the years.

People who speak to me about her needn’t profess their affection. I can hear it instantly in their voices when they say “Your mom,” “Aunt Mabel,” “Grandma,” or even “How is Mabel?” Other folks’ personalities can be described as acquired tastes. Not my mom’s. She always connects quickly.

Many of Mom’s enthusiasms have lit up my life. She was a music major and a theatre minor – or vice versa? – at Hunter College, and after seeing me off to grad school and married life, she reinvented herself as a math teacher and union activist at a public school far off on the rough side of Queens. Dad, the English major of the fam at Brooklyn College, met Mom at The Met more than 75 years ago. It’s a long evening when you stand in line for The Met’s precious few standing room tickets and then stand together for all three acts of La Traviata.

If I had turned out to be a latter-day Mozart or Milton, Mom and Dad would have been ecstatic. You can bet that I heard plenty of opera from Texaco’s Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and on LPs spun on an enthusiast’s turntable submerged in a hi-fi cabinet that Dad custom-built himself. Broadway scores like South Pacific or My Fair Lady occasionally invaded the opera rotation, along with cantorial gems from Yossele Rosenblatt or folksongs from Moshe Nathanson, Theodore Bikel, and Sharona Aron.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Mom also pushed me toward the piano that also dwelled in our living room and hooked me up with lessons – from multiple teachers long after I’d demonstrated my lack of talent or interest. When my own low-fi record player took up residence in my room, Mom and Dad put up a nice façade of tolerance for the rock 45s and, not too long afterwards, the jazz LPs that blared forth.

Mom also encouraged my literary bent, no matter how silly or self-indulgent my efforts might be. At an early age, she egged me on to write a lengthy letter on a fairly formal writing pad to my Aunt Evelyn. Why or what I wrote in my anklebiter years is way beyond recall. All I remember is that my words were deemed golden. Decades afterwards, I learned that Mom was not particularly fond of Aunt Evelyn.

Then came my mighty sixth-grade masterwork, The Terrible Times. Subversively written between lessons or under the lid of my desk on large construction paper, folded in half and carefully ruled with newspaper columns and handwritten lines, The Terrible Times was my heroic attempt to bring Mad Magazine culture to the Yeshiva of Central Queens.

Miraculously, this magnum opus, with its frontpage scoop on the Jack & Jill tragedy and its heart-wrenching ad for Allied Kidney Disorders, was never confiscated or ripped to shreds. At a recent Zoom reunion, a classmate actually remembered looking over my shoulder more than 60 years ago as I worked on the front page – its bold masthead lovingly traced in Gothic type.

Mom treasured every word of this deathless juvenilia, preserving it in my room for decades until the paper itself had begun to disintegrate. Dust mites may have also entered the equation.

Unlike my Mad newspaper, Mom gets better with age. She’s a better grandma than was a mother – and a superb great grandmother. They call her GG-Ma out west in El Paso, where my grandkids are in lockdown. Teaching was only half of Mom’s reinvention after the nest was emptied. Travel was the other.

I can’t remember roaming further from Queens Village than Rockport or Gloucester, Mass., before I lit out for the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City. As my schools and vocation took me westward to Bellingham, WA, and Eugene, OR, before I swooped down to the Carolinas – first Columbia and then Charlotte – Mom and Dad built their summers around trips to Europe or Asia, with a Morocco or Machu Picchu trip thrown in for variety. Once or twice, they headed west, once to Alaska and once – when I was at Western Washington U – to Vancouver and Victoria.

Israel was their favorite, inexhaustible destination. They went there 13 times.

Sure, they did the tourist thing to some extent, but every trip was a treasure hunt for artworks and artifacts – and an epic photo-taking safari. Mom was the photographer.

Luckily, she caught the bug when I was 11 or 12, buying a Ricoh twin-lens reflex. Picking out my bar mitzvah present was a no-brainer after that: the first Kodak Retina Reflex. On the Mostofsky side of my family, photography is in our veins. My zaydee’s Zeiss Ikon Ikonta, taped bellows and all, sits on one of my bookcases to this day, a few inches from Mom’s Ricoh Diacord, and my Uncle David ably wielded a Leica overseas during WW2. I’d love to get my hands on that baby.

Traveling widely and shooting as a tourist, a communications pro, and a journalist – with the prodigious ease and convenience of digital photography – I’m sure that I’ve taken thousands more photos than Mom ever did. She doesn’t narrate epic slideshows these days any more than she caters her legendary Seders up in Queens that rocked with laughter and hearty belches until well after midnight. Mom’s color slides, 25 boxes of them, and her Kodak Carousel projector are at my house now, along with a legacy of 19 thick photo albums filled to the brim with prints and memorabilia.

Yet you can bet that Mom still relives her triumphs and her travels. With her salty, humorous anecdotes, she hopscotches the world and the years. A post-show talkback after a premiere at Duke Energy Theater can evolve into an audience with Mabel after patrons adjourn to the lobby of Spirit Square. Up in her apartment, she might turn the relics, the ceramics, the souvenirs and the Judaica that fill the glass shelves of her three mighty breakfronts into an hourlong tour.

And you might be one of those who hears about Mom’s living room travelogue – or recommends that others come and take the tour.

Ah, but all those delights of getting to know my mom are paused. So is the birthday bash Sue and I had been planning at the new Chabad Center on Sardis Road. Last I heard, the clock hasn’t paused, and my urge to celebrate – even without music, streamers, wine, audiovisual extravaganzas, and resounding mazel tovs shouted by guests from near and far – hasn’t been dampened one little bit.

So: Happy birthday, Mommie! Mazel tov on hitting 100.

Your life, your energy, your brave endurance, your wide-ranging passions, and your uniquely vibrant personality are all worth celebrating. Especially now!

Paige Johnston Thomas (1968-2020)

Paige Johnston Thomas – Dynamic actor, director, casting agent, board member, and fundraiser

By Perry Tannenbaum

Paige[3]

When Paige Johnston made her Charlotte Rep debut in 1995, she was 26 years old, exactly the same age as the character she portrayed in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Can you imagine the thrill? The other two tall ladies were Lucille Patton, reprising the role I’d seen her play on Broadway the previous November, and Mary Lucy Bivins, at the start of her two-year reign as Creative Loafing Actress of the Year.

Paige held her own – and went on to carve a special place in Charlotte’s theatre scene as an actor, director, casting agent, and as a board member. CAST’s most successful fundraiser, from what I heard. After marrying ace videographer Jay Thomas 13 years ago, Paige Johnston Thomas almost made it to the same age Bivins was supposed to be, dying early last week of a rare form of cancer, compounded by liver disease, at the age 0f 51.

It wasn’t a one-sided battle. Less than a year ago, Thomas was being hailed for conquering cancer as she directed the local premiere of J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, winner of the 2017 Tony Award for Best New Play. Deploying a large cast on a key episode in the endless conflicts in the Middle East – when peace blazed as a real possibility – in Norway, of all places! – the poignancy and hope of Oslo certainly wasn’t a low-energy project. Directing it wasn’t for beginners.IMG_7076

The career highlights on the road to Oslo with Three Bone Theatre included her devastating turn as Elvira in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit (2003) at Theatre Charlotte. As a director at CAST, Thomas is most fondly remembered for dark play (2008) and No Exit (2009). Steel Magnolias (2010), the female Odd Couple (2012), and The Miracle Worker (2016) were probably her most resounding Theatre Charlotte hits. The local premiere of Three Days of Rain (2017) with Charlotte’s Off-Broadway was a handsome calling card prior to Thomas’s Oslo gig.

Yeah, the sun was shining a year ago – seemingly on an unclouded future – as Johnston was in rehearsals for Oslo. Here is the interview we did, along with excerpts from Q&A’s that I did with a few cast members.

96127954_565686381024653_1904675626200072192_n

🎭       🎭       🎭       🎭       🎭

Queen City Nerve: How did you become involved in directing Oslo for Three Bone Theatre? Were you familiar with the script before you were asked to come aboard?

Paige Johnston Thomas: About a year and a half ago, I received a call from Robin [Tynes-Miller] about helming this project. I had been very aware of Three Bone and the success that Robin and Becky [Schultz] had been enjoying. I also loved that they teamed up with a community partner for each show, which I found made their company really unique in the world of theatre. Also, the fact that their tag line was “To succeed in life you need three things – a wishbone, a backbone, and a funny bone” – always cracked me up, yet resonated strongly with me! I was familiar with Oslo and its successful run on Broadway, but I had not read the script or seen the play when they reached out to me.

Not ignoring the logistical problems of coordinating rehearsals for a cast of 15, what are the special challenges of directing Oslo?

Thomas: Yes, the rehearsal schedule for 15 cast members was quite the challenge. But so was planning rehearsals for 15 people for 65 scenes! As they say in the theatre, “I was told there’d be no math!” Many of the scenes are short, moving the story along briskly, but working on the rehearsal schedule was intense. Even before undertaking the schedule, one of my first challenges was the subject matter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seemed such an onerous undertaking, and I had two main concerns: I worried if my knowledge and comprehension of the conflict were up to the task, and was this process going to be arduous and depressing because of the subject matter.

DSCF3967

But both those concerns quickly dissipated once I delved in to the script. Yes, as a director I was going to need to know the details of the conflict, and by starting my research early, I felt confident I could arrive to rehearsals prepared. But the beauty of the script is that it naturally reveals the necessary history and details needed to follow the story. One doesn’t need to know much, if anything, about the dissension between the two parties. And my concern about it being arduous and depressing were quelled once I realized that this is a story of hope, a story of success, and a story of the human spirit persevering through adversity. And thankfully, playwright J.T. Rogers has weaved in humor and witty badinage to keep the audience entertained and connected.

Are you thinking that the tortuous path to conflict resolution that happened in Oslo is in any way analogous/applicable to the polarization in American politics today – can we carry away any optimism after watching Oslo, or will seeing it deepen our sense of urgency and despair?

Thomas: Oslo is ultimately an optimistic play. It is filled with moments of solidarity, connection, and understanding; all the while underscored with the backdrop of hatred and distrust. Even more than when it opened on Broadway, I feel this play is extremely relevant and crucial in today’s political climate. How did two warring factions come together to forge an understanding? The play deals specifically with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which is still rearing its ugly head daily, but it is also dealing with the idea of peace, with the possibility of peace, and the hope for peace. Those themes are broader and relate to our American political parties, our foreign policies, and even to our smaller, but not less important, personal interactions. I hope our audience members leave the theatre with a sense of action and insight and see, like the characters in the play, that there is the possibility of peace and understanding even in the face of formidable obstacles.

IMG_3793

🎭       🎭       🎭       🎭       🎭

QC Nerve: How do you see Mona as a person? She seems both exciting and enigmatic on the page to me, frustratingly cautious one minute, brilliantly resourceful the next, with no obvious partialities either way in the Middle East conflict. Did you need to research her to see what made her tick, or did you simply rely on the script and/or Kat Martin’s dramaturgy instead?

Tonya Bludsworth (Mona Juul in Oslo): Mona is certainly all those things and she has been so much fun to figure out as a character. I did some research about her on my own, but Kat Martin was definitely an invaluable resource. Kat is a rock star in my book. Her dramaturgy packet was so detailed and chock full of information on the history of the conflict and the people involved. That information gave all of us a solid foundation on which to build our characters and the show. That said, I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t just imitating Mona and our director, Paige Thomas, has been so great to work with in that regard. We wanted to make sure that Mona was not just a narrator or stern politician. She carries a lot of emotional weight and even though she is adamant about neutrality she also feels the importance of the situation and the opportunity, and she genuinely hopes that this “process” will make a difference for all sides.

DSCF3936

🎭       🎭       🎭       🎭       🎭

QC Nerve: What impacts have the J.T. Rogers script, Paige Johnston Thomas’ directing, and Kat Martin’s dramaturgy had in developing your performance?

Victor Sayegh (Ahmed Qurie in Oslo): Rogers’ script is a beautiful tapestry of conflict, personal relationships, mistrust and humor. It is important to remember that, although the people portrayed in this play are real people, the words they speak are entirely the playwright’s. And he has done a beautiful job of portraying their roles in the story and their humanity without watering down their resolve. Qurie in particular is almost poetic in his language and there are lines he/I speak that touch my heart as the words leave my lips. Working under Paige’s direction also played into my interest in this project, and it has been a wonderful experience. She provides the perfect balance of direction and the freedom to make our own choices for our characters. Like the peace process itself, it has been an intense collaboration. Kat’s dramaturgy has allowed all of us to be immersed in the history of this conflict. She consistently reminds us all of the historical background that shaped each of our characters.

Going through the rehearsal process and Ahmed’s character arc night after night, does it get increasingly difficult each night to start out with the same degree of hatred and distrust every night towards characters/actors you’ve become accustomed to? What’s the secret to keeping your edge fresh?

Sayegh: This has been a challenge for me. Not only because of the many emotional ups and downs of the script, but also because Qurie often has an ulterior motive behind his words. He is very calculated. Like a poker player, he never lets his face give away his hand. Paige’s rehearsal process is very specific and organized. She has broken down the entire play into 67 scenes. Each night we know what scene or scenes we will be rehearsing. Therefore, I prepare myself each night by reliving what happened prior to that scene (the cards in my hand) as well as what I want to portray (my poker face).

DSCF3944

🎭       🎭       🎭       🎭       🎭

QC Nerve: Are you tackling the singular Israeli accent in your portrayals, or is the cast steering clear of such minefields?

Dennis Delamar (Shimon Peres and Yair Hirschfield in Oslo): I enjoy trying to fine-tune an accent, and I was up for the Peres/Hirschfeld challenge, but Paige made the directorial decision for us not to use accents, to “steer clear of such minefields,” which I understand and respect. There are a few times accents are used because they are necessary for the humor in a scene (usually Norwegian), but for the most part, we are all using straightforward standard English dialect. However, there are places in the script where the playwright has us actually speaking a line or two in Arabic, Hebrew or Norwegian for a desired effect, which I find enjoyable. I am very proud of my one line of Hebrew I hopefully mastered, which I speak to Anne Lambert as Toril, the Norwegian chef who serves all us men her specialty, waffles from her mother’s recipe. Paige was able to get dialectician Fiona Jones to provide us with translations and pronunciations of names and cities, quite a help.

In a diverse cast working on a taut, dramatic script, were there any outbreaks of arguments or hostilities between members of the cast during the heat of rehearsals – or were these subsumed by politeness and professionalism?

Delamar: I have not observed any outbreaks of hostility between members of the cast during rehearsals. Professional, polite, committed to finding the truth in the scene and the point of view of the character we were each playing have seemed to be our standards and primary goals. I’ve really appreciated the way Paige approached each scene from the outset with reinforcement from Kat the dramaturg at the table with the facts and the reminder to us, only speak for yourself, not anyone else’s character. We were encouraged to respect and try to understand other characters’ differences, as we analyzed how our characters were feeling and why. The honesty we have developed in our dramatic scenes have been informed intelligently by dialogue at the table before we have put each scene on its feet. There was a delicate and respectful dance preceding the often-explosive interchanges, helping with the ease and success of these scenes.

DSCF3952

How much work was it to see how incredible the Oslo process was from an Israeli point of view? How did the J.T. Rogers script, Paige’s direction, and Kat Martin’s dramaturgy contribute to properly shaping your mindset?

Delamar: I knew I was in for something special when this large cast of talent, many new faces to the Charlotte scene, showed up for the first read-through. My task, to find and appreciate the Israeli point of view was helped considerably by Paige’s guidance and the in-depth research provided by Kat Martin, our dramaturg. First, she provided articles and history on each of our characters, also the history of this part of the world, the Palestinians, the Israelis and the sequence of events before and after the Peace Accord. All helpful in understanding the Israeli point of view.

Links to documentaries and footage of interviews were also beneficial, although I got to a point I couldn’t watch them all. As I mentioned earlier, the playwright’s text also took me to that “point of view” awareness with some thoughtful analysis and good table discussion with the team. I found myself reading everything I could on Hirschfeld and Peres, of course, the two Israeli officials I am entrusted with playing. Such respect developed for their lifetime commitment to their cause and the State of Israel. When you play real human beings, there is a responsibility to bring life to their portrayals. Not a “spot on” impersonation, but achieving some sort of essence and dignity in their words and actions have been my goals.

Photos by Jay Thomas and courtesy of Theatre Charlotte

 

How a “Suitcase Symphony” Cultivated a Sahara

28560802677_3d0805874c_k

Book Review: THE NORTH CAROLINA SYMPHONY: A HISTORY, By Joe A. Mobley and John W. Lambert, Foreword by Roy C. Dicks

By Perry Tannenbaum

Financially, artistically, and administratively, the North Carolina Symphony has had a turbulent history. At the end of their newly-published North Carolina Symphony: A History, authors Joe A. Mobley and John Lambert report that the organization’s debt had decreased from $2.1 million to $210,000 over the seven-year period ending in 2018. Founded in 1932 – and the first state-supported symphony in the US – the organization couldn’t point to a truly smooth, rancor-free transition between artistic directors until their fourth, Gerhardt Zimmermann, gracefully retired at the end of the 2001-2002 season.43447201721_e6e0bcd543_c

Musicians, artistic directors, donors, fundraisers, and executive directors were the usual suspects in shaping this orchestra, which was striving to take root during the Great Depression. Within the donor and musician constituencies, fissures could develop, further complicating the infighting when it arose. Adding to the unique stresses and challenges facing the NC Symphony were its status as a state-supported orchestra and its mission of serving audiences – and schoolchildren – across a state that stretches westward 600 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.

43399400322_777b47bf21_c

To finally earn the state’s official patronage in 1943 and keep legislators satisfied that they weren’t funding “horn tootin’” frivolities, artistic director Benjamin Swalin and wife Maxine Swalin (the unofficial executive director during NCS’s post-Depression revival) needed to establish a formidable statewide educational component for school-aged kids. Meanwhile, fundraisers and concert promoters who were the lifeblood of the Symphony Society, in local chapters spread across the state, needed to see and hear the orchestra in live performance to make their efforts and contributions worthwhile.

Fulfilling these expansive missions fell most heavily on the shoulders of the musicians, 70 of whom were recruited by founding director Lamar Stringfield, drawing from talent at UNC Chapel Hill and around the state to perform in the first cluster of concerts in 1932. Stringfield was truly a missionary of missionaries, for the original orchestra members served voluntarily. The peripatetic corps, two Little Symphony orchestras in addition to the mother ship, were labelled by a bemused New York Times correspondent in 1951 as the “Suitcase Symphony,” riding around North Carolina and neighboring states in red-and-yellow buses, stopping at less-than-luxurious lodgings.

The Swalins and their successor, John Gosling, were gone from the scene in 1983 when NCS finally established their permanent headquarters and rehearsal space in Raleigh. Mobley and Lambert exhaustively chronicle all the headquarter switches of the early years, which saw the orchestra based temporarily in Chapel Hill, Asheville, Durham, Winston-Salem, and even Charlotte. More fascinating, the authors also describe ongoing tribulations of the orchestra during the Depression Era when the WPA, established as part of FDR’s New Deal reforms, guided their trajectory while offering lifesaving support.

A similar episode began in 1966 when the Ford Foundation analyzed the orchestra’s shortcomings. Citing an overly concentrated and insufficiently rehearsed four-month season, as well as underpaid musicians, substandard working conditions, ill-defined racial policies, and the need for a permanent headquarters, Ford’s board pointedly cautioned against the impulse of becoming a “traveling show.” At the other end of that stick was a juicy carrot: a matching grant of $1 million awarded to the NCS Society if they could meet the Ford challenge and raise $750,000 over the next five years.

For the Society, this was far more consideration than they had received from the WPA, when disgruntled members felt deprived of their voice and turned their backs on the orchestra, resulting in a temporary shutdown at the end of 1940. When Gosling was dumped in 1980, he penned an amicable resignation letter, veiling his ire until after his final concert, when he refused to come forth and accept a Governor’s Award and a floral bouquet from a past Society president representing the Capitol. Awkward. Then the following year, it was the musicians who were disaffected, not because they were loyal to their deposed conductor, but because, flouting their contractual agreement, the board of trustees had gone ahead and named a new artistic director without consulting them.

28560804287_76b1dfaee7_c

Mobley and Lambert wisely prepare us for the hard times of the NC Symphony and their slow progress – toward state recognition, salaried musicians, an executive director, a permanent headquarters, and finally in 2001, a new Meymandi concert hall of their own – with an illuminating opening chapter on the development of classical music in the South. Taking their cue from H.L. Mencken’s scornful 1917 description of the post-Civil War cultural scene as “The Sahara of the Bozart” in titling this chapter, the authors push back only slightly in their brief history of classical music and the rise of orchestras in the South.

They acknowledge that, indeed, there was no resident professional orchestra in the region until well after 1900. Furthermore, North Carolina had been far overshadowed as a cultural center inside the Confederacy by Richmond and Charleston in neighboring states to the north and south. Like many other cities in the Reconstruction South, Raleigh took pride in distinguished guest artists who graced their halls. Yet the venues were far from ideal: at an 1890 concert in Metropolitan Hall, a Raleigh reporter bemoaned how “gabbling geese” cooped up in a market below had likely marred the sounds of the visiting Boston Orchestra.

We get a vivid picture of how arid the soil truly was for planting a symphony in North Carolina when Stringfield originally floated his idea at UNC in 1930 – and was regarded as “loony” by a local editor. Many juicy details are lavished upon the orchestra’s epic wanderings and travails as this history unfolds. What the authors miss is the story of how the North Carolina Symphony evolved into the unit we can now hear and judge on their recent recordings with Yevgeny Sudbin, Zuill Bailey, and Branford Marsalis. We get little sense of how slowly or rapidly the orchestra grew under each of their artistic directors, which sections of the ensemble blossomed early or late, and which composers and guest artists made them shine.

33481197891_2d66e0f0bd_c

While learning in great abundance what the Symphony has played over an 86-year span – and with whom they performed – we get too few discriminating assessments of how well or distinctively they delivered. The question of whether there is or ever was a North Carolina sound is never explored. Without a critical musical ear presiding over the orchestra’s development, the authors gloss over what should emerge as the most dramatic artistic episode in their history, when nine conductors from three continents converged on Raleigh over the course of two seasons in 2003-04, vying for the directorship vacated by Zimmermann.

Barely one full page is devoted to the whole showdown, just enough space to introduce the contestants. What specific works Peter Oundjian, Roberto Minczuk, Andrea Quinn, Jeffrey Kahane, Michael Christie, Giancarlo Guerrero and others performed at Meymandi Hall is never spelled out, let alone what these artists brought to the music. In hindsight, we know that Grant Llewellyn, hailing from Wales and representing Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, took the prize. But there must have been sustained excitement and suspense until he did. Musicians, subscribers, and critics surely followed the fray, but the authors haven’t excavated their recollections.

41639854390_9e54e95b5a_c

Despite the fact that an African American has never served as a full-time instrumentalist at NCS, Mobley and Lambert are admirably vigilant in logging the contributions that African Americans and women have made throughout the orchestra’s history. They seem to delight in noting what women and African Americans have done behind the scenes as fundraisers and administrators. Onstage as guest artists or on staff as associate conductors, if you were a woman or an African American in either of these roles, the authors will almost invariably review your accomplishments before you performed with the North Carolina Symphony and frequently note where your career took you afterwards.

William Henry Curry deservedly draws the most robust and appreciative treatment among the African Americans in this history, becoming the popular artistic director of Summerfest in Cary (an outgrowth of Pops in the Park concerts in the early ‘80s on Labor Day) after joining NCS as an associate director in 1996. Curry has been music director at the Durham Symphony since 2009 and retired from NCS in 2016. Even in the penultimate pages of their chronicle, the authors shine a spotlight on Thomas Wilkins, who led the orchestra for one night on New Year’s Eve 2017, and three women who have served as assistant or associate directors – Carolyn Kuan, Joan Landry, and Sarah Hicks.

Cumulatively, this emphasis by the authors becomes a subtle form of advocacy. Although Llewellyn’s distinguished tenure is coming to an end this year, Mobley and Lambert are finding that the North Carolina Symphony is still unfinished.

 

Charlotte Symphony’s Missa Solemnis Thrills With Power and Sublimity

Review:  Missa Solemnis

By Perry Tannenbaum

2020~Missa Solemnis-15

Beethoven’s original intent, when he conceived his Missa Solemnis, was to honor one of his foremost patrons, Rudolf, the Archduke of Austria, who was to be installed as an archbishop on March 9, 1820, in what is now the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, Beethoven missed his self-imposed deadline, so we are not on the brink of celebrating the bicentennial of one of this composer’s most towering achievements. The score wasn’t placed in Archbishop Rudolf’s hands until the third anniversary of his installation, wasn’t premiered until the spring of 1824 in St. Petersburg, and Beethoven never saw (by this time, he was deaf) a complete performance during his lifetime. Only the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei were offered when Beethoven presided over the only performance of the Missa Solemnis that he ever attended on May 7, 1824. Yet it cannot be said that the Vienna audience was shortchanged, for on the same night, Beethoven’s immortal “Choral” Symphony had its world premiere.

There is certainly a kinship between the two works, which call upon the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra to bring a chorus and four special guest vocalists to the stage each time they are presented. Last conducted at the Belk Theater by maestro Christopher Warren-Green at the season finale for 2011-12, Missa Solemnis has a power and visceral impact that rivals Beethoven’s mighty Ninth, but it is nowhere near the same magnitude as a box office attraction. Symphony has wisely pushed the chorale to an earlier spot in this season’s calendar and, compared with recent Beethoven programs when Emperor Concerto and Symphony No. 8 were given three times each, limited performances to two. Most concertgoers who were there on opening night would enthusiastically confirm that this singular mass was well worth hearing.

Warren-Green’s guest vocalists and the orchestra seemed slightly tentative – and the timpanist slightly timid – in setting up the opening Kyrie, and the ethereal music that Beethoven wrote for organ was conspicuously AWOL during Gloria and the penultimate Sanctus. But the confidence of the singers and musicians firmed up quickly enough for the hesitant opening moments to be forgotten by evening’s end – while the excellence of the guest vocalists remained a constant. In the company of tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan, soprano Christina Pier, and bass Jordan Bisch, mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller initially sounded underpowered in the alto part.

2020~Missa Solemnis-14

Satisfaction in hearing Miller tracked similarly to the performance as a whole. When we reached the second section, the Gloria, Warren-Green jumped up and down to spur the musicians on, tempo quickened excitedly with an awesome leap in loudness, horns and brass entered zestfully into the fray, and the chorus – especially the sopranos – sang with heightened crispness and enthusiasm. After the opening Kyrie, each of the remaining four sections was well over 15 minutes in length, epic enough to go through multiple changes in tempo and mood. Beginning with the Gloria, we heard Miller to better advantage when she was freed to explore her upper range.

2020~Missa Solemnis-12.jpg

Manucharyan and Piers were more consistently strong, powerful enough to assert themselves distinctively even when the Charlotte Master Chorale – known as the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte in 2012 when they previously teamed with Symphony on this work – sang robustly behind them. Displaying admirable stamina merely by remaining standing for the entire 80-minute performance, the Master Chorale were marvelous throughout. Perhaps their most thrilling work occurred in the insistent Credo section, but their hushed moments in the sacred episodes strewn across the work were equally treasurable, more than compensating for the sacramental void left by the absent organ continuo.

2020~Missa Solemnis-11

Bisch had his best moments as he opened the climactic Agnus Dei section, which was eventually crowned with military thunder and harmonious choral glory. Perhaps the most memorable moments of the entire concert were cued during the Sanctus when concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu raised his music stand, signaling that he himself would soon stand up and deliver a silvery solo before merging blissfully with the guest soloists, most especially Piers and Manucharyan, in the sublime “Benedictus” portion of this section.

The elegant Preludio played by Lupanu, almost entirely far up in the violin’s range, is said to have been Beethoven’s attempt to simulate the descent of the Holy Spirit into the midst of his solemn creation. Most of the concertgoers at Belk Theater would likely testify to the composer’s success.

Moving Poets Add New Phantasmagoria to a Detained Immigrant’s Upside-Down View of Heaven

Review: Heaven

By Perry Tannenbaum

FIX_1347a-4986

Launched in 1997 with an eerie multi-layered, multimedia production of Dracula in the crumbling ruins of the Carolina Theatre, Moving Poets has always been eclectic in its use of artforms and – devoutly edgy and occasionally inscrutable – unafraid of posing challenges to its audiences. Fueled by dancer-choreographer Till Schmidt-Rimpler and visual artist MyLoan Dinh, the company has always been international in scope, more likely to bring us Moulin Rouge, Salomé, Swan Lake, 1001 Arabian Nights or Johannesburg Stories than You Can’t Take It With You. Though Schmidt-Rimpler hailed from Germany and Dinh was a refugee of the Vietnam War, the issues of immigration and treatment of refugees were nowhere near the core of Moving Poets’ works – until long after the couple moved their company to Berlin in 2007.

The Syrian refugee crisis, reconnecting with Charlotte and the US, our great border wall scares, and caged refugee children brought those issues to the forefront. Heaven, the fifth stage of an ongoing We See Heaven Upside Down project launched by Dinh in 2015, has evolved from a visual arts project to a typically rich Moving Poets hybrid at Booth Playhouse. Original music was written by more than a half dozen composers. Dancers were deployed from the Movement Migration company and the Charlotte Ballet Academy. Native American and Mexican dance performances were also patched into a quilt woven by three different choreographers. With overlays of film, theater, video projection mapping, song, suitcase puppetry, and kinetic sculpture, Moving Poets fans and followers can expect the customary sensory onslaught with a few new twists.

Chiefly concerned with two child protagonists caged by border control hysteria, the storyline has a fairytale texture we haven’t seen from Moving Poets before. Danielle Lieberman and Nina Bischoff, sharing the role of Maria Helena, are separated from parents danced by Kim Jones and E.E. Balcos. Common sense, empathy, and human decency aren’t on Maria’s roadmap to freedom here. The key to liberation will only be theirs if they obtain the “lamp beside the golden door” from a narcissistic Pinocchio. This pointy-nosed puppet is greedily keeping the lamp among his hoarded treasures, unaware that giving up the lamp and helping Maria will enable him to become human. Without a traditional playbill and printed scenario, grasping the storyline proves uncommonly difficult, even for a Moving Poets mélange. If you scan the QR code with your smartphone, you can access a Moving Poets webpage that fills in many of the blanks – and you can find links, in wee small print, to biographical sketches and Chuck Sullivan’s “Fallen Moon Fallen Stars,” the foundational poem written for this project.

Arriving early enough with the proper scanning app, you can adequately prep for the show, or you can catch up during intermission. It’s clear, nevertheless, that more theatrical writing and acting added to this show – or a far fuller visual representation of Maria’s fantasy world in phantasmagorical scenic design, film, and projections – would make this developing Moving Poets production more comprehensible and moving. We shouldn’t have to be putting it all together after we get home and take the time to summon up a webpage. A more cohesive and coherent Heaven would certainly add impact to Lieberman and Bischoff’s performances and to Ballet Academy classmate Alex Griffith’s gangly Pinocchio. Lacking the supplementary program material or exposure to any prepublicity, people in the audience on opening night couldn’t have had any idea of what would set Maria free and, even after the charming lamp reveal, any clue that this story connected with Emma Lazarus or the Statue of Liberty.

The speaking and singing were only tied obliquely to Maria’s story, beginning with Alyce Cristina Vallejo, who started us off as a peppy Walk for Life exercise coach before she gave way to a world of migrant and refugee shadows projected on a scrim. The silhouetted lighting design by Eric Winkenwerder on the yet-unseen dancers was in satiric contrast to the aerobic self-help peppiness of Vallejo: this was our first glimpse of an immigrant wave in flight toward freedom and self-preservation. Early in Act 2, Katherine Goforth popped out of the audience as Mother Mary Katherine, recounted a phone conversation she’d had with a border wall apostle, and departed without making a connection with anyone else onstage.

FIX_1347b-1276

Less vaudevillian than the cameos by Vallejo and Goforth, the singing performances of Cynthia Farbman Harris as Mother Mary were enhanced by their integration with the dancers’. Farbman actually visited the imprisoned children, bestowed upon them a gift too small to see, and soon revealed herself to be a Ukrainian immigrant as she sang nostalgically and zestfully of her old Jewish shtetl, “Belz,” surrounded by most of the troupe. Mother Mary returned near the end, startlingly altered (or converted?) as she sang “Ave Maria.” Equally unexpected, Rosalia Torres-Weiner peeped in with her suitcase puppetry for a prison visit as Mother Mary, her little shtick delightfully projected by video designer Shawn Gillis onto an upstage screen.

Much of Schmidt-Rimpler’s choreography still asks plenty of floor work from his dancers, which makes it a bad fit for the reconfigured Booth Playhouse. While they’ve lifted the orchestra section closer to stage level during their renovation process, they’ve also leveled the floor near the stage, so the rows of seats closest to the stage don’t immediately slope upwards. Sitting in the fourth row – in an uncomfortable chair – I had to play peekaboo between the heads of nearer patrons to track the action as it moved across the stage floor. Overall, however, I found the fortified choreographic mix to be delightful as the Poets’ music seemed to reach a higher plateau. As composer and percussionist, David Crowe continues to be a prime mover among the live musicians perched in the Booth balcony, with rock hall-of-famer Tom Constanten at the keyboard. Saxophonist Joe Wilson adds new fire to the ensemble with his European wailings, and there is more electronic music emanating from the soundbooth than I remember at previous Moving Poets productions. The founders’ son, Kalvin Schmidt-Rimpler Dinh, is likely the digital culprit, another auspicious sign.

FIX_1347b-1363

Whatever indignities have been heaped on the floor and the audience seating, lights and sound are wonderful at the Booth. Aside from additional spoken and scenic context, Dinh and Schmidt-Rimpler ought to consider discreetly outfitting their performers with body mikes. Back in the olden days when Poets first shocked Charlotte, they went with two Draculas, actor Graham Smith speaking the role and Schmidt-Rimpler reprising the vampire he had portrayed with NC Dance of Theatre. Neither of the Marias in Heaven is an actress, and Poets has laudably decided to stretch their young artists’ capabilities. In the meanwhile, some amplification would be beneficial to us all.

Symphony Bolsters CHOPIN PIANO CONCERTO With Improved Beethoven

Review: CHOPIN PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 and a guest shot by Gabriela Martinez

By Perry Tannenbaum

2020~Gabriela Martinez-02

You can’t really say that Christopher Warren-Green was between Beethoven concerts when he stepped to the podium at Knight Theater for a program headlined by CHOPIN PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 and a guest shot by Gabriela Martinez. In his last appearance at the Knight in January – before Charlotte Symphony resident conductor Christopher James Lees pinch-hit with an all-American program later in the month – Warren-Green launched Beethoven’s 250th birthday year with an evening that included the Leonore Overture and the “Emperor” Piano Concerto.

Ludwig Van’s Missa Solemnis, with four guest vocalists and the Charlotte Master Chorale joining CSO at Belk Theater, is next up for Warren-Green in March, but our maestro wasn’t giving Beethoven a complete night off, even though his program already sported a Valentine’s Day subplot. Instead, after a delicious sprig of music from Frederick Delius, Symphony No. 8 sent us on our way home. No, Warren-Green wasn’t exactly between Beethovens, but it might have been better if he had been.

The evening did not begin auspiciously, that’s for sure. Warren-Green, for the first time I can remember, brought a Symphony performance to an abrupt halt soon after beginning a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Disturbed by people who were coughing in the front rows (which I didn’t actually hear), Warren-Green whirled around and, slightly exaggerating his own pique, urged all the coughers to “just let it out!” and be done.

Shortly afterwards, a woman in the front row scurried to nearest exit, apparently more hurried and distressed than she might have been if she had thought Warren-Green were joking. Meanwhile, Symphony’s music director whirled back to his musicians and relaunched as abruptly as he had just aborted. Surprisingly after such curtness, the monastic calm of the Friar Lawrence prelude was played as exquisitely as if the orchestra had observed a minute of meditation before embarking, with beautiful highlights from the trombone and flute. The raucous section, depicting family strife between the Montagues and the Capulets, came thrillingly after a slow simmering keyed by the harp, the violins and the timpani came to a boil.

The repeated swellings heralding the famous rhapsodic R&J love theme were as sensitively rendered as you could ask, and the concluding section was haunting in its funereal solemnity. Alas, the love theme itself, perhaps the most well-worn melody in classical music – think of all the times you’ve heard it! – sounded somewhat hackneyed to me, despite Symphony’s laudable forbearance, not having performed it in their mainstage Classics Series since 2011.

I doubt many CSO members had ever performed the featured Chopin concerto in Charlotte before. The last time it appears on my radar was when Emanuel Ax played it in 1998 – with the visiting Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Known primarily for his piano compositions, Chopin launches into his PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 with surprisingly lush and virile orchestral writing in the Allegro maestoso: brass, flutes and French horns striding into the mix as the long intro climaxes. Although Warren-Green and Symphony were aggressive in their attitude, Martinez took a more leisurely approach, downplaying the inner dialectic between longhair rigor and liquid lyricism in the early piano soloing, settling instead into a groove that underscored the Concerto’s affinity with Chopin’s Nocturnes. Only toward the end of the movement did Martinez build toward cadenza-level intensity.

2020~Gabriela Martinez-04

While I admired Martinez’s delicate touch in the treble, her firm left hand patrolling the bass, and her overall technique, the full exquisiteness and drama of the middle Romanze movement somehow eluded her in her earthbound phrasing. Far more satisfying was the concluding Rondo, where she captured the dancing vivacity of the music, sometimes recalling the sprightly charms of Chopin’s Waltzes and sometimes evoking the more emphatic stomp of the Polonaises. Just as importantly, Martinez and the CSO seemed to be having a jolly time, which did not preclude her showing off a bit. Indulging in those delights, however, Martinez missed the poignancy and drama you’ll find at the end of Murray Perahia’s recorded version.

The piece by Delius, “The Walk to the Paradise Garden,” was as dreamy and tropical as you would expect, from a British composer who has likely captured the soul of primeval Florida better than any American. Really lovely passages played by principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and principal clarinetist Taylor Marino were an intoxicating intro to Delius’s special allure, but Warren-Green and his orchestra seemed to back away from delivering the full drama of this operatic extract when the music swelled.

Perhaps the maestro and his ensemble had the context of this composition in mind, coming in Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet just before the lovers fulfill a suicide pact. The lovely performance didn’t have any more of a depressing effect on me than the Tchaikovsky overture had, but it seemed to dampen spirits onstage. It’s quite possible that the opening of Beethoven’s Allegro vivace was the most perfunctory playing I have heard from CSO since the last time they programmed Symphony No. 8 in 2009, a distinctively tepid outing led by former music director Christof Perick.

This time, the orchestra gradually hit their stride after circling back to the main theme, though I still wanted a little more kettledrum éclat in the ensemble explosions. In the ensuing Scherzo, a little more stealth in the soft sections and a little more mock ferocity – like Warren-Green’s attitude toward the coughers earlier? – would have helped. Symphony already had the measure of the Menuetto in 2009, the one movement Perick salvaged, and they maintained their mastery here. Launching with a zesty attack, Warren-Green brought forth the folksy energy in rotation with a wan beerhall merriment and an idyllic refuge for the woodwinds.

The F major Symphony is bookended with Allegro vivace movements, and the last is prime Beethoven, quietly churning at the outset with an inevitable outbreak of irrepressible joy. Warren-Green coaxed both the expectancy and the jubilant payload from the orchestra – plus all the surprises, detours, misdirection, and impassioned releases that make Beethoven so worth revisiting and celebrating, 250th birthday or not. The French horns didn’t mess up as they had in 2009, this time around teaming up with the brass in a rousing finish.

CP Loses the ABBA Showdown

Review: Cold-War, USA-vs.-the-Soviets overlay of intrigue to the actual chessboard drama

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

Chess Dress Rehearsal; February 13th, 2020

So who wins the world championship match between Frederick Trumper and Anatoly Sergievsky in Tim Rice’s Chess, with music by the bodacious ABBA duo, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus? Depends on whether you’re watching the original concept album of 1984, the touring concert version that followed, several British productions that expand the original further for the stage, or the American version with a book by Richard Nelson that arrived on Broadway in 1988. Based very loosely on the premiere event in chess history, when Bobby Fischer challenged Boris Spassky for the world title in 1972, Rice reveled in applying a Cold-War, USA-vs.-the-Soviets overlay of intrigue to the actual chessboard drama.

Good instincts there. The game of chess is even more antithetical to performing arts presentations than golf or curling. Yet Rice’s elaborate behind-the-scenes chess games were equally ill-suited to a concert or album format.

Glenn Griffin said as much before directing and starring in Queen City Theatre Company’s presentation of a reworked Broadway version in 2011. “This makes me feel old, but I have the records,” he said of the concept album and the concert album, nearly four hours in length combined. “I have the two records, and I just remember loving this music even before I knew what it was really about.”

Right now, CPCC Theatre is doing what director Tom Hollis, giving his curtain speech, called a new United Kingdom version that has only recently become available. Don’t expect to see Nelson’s name in your playbill, and don’t count on much dialogue in this bookless throwback – and don’t expect historical accuracy in the outcome of the match. If you saw the QC Theatre production in 2011, that outcome has flipflopped.

Chess Dress Rehearsal; February 13th, 2020

What CPCC and a very able cast offer is mostly an improvement on getting the storyline from the original albums, for you can see what is going on between Freddie, Anatoly, and Florence Vassy, the woman torn between them. You can track the political and romantic defections, compounded by the machinations of KGB operative Alexander Molokov, which are countered by the CIA’s Walter de Courcey. Production designer Bob Croghan’s slick set and costumes – with Freddie in leather! – make it all so easy on the eye, and James Duke’s projections usefully show or tell us where we are.

What I heard last Saturday night, however, was a sound technician’s nightmare. An unintelligible chorus of 18 voices disorients us from the outset, obviously the opposite of what they’re intended to do, and the solo voices of the principals are only intermittently an upgrade. Just about two weeks earlier, sitting farther from the stage at Matthews Playhouse, my wife Sue and I were able to hear another ABBA opus, Mamma Mia, far more clearly.

Chess Dress Rehearsal; February 13th, 2020

No doubt about it, CP lost the ABBA showdown with Matthews because of their wayward sound system and microphones. Oddly enough, we were consistently able to hear the Russians, Anatoly and Alexander, more clearly than the Americans, Freddie and (Hungarian refugee) Florence. Unless CP can clear up its technical difficulties, the best thing they can do would be to send Duke back to his computer, where he could whip up a set of supertitles.

Otherwise, some of the projections and scene titles that Duke throws on the upstage screen or over the Halton Theater proscenium might confuse first-timers. For example, why are we seeing a grainy old photo of Budapest in 1956? Because those fiendish Russians are using the possibility that Florence’s dad might be alive behind the Iron Curtain as a pawn in their game, a potent bargaining chip that might persuade Freddie’s aide to help them conquer Trumper.

Double-crooked, those nasty Russians also dangle the wife Anatoly left behind when he defected, so he’ll return to the motherland after successfully defending his title – or throw a second title match to a new Russian challenger. CP also produced Chess in a revamped Broadway version back in 1991, and it’s interesting to see how Svetlana, Anatoly’s wife, has kept changing. Back then, she had a frumpy peasant personality, but Griffin transformed Svetlana into an alluring black temptress who was every bit as queenly as her white Hungarian counterpart. Now she’s stolid, conventional, and underutilized when she appears in Act 2.

The Broadway denouement happened in Budapest, a more telling place for pressuring Florence. “One Night in Bangkok” is the marquee song in Chess, so you know part of the action will stay there no matter what. But with a return to a British version, action starts out in Merano, Italy, as the match begins. That means “Merano” and up to 12 other songs that were axed from the original British stage version – and the Chess in Concert album – are being heard in Charlotte for the first time.

After the first act, all of it in Merano, my wife Sue sat there bewildered at intermission, wondering how she could have forgotten Chess so totally. Simple answer: we hadn’t seen it here in Charlotte before. The Bangkok setting that we remembered had been moved to Act 2, and Budapest was discarded.

Chess Dress Rehearsal; February 13th, 2020

If it weren’t for the execrable sound, CP’s Chess might have been a pleasant discovery. In or out of his leather, Patrick Stepp brought a great punkish look to Freddie and a piercing heavy-metal tenor, but when he wasn’t singing “Pity the Child,” I rarely understood a word. The score was kinder to J. Michael Beech as Anatoly, doling out more power ballads to his mellower voice, since the brooding Soviet, like Spassky, really is the mellower, more humane chess player. Why else would two women adore him?

Totally obscured in her previous role at CP as the bodacious voice of Audrey 2 in Little Shop of Horrors, Iris DeWitt emerges as merely slightly bigger than life as Florence, easily the most frustrating performance in the show. The pure voice is as delightful to hear as Beech’s, but the most conflicted character onstage during Act 1 wasn’t intelligible for more than a few words at a time – even in her beautiful “Heaven Help My Heart” – and DeWitt’s mic only marginally defogged after the break.

Chess Dress Rehearsal; February 13th, 2020

Wearing a painfully symmetrical dress, Kristin Sakamoto earned future CP payback in the thankless role of Svetlana. No longer worthy in this UK version of a “You and I” duet with her husband Anatoly, Sakamoto’s highlight is the comparatively tepid “I Know Him So Well” duet with DeWitt. The Arbiter, who explains the championship rules and adjudicates protests from the rival camps, turns out to be a juicier role for Rick Hammond in his local debut. Hammond’s mic was no more reliable than DeWitt’s, but his gaudy costume gave him an aura like The Engineer’s in Miss Saigon or a villain in a Batman movie.

Chess Final Dress Rehearsal, February 13th, 2020

With a serviceable Russian accent and an ominous gruffness, Matthew Corbett as Molokov was conspicuously successful in making himself understood – and justifying everybody’s hatred. He’s the one cast member who appeared in the Queen City production of 2011, and after crossing the pond from the American version to the UK edition, he’s likely keeping his preference between the two Top Secret. It sure was useful to have his malignant clarity spread out over seven songs during an evening that left many in the audience completely nonplussed.

Maybe while they’re tearing down and replacing Pease Auditorium across Elizabeth Avenue, CP could be correcting the chronic sound woes at the Halton.