Category Archives: Classical

New Charlotte Symphony Season Brings New Sounds and Welcome Echoes

Review: CSO Plays Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Strauss’s Aus Italien

2022~Elgar Cello-05By Perry Tannenbaum

October 7, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Charlotte Symphony’s conductor laureate, Christopher Warren-Green, had been gone nearly a full week, but the echo of his presence remained at the kickoff of the 2022-23 season at Knight Theater. Once again, the Orchestra fired off the “Star-Spangled Banner” to inaugurate the new season, and once again, the ensemble achieved lift-off with Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto – just like they did in 2012 at Belk Theater in Warren-Green’s first concert as musical director. Now Andrew Grams wielded the baton, his first guest shot with Symphony since 2016, and the soloist making her Charlotte debut was Israeli cellist Inbal Segev rather than Alisa Weilerstein.

Both artists have recorded the Elgar, Bloch’s Kol Nidre, and the complete Bach Cello Suites, so they may be described as kindred spirits. Perhaps Segev gets the nod over Weilerstein in being more simpatico with Grams, who began his program with PIVOT by British composer Anna Clyne. Not only did Segev commission a new Clyne concerto, DANCE, but she also premiered it on the same 2020 album where she plays the Elgar. Grams returned after intermission with Richard Strauss’s rarely-heard Aus Italien, arguably a more outlaw piece than the composer’s Don Juan.

Always forthcoming and charming when he addresses an audience, Grams likened the transitions of PIVOT to pressing the “previous channel” button on a TV remote control. True enough, shifts back and forth from the slow to the fast sections of the piece were often abrupt, incongruous jumps, sometimes startlingly so. But compared to the premiere performance, recorded at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2021, Grams seemed a bit heavy-handed in making his point. Instead of reveling in the contrasts, I found myself longing for the return of the calmer, quieter interludes – a sad waltz, a lazy Irish reel, and an Eastern European lament flavored with paprika – because Grams was more inclined to make the dominant loud sections raucous rather than catchy, though I was certainly delighted by the double-bass section providing whip-crack percussion, snapping their strings. I found myself rehabbing my appreciation for Clyne by listening to Segev’s recording of DANCE the following morning.2022~Elgar Cello-26

In person, Segev’s playing on the Elgar moved me far more than her excellent recording. Clearly, she was as comfortable with the orchestra as Grams and his musicians were with her. Hardly showy at all, her relaxed and dignified manner welcomed the audience and musicians to immerse themselves in the music along with her. Technical obstacles and difficulties never fazed Segev, so instead of capping strenuous journeys, we seemed to arrive more suddenly and dramatically at peak moments, where the cellist and Grams simultaneously turned up the voltage. The outer movements, the opening Adagio and an epic closing Allegro with no less than five sections, were teeming with rich contours and vivid contrasts. The more homogeneous middle movements, a Lento followed an Adagio, were object lessons in how an accomplished artist keeps our interest between musical tempests.

Although the Knight wasn’t filled to overflowing, a robust crowd was wildly appreciative of Inbal’s grace and verve. Nor was her encore, the Courante from Bach’s Suite No. 3, chosen to reconcile us to her departure. The standing ovation for this sparkly gem was every bit as enthusiastic as the reception for the Elgar. Deservedly.2022~Elgar Cello-22

Somewhere in Germany or possibly Austria, Christof Perick, Charlotte Symphony’s most ardent champion of Strauss, must have been smiling when Grams deftly navigated the many delights of Aus Italien. This youthful symphonic poem, premiered in 1887 while Strauss was in his early 20s, committed the folly of stealing “Funiculì, Funiculà” for the cornerstone of his final movement when composer Luigi Denza could readily sue him for the theft. But the inventiveness of the young genius is unalloyed in the previous three movements. Opening Strauss’s travelogue, “In the Country” isn’t bucolic in the manner of Copeland or Beethoven. Its serenity, filled with gravity and sadness, builds to yearning drama and then to majestic triumph. Surprisingly, for a movement titled “Amid the Ruins of Rome,” the music becomes livelier and turbulent, more like Strauss’s later heroic tone poems – for as he wanders amid the remnants of the past, he conjures up the glories.

Most impressive and precocious for me was the penultimate “At the Shore of Sorrento” movement, written more than a quarter of a century before Claude Debussy’s La Mer and no less accurate in sketching seagulls with the woodwinds and rippling waters with a harp. Grams had the Charlotte Symphony as immersed in Aus Italien as they had been in the Elgar, and the ebullience of the Orchestra in the closing “Neopolitan Folk Life” was irresistible, no matter how cheesy you might find Strauss’s “Funiculì” thievery. Hearing this still familiar tune played on bassoon and then as a march was just plain fun.

Charlotte Bach Festival Ends in Splendor, With Roaring Trumpets and a Double Dose of Oratorios

Review: Bach’s Easter and Ascension Oratorios

By Perry Tannenbaum

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June 18, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Founded in 2017 with the North Carolina Baroque Festival, Bach Akademie Charlotte presented a precocious and ambitious first edition of the Charlotte Bach Festival in June 2018. Unmistakably modeled after the renowned Oregon Bach Festival, where Akademie artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett has frequently performed, Charlotte Bach figured to flourish in a soil that is rich in churches and choirs. The second Festival in 2019, bookended by Orchestral Suite No. 2 and the St. Matthew Passion, was even more bodacious than the first, which had opened with the Orchestral Suite No. 1 and closed with the Mass in B Minor. These two acts would be tough to follow at a third Festival, but until COVID struck in 2020, nobody knew how tough. Barely three weeks after I had seen the Festival schedule for June 2020, the pandemic cancellations began, eventually including Charlotte Bach III. By the time Charlotte Bach 2022 opened at Myers Park Presbyterian Church on June 11, the Festival had been in hibernation longer than it had been live, soldiering on online with abbreviated lineups in a virtual format.

During the hiatus, there was some notable reorganizing and rebranding within Charlotte Bach, but instead of suffering any attrition, the overall lineup for 2022 was actually more robust than the one announced for 2020 – with numerous additions, one very logical substitution, and no sacrifices. Instead of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 on opening night, Aisslinn Nosky played Bach Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, BWV 1041 – the same piece she had played and conducted in her Charlotte Symphony debut in January 2018.

The performance highlighted Nosky’s installation as the concertmaster of Bach Akademie Charlotte Orchestra. After announcing Nosky’s new role at the Festival (she had been a guest artist at the 2019 fest), Jarrett announced that Guy Fishman (a guest artist at the inaugural 2018 Festival) had signed on as principal cellist with the BA|Charlotte Orchestra. Not to be overshadowed, Fishman reappeared in a midweek “Bach in a New Light” concert, playing a Domenico Gabrielli morsel and Bach’s first two Cello Suites, accompanied by laser light projections from Salty Robot Productions.

Duplicating its opening and closing concerts, respectively, in Asheville and Winston-Salem, Charlotte Bach also widened its reach within the Queen City, proving that the McColl Center could be an edgy and funky enough site for the Fishman light show and that the spectacularly renovated Sandra Levine Theater, on the Queens University campus, was acoustically attuned to the splendors of Bach’s Easter and Ascension Oratorios. Maybe there was some doubt whether the Easter and Ascension pairing at the Levine sufficiently upstaged the Violin Concerto and Dixit Dominus combo at Myers Park Presbyterian to definitively rise to the loftiness of the Festival’s finale placement and Masterwork billing. Whatever the reason, Handel’s Zadok the Priest was added to the already ample triple-trumpet heft of the Bach oratorios. Thank you!

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Even before the BA|Charlotte Festival Choir stood for the first time, the trumpet triumvirate – Steven Marquardt, Perry Sutton, and Josh Cohen – held forth brilliantly in the Easter Oratorio Sinfonia, gracefully counterbalanced by oboists Geoffrey Burgess and Margaret Owens. Tension and anticipation before the choral outbreak of resurrection jubilation were further sustained as Burgess lingered as the sole solo voice, playing a lovely intervening Adagio. Joined by timpanist Jonathan Hess, the trumpet trio then returned at full throttle, heralding the Chorus and its hearty “Kommt, ellet und laufet” (Come, hasten and run) invitation. Tenor Steven Soph and bass Jason Steigerwalt, so imposing as the Evangelist and Jesus (Steigerwalt singing the baritone role) in the Festival’s three midweek lecture-concerts devoted to Bach’s St. John Passion, then sang a duet, clarifying that it is the resurrection that has gladdened their hearts.

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Appropriately enough, newly rising talent took over most of the arias and recitative that followed, demonstrating the prestige of gaining a spot with the Festival Choir as Vocal Fellows. Bass Chris Talbot as John, in the first Recitative section that followed the huge chorale, and soprano Addy Sterrett as Mary Jacobi, subsequently drew their own solos. But tenor David Morales also reappeared as Peter in the Recitative following Sterrett’s lovely “Selle deine Spezereien” (O Soul, your spices) Aria, by far the longest Aria of the night, and alto Eliana Mei-Xing Barwinski also returned as Mary Magdalene.

Yet it was charming to see Festival Choir regulars also in the spotlight, Soph backed by Owens and Burgess (both switching to recorders) and alto Sylvia Leith accompanied by Owens on oboe d’amore. Marquardt, Sutton, and Cohen returned to the stage with their elongated plunger-less trumpets to join the Festival Choir once again, which had found something fresh to celebrate in their finale after much grieving, yearning, and sighing from the vocal and instrumental soloists during their absence: Jesus had conquered Hell and the Devil, and Heaven’s gates were opening for the Lion of Judah.

Alternately known as Coronation Anthem No. 1, Zadok the Priest also creates tension and anticipation with a churning crescendo of strings that could remind you of Philip Glass minimalism if you didn’t see the thunder and lightning of chorus and brass standing onstage, readying for action. In an instant, understatement flipped to overstatement when the storm broke loose at the Levine, for neither Zadok nor the prophet Nathan is exactly an Old Testament headliner of the magnitude of Solomon, held at bay until the end of the opening line.

2022~Charlotte Bach Fest-132Handel certainly packs plenty of into the brassy choral payload, less than five minutes long, that pounces upon us after the relatively quiet preamble that gurgles along for more than 25% of the composition. Bach might have dispatched a solo vocalist to narrate the prose of Zadok and Nathan anointing Solomon as King of Israel, saving the exclamations – “God save the King!” “Amen!” “Alleluia!” and “May the King live for ever!” – for the Choir. No such middle ground applied to this Handel masterwork, and Jarrett, the brass, and the Festival Choir all reveled in firing away at us in unrelenting fortissimo. Collectively, they were thrilling.

Shorter than the Easter Oratorio, Bach’s Ascension Oratorio was sensibly paired with Zadok after intermission, showcasing the Festival Choir more intensively. The more compacted – and more symmetrical – scheme has its choral segments evenly spaced at the beginning, middle, and end of the oratorio, rather than merely as two massive bookends, while discarding the two instrumental preambles that ushered in the Easter story. Instead of the same vocalists we had seen before, four more permanent members of the Festival Choir handled the two Arias and six Recitatives evenly distributed around the midpoint chorale. More satisfying than this architectural symmetry, of course, was the sustained excellence of the singing, underscoring the awesome depth and quality of the ensemble.

2022~Charlotte Bach Fest-115Three of the four featured Ascension vocalists have been with Bach Akademie since the beginning, except for tenor Gene Stenger, the Evangelist, who signed up in 2019. The Evangelist role gave Stenger the lion’s share of the scriptural verses in this Oratorio’s libretto, stitched together from Luke, Mark, and Acts, with bass Edmund Milly, no less dignified, standing in for the Two Men in White Apparel who promise the Apostles that Jesus will return from Heaven “in like manner” as they have just seen him go. Besides that key passage, Milly drew a more poignant Recitative earlier in the narrative, “Ach, Jesu, ist dein Abschied schon so nah?” (Ah, Jesus, is Thy parting now so near?)

Bach’s plum Arias here both went to women, alto Kim Leeds poignantly following Milly’s recit with “Ach, bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben” (Ah stay, my dearest life) and following him again in Part 2, after the angelic promise, with another lovely plaint, the “Ach ja! So komme bald zurück” (Ah yes! So come back soon again) recitative. Stegner’s final recitative, concluding the narrative with a brief mashup of Acts 1:12 and Luke 24:52, sufficed to flip the mood from gloom to joy, giving soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh the opportunity to rejoice greatly in the final Aria of the evening, vying with Sterrett and Soph and Leeds for the mightiest vocal conquest of the night, surpassing them only in charisma.

Enhancing the dramatic contrast between sorrow and celebration, Haigh could draw upon the ample instrumental support of three wind players playing contrapuntally behind her – oboist Burgess, and two flutists, Colin St-Martin and Rodrigo Tarrazza – the first musicians to rise up during the entire Ascension. Switching places with co-principal Marquardt, Cohen played lead trumpet in the latter oratorio. All three brass players returned from the wings for the final Chorus, an earthshaking fantasia set to a stanza from a Gottfried Wilhelm Sacer hymn, summoning the Christian savior to reappear.

He may not have quite reigned for ever and ever yet, but Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) seemed to have retained much of his power 272 years after his death, thanks in part to better playing and singing at the Charlotte Bach Festival than any performance this imperishable genius may have actually heard in his lifetime. Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) has also had a pretty fine run, as the two baroque greats, born less than a month apart, close in on their 340th birthdays. It was good to have the elder Handel take his place in the Charlotte Bach programming for 2022, helping the to enhance our delight this year and to sharpen our eagerness for Festivals to come.

Originally published on 6/21 at CVNC.org

Black Lives Really Do Matter in Spoleto’s Stirring Counter-Crusade

Review: Opera, Chamber, and Orchestral Music @ Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Recognition of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement and the We See You White American Theatre manifesto (issued by a coalition of BIPOC artists in 2020) were certainly on Nigel Redden’s mind when he decided that the 2021 Spoleto Festival USA would be his last as general director. White and long-tenured at the Charleston arts fest, Redden saw himself personifying what needed to be changed, not merely in American theatre but across the nation’s arts.

Yet that wasn’t to say that Spoleto was backward in infusing diversity into its programming or in embracing contemporary, cutting-edge work in its presentations of music, theatre, and dance – which made Redden’s swan song, at a Festival that constricted and hamstrung by Covid-19, all the more poignant. But all Redden’s work was not truly done, even after he officially stepped down last October, for there was one grand project of his that had yet to be completed. Spoleto’s commission of Omar, the much-anticipated new opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels would at last be unveiled after being shelved for two years.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Based on the slim autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, the only known narrative by an American slave written in Arabic, Giddens’ new work was appropriately co-commissioned by the University of North Carolina, for Omar’s servitude began in Charleston before he escaped to a more benign slaveholder up in Fayetteville, NC. Rather than letting this world premiere stand as an isolated testament to Redden’s legacy – or a belated rebuke targeting the infamous Muslim ban of 2017 – incoming general director Mena Mark Hanna has emphatically made Omar the tone-setting centerpiece of his first Spoleto.

Predictably enough, Giddens and Abels sat for a public interview with Martha Teichner on the afternoon following the premiere, just a few hours before she and her husband, Francesco Turrissi, appeared in an outdoor concert at Cistern Yard. Five days after the world premiere at Sottile Theatre, the principal singers from Omar and the choir resurfaced at Charleston Gaillard Center for a “Lift Every Voice” concert, further affirming Black Lives. But that theme, as well as Ibn Said’s African origins and Islamic faith, suffused the Festival’s programming more deeply than that.2022~Spoleto-142

In the jazz sector, for example, two African artists were featured with their ensembles at the Cistern on successive night after Giddens’ concert, Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour and his orchestra followed by South African pianist Nduduzo Makhatini and his quartet. More importantly, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, three years after participating in a Geri Allen tribute, paid homage to his distinguished mom, harpist/organist/composer Alice Coltrane and her 1971 Universal Consciousness album, a spiritual landmark that defined Indocentric jazz, laced with flavorings of Africa, India, Egypt, and the Holy Land.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Unholy Wars was another Spoleto commission, with tenor Karim Sulayman as its lead creator, furthering the pro-Muslim thrust of the Festival’s opera lineup. Taking up Claudio Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, the 1624 opera that extracted its tragic love story from Torquato Tasso’s epic Jerusalem Delivered, Sulayman boldly flipped the First Crusade narrative. Sulayman, a first-generation American born in Chicago to Lebanese immigrants, conceived a counter-Crusade, attempting to render vocal compositions by Monteverdi, Handel, and others through the perspective of those defamed and marginalized by the prevailing white Western narrative.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Portraying the narrator, Sulayman chiefly championed the warrior woman Clorinda – who needed to be white-skinned and convert to Christianity for 17th century Europe to see her as worthy of Tancredi, the valiant Christian knight who mistakenly slayed his beloved in combat. Soprano Raha Mirzadegan as Clorinda outshone bass baritone John Taylor Ward’s portrayal of Tancredi, while dancer Coral Dolphin, devising her moves with choreographer Ebony Williams, upstaged them both. We could conclude, in stage director Kevin Newberry’s scheme of things, that Dolphin’s dancing silently represented the Black beauty that Clorinda was never allowed to be.

Known for directing such cutting-edge operas as Doubt, Fellow Travelers, and The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Newberry had no qualms about creating huge disconnects between his actors’ actions and the Italian they sang. Costume designer David C. Woolard was similarly liberated in attiring them, evoking Lawrence of Arabia more readily than Richard the Lion-Hearted. Water, sand, heavy rope, and four simple chairs supplanted onstage scenery at Dock Stage Theater, but Michael Commendatore’s steady stream of animated projection designs, coupled with the production’s supertitles, more than compensated for the sparseness onstage, keeping us awash in sensory overload. If you tried to keep pace with the supertitles on high, sometimes barely legible, you could easily be distracted from the action below.

Consulting your program booklet to determine what was being sung by which composer would only have compounded your confusion. Best to listen, look, and enjoy. For if this sensory-rich spectacle – laden with mysterious sand and water ceremony – strayed far from fulfilling Sulayman’s intentions, the music, the voices, and the dance yielded constant pleasure, wonder, and delight.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

More touted and deliciously marketable, Giddens’ Omar proved to be more treasurable and on-task, providing tenor Jamez McCorkle with a career-making opportunity in the title role. Directing this stunning world premiere, director Kaneza Schall is laser-focused on the most pivotal event in Said’s life in America when, imprisoned in Fayetteville, he is released from jail and purchased by a benign master because of he has – miraculously, in the eyes of local yokels – written in Arabic script on the walls of his cell.

Written and printed language, from the floor upwards to the Sottile’s fly loft, is everywhere in Schall’s concept: dominant in Amy Rubin’s set, Joshua Higgason’s video, even permeating the costumes by April Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown. If you ever believed the libelous presumption that Africans were all brought to America bereft of any literacy, maintained in their pristine backwardness by their benevolent masters, Schall’s vision of Omar was here to brashly disabuse you.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

And if you were under the impression that Africans came ashore in Charleston without any coherent Abrahamic religion, their poor souls yearning to be redeemed by the beneficence of Christianity, Giddens labored lovingly to enlighten you, the beauty and spirituality of her score enhanced by Abels’ deft orchestrations. As a librettist, Giddens could have benefited from some discreet assistance – and the challenge of scoring somebody else’s text. Melodious and religious as it is, Omar could stand to be a more dramatic opera, and as a librettist, Giddens could have usefully been more detailed.

Stressing Said’s spirituality, Giddens neglects his intellect, never referencing the range of his studies or the full spectrum of his manuscripts. Nor is there a full fleshing-out of why Said was imprisoned in Fayetteville or how it could be that Major General James Owen could take him home without returning the fugitive slave to his previous master, described in The Autobiography as “a small, weak, and wicked man, called Johnson, a complete infidel, who had no fear of God at all.”Screenshot 2022-06-27 at 16-55-14 Spoleto Opera Honors An Extraordinary Slave Whose Life Mattered Classical Voice North America

The embellishments that Giddens gives us are all gorgeous. Owen’s daughter, Eliza, has a beautiful aria sung by Rebecca Jo Loeb, entreating her dignified dad to see the providence in Omar’s coming to their city. Further mentoring our hero, soprano Laquita Mitchell was Julie, a fellow slave in Fayetteville who will vividly remember her previous meeting with Omar at a Charleston slave auction. More majestically, mezzo-soprano Cheryse McLeod Lewis is a recurring presence as Omar’s mother, Fatima. Long after she is slain by the marauders who enslave Omar, she comes back to her son in a dream, warning him that Johnson is fast approaching to murder him. Mitchell and Lewis subsequently team up to urge Omar to write his story, a summit meeting with McCorkle that is the clear musical – and emotional – high point of the evening.

Plum roles also go to baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, who gets to sing both of Omar’s masters, the cruel and godless Johnson before intermission and the benign, bible-toting Owen afterwards. The question of whether Said sincerely converts from Islam to Christianity is pointedly left open. Notwithstanding his utter triumph, we probably have not seen the full magnificence that McCorkle can bring to Omar, for he was hobbled in the opening performances, wearing a therapeutic boot over his left ankle that I, for one, didn’t notice until he resurfaced as the highlight of the “Lift Every Voice” concert, bringing down the house with a powerful “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Scanning the remainder of Spoleto’s classical offerings, I’m tempted to linger in the operatic realm, for Yuval Sharon’s upside-down reimagining of La bohème at Gaillard Center, despite its time-saving cuts to Act 2, completely overcame my misgivings about seeing Puccini’s four acts staged in reverse order. Yet there were more flooring innovations, debuts, and premieres elsewhere.52126095047_f231ab5e32_o

Program III of the chamber music series epitomized how the lunchtime concerts have evolved at Dock Street Theater under violinist and host Geoff Nuttall’s stewardship. Baritone saxophonist Steven Banks brought a composition of his, “As I Am,” for his debut, a winsome duet with pianist Pedja Muzijevic. Renowned composer Osvaldo Golijov, a longtime collaborator with Nuttall’s St. Lawrence Quartet, was on hand to introduce his Ever Yours octet, which neatly followed a performance of the work that inspired him, Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet, op. 76 no. 2.

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Upstaging all of these guys was the smashing debut of recorder virtuoso Tabea Debus, playing three different instruments – often two simultaneously – on German composer Moritz Eggert’s Auer Atem for three recorders and one player. Equally outré and modernistic, More or Less for pre-recorded and live violin was a new composition by Mark Applebaum, customized for Livia Sohn (Nuttall’s spouse) while she was recuperating from a hand injury that only allowed her to play with two fingers on her left hand. If it weren’t bizarre enough to see Sohn on the Dock Street stage facing a mounted bookshelf speaker, the prankish Applebaum was on hand to drape the speaker in a loud yellow wig after the performance was done.

On the orchestral front, two works at different concerts wowed me. Capping a program at Gaillard which had featured works by György Ligeti and Edmund Thornton Jenkins, John Kennedy conducted Aiōn, an extraordinary three-movement work by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Hatching a soundworld that could be massively placid, deafeningly chaotic, weirdly unearthly, or awesome with oceanic majesty, Aiōn decisively quashed my urge to slip away to The Cistern for Coltrane and his luminous harpist, Brandee Younger. We were forced to arrive a full 30 minutes after that religious rite began.2022~Spoleto-260

My final event before saying goodbye to Spoleto 2022 treated me to sights I’d never seen before. On an all-Tyshawn Sorey program, Sorey ascended to the podium at Sottile Theatre and took us all to a pioneering borderland between composition and improvisation that he titled Autoschiadisms. Instead of a baton, Sorey brandished a sharpie beating time, sheets of typing paper with written prompts, or simply his bare hands making signals. Sometimes Sorey simply allowed the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra (splendid as usual) to run on autopilot while he huddled over his score, writing new prompts with his sharpie on blank pages before holding them high.2022~Spoleto-273

And the music was as wonderful as it was exciting, clearly an advance upon the other compositions on the bill, For Roscoe Mitchell and For Marcos Balter, conducted respectively by Kennedy and Kellen Gray. In the surreal aftermath of his triumphant premiere, Sorey had reason to linger onstage during a good chunk of the intermission. Musicians from the Orchestra swarmed him, waiting patiently for Sorey to autograph the sheets of paper that the composer had just used to lead them. The ink was barely dry where the MacArthur Genius of 2017 was obliged to write some more.

Music and Museum Delivers a “Kaleidoscope” in Four Quartets

Review: “A Kaleidoscope Concert” @ Bechtler Museum of Modern Art

By Perry Tannenbaum

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May 22, 2022, Charlotte, NC – For more than 12 years, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art has done a wondrous job of making modern painting, sculpture, and architecture enjoyable for the Charlotte community – while infusing fresh pride and enthusiasm in the community for the modern art and artists in their midst. At the same time, the Bechtler has also diligently championed photography and cinema at special events while providing a steady stream of modern music through series like Jazz at the Bechtler and Music and Museum.

Like the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte at ImaginOn, the year-round breadth and excellence of the Bechtler Museum’s programming and exhibitions can easily be taken for granted. But a revisit to the latest Music and Museum concert, a string quartet potpourri performed by members of The Bechtler Ensemble, reminded me how seriously the Museum takes their mission and how tirelessly they retune their presentations.

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Moving downstairs to the lobby from an exhibition hall above, Music and Museum feels more relaxed, casual, and clubbier than when the series began. The sonics of the lobby hadn’t sounded much different to me when The Bechtler Ensemble played a program of Beatles compositions back in November, all newly arranged for string quartet by Mark Adam Watkins, with guitarist Bob Teixeira added to the Bechtler’s Fab Four on a couple of tunes. But seated up front for the Bechtlers’ latest “Kaleidoscope Concert,” I was astonished by the improvement as soon as Vasily Gorkovoy played the main theme of Bedřich Smetana’s Allegro vivo appassionato, the opening movement of his “From My Life” String Quartet No. 1, and first violinist Lenora Leggatt lifted it higher in the treble.

Looking back at my photos from the Beatles concert, I could see a more probable cause for the acoustic improvement than our seat location: the curtains behind the players were gone, opening our eyes to the Museum’s rear entrance, which connects it to the adjoining Knight Theater with a wall of glass – and a somewhat breathtaking view, since the strip of lighting along the rim of the Knight’s outer balcony kept changing colors, traversing all the rainbow hues of the spectrum. Bouncing off glass instead of drapery, the sounds of the string quartet were no less enhanced than the view behind them.

2022~Kaleidoscope-16The Bechtler’s new executive director, Todd DeShields Smith, shared the emceeing with the Ensemble’s founder and director, cellist Tanja Bechtler. With Bechtler introducing the kaleidoscope of composers and music she had programmed after Smith had spoken to us about thematically connected artworks and sculpture, this format hearkened back to the original upstairs setup when the series started over a decade ago. Yet there was improvement here as well. Instead of projections while Smith spoke, three of the four artworks he discussed were in the room, flanking the musicians, including an interesting painting by Alexander Calder, which was stood up on its frame in a corner.

While the whimsical work by a Prague artist, simple drawings on canvas surrounding a cut-out of a manila envelope (so that “Express” depicted a dog walking on four human feet), belonged more solidly in the modern era, the whimsy of it all permitted the transgression of reaching back into the 19th century for the excerpts from Smetena’s 1876 quartet. Taking charge more fully on the musical intros, as she had done with the Beatles, Bechtler told us how the two movements chosen from the quartet came from Smetena’s life, the first hearkening back to his youthful beginnings as an artist and the third movement, a tender Largo, commemorating the death of his first wife.

2022~Kaleidoscope-18The pairing of these two movements was doubly atypical. We concluding with a slow tempo Largo sostenuto instead of a customary speed-up, and the Largo opened with Bechtler’s cello as the lead voice, once again usurping the first violin’s customary position. Legatt eventually came to the fore with a lovely cadenza after harmonizing deliciously with second violinist Tatiana Karpova. Bechtler was far from done, excelling in a cadenza of her own before taking the lead for a second time.

Smith proceeded to discuss the only projection on display, Nicolas de Staël’s Landscape, painted in 1951. Bechtler recalled so charmingly her memories of this 32×51 piece, shown in a photo hanging over the family’s mantlepiece, that I completely forgot what connection she or Smith drew between de Staël’s painting and the snip from Sergei Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 1 that was coupled with it. Chalk that down to letting my mind drift from considering how the painting resembled a German flag and how the figures de Staël superimposed on those dominant colors made the composition look more to me like a moonscape.

2022~Kaleidoscope-05Bechtler’s intro did register with me when she spoke about how Prokofiev struggled with the commission to write his first string quartet. The outcome to me was a delightful hybrid, Legatt sounding jubilantly in the main theme like she was on a lark with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, while the accompaniment sounded very traditional, not adventurous at all. Harmonies between the two violinists were refreshingly audacious, however, and Karpova finally had a chance to show off her prowess when she took over the lead.

Philip Glass detractors could have taken special delight in Bechtler’s recollection of a strictly geometrical, monochromatic, and humdrum artwork that Smith had lavished his erudition on, somehow linking it with the composer. Bechtler admitted that she had never realized the piece was an artwork when she routinely walked by it in her childhood home, thinking it was merely something “you put stuff in.” Thankfully, the quartet, adapted from Glass’s film score for Mishima, was far more colorful and exciting. Legatt ostensibly had the lead as the “1957: Award Montage” movement busily unfolded like an industrious beehive, but Bechtler’s legato accompaniment often merited more attention as the repetitions continued, and the cellist briefly took over the lead. The swirl and solemnity of the closing were particularly affecting.

The last installment in this “Kaleidoscope” was the most explicitly colorful, a homespun Calder painting of a row of flowers and Patrick Williams’ “The Bay Is Deep Blue.” Stems of Calder’s flowers seemed to drip down the paper they were painted on, and Bechtler admitted it was a favorite of hers when she was growing up – inspired, she had heard, by the artist’s urge to imitate and/or replace some wallpaper. Williams’ quartet was no less agreeable, written in a jazzy idiom detonated by speedy bass-like pizzicatos from Bechtler’s cello, leading to some playful, rhythmically insistent chuffing sounds vocalized by the entire Ensemble. The piece was divided into three sections, differentiated more emphatically at the Music and Museum concert than in the recording by Quartet San Francisco.

In the middle section, perhaps the most satisfying of them all, we slowed down to a Western swing groove with Legatt seizing the lead and showcasing some nifty double-bowing. Here the “Blue” could have categorized as bluegrass as well as jazz. The final section started off even slower, with Legatt playing a cadenza over some weepy cello and viola tremolos. Then we abruptly made a U-turn back to the beginning and its unmistakable chuffing sounds and infectious speed. Very much in a jazz idiom, all four of the players drew solo spots, merrily handing off to one another at a frantic pace as their “Kaleidoscope Concert” took its last spin.

Bechtler was no less diligent in researching Williams than his predecessors. Apparently, Williams (1939-2018) scored more than 200 films and composed music for such diverse TV gems as Monk, Columbo, The Slap Maxwell Story, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Maybe it’s time for excavation and re-evaluation.

Originally published on 6/20 at CVNC.org

Warren-Green Bids Farewell With a Rousing Beethoven “Ode to Joy”

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Beethoven’s Ninth

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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May 20, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Even back in the early ‘90s, when Charlotte Symphony struggled to sustain respectable mediocrity, the valedictory concert led by Leo Driehuys in 1993 proved that the orchestra could always rise to the occasion when called upon to perform Beethoven’s thrilling Ninth Symphony. Having heard the same ensemble bludgeon Beethoven’s “Eroica” to blandness just months earlier, it was hard for me to believe that the inspiration came solely from the composer. I struggled with the answer to this anomaly until I interviewed Driehuys’s successor, Peter McCoppin, shortly before his final season at the end of the millennium.

Not referencing Beethoven at all, but explaining why he enjoyed his years in Charlotte so thoroughly, McCoppin observed that the Queen City is incredibly fertile ground for choristers and choruses. You just had to count the churches around town to see his point. Not only had the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte brought extra spark to Beethoven’s “Choral Symphony,” they had also arguably sparked the Charlotte Symphony musicians they were partnering with.

The Oratorios have undergone numerous metamorphoses during the past three decades, at discreet intervals absorbed into Symphony, renamed the Charlotte Symphony Chorus, and eventually set free to seek their own gigs, rebranded once again as the Charlotte Master Chorale. Yet each time it was necessary to muster the instrumental and vocal artillery needed for Beethoven’s masterwork – indeed, classical music’s masterwork – the Chorale has admirably answered the call.

In a recent interview prefacing his valedictory concert as Symphony’s music director after 12 fruitful seasons, Christopher Warren-Green revealed that the chorus had been “one of the big incentives for me to come to Charlotte because of the great repertoire that was written for orchestra and chorus.” Little wonder, then, that Maestro Warren-Green has chosen to conclude his tenure by including the Master Chorale in his final “Ode to Joy” concert – or that he has already announced that, when he returns this coming December as Symphony’s music adviser and conductor laureate, the choir will be in the mix once more as he conducts Handel’s Messiah at Knight Theater.

There always seem to be extra layers of drama and excitement when the “Choral Symphony” returns to Belk Theater, never more than when Christof Perick made his 2001 debut as music director just 10 days after 9/11. Fast forward to the fourth Ninth that Symphony has programmed since then, and there was still a palpable sense of a special occasion in the hall. Symphony president and CEO David Fisk saluted Warren-Green before he made his grand entrance, greeted with a lusty standing ovation. Maestro then pooh-poohed all of Fisk’s accolades, paid tribute to four newly retired Symphony musicians, and – prior to a nifty and brief exit – exhorted the audience to keep supporting the CSO “or I’ll never forgive you.”

That was the last laugh of the evening as Warren-Green returned to the podium, signaled the Chorale to be seated, and presided over the Symphony as Beethoven brought them to a boil, quicker than a microwave oven, in his opening Allegro ma non troppo. Warren-Green’s Ninth would by a turbulent one, far more timely than timeless, discarding many chances for liquid lyricism in favor of alert and spirited rigor – almost militant but never quite lapsing into rigidity with the onset of its rousing quicker tempos. The incisiveness of Jacob Lipham’s timpani came upon us quickly, never allowing us to rest for long, while the affecting woodwinds and the lively strings offered eloquent counterweights.

When we reached the Molto vivace second movement, with its industrious bustle and perpetual overlapping, Warren-Green enabled us to hear early foreshadowings of the teeming humanity we’ll find in the epic fourth movement, struggling toward togetherness and brotherhood. Excitement in the overlaps between various sections of the orchestra was increased dramatically by spasmodic boosts in dynamics and the sharp whacks of the timpani. Also pushing against the flow of the violins and the warmth of the cellos were the percolating winds and the moaning French horns.

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Between the second and third movements, the last true pause in this symphony, the guest soloists entered and took their seats at center stage: bass baritone Jordan Bisch, tenor Sean Panikkar, soprano Alicia Russell Tagert, and (substituting for Briana Hunter) mezzo-soprano Sarah Larson. The two little girls seated in front of my mom and me perked up expectantly at this point, only to be let down by the relatively tranquil Adagio molto e cantabile. The little girls weren’t as restless or fidgety during this lovely movement as you might expect little boys to be, but their attentiveness waned noticeably – despite the sweetness of the first violins, the affecting violas and second violins, and the mellifluous woodwinds and horns. Their adorable decorum was threatened most by the beautiful confluence between clarinet, horn, and flute as the penultimate movement faded into the concluding Presto.

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Having this glorious score in front of you, with its magnificent build-up to the signature fireworks waiting to explode, must be so gratifying and fulfilling as a musical conductor stands on the podium, heading into the homestretch of his 12-year tenure. Surely, the musicians and choristers sensed the excitement and shared an eagerness to deliver. The first violins were certainly ardent and rich over the churning violas and second violins as the build-up began, yet as the gradual gravitation toward the brotherhood theme was beginning, I noticed that Warren-Green was doing something different and new. Instead of seating his cellos and double basses to our right, they were now spread in a long row, starting in front of the podium and reaching to the left edge of the stage in nearly a straight line.

So there was a little more than the usual edge as the journey to the brotherhood theme launched, continuing with dogged inevitability after the woodwinds mischievously flashed back to the agitations of the second movement. Violas layered onto the cellos and basses, adding to the smoldering sensation, and the violins accelerated the familiar strains until the brass made them soar. The little girls in front of us were completely re-engaged ahead of the next magnificent build. Bisch sounded stronger and more robust in his opening declaration, “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! (Oh friends, not these sounds!),” culminating in the announcement of his Joy agenda (“Freude!”), than he did reprising the brotherhood refrain as he plunged into Friedrich Schiller’s “An die Freude (Ode to Joy).” More than a couple of bass baritones who have recorded these passages have fared the same. Perhaps that was Beethoven’s design, for ample reinforcements will emphatically arrive on the scene, first the soloists and then the phalanxes of choristers who were elevated over everyone upstage, ably representing Schiller’s millions.

At least a couple of regatherings follow, as all of us who love the Ninth well know. There’s a grand, brassy military march while the vocalists inhale for awhile and hold their fire, and then there are those sublime audible inhalations as Schiller’s lyrics, helpfully translated in supertitles above the Belk stage, took us “above the canopy of stars” in an ethereally protracted chord. When the Master Chorale reached peak tempo in the concluding Allegro assai vivace, like a herd of horses urged by Warren-Green to full gallop, one of the little girls turned to the other with an OMG expression on her face that her mom would have treasured until her dying day if she had seen it. At this moment, the greatest pleasure in watching kids experience this magnificent storm of sound for the first time is being able to say to yourself. “You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!”

Originally published on 5/22 at CVNC.org

US Premiere Keynotes Symphony Concert, with Multiple Thrills and Triumphs to Follow

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Sibelius Symphony No. 2

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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April 22, 2022, Charlotte, NC – There had been no foretelling that five weeks ago, the Belk Theater stage would be splashed with the colors of Ukraine’s flag for a Charlotte Symphony concert. Nor could guest conductor Karen Kamensek, making her Charlotte debut, have predicted that the music she was bringing to Knight Theater would be so pertinent to this moment: a symphony by a Finnish composer written in response to Russian oppression in 1902, and two pieces written by Russian-born composers, one of them publicly condemned by the Stalinist regime in 1948. Sadly, these works by Jean Sibelius, Victoria Borisova-Ollas, and Dmitri Shostakovich have new life and fresh significance today as the world trembles, anticipating the full consequences of the horrific Russian aggression unleashed by its unhinged leader.2022~Sibelius 2-06

Written by Vladivostok native Borisova-Ollis, a longtime Swedish citizen, in 2008 for the 850th anniversary of Munich, Germany, Angelus had its long-overdue United States premiere. Nor was the Chicago-born Kamensek unworthy of the honor, having conducted the 2022 Grammy-Award winning recording of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten with the Metropolitan Opera. Although the upstage at Knight Theater wasn’t lit up with Ukraine’s colors, there certainly was an auspicious tableau – and a sense of occasion – as a phalanx of percussionists were spread across the rear of the orchestra, bells and drums and cymbals further brightened by the sounds of piano, celesta, and a pair of harps. The composer’s account of how she fulfilled the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra’s commission, reprinted in the digital program, lays heavy stress on the stroll she took through the city and the recordings she made of its church bells, so that aspect of the piece, underscored by Kamensek’s spoken intro was eagerly anticipated – a pacific, spiritual answer to Putin’s insane “de-Nazification” rallying cries.2022~Sibelius 2-25

What was surprising for me, especially in light of Borisova-Ollis’s description of the opening of her Angelus as “a hint of a Celtic chant,” was hearing principal violist Benjamin Geller playing a melody, over soft tremolos from the string section, that unmistakably resembled a traditional Passover song, one that I had heard in synagogue as recently as that morning. The predicted bells would eventually arrive in three or four waves, but not before we heard from the trumpet, the horns, the timpani, and the clarinet. Extending beyond 20 minutes, not at all a bonbon typically programmed at the beginning of concerts, the piece was studded with unusual instrumental effects – like a brief organ-tuba duet – and swirling, cresting climaxes. Even as she built to the first tolling of the tubular bells, Kamensek’s interpretation was more bustling and boisterous than Skari Oramo’s relatively quiescent recording for BIS with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. Since Kamensek lists one Borisova-Ollis’s operas, Dracula, among her credits, expect to hear more from this composer-conductor pairing in the future.

Shostakovich completed his first Violin Concerto just one month after his denunciation, but he and violinist David Oistrakh, for whom the work was dedicated, had to wait over two years after Stalin’s death – more than seven years in all – to respectively hear and perform the premiere. Although I own two of the Oistrakh recordings you can access on Spotify, I can only trace two prior occasions when I heard this epic piece performed live, once by the Charlotte Symphony in 2001, when young Caitlin Tully was hampered by the acoustics of the First United Methodist Church, and once at the Verbier Festival in 2006, when violinist Vadim Rapin conductor Yuri Temirkanov fired off all its burners with a student orchestra that was on a par with the Spoleto Festival’s.2022~Sibelius 2-11

Charlotte Symphony subscribers greeted concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu with an ovation that probably would have startled Repin himself, and the violinist seemed buoyed by the occasion. While Lupanu didn’t quite replicate the sublimity of the opening Nocturne in the 1956 recording by the Leningrad Philharmonic with Oistrakh and maestro Yevgeny Mravinsky, he came breathtakingly close, enough to earn another ovation between movements, and the slashing energy and brightness he brought to the ensuing Scherzo – coupled with the brio Kamensek drew from Symphony in this catchiest movement – earned an even more-deserved ovation afterwards.

Kamensek and the CSO met the grand challenge of the Passacaglia, infusing it with martial gravity, and Lupanu played with more eloquence and fire than I’ve ever heard from him, carrying forward a thrilling momentum into the Andante – Cadenza portion of that movement and, without an interval for the audience to express its enthusiasm, into the final Burlesque, the shortest section of the work. Cheated of the chance to explode after the Cadenza by the onset of timpani for the Burlesque, the audience redoubled its fervor at the rousing conclusion. Fortunately, Lupanu had an encore at-the-ready, a lovely Sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 2, the first encore performed at a CSO concert since before the pandemic.

Of course, if you were among the legions who can’t get enough Sibelius, the Symphony No. 2 after intermission, while significantly statelier and more reposeful than the concerto, was anything but an anticlimax. However neatly the oppressed narrative might fit current anti-Russian sentiments, Kamensek seemed to take the quieter episodes of the opening Allegro as subdued rather than oppressed, with an incipient optimism ready to burst forth with ebullience or blossom into grandeur. The opening of the ensuing Andante, ma rubato can sound morose and grim on recordings, but at the Knight, where the pizzicatos of the basses and cellos could sound lighter and livelier, buoyancy lurked within the quietude, so transitions to anger and reflection sounded more natural. Once again, the two final movements were linked without an interval, punctuated by another brief timpani tattoo, but this time followed with trumpet heraldry and a grand orchestral flowering. Repeated lulls and swellings reaffirmed the triumph, beautifully calibrated and fervently delivered.

Originally published on 4/24 at CVNC.org

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

Review: Opera Carolina Presents The Falling and the Rising

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published on 3/13 at CVNC.org

Ukraine’s Colors Shine Through Charlotte Symphony Celebration

Review: Dona Nobis Pacem at Belk Theater

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published on 3/14 at CVNC.org

Clara, Kensho, and Clyne – New Names All – Ride in for Daring Charlotte Symphony Concert

Review: Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”

By Perry Tannenbaum

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February 11, 2022, Charlotte, NC – It was an evening for new faces at Belk Theater – and plenty of unfamiliar music – as Charlotte Symphony welcomed Sara Davis Buechner as guest soloist for Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and Kensho Watanabe appeared for the first time at the podium. Drawing the largest Symphony audience we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic, Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular “Pathétique” Symphony No.6 was not merely the only familiar piece on the program, it was also the only music by a male composer. Even in the absence of music director Christopher Warren-Green, the audience seemed to delight in the balance of adventurous and beloved fare.2022~Tchaikovsky Pathétique-03

Watanabe helped put our minds at ease about Anna Clyne’s “Within Her Arms,” telling us that it was written as a memorial to the composer’s mother. A certain solemnity of the tableau we saw onstage – 15 string players, all standing except the three cellists – also led me to expect harmonies that were respectful and consoling rather than raucous. At the start, the tone actually seemed thin, wan, and weepy, rich with treble. When the lower strings began to assert themselves, the tone veered toward grief and hurt. Repeated six-note phrases briefly put me in mind of Samuel Barber’s funereal Adagio, but Clyne put more variety into her 2009 composition, breaking it into multiple sections.

None of them were at all sunny, but the piece eventually swelled to more passionate, anguished heights and collective grieving. Although concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu’s voice was the most frequently heard in this community, Clyne doled out poignant asides to other soloists, and her ensemble passages were a controlled combination of harmony, dissonance, and individual lines. In the absence of any tracks on Spotify or Apple, the only performances I could compare this one with were a couple of live videos on YouTube, and Watanabe clearly made more of the dynamic contrasts than I found in either of those.

Schumann’s concerto, written at the age of 14, over six years before her marriage to Robert Schumann, was temporarily known as the Clara Wieck Piano Concerto. It premiered in 1835 with the prodigy herself at the keyboard and Felix Mendelssohn wielding the baton. Buechner wasted little time in demonstrating how sensational Schumann needed to be in performance to play her own concerto. The musical voice of the composer seemed to be heavily influenced by Chopin in the opening Allegro maestoso, more when Buechner played than in the orchestral prelude.2022~Tchaikovsky Pathétique-04

That impression carried over into the ensuing Romanze, played without pause, where a nocturnal solo turned into an ardent cello sonata, Chopin’s preferred chamber music format. Principal cellist Alan Black played with admirably rich tone and expression, and only a couple of foreboding rumbles from principal timpanist Jacob Lipham were necessary to transition us to Schumann’s Allegro finale, probably the most individual of her three movements. Certainly it was the sunniest music of the evening so far, and gave Buechner her best opportunities to show us her power and finesse. A responsive exhilaration thundered back from the orchestra as Watanabe cued the heavy artillery.2022~Tchaikovsky Pathétique-26

Daniele Gatti and Charles Dutoit lead the list of notables who have presided over Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” in live Charlotte performances over the past 25 years, so there were plenty stellar quality comparisons that local music lovers could make between Watanabe and what they had heard live or on CD. With this touchstone of the classical repertoire, we could see that this American conductor was a stickler for detail, reveling in the sweep of phrases and subtle – or sudden – changes in dynamics. When Watanabe and Charlotte Symphony reached the sudden sforzando in Adagio-Allegro opening movement, they nearly punched my heart out as thoroughly as Dutoit had done when he led the Royal Philharmonic into Belk Theater in 2006. Aside from the meticulous detailing, pacing, and dynamics from Watanabe, the woodwind principals excelled, beginning with bassoonist Joshua Hood and culminating with Taylor Marino’s wondrous recap of the familiar “Summer Night” melody. The whole cello section gleamed, easing us into the luxurious Allegro con grazia second movement, gliding along in 5/4 tempo.

I had to worry that the wonderful Adagio-Allegro, so resplendently rendered, might draw a premature ovation from Symphony subscribers, but they managed to restrain themselves until the rousing penultimate Allegro molto vivace, which always garners a wild ovation. We could almost hear the march melody, which eventually becomes so overpowering and triumphant, bubbling up in little hints from near the beginning of the movement, so detailed was this performance – and Marino became more festive in his playing, adding some grain to his tone. Of course, the enduring shock and innovation of the “Pathétique” is its dark and somber final movement, a tenebrous descent that begins with three cellos and a tuba calling out; resolving lower, deeper, and softer with the cellos and basses; all treble a distant memory. Remarkable that Charlotte Symphony would program “Pathétique” and the similarly lugubrious Mahler Ninth less than a month apart, but they have now done well by both.

Originally published on 2/12 at CVNC.org

“Deadly Sins” Upstage Jazzy Ravel in Fun-Filled CSO Concert

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Ravel’s Piano Concerto

By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Ravel Piano Concerto-07

January 28, 2022, Charlotte, NC – You could arguably call it a facelift. After Charlotte Symphony’s powerful performance of Mahler’s somber, morbid, mercurial, epic, and sometimes phantasmagorical Ninth Symphony, almost everything seemed changed two weeks later. A new conductor was onstage, Australia-born maestra Jessica Cottis, making her Queen City debut. All six guest artists were making their debuts in Symphony’s Classics Series, and even the site of their musicmaking was different, moving southward from Belk Theater at the Blumenthal PAC to Knight Theater at Levine Avenue of the Arts. Most transformative was the music, a kaleidoscopic multinational program connected by a distinct American thread.

The headliner on the program was Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto, last performed by Symphony in 2013 when the wondrous Pascal Rogé made his Belk Theater debut at the keyboard. Jesse Montgomery’s folksy, bluegrass-flavored Strum preceded the main event, when Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear seated himself at the Steinway. Cottis had plenty more excitement in store for us after intermission, plunging into Igor Stravinsky’s Circus Polka, for a Young Elephant – actually written at choreographer George Balanchine’s request in 1942 for Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey’s massive troupe of not-yet-controversial young elephants. Uncannily, another Balanchine commission rounded out the program, Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins (1932) with lyrics by Bertold Brecht – obviously written for people rather than pachyderms.2022~Ravel Piano Concerto-36

Nearly a year ago, Montgomery’s Starburst aptly keynoted a program that showcased Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (“A Little Night Music”). Longer and decidedly sunnier, Strum set the tone for CSO’s American evening as perfectly as the title readied us for a work written exclusively for strings. Reading Montgomery’s program notes, chronicling the various incarnations of the piece, we get the sense of experiencing its evolution as it unfolds, for it bounces around among three principal string players before beginning its breathtaking ascent to full power and beauty. Laying out the first pizzicatos, violist Benjamin Geller was soon joined by cellist Alan Black, strumming and then bowing. But it was concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu’s treacherous entrance that truly ignited the fray, triggering Montgomery’s ricochet effects and banjo-like strumming.

Honestly, the performance by CSO became a more massive, lovelier, and less ferocious thing than the studio version by the Catalyst Quartet on Montgomery’s 2015 Strum CD. With a full string orchestra came more majesty when the main melodies were revealed – and extra bite when the piece ended with a collective pizzicato. Nor are “folksy” and “bluegrass” any less flattering in describing Montgomery’s music here than they are in describing many of Aaron Copland’s signature works.2022~Ravel Piano Concerto-01

From the first time I saw him in 2017, playing all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in a single day at Savannah Music Festival, Goodyear stamped himself in my mind as a prodigious talent. Prior to those three three-hour immersions, Goodyear’s distillation of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, on his 2015 solo CD, had clued me in. The soloist starts at a disadvantage in the Ravel Piano Concerto, having to follow the famed whipcrack that launches the opening Allegramente. Not to worry, Goodyear showed his mastery of the bluesy and jazzy licks of the movement soon afterwards, and harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell had a lovely interlude.

Inspired by Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, Ravel’s middle movement drew absolutely mesmerizing lyricism from Goodyear, with English hornist Terry Maskin as stellar behind him as he was for Rogé. Yet everyone on the Knight stage seemed most inspired by the concluding Presto. Goodyear unleashed dazzling intensity and bravura, never easing up on the tempo, and the ensemble didn’t merely keep up: they seemed to be prodding their guest to play faster. Turbulence from the winds, brass, and percussion made the climax even more exhilarating.

Apparently, music for dancing elephant isn’t classified as ballet, since it doesn’t appear on The Robert Craft Edition of The Ballets on the notoriously completist Naxos label. Yet Stravinsky never disavowed his Balanchine bagatelle, conducting “Circus Polka” among his voluminous recordings of his own works, where it clocked in at a modest 3:27 on Columbia. Why this rambunctious crowdpleaser isn’t played more often as a concert appetizer is beyond me. While Cottis and the Symphony may have been a tad helter-skelter where Ravel called for more élan, they were marvelously attuned to Igor’s riotous absurdities, his brassy bombast, and the celebratory glee of his wild, galumphing jamboree. It seemed to start in mid-parade before the dainty spots hilariously evoked the pachyderm pixies.2022~Ravel Piano Concerto-31

The zaniness had hardly begun. Bass-baritone Reginald Powell, dressed in a flowery kitchen apron in order to portray the mother of our tempted/temptress heroine, led a barbershop quartet across the stage, sitting down at the end of their march behind a bank of microphones. Strange accessories for a classical concert. So Seven Deadly Sins was classical with a three-penny Kurt Weill twist. Nor was this an opera, though a cabaret table and some props were set in place before our chanteuse, soprano Lindsay Kesselman as Anna I + II, made her/their noire-ish entrance in a spymaster trench coat.2022~Ravel Piano Concerto-37

More than a hint of decadent vaudeville came with her, since each of the nine sections of Weill’s confection was heralded by an old-timey placard placed onto an easel. Prologue, Epilogue, Greed, and the gang were all embroidered with an apt skull-and-crossbones motif. Sad to say, much of this flavorful creativity was outweighed by Charlotte Symphony’s failure to provide supertitle projections once Anna I + II began vocalizing with her/their Family. A few audience members down with us in the orchestra section had the temerity to fire up their cellphones, where they had previously downloaded Symphony’s digital program, so they could follow along.

Not the best experience when you’re trying to keep up with columns of German and English on your iPhone while there is also action onstage to follow. The magnitude of this blunder would only be compounded if you returned home, flipped through the digital program, and discovered that the translation was written by life partners W.H. Auden & Chester Kallman, esteemed poets and librettists in their own rights – they worked on Stravinsky operas! Not only does their Deadly Sins translation rhyme, the syllable counts of every line meticulously match Brecht’s text. Learning that all five vocalists had North Carolina roots – and afterwards listening on Spotify to a recording with the Auden-Kallman lyrics – only deepened my incredulity.

Everyone at Knight Theater, singers and audience alike, could have been so comfortable, and all Brecht’s wit, irony, and satire could have been so clear!

Stepping up to one of mics, Cottis was helpful in her introductory remarks in laying out Brecht’s storyline, which is basically Anna’s odyssey across seven American cities on a mission to sustain her family back home in Louisiana, encountering one of the deadlies in each locale. Ideally, the Balanchine concept is fulfilled when Anna I is the soprano and Anna II is a sublime dancer. Part of the comedy that got lost when Kesselman was both Annas was in the lopsidedness of the dialogue between them. Anna II has very little to say.2022~Ravel Piano Concerto-28

The staging helped this decadent Weill bauble to upstage Ravel’s merriment – or at least prevented it from being an anticlimax. Kesselman soon peeled off her trench coat, revealing an evening dress as the Family’s Sloth along the Mississippi River transitioned to Pride as Anna II took a job in Memphis as a cabaret dancer. Anna added a flaming red boa encountering Wrath in LA, and an uncredited lighting designer made a similarly lurid choice illuminating the Knight’s acoustic shell. Purple became apropos for Gluttony in Philly, a lighter pinkish red presided over Lust in Boston, and a dark golden hue settled in over Baltimore when she battled Greed. So I had to think that nobody wanted to offend New York during the Great Depression.

Need we say that when Anna’s journeying ended with Envy in San Fran, where Kesselman made her final grand entrance as a rich celeb, totally soused and brandishing a nearly empty bottle of vodka, that the stage was flooded in a deep dark green? Didn’t think so.

A wonderful ending to a melodious, fun-filled, and dance-filled evening. Even without dancers. Facelift and uplift.

Originally published on 1/30 at CVNC.org