Category Archives: Classical

Lady Jess Carries a Torch and a Bow for the Black Mozart

Review: NC School of the Arts Alum Jessica McJunkins, Rebranded as Lady Jess, Returns to Winston-Salem

By Perry Tannenbaum

2020~Lady Jess @ UNCSA-3

When she graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree in 2009, Jessica McJunkins was already known at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts as a promising violinist. Returning to her alma mater as winner of UNCSA’s 2020 Alumni Artpreneur Award, the guest soloist at the Watson Chamber Music Hall was established in a career that has extended beyond the classical genre into theatrical and commercial music – and beyond music performance into contracting freelance artists and promoting racial diversity in the industry. And she returned as Lady Jess, somewhat scrambling my expectations.

The name change was not the only last-minute alteration of the program that hit my Inbox on the morning of the concert. Two groups that we had listed on our CVNC calendar, the Brandenburg Ensemble and the Amadeus Players, had withdrawn from the program along with two faculty members. Other than that, only the venue had changed, from the Stevens Center to Watson Hall. The Bartók Ensemble, under the direction of Winston-Salem Symphony associate conductor Karen Ní Bhroin, would play the previously announced works by Paul Hindemith and Samuel Barber, and Lady Jess would appear with the alumni quintet and UNCSA students who had rehearsed with her in two works by Joseph Bologne (1745-1799). Faculty member Kevin Lawrence shared soloing honors with Lady Jess in the Symphonie Concertante for Two Violins.

2020~Lady Jess @ UNCSA-10

Ní Bhroin and the musicians seemed to adjust more readily to the venue change than the audio engineers, for the sound, which seemed to satisfy a scattered live audience at the Watson, was often rudimentary at the other end of the online webcast through my loudspeakers. The new W-S associate conductor had a microphone with her on the podium as she introduced the pieces by Hindemith and Barber that she and her 14-member ensemble would perform, yet the streamed volume was hardly adequate and the clarity of her voice was far from studio quality.

Of course, Ní Bhroin’s COVID mask and her Irish accent weren’t helpful, but here the advantages of Livestream came instantly into play. If your setup at home is like mine, you simply pick up a remote control and increase the volume on your home theatre receiver – or you can replay the whole concert later at your leisure. Now it may have made some of the Bartók group uncomfortable to hear their leader quoting Hindemith on the subject of composing for amateur musicians, but it was certainly illuminating for me.

Yet it quickly became clear that Ní Bhroin had no intentions of going easy on her students even if Hindemith had titled his 1927 compositions Schulwerk. Nor was she inclined to be servile or worshipful toward the music, for the opening Slow movement wasn’t as slow as it could be, and the second movement, marked Slow – Fast, seemed to almost flip the order of these tempos in the Bartóks’ performance, rather brisk from the outset. Ní Bhroin was equally aggressive in shaping her ensemble’s dynamics, adding to the freshness of her approach. She chose the first three of Hindemith’s Five Pieces, ending with the first of two sections marked Lively. There’s an extended stretch where only the first violins are pitted against the violas, before the second violins, cellos, and double basses enter the fray, and the Bartok Ensemble delivered a fine account of the contrast, so the dramatic effect of a finale was achieved.

Barber’s 1936 Adagio for Strings, originally a movement from the composer’s String Quartet that was famously magnified for orchestra at the request of Arturo Toscanini, doubly fits our moment. It’s well-aligned with performance restrictions imposed statewide and by the CDC, and it’s attuned to our mood – and the need to voice our feelings as the holiday season approaches and the pandemic worsens. My thoughts ran to it recently when Charlotte Symphony performed the Andante religioso movement of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, and it was certainly welcome to hear such a heartfelt rendition from the Bartók Ensemble. Here the sculpting of the dynamics by Ní Bhroin was far subtler and more gradual, peaking to a dramatic full stop before subsiding into a musical sigh and returning to its signature mournful plaint.

Surely, a couple of 18th century allegros was exactly what a doctor would order after the lugubrious Barber and an intermission, but webcasts, where live and pre-recorded performance seamlessly intermix, need not be saddled with intermissions. UNCSA chancellor Brian Cole sat down with Lady Jess – who sported a completely different mask, dress, and hairdo from what she would be performing with just minutes later. It was definitely a visual sampling of what the lauded alumna’s branding was all about. Cole described the Artpreneur award as recognizing grads who are “business savvy and technologically aware.”

The conversation not only highlighted Lady Jess’s eclectic musical and business interests but also how UNCSA had nurtured them during her undergrad years. Her aims, like those of Yuja Wang and Lang Lang, are to boost classical music into mainstream culture, though the pop stage name seems to take Lady Jess’s pursuit to a more aggressive level. She is also focused on making classical music, the arts, and society more receptive to African Americans – voicing her goals with a certain amount of eloquent, muted impatience as she looks forward to a time when black people have the cultural equity they earned long ago. Her down-to-earth Promised Land is a place where overdue respect is “not something we need to roundtable every time someone dies at the hands of police.” The only sour note in this fascinating colloquy came when Cole lauded his guest as a Fighting Pickle, an albatross all UNCSA alumni must bear.

Born a little more than 10 years before Mozart, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was certainly a fine figure for Lady Jess to champion – and to emulate. As Ní Bhroin rightly observed in her introduction, Bologne was more than a fine composer and violinist who was regarded as “the Black Mozart” (and likely a Mozart mentor), he was also a champion fencer, knighted by the King of France. A few things she might have added to make him worthier of emulation and attention: he was an important orchestra conductor, an important political activist, and a charismatic military leader.

As a promoter, Bologne prevailed upon Haydn to accept the commission for his “Paris” Symphonies. For her Bartók Ensemble, now gone from the Watson stage, she could have added that Bologne had starred in composer François Gossec’s Le Concert des Amateurs orchestra. The rest of us, in the live audience or watching the webcast, would have benefited from knowing that Bologne’s most famous opera, The Anonymous Lover, is currently streaming as a free digital experience at the L.A. Opera website through November 29.

2020~Lady Jess @ UNCSA-18

If you’re familiar with Anne-Marie McDermott’s audacious 2013 recording of three Mozart piano concertos, accompanied by only a string quartet plus double bass, you already know how effective such reductions can be. Playing the Op. 13 Symphonie Concertante in G for Two Violins and Orchestra, Lady Jess and Lawrence enjoyed the advantage of being able to join their accompanying mini-orchestra in playing the intro to the opening Allegro and to rejoin them between their soloing episodes. Unfortunately, the two soloists were not equally well-miked, disadvantaging Lady Jess.

Only one microphone was visible in the video feed, suspended from overhead, slightly right of center. Lady Jess was further left of center, and her solo passages, often repeating what Lawrence had just played, consistently sounded softer and thinner. The five UNCSA alums, with a string quartet spaced evenly around the mic and the double bass in the opposite corner from the soloists, projected nicely. Hints of Lady Jess’s silvery brilliance came across in her first foray, but Lawrence was mellower and turned up his intensity as the movement climaxed, demonstrating that the prof could still keep pace with the alum.

Compared with the London Symphony recording on the Columbia label, the UNCSA performance most noticeably fell short of capturing the beauties of the Symphonie Concertante when the two soloists duetted. Balance and clarity are most important in these exquisite passages. The Watson Hall setup, evidently a work-in-progress if we consider how suddenly the venue was brought into play for this Livestream, was better suited for the Violin Concerto No. 1, which saw Ní Bhroin return to the stage and Lady Jess move closer to centerstage. Both of those moves were helpful, while Lady Jess’s mini-orchestra was beneficially fortified with the addition of two student oboists and two French horns. The wind players were unmasked, of course, housed behind a phalanx of four plexiglass cubicles.

2020~Lady Jess @ UNCSA-2

The Violin Concerto seemed to challenge and excite Lady Jess more than the Symphonie Concertante, offering her longer solos that frisked in the treble and called forth more virtuosity in her fingering and bowing. From the beginning, Ní Bhroin spurred the tempo into its Allegro without letting the pace slacken as it does on the comparatively lackadaisical recording I was able to track down on the Oehms label played by Yura Lee. The ensemble was more spirited here than previously, crisp when their pizzicatos occurred, and buoyed by the wailing of the French horns.

Because of her placement onstage and perhaps because she was so often iterating what the other soloist had just played, Lady Jess seemed to wilt when matched with Lawrence. Alone in the spotlight and allowed to gather more steam, the violinist showed us some true Lady Jess swagger. Throughout the Concerto, she seemed to relish the dialogue with her mini-orchestra, particularly as the tension of the Allegro built at the end with rapidfire exchanges with the alumni army. More than ever, I was convinced that we need to hear more of Joseph Bologne – and more often.

Finckel-Han Deliver Powerful Beethoven and Brahms

Review:  Wu Han and David Finckel at Duke Performances

By Perry Tannenbaum

2020~Finckel and Han~6

Wu Han and David Finckel, longtime artistic directors of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, are among the world’s greatest ambassadors of chamber music – with talents and personalities worthy of their mission. I’ve seen them together in live performance on at least three occasions in past years at the Savannah Music Festival, and before those encounters, I had seen Finckel play without his wife at the Aspen Music Festival in epic two-night traversal of the Bartok string quartets while he was still the cellist with the Emerson String Quartet.

I’m still hoping to see them together at the Music@Menlo festival, which the New York-based couple established in California back in 2003, at some future date when air travel is no longer a game of Russian roulette, provided that the premises haven’t been reduced to cinders. In the meantime, I was delighted that Duke Performances was offering a virtual opportunity to see Han and Finckel online in a concert of works by Beethoven and Brahms – and curious to see how these elegant performers would handle the technical side of their webcast.

The video setup was fairly inconspicuous as the power couple opened with Beethoven’s pioneering Sonata for Cello and Piano in F Major, the first of two pieces written in 1796 for no less than Friedrich Wilhelm II, the cello-playing Emperor of Prussia. It was Finckel, in the charmingly shared introductory remarks, who pointed out that this was the first piece written for these instruments that placed the cello on equal footing. Three unseen cameras faced the players as they began the Adagio sostenuto against a bosky backdrop of what appeared to be the couple’s back porch, looking out on a brightly-lit forest that filled up nearly all we could see through the generously-sized sliding glass doors of their studio. Sound was warm and rich as Finckel immediately took the lead, Han helping to build the tension of the movement until we reached its crest.

Around that point, when we verged on the seamless transition to the middle Allegro, without our having seen a cameraman silhouetted against the burnt-out background, there were suddenly close-up shots of Han from a camera in the opposite direction that somehow didn’t expose any of the three camera placements that had already been deployed. When video was handed back to the frontal cameras, I finally noticed what looked like an iPhone mounted inconspicuously on a slender tripod just beyond the Han’s Steinway, roughly parallel with her left ear.

2020~Finckel and Han~10

This was an excellent vantage point to watch Han’s light touch as she sped the tempo into the brighter Allegro and its sunnier melody, the most dramatic moment of the linked movements before they concluded. Finckel repeated the catchy melody with less filigree but no shortage of merriment and gusto. Overhead shots, which began to proliferate toward the end of the Allegro, revealed a dangling microphone less than a yard above Finckel’s right shoulder, almost directly in line with his bowing elbow.

With Finckel performing the Cello Sonata without any visible score and his microphone mostly out of sight, the look was very clean, particularly since Han was using a tablet to read her part, obviating the need for a page-turner. The two shared a dramatic cadenza, Finckel supplying most of the gravitas, before the rousing, effervescent finish. The sonata’s finale, a Rondo marked Allegro vivace, initially sounded anticlimactic in the wake of the middle Allegro, which is more than twice as long. Finckel and Han gradually stirred up its strength and intensity without sacrificing its essential merriment.

2020~Finckel and Han~8

After the ensuing blackout, violinist Arnaud Sussmann and violist Paul Neubauer materialized, bows at the ready, for Brahms’ Quartet for Piano and Strings No. 1 in G Minor, firmly settled in the space formerly occupied by Finckel, while the cellist crossed over to the right side of our screens. Camera positions also changed. One placement put the newcomers exclusively in view, and the cellphone near Han was repositioned to give us a more frontal – and greatly improved – view of the keyboard. Lighting was also enhanced: the background greenery was not so nearly bleached away by the sun and additional indoor light insinuated itself upon the string players.

While it was natural to see Han and Finckel performing unmasked as a duo, I was a little surprised to see no adjustment with the arrival of Sussmann and Neubauer, who also played unmasked. Further decluttering the presentation, both the violinist and the violist mounted tablets on their music stands, so I never saw any pages turning. Finckel alone was old school, with a score that protruded from the right side of his stand, presumably paper.2020~Finckel and Han~9

All of the musicians knew their way around this Brahms, confident and collegial in a setting that was marvelously intimate. Acoustics were so beautifully balanced that no engineering seemed to be involved, the music forward and effortlessly in our faces in a way that chamber music in a concert hall rarely is. Seemingly positioned so close to the performers, we could easily see their camaraderie as they collectively savored the twists and turns – and the peaks and valleys – of the opening Allegro, described by Finckel as “almost epic.” The group was genial and jolly in this performance than Emil Gilels’ mighty DGG recording with the Amadeus Quartet but no less convincing. The ensuing Intermezzo had a nice brisk tempo for its Allegro ma non troppo marking, with plenty of moody, brooding heft, culminating with a charming little coda where Han shined – somewhat belying Finckel’s description of the movement as “perhaps the most wistful scherzo-style movement ever composed,” but never disappointing.

More twists and turns greeted us in the Andante con moto with sweet lyricism early on, Han continuing to assert herself, followed by a majestic rhapsodic episode that broke into a deliciously pompous military march. The upper strings combined to steer us into lullaby land, and Sussman took the lead in a climactic ascent before the other players imposed a soft touch-down. It was in the closing Rondo alla Zingarese, described by Finckel as “one of the wildest folkdances in chamber music,” that the congeniality between the players paid off most handsomely.2020~Finckel and Han~3

From the outset, a thrilling gallop, there was no question that this foursome was taking the Presto marking seriously, increasing the excitement with sudden decisive shifts in dynamics, triggered by Sussmann’s assaults on the treble. Han took over control, calming things down, while the strings plucked pizzicatos in anticipation of the restart. The upper strings launched a new theme before Finckel and Neubauer sweetly launched another. Ideas continued to bounce unpredictably between the strings and the piano with hairpin changes in mood and tempo until Han triggered the final frenzy. There was enough speed and fire to convince you that the musicians were racing each other to the finish – but more than enough virtuosity and togetherness to reassure us that they were all fully synchronized and having tremendous fun. It wasn’t relief flowing through the room and through the screen when the music was done. It was pure Gypsy joy.

Dynamic Mallarmé Duo Traverses a Wide Spectrum of Beethoven

Review: Durham-based Mallarmé Chamber Players

By Perry Tannenbaum

At a time when marquee classical artists of international stature are sidelined, unable to draw the fees and crowds they normally command, it’s been rather gratifying to watch the professionals in our own communities, while similarly sidelined, step forward and show their mettle in more intimate virtual settings. With the Durham-based Mallarmé Chamber Players, founded in 1984 but newly taking to streaming their concerts, it’s nothing new for musicians from local orchestras to stand forth and shine, but with our big orchestras and concert halls silenced, it may be new for some of our music lovers to take notice. Though Mallarmé may be new to the virtual concert game, their choice of Bösendorfer Hall at Ruggero Piano in Raleigh shows they’re savvy, for the acoustics proved to be of studio quality in the latest episode of their Ode to Joy series. An all-Beethoven concert is an inevitable part of such a series, particularly when we continue to celebrate Maestro Ludwig’s 250th birthday, pandemic or no.

Wearing matching black masks, aglitter with reflective beads, violinist Jacqueline Saed Wolborsky and pianist Danielle DeSwert Hahn performed a nice variety of seldom-heard pieces representing Beethoven’s early, middle, and late periods. Wolborsky is principal second violin of the North Carolina Symphony, and Hahn, a former principal pianist of the Baltimore Opera Company, currently heads the music programs at the National Gallery of Art in DC. Both players are prominent in the Living Art Collective Ensemble (LACE), which Wolborsky co-founded, so I expected to find an excellent rapport between the two.

The concert began with the Rondo for Violin and Piano in G, likely written during one of Beethoven’s early sojourns in Vienna around 1794. Hahn led into the piece at a brisk and lively pace, reveling in the ebullience of the piece and clearly at ease at the Bösendorfer as she sketched the recurring theme. That disadvantaged Wolborsky as the violinist floated in above Hahn’s playing, for she was not as well miked as the pianist (if miked at all), and she tended to mistake simple passages for insignificant ones, disinclined to seize the lead or to sustain it. I was fond of the pace that Hahn had chosen, more akin to the leisurely ramble of Wilhelm Kempff with Yehudi Menuhin than the feverish gallop of James Ehnes with Andrew Armstrong, and I liked how she guided us back and forth from the playful main theme to the alternate themes, engaging detours into graver depths or fantasy mists.

What lay before us was a fascinating pairing of final Beethoven statements, beginning with his final composition for solo piano and concluding the evening with his last violin sonata. The six Bagatelles for Piano were published in 1824 and challenge the musician to navigate a kaleidoscope of different colors and moods, with no lack of hairpin turns along the way. Of the many versions you can sample on Spotify, I prefer the Paul Lewis and Alfred Brendel versions to those by Sviatoslav Richter and Piotr Anderszewski. Glenn Gould is also a contender, but only if we ignore his perversely slow account of the middle Presto. Hahn seemed less confident in this suite, either because the spotlight fell solely on her or because of the treacherous terrain. The opening Andante con moto in G Major could have used sharper dynamic contrasts, yet the Allegro, still in G, was markedly improved in its sculpting and built to high drama. Hahn captured the lyricism at the start of the Andante in E-flat and the poignancy of its ending. She did not deny the Presto in B Major of its speed, and when the music possessed her, she found the flow. Though the triple meter rhythm of the Quasi allegretto in G slipped from her grasp, Hahn excitingly captured the flow and the argument of the concluding Presto in E-flat, delivering her most sensitive playing in the extended Andante amabile a con moto section that dominates the piece.

Written in 1812, at the very end of Beethoven’s middle period, the Sonata in G for Piano and Violin doesn’t get nearly as much attention, in concert halls or recording studios, as the Violin Sonata No. 9 that preceded it, the famed “Kreutzer Sonata” celebrated by Janacek and immortalized by Tolstoy. My favorite recordings of Violin Sonata No. 10 differ in their balance, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Itzhak Perlman achieving exquisite equilibrium while Lev Oborin allows the scales to tip slightly toward violinist David Oistrakh. So it was a bit startling at first to hear Wolborsky yielding dominance to Hahn in the opening two movements of the piece. The charm of the two musicians playing in unison through the most exquisite passages of the opening Allegro moderato disappeared with hardly a trace, and in the ensuing Adagio espressivo, Hahn’s echoes upstaged Wolborsky’s statements with their soulfulness.

Fortunately, Wolborsky rose to the occasion for the final two movement of the sonata, some of the most rousing music of the evening. There was plenty of spirit from the violinist pouncing on the penultimate Scherzo, which seemed to buoy Hahn to greater flights of bravura, and – with a page-turner appearing out of nowhere to help Hahn keep up the pace – the pianist had a wonderful lilt in introducing the melodies of the concluding Poco allegretto, while Wolborsky seemed equally transported. The headlong transition to allegro was the most thrilling moment of the concert, inevitably followed by a diversionary Beethoven cool-down. Hahn handled her cadenzas beautifully, and Wolborsky produced her finest sounds in her soulful responses. We seemed headed to the heated finishing strokes when Beethoven applied the brakes at what seemed to be the last note. Jollity triumphed at the end as both Hahn and Wolborsky relished regrouping and romping to the finish line.

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.

Charlotte Symphony’s Missa Solemnis Thrills With Power and Sublimity

Review:  Missa Solemnis

By Perry Tannenbaum

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Cherokee Nation Claims Territory Next to “Appalachian Spring”

Review: Appalachian Spring

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When you think of an All-American concert at Belk Theater performed by the Charlotte Symphony, composers like Samuel Barber or Aaron Copland figure to be in the mix. Sure enough, Copland’s Appalachian Spring is the marquee attraction at the latest Symphony concert led by maestro Christopher Warren-Green, preceded by Barber’s equally familiar Adagio for Strings. What came between these works by a Pennsylvania blue-blood and a Brooklyn-born Jew was really surprising, enlightening, and inspiring – and frankly stole the show.

That work was by a composer most of us had never heard of, William Brittelle, titled Si Otsedoha in a language most of us don’t know. Commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony in 2017 and premiered the following year in Raleigh, the new piece tripled the Appalachian aspect of the concert, for the Boston-born Brittelle was raised in Newton, NC, the county seat of Catawba County. Appropriately enough, the featured performers of Si Otsedoha were the Cherokee Chamber Singers of Cherokee High School, led by Michael Yanette.

With English and Cherokee text by the Singers, the piece is divided into five sections, including a “Still Here Overture.” It’s forceful stuff from the beginning, with each of the Singers stepping forward to recount a segment of Native American or Cherokee history. The history goes back many millennia before the so-called “discovery” of the New World, and after each section – even after the sufferings, indignities, and betrayals inflicted by white European occupiers – the whole ensemble proclaims, “But we’re still here!” with an edge of affirmation and defiance. Special rancor is reserved for President Andrew Jackson.

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These young men and women are telling us things. Though they mention the infamous “Trail of Tears,” they’re not complaining or asking for pity. In the softer second section, “Phoenix Rising,” we hear of the young people’s yearnings, sung in English and Cherokee, keyed by a recurring phrase, “When I look to the sky.” In the next section, we begin to notice the composer, the orchestra, soprano soloist Catherine Brookman and Yanette more; for it is here, with the women answering the men, that the Singers really begin to sing. Brittelle’s music leavens the message of “When Money Becomes Religion,” arguably containing the orneriest statements in the piece. The section on the Keystone Pipeline in North Dakota, in particular, aren’t intended to salve the sensibilities of Evangelicals or Republicans.

Adorned with silvery percussion and gossamer harp strings, “Walls of Glass” is the most soothing and ethereal section of the piece, where the lyricism of the composer and the harmony of the ensemble shine most brilliantly. The finale, “Si Otsedoha,” circles back to the “We’re still here” message of the opening section, but the Cherokee version is spoken with far less defiance than the earlier English preamble. Gradually the music, the singing, and the chanting grow insistent, then exclamatory and celebratory – with a little bit of a militant edge. The next time Native Americans wish to protest construction of a new pipeline that violates existing treaties, Si Otsedoha (first word is pronounced “she”) would be a stirring, powerful statement to fire up demonstrations.

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Though Barber’s Adagio has been programmed at least twice since I heard Jacomo Rafael Bairos conduct it at Knight Theater in 2011, I had never seen what Warren-Green would do with it. Nobody who loves this affecting work will be disappointed. The cellos, violins, and even the violas get opportunities to stand apart during this eight-minute warhorse, and all three perform precisely and sensitively. Watching the performance is a treat – and after navigating the unexpected Uptown detours to find a feasible pathway to the Belk, which seemed to confound Google Maps as much as me, I can heartily credit the players for soothing my frazzled nerves.

Copland’s Appalachian Spring was more of a surprise than the Barber, last performed here in October 2015. After a moribund rendition of the score in 1993, which I consistently cite as among the most wretched Symphony performances I’ve ever witnessed, the orchestra conquered Copland’s iconic ballet suite the next two times I heard it in 2009 and 2015. For the current concert, Warren-Green expands his conquest, restoring music from the original Martha Graham ballet, which Copland called “Ballet for Martha” before Graham discerned spring in the music and took the eventual title from Hart Crane’s The Bridge.

Chamber and orchestral versions that flowed from the 1944 ballet abbreviated the score. Neither of the recordings in my collection break down the piece, but those conducted by Bernstein, Mehta, and Copland are among those you can find on Spotify. Of these, only Mehta’s begins to describe the ballet scenario with any of the detail that you’ll find so helpfully reproduced in Symphony’s program booklet. I suspect the absence or abbreviation of Section 4, “The revivalist and his flock,” was one of the things made that lamentable 1993 version so lifeless.

The “Calm and flowing” Section 7 of the piece, memorable for all its voicings of the “Simple Gifts” Shaker melody – by the violas, the cellos, and (most memorably) the clarinet – seemed to come with more off-road excursions by piano, brass, and percussion before the unforgettable orchestral explosion that Charlotte Symphony plays so grandly together. It may be a less cohesive Spring than Copland conceived in his suite, but after hearing the same-old-same-old so many times, I found it fresher and even more satisfying.

Prague Symphony Stages a Glamorous Zukerman-Forsyth Season Opener

Review: Prague Symphony at Smetana Hall

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Sitting in our room at the Brewery Hotel on our last night in the Old City – after attending performances at the Estates Theatre, the Rudolfinum, and the Municipal House in the space of four evenings – I couldn’t help but reflect on how beer and classical music must run through the veins of Prague’s natives and people who visit the Czech capital. On our way to the Estates, where we saw the National Theatre Opera’s Don Giovanni in the very same hall where Mozart first conducted it, a gauntlet of pubs lined a narrow street, serving up an assortment of brews, including what is fiercely claimed to be the genuine Budweiser. A brewery and a restaurant are still a part of the hotel where we lodged, and we could have ordered beer-flavored ice cream until late at night.

Nor were our musical choices limited to the three programs we saw. On the night that we saw Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth play the Brahms Double Concerto, we had to reject the National’s La Traviata because we were flying out the next morning. Two festivals were in full swing during our stay in Prague, the Young Prague International and the star-studded Dvořák Prague International, which offered five of its 16 events during our five-day sojourn. If that weren’t enough, the Church of Nicholas in the Old Town offers two concerts every day, including a handy 5pm event on the day we strolled by.

Aside from the National, the Czech Philharmonic and the Prague Symphony are the kingpins of the classical scene, though the Prague Philharmonia and the Czech Radio Symphony – both of which appeared at the Dvořák International – cannot be discounted. The Czech Philharmonic sports the more experienced maestro, Semyon Bychkov, and plays at the more euphonious Dvořák Hall at the Rudolfinum, but with violinist-conductor Pietari Inkinen on their podium in Smetana Hall at the Municipal, the Prague can lay claim to the hotter property.

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Inkinen also holds chief conductorships at the Japan Philharmonic and Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, and he is slated to conduct the new Wagner Ring next summer at Bayreuth. The 39-year-old Finn also has an affinity for the symphonic works of Jean Sibelius, having recorded complete cycles of the seven symphonies with both the New Zealand Symphony and Japan Phil. So I was just as eager to hear Inkinen and the Prague in the Sibelius 5 as I was to hear Zukerman and Forsyth do their glamorous Double.

Before their mighty husband-and-wife fireworks, Zukerman and Forsyth ingratiated themselves individually with two Dvořák gems, the violinist leading off with the Romance for Violin and the cellist following with Silent Woods. Neither posed the severe technical challenges you expect a featured guest artist to conquer, yet they both offered charming opportunities for expressiveness, proving they deserve to be heard live, not just on CDs or FM radio.

Though we needed to lean forward in the balcony at the Rudolfinum to get a full view of Gautier Capuçon when he played Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations the previous evening, the acoustics had been fabulous. At the Smetana, you needed to be at ground level if you wished to be enraptured by the sound of the soloists. The hall was kinder to Forsyth’s cello than it was to Zukerman as she floated through the dark orchestral shades of the orchestral setting, but the full sweetness of Dvořák’s woodwind writing never came close to full bloom.

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The Brahms was a better match for the venue, though Zukerman couldn’t break through in the opening Allegro with all the fiery immediacy you hear on the couple’s 2015 Analekta recording. We finally reached a higher plateau when Forsyth launched the middle Andante with a tone that the hall caressed – and Inkinen was able to draw the cohesive support from the Prague ensemble that he hadn’t mustered before. Chemistry between Zukerman and Forsyth, calmed and mellowed here, became sprightly and mischievous in the concluding Vivace non troppo now that the violinist had adjusted to the room. The double-bowed exchanges between the soloists were at the highest level as the concerto climaxed.

If the initial Dvořák pieces had been cagily chosen to showcase the guest soloists without stressfully testing the power couple, the encore was deftly selected to underscore Forsyth’s charm and Zukerman’s chivalry. The violinist gave way here, and it was Inkinen who picked up his violin and, sitting deferentially behind Forsyth, played a brief pizzicato duet with the cellist. A glamorous coda, as Inkinen and Forsyth shared a chaste smooch and Zukerman stood off proudly clutching a bouquet of flowers.

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Inkinen and the Prague struggled a little with the Smetana’s sonics in the Sibelius 5. Strings sounded a bit watery early in the opening movement, but their sound solidified later on. Pizzicatos weren’t ideally delicate to start the middle movement, but the bowed violins sweetened when they ascended the treble, and the reprise of the pizzicatos was notably improved. Flutes could sound dry or echoey at times in the opening movement, but the doubled flutes in the middle movement floated beatifically.

Fortunately, the hall is far more welcoming to trumpets, trombones, and oboes. The brass were unfailingly dramatic each time they were called upon and the principal trumpet was magnificent. Everything coalesced satisfyingly in the final movement, where the woodwinds were the first to impress. The alchemy between the flutes and the stealthy violins was nicely measured, and the roused violins had convincing ardor. As we neared the climax, the principal trombone excelled – the only non-string musician I could actually see clearly from ground level. To use a gymnastics phrase that is so apt for the end of this E-flat powerhouse, where timpani and brass mete out a string of sforzandos, Inkinen and the Prague’s big guns stuck the landing.

 

CSO and Graf Make Debussy’s “Faun” a Dynamic Prelude

Review:  Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Slipping out of town for Charlotte Symphony’s Firebird concert back in October, maestro Christopher Warren-Green has orchestrated a nice little three-month vacation for himself, but so far, the music director’s pinch-hitters on the podium haven’t let him or us down. Christopher James Lees was best when he lit into the Stravinsky that subscribers came for, and last week in his Queen City debut, German-born guest conductor Hans Graf demonstrated his mastery at Knight Theater on works by Brahms, Mozart, and the evening’s headliner, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

The CSO rarely leads off their programs with their marquee piece, but L’Après-midi was the shortest on the bill, so its position wasn’t shocking. The last time the piece was played as part of a Classics Series in 2003, the beloved tone poem actually launched Symphony’s season after musicians went on strike over pay cuts. Since that momentous “French Masters” program conducted by Christof Perick at Belk Theater, Warren-Green has presented L’Après-midi at UNC Charlotte in a most unusual concert – scientifically proving that, after an Allegro from Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, a little Debussy will bring your blood pressure back down.

A medicinal effect wasn’t Graf’s aim at all, scorning the notion that L’Après-midi is all about casting a misty, hypnotic spell. There were actually pauses in the performance, like you’ll hear in recorded accounts conducted by Herbert von Karajan and Bernard Haitink. You could actually imagine Debussy conceiving his interpretation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s symbolist poem as a series of scenes and reveries. When the orchestra swelled, the dynamic range was as robust as Simon Rattle’s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, reminding me how unaccustomed I was to sitting so close to the ensemble at Knight Theater. Yet the woodwinds blended piquantly where they should, and principal flutist Victor Wang exquisitely led us into the enchanted glade.

In another auspicious debut, Chinese-born Angelo Xiang Yu gave a showy, ebullient account of Mozart’s “Turkish” Violin Concerto No. 5, sparking outbursts of audience applause after the opening Allegro aperto movement and after the less-familiar middle Adagio. Yu forcefully produced a gleaming, golden tone from his 290-year-old Stradivarius and seemed to be having fun even in the slow movement. Like Graf, Yu relished changing tempos and dynamics, approaches that yield happier results with Mozart than with Debussy’s concupiscent Faun. A little puckish mischief was mixed with the fun during the final Rondeau, making the joy even more contagious. More gusto from the lower strings during the “Turkish” section of the finale would have added some agreeable lagniappe.

Yu never did hide his delight in performing, so it wasn’t surprising that he could be coaxed into an encore. Yu probably wasn’t punning when he said he had first heard his little Piazzolla tango on YouTube a couple of days earlier – and still hadn’t been able to acquire the sheet music. Maybe it’s in the mail, since it sounded to me like the Tango Etude No. 3 that I was able to find on Spotify in a couple of versions.

Likely judging that audiences will always enjoy Brahms Symphony No. 2, especially its concluding Allegro con spirito, CSO has now programmed it three times during the last six years. Outside the Classics Series rotation, that final movement last popped up at a 2015 Bachtoberfest at the Knight. Until we reached that rousing spirito at the full 2014 performance, Warren-Green and the orchestra had sounded rather spiritless. Continuing to emphasize dynamic contrasts, yet still vigilant with detail, Graf drew more excitement from his musicians and more energy from Brahms.

The opening Allegro non troppo was especially freshened with sharper shaping, eloquent violins, and a new hint of sadness from the cellos. Yet Graf kept his finger more persistently on the slower middle movements, where languor has won out in the past. The Allegro con spirito now hearkened back to the opening of the Mozart, where Symphony and Yu initially lulled us with a deceptive sense of calm. On both occasions, Graf had the orchestra exploding brilliantly, and with trumpets blaring and principal timpanist Ariel Zaviezo unleashed, the evening ended giddily, like a triumphant military march just slightly out of control.