Category Archives: Classical

Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony Upstaged by Epic Paganini Concerto

Review:  Italian Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

Last week’s Symphony concert at Knight Theater, Italian Symphony, was a bit of a double entendre. Yes, the featured work on the program was Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, also known as the “Italian,” but all the other pieces on the bill had something Italian about them, even if the composers hailed from cooler climes. Other than Mendelssohn, we heard from Parisian maestro Hector Berlioz, whose musical marinara, gleaned from his poorly-received Benvenuto Cellini opera, was discreetly called “Roman Carnival Overture.”

In between these two non-Italians, we heard from Luciano Berio and the virtuosic Niccolò Paganini. Our guest conductor, Milan native Roberto Abbado, sustained the Italian connection. Only our guest soloist, Muscovite violinist Sergej Krylov, broke the Italian mold – unless we also consider the Charlotte Symphony musicians.

The last time Symphony played the “Roman Carnival Overture” in 2012, we were also at Knight Theater, but maestro Christopher Warren-Green had to battle the embryonic acoustics of the stage, which swallowed much of sonic details before they reached the audience. With the handsome wood-grained shell that now encloses the orchestra, strings sounded mellower and more immediate, the thrumming percussion that prodded the tempo had a far more audible and visceral effect, and the whole piece was livelier, with trombones asserting themselves in the final build.

Abbado seized upon the intro to Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 – its precipitous pauses, hairpin tempo changes, sudden thunderous outcries, and outbreaks of joyous melody – and brought out its kinship with Rossini’s overtures. The pause before Krylov’s bravura entrance was so emphatic that the intro might rightly be looked upon as an overture. As for Krylov, while he isn’t Italian, his pedigree for the Paganini concerto can hardly be bettered, for he studied under the renowned Salvatore Accardo, arguably the greatest living exponent of the entire Paganini violin repertoire. Accardo’s six-CD collection; including six concertos, the famed Caprices, and more; is calling out loudly to everybody at Knight Theater who sampled the goodies.

Of course, seeing this music performed live surpasses what you can merely hear. The speed, the exquisite harmonics, the double bowing, and the ricochet bowing heighten the drama when you watch them executed with such energy, deftness, and excitement. In the heat of the opening Allegro maestoso movement, you could see concertmaster Calin Lupanu and principal cellist Alan Black craning their necks to see around Abbado and fully savor what Krylov was doing. Not only was it epic enough to draw their smiles, most of the audience jumped up and gave the violinist a rousing ovation – forcing him, somewhat sheepishly, to remind us that there were two more movements to come.

The middle Adagio movement really required the audience to quiet down if it were to be heard, an oasis of tranquility before another onset of dazzle and fireworks. Anyone who had overlooked the purity of Krylov’s tone, particularly on the low notes and midrange of his instrument, could savor it here. Where the movement builds in volume and passion, both the soloist and the orchestra were up to the drama. The final Rondo: Allegro was shorter than the epic opening, but with some bodacious pizzicato work sprinkled amidst more frequent ricochet episodes, Krylov was no less spectacular, sparring a little with acting principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn along the way.

For those of us who love Luigi Boccherini’s guitar quintets, it bordered on criminal that credit to Luigi as the original creator of “La ritirata di Madrid” was deferred to the program notes on Berio in Symphony’s program booklet instead of in the main concert listing. All the guitar quintets are delightful, but the named pieces, the “Fandango” and “La ritirata,” are the stunners. Both take their names from their fourth and final movements, where Boccherini stretches the limits of his ensemble – string quartet plus guitar – by adding percussion effects. In the “Fandango,” he sneaks in a pair of castanets while the guitarist forcefully strums, but in the “Ritirata,” the strumming of the guitar simulates the fanfare of a full marching band, supplying all the percussion as the platoon moves through town and retires quietly to its barracks.

With principal Andrea Mumm Trammell sweetly plucking her harp, Berio’s orchestration of the arrival could be even quieter and stealthier. Nor did Berio deprive us of the services of traditional percussion – plus trumpets – where Boccherini had brought his quintet to a full roar. It was quite obvious that Abbado and Symphony relished their opportunity to bring orchestral power to this chamber music classic, and the fadeaway finish was absolutely adorable.

If Krylov’s pedigree was optimal for the Paganini, then no less can be said for Abbado’s with the Mendelssohn. Many regard the recordings by Claudio Abbado, Roberto’s uncle, as the most definitive traversal of Mendelssohn’s five symphonies. The nephew stamped his authority on the “Italian” in the opening measures of the most familiar movement, the vibrant Allegro vivace. Unlike the metronomic statement of the long melody line that we heard from Warren-Green and the ensemble in 2013, Abbado had a freer feel for the opening movement, the violins setting an exuberant pace and the winds injecting softer replies.

While the middle movements were mellow and satisfyingly cohesive, contrasting effectively with the bracing beginning, Abbado seemed to allow the lull to have a lingering effect on the Saltarello: Presto finale. The two flutists, Amy Orsinger Whitehead and principal Victor Wang, led a spirited charge into the breech, but when the strings answered back, it was merely with their former exuberance and not with a new ferocity or fire. Instead of Mozart bumping into Beethoven, it was more like Mozart flowing into Mozart, insufficiently bolstered by the timpani and brass. The flutes’ charge should have ignited more magic.

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Charlotte Symphony’s “Royal Celebration” Delivers Brassy, Breathtaking Music

Review: Music for a Royal Celebration

By Perry Tannenbaum

Charlotte isn’t known as a city that treasures its heritage, so it was gratifying to see that Charlotte Symphony was dedicating its Music for a Royal Celebration concert to the 250th anniversary of the Queen City’s founding. Presumably, the audience that filled Knight Theater knew what all the celebration was about. If they didn’t, nobody was going to fill them in from the podium, although we had an able emissary from the Crown onstage in Charlotte Symphony maestro Christopher Warren-Green, who conducted at Their Majesties’ last two Royal Weddings in his native UK.

Warren-Green regaled us, instead, with anecdotes about programming Sir William Walton’s “Crown Imperial March” at the most recent Royal Wedding and the fire emergency that marred the premiere of George Frederic Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks in 1749. This was the latest of the three Handel works that Symphony performed, including “Zadok the Priest” (1727) and excerpts from the Water Music (1717) – and the only one written during Queen Charlotte’s lifetime (1744-1818). She wouldn’t become queen until 1761, however, seven years before her eponymous Charlotte Town was incorporated.

If you’ve ever heard “Zadok the Priest” performed, you’ll realize that the Charlotte Symphony Chorus had to be part of the celebration. Composed for the coronation of King George II, Handel loosely adapted a couple of verses from the opening chapter of Kings I that fit the occasion, the first of his four Coronation Anthems. With the strings pumping quiet arpeggios, this piece didn’t immediately sound anthemic, but after about a minute-and-a-half, Warren-Green had stirred a keen enough sense of expectancy for the powerful onslaught of the Chorus to feel inevitable, soon reinforced by the brass.

Solomon reigned for 40 years over Ancient Israel, yet the sounds of hosanna and hallelujah that Handel devised to replicate the spirit of his coronation weren’t altogether different from the “Hallelujah Chorus” he would compose in Messiah for the King who shall live forever. As a matter of fact, Handel took the liberty of urging his new King to “live for ever,” too. More reason for the Symphony Chorus to fire up their parts with a gusto that signaled their awareness of the kinship of these kingly compositions. And this was just the concert opener!

As the program booklet seemed to hint – and Warren-Green reemphasized – you can play the three suites of the Water Music in any order you choose. Maestro chose not only to have Suite II and Suite III shift places but also to give far more play to the third suite than the second. The strings sounded rich and resonant plunging into the Overture of the first suite, but their fleet and nimble pace was even more impressive. Principal oboist Hollis Ulaky smoothly cued the ensuing Adagio with hardly a pause and closed it poignantly, a perfect setup for the French horns kicking up the liveliness and tempo in the Allegro. The Bourree found Ulaky combining with Symphony’s new principal bassoon, Olivia Oh, in response to the chirping strings.

Slated to headline Symphony’s upcoming February concert, when he’ll play Michael Daugherty’s Trail of Tears, principal flutist Victor Wang stepped forward during Suite III to acquaint us with some of his virtuosity. Principals from the four string sections formed a quiet little quartet behind Wang in the opening Sarabande before the full sections showed their nimbleness in a fleet Rigaudon. No less virtuosic – but a lot more surprising – Wang picked up a piccolo to front the final Minuet and Gigue, speeding up effortlessly for the latter movement.

Warren-Green’s arrangement of Handel’s score trimmed the movements in Suite II that Symphony performed to a pair, but it was easy to see why he held off presenting them when two trumpets joined the ensemble, including acting principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn. They wasted no time in making an impact, trading spirited volleys with the horns in the Allegro – and then in the rousing Hornpipe, the most familiar movement in all of the Water Music. With the Royal Fireworks still looming after intermission, the loudest outburst of percussion so far sent us off to the break with a foretaste of the thunder to come.

Wilborn and a battery of heavy percussion asserted themselves quickly in Hubert Parry’s “I was Glad,” another choral coronation piece – first detonated in 1902 for Edward VII and Queen Alexandra – that offered the Symphony Chorus another opportunity to loudly proclaim Old Testament scripture, this time adapted from Psalm 122. Instead of obliging the singers to sit through the remainder of the concert, Warren-Green used their departure as an opportunity to deliver his tasty intro to the Royal Fireworks, which we would hear in their entirety.

Written to celebrate the triumphant conclusion of the War of Austrian Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the Music for the Royal Fireworks bursts with imperial pride and colonial ambition, an affirmation that Brits ruled a goodly chunk of the planet in 1749. Especially mighty were the outer movements, an epic Ouverture to start, and the sequence of three movements that climaxed the work, “La Réjouissance” and two Menuets, finishing with a majestic deceleration. There are many recorded examples of Royal Fireworks, but only the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performance comes close to capturing the thrill of hearing Charlotte Symphony’s brass playing it live. Nothing I’ve sampled comes close to replicating the full conquering thunder Warren-Green drew from his orchestra when the trumpets’ roar combined with the pounding drums.

The reposeful movements in the middle of Royal Fireworks, the Bourrée and “La Paix,” were accorded their due as the orchestra – especially the brass – primed themselves for their final blasts. Walton’s “Crown Imperial March,” though more benign than Handel’s closing salvos, wasn’t at all an anticlimax. There was still lively percussion, yet the opening had a sleekness to it from the strings, and the mod harmonies reminded us that we had indeed transitioned from 1749 to 1937. Every recorded performance of this piece doesn’t pause for a moment, as Warren-Green did, before the music truly explodes into its vigorous march – try Andrew Litton’s version with the Bournemouth Symphony to approximate the sensation at Symphony’s celebration. It was carried off so naturally that it felt like all of us onstage and throughout Knight Theater were collectively holding our breaths.

Beethoven’s Fifth Recaptures Its Elemental Fire

Review:  Beethoven’s Fifth

By Perry Tannenbaum

Meeting an anticipated demand, Charlotte Symphony is programming their 2018-19 season opener, Beethoven’s Fifth, for three concerts instead of the usual two – and meeting subscribers’ hopes, they’re playing it beautifully. Leading off their season with an all-Beethoven program, music director Christopher Warren-Green and his ensemble weren’t exactly blazing new trails.

Last fall, Symphony also led off all-Beethoven, playing his mighty Ninth, and followed that program with more Beethoven in two of the next three concerts. So if anything, Symphony is tapering off on their Beethoven offerings this year – but not ignoring their audience’s rabid enthusiasm for his music. What’s impressive is that the musicians have maintained their enthusiasm as well.

A surprisingly small contingent, less than 50 players by my count, came out and played the “Overture to The Ruins of Athens,” one of Beethoven’s less familiar orchestral works, before guest soloist Garrick Ohlsson came out to perform the Piano Concerto No. 4. I couldn’t detect much desolation in The Ruins after its slightly gloomy intro. The first oboe statement was like a dewy sunrise, triggering a burst of orchestral merriment that drew a festive rejoinder from the oboe and jollity from the two flutes fluttering over the bassoons.

Such a charming appetizer! Then a big video screen descended from the Belk Theater proscenium, and the Steinway was wheeled to centerstage.

Ohlsson’s last appearance with Symphony was back in the early ‘90s, long before an overhead shot of the keyboard could disclose the size of this man’s hands for all to see as he attacked the keyboard. Those prodigious digits didn’t quite stop moving long enough for a conclusive measurement, but it sure looked like his pinkies were as large as the black keys. With that view, what was perhaps most impressive about Ohlsson in the first two movements was his delicacy and grace.

The opening Allegro moderato shuttled between swift, powerful passages and soft lyrical episodes. Ohlsson played both admirably, effortlessly, trilling with both hands simultaneously and, in the dramatic cadenza, clearly articulating its counterpoint. Warren-Green asserted himself more noticeably in the middle Andante con moto movement, so that it became a dreamy dialogue.

Every note of the concerto sounded fresh and new – until we slid into the familiar final movement with hardly a pause. Everyone onstage lit into it with gusto, the swift finger work at the start of this Rondo presenting no difficulty at all for Ohlsson, who proved that he was holding his full power in reserve for this celebratory climax. Ebb and flow weren’t so much about tempo here as they were about dynamics. Ohlsson and Warren-Green meshed beautifully to sculpt the loud and soft moments in a most satisfying way.

As the program notes on the concerto pointed out, it was especially fitting that Symphony had paired Piano No. 4 with the Fifth Symphony, for they were both premiered on the same December evening in 1808 – at a concert in Vienna, where Beethoven played and conducted. That marathon event also unveiled the Sixth Symphony, the Choral Fantasy, four movements of the Mass in C, and the “Ah! Perfido” aria for soprano. Although Warren-Green didn’t mention this historic landmark, when Beethoven would play for the last time in public due to approaching deafness, you can bet he was aware of it.

Six years ago, when Warren-Green conducted the concerto for the first time at Belk Theater, he paired it with Symphony No. 4, also in an all-Beethoven concert that launched the season. On that occasion, Warren-Green did mention that the very first time Beethoven performed the piece in a private concert at the palace of his patron Prince Joseph Lobkowitz in March 1807, he also conducted his Fourth Symphony.

This time around, Maestro called our attention to the fateful opening of Symphony No. 5, “the most famous four notes in the history of music,” saying that this was also the most familiar instance of Beethoven utilizing the music of the French Revolution, something he did throughout his career. Well, that pungent insight illuminated the entire symphony for me. Partly because of Warren-Green’s remarks, a piece that I had come to regard – and describe – as the most perfect ever written became freshly infused with its revolutionary spirit and elemental fire. Repeated hearings of recorded performance, I realized, had dimmed that fire for me.

Even in the relatively quiescent third movement, mostly notable for its 3/4 time and exquisite pizzicatos, there are brief outbreaks of revolutionary marching spirit, and afterwards, a gentle thrumming of the seething timpani as the whole simmering string section comes majestically to a boil and explodes – with a mighty entrance of trumpets – into the joyous, triumphant finale.

From the outset, Warren-Green spikes the sforzandos with terrific force, but the opening Allegro also features fine spots by principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and the French hornist to mellow the brew. It’s the trumpets that ignite the revolutionary fervor at the beginning of second movement Andante, exactly the kind of march that Warren-Green’s prefatory remarks suggested, but you’ll also hit a heavenly patch from the cellos that struck me as a foretaste of Wagner’s Rhein at this listen. Wonderful hushes of strings here hit me as one of the underappreciated reasons why we adore Beethoven. Some exquisite work lightly showered from flutists Amy Orsinger Whitehead and principal Victor Wang.

Maybe Erinn Frechette as well. From my vantage point up in the Grand Tier, I didn’t notice her until I heard her amid the tutti of the final Allegro, when she picked up her Little David of instruments, the piccolo. There she was, perfectly obscured in my line of sight behind Warren-Green! By contrast, I had noticed the elephantine contrabassoon lying neglected on its stand all evening. Only when the whole orchestra was wailing underneath Frechette in the symphony’s full-throated climax did I realize that Lori Tiberio had picked up her lumbering Goliath and was playing with everyone else. Why Beethoven had bothered with her and her contrabassoon I couldn’t say, for I cannot claim to have heard a single note.

I’m sure it was there. But I’ll stop short of making another claim, for I’d likely be surrendering a chunk of my judicial credibility if I told you that Beethoven not only wrote more stirring movements than the immortal “Da-da-da-DAA,” but that one of them is just a short distance down the road in the same Fifth Symphony. That’s one key reason why you need to experience this orchestra playing this music in live performance at the Belk.

Symphony’s Opening Night Gala Celebrates With Primal Beauty and Fire

Review: Charlotte Symphony Opening Night Gala with Violinist Joshua Bell

By Perry Tannenbaum

Although violinist Joshua Bell hadn’t played with the Charlotte Symphony since the 1994-95 season, he has maintained a presence across the Carolinas, appearing at Spoleto Festival USA, the Brevard Music Festival, and Asheville’s Bravo Concerts during the intervening years. Quite the favorite with promoters at Charlotte Concerts, Bell has also been welcomed to the Queen City on multiple occasions during the new millennium, a couple of times as the featured soloist and music director of London’s most revered small orchestra, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

So it’s gratifying to report that, in his first appearance on the Belk Theater stage in 11 years, the Tom Cruise of violinists isn’t merely the same-old same-old Bell with more mileage on his chassis. Symphony’s Opening Night Gala lived up to its headliner and its hype, for I’ve never seen Bell play quite this well before. Nor was the Bell performance alone in being special as Symphony launched its 2018-19 classics slate, for music director Christopher Warren-Green not only soothed subscribers’ Shostakovich anxieties with a brassy overture, he slayed their fears of new music with a world premiere by Nkeiru Okoye celebrating Charlotte’s 250th anniversary.

Bell remained the highlight. The higher he has ascended in the firmament over the course of his career, the louder the grumblings have become charging Bell with complacency and superficiality. I’ve seen why the carping has persisted when Bell played for us before, for his readings tended to be fleet and his technique squeaky clean, earmarks of his Top Gun aura. The zest and fire he brought to the Brahms Violin Concerto were unprecedented here, surpassing even the Beethoven sonata he played with Jeremy Denk at the Belk in 2007.

The years with Denk and St. Martin have brought another dimension to Bell’s playing, a keener sense of his dialogue with the orchestra – and the audience. Bell and Warren-Green are both musical Londoners, so perhaps the camaraderie began there for this occasion, because there was absolutely nothing deferential about Symphony’s playing in the introductory passages of the opening Allegro con troppo movement. That forceful approach prodded Bell into a response that was as fierce as it was precise, nothing careful or sleek in his double bowing – or in the dramatic attacks that followed his grace notes.

Simpatico between Bell and Symphony was even keener when we moved to the middle Adagio movement, where the lyrical interplay intensified organically as the orchestral accompaniment switched emphasis from woodwinds to strings. The sheer beauty and inevitability of the first two movements drew enthusiastic applause, outbursts that may not have pleased Bell. Instead of admonishing the crowd, as Isaac Stern famously did in his Charlotte appearance, Bell silenced them as a conductor might. With an exaggerated nod that fully involved the top half of his body, Bell gave everyone in the house the downbeat for the final Allegro giacoso movement and plunged right in. Worked like a charm. The little pause before tackling his final cadenza also proved that Bell, at 50, is his own man.

Commissioned by Symphony, Okoye’s Charlotte Mecklenburg disarmed worriers as soon as it began. The luminous opening echoed Aaron Copland serenity rather than John Cage chaos, an unexpectedly heartland take on our metropolis, hinting that Okoye was taking a longer view and hearkening back to the primeval landscape before Europeans arrived on the continent. Episodes following this pristine preamble coalesced into a cavalcade of human signatures, a reel keeping us in Appalachia, snare drums bringing us to a Main Street parade. Eventually, Okoye’s new work took the urban tack we had anticipated, with an emphasis on diversity. We heard a bluesy decelerating train, a cop’s whistle, a tropical marimba and slithering Latin sounds mixing with the orchestral Americana.

The 250th anniversary celebration will continue later this fall at Symphony, with Warren-Green taking us to his native side of the Atlantic for an evening of English music, mostly written for British royals, mostly by Handel. You could hardly wish for a better foretaste of the celebration and the season to come than this regal, richly satisfying gala.

The Queen City Has a Regal New Bach Festival to Call Its Own

42857183534_3fc07101fe_kReview: Charlotte Bach Festival~Opening Celebration

By Perry Tannenbaum

Boasting unmistakable DNA from the Oregon Bach Festival, at the podium and in its administrative offices, the new Bach Akademie Charlotte has launched its first annual Charlotte Bach Festival in grand style, heralding national ambitions. The Festival Opening Celebration filled the chapel at Christ Church Charlotte with listeners eager to hear Bach’s vocal music performed by a professional choir and to see Johann Sebastian’s orchestral music played on authentic baroque instruments. Conducted by Scott Allen Jarrett, the combined forces of the Akademie’s Cantata Choir and the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra obliged, filling the room with robust, cleanly sculpted sound. All hands were on deck for Cantata 147, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” including guest instrumentalists and vocalists. This centerpiece was preceded by the Orchestra Suite No. 1 in C Major, where we made the acquaintance of the fullest assembly of the NC Baroque Orchestra that I’ve ever seen. Concluding the concert, the “Singet demrrn ein neues Lied” motet showcased the Choir with light accompaniment from keyboardist Nicolas Haigh, violone player Sue Yelanjan, and NC Baroque executive director, cellist Barbara Krumdieck.

Jarrett is not merely a guest conductor at Oregon Bach Festival. He directs the Vocal Fellows Program there, and he is slated to deliver the lecture concerts of their Discovery Series this summer. Adam Romey, the new managing director, is the son of Kathy Romey, longtime assistant of OBF founder Helmuth Rilling; and the Bach Akademie president, Michael H. Trammell, has sung with Rilling at festival in Europe. In welcoming the audience and in introducing the pieces, Jarrett reminded me of how Helmuth Rilling engaged his OBF audiences when he was artistic director there. He isn’t as sparing, concise, gnomic, or orotund as Charlotte Symphony’s Christopher Warren-Green in making his remarks. There is a more relaxed informality and a gentle pedagogical touch. Jarrett didn’t walk off into the wings between pieces and, since he had served as music director of the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte from 2004 to 2015, he could address us with a familiarity that must have taken Rilling years to achieve in Eugene, Oregon.

Intimacy between the audience and the musicians was sustained by the compact size of the ensembles, a mere 14 musicians taking the stage for the Orchestral Suite. Yet it did not take long for these members of NC Baroque to prove they could produce a roar in the opening Ouverture movement. Deceptively stately, for the oboes are doubling and quadrupling the pace with embellishments, the movement is far longer than any one of those that follow, with a slow-fast-slow-fast-slow structure that is most satisfying when the tempo contrasts are emphatic. Not only were the wind players on point – oboists Margaret Owens and Sung Lee backed by bassoonist Allen Hamrick – but the string players, led by concertmaster Martha Perry, were also up to the task, sounding effortless in the swift episodes. There was a nice balance later on in the Gavotte movements when strings and winds veered off in different directions and a delicious blend afterwards between the sections in the Menuets. The paired Bourées were also impressive, the strings showing their nimbleness in the fleet outer portions of this movement and, in the middle, Owens and Sung interweaving nicely over Hamrick’s continuo.

Glorious was a better description of the Cantata 147 performance than merely impressive, for all of the forces at Jarrett’s command were at their shining best – and the music includes the familiar “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” one of Bach’s greatest hits, played twice to conclude each of its two parts. Here Josh Cohen made his first appearance with his valveless natural trumpet, launching the cantata with some stunning flourishes. Most of the vocal soloists were drawn from the Charlotte Cantata Choir, underscoring the fact that Jarrett has chosen the crème de la crème of Charlotte’s plentiful choral talent. I was most delighted by Edmund Milly’s renditions of the bass recitative (“Stubbornness can blind the mighty”) and the bass aria in the penultimate song (“I shall sing of Jesus’ miracles”), both ringing with power and authority, yet there was also considerable power from soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh in her aria (“Prepare now, O Jesus, the way”).

With native talent of that caliber, the imports figured to be outstanding, and they were. Countertenor Charles Humphries was definitely a highlight in the alto aria (“Be not ashamed, O soul”), with a lovely obbligato from Owens over Hamrick’s bassline. Tenor Patrick Muehleise had the earnest warmth that his aria demanded (“Help me, Jesus, to acknowledge Thee”), giving Krumdieck, who is so often relegated to continuo at local concerts, a chance to show her true mettle in the cello obbligato. Among the obbligatos, I don’t think any outshone the paired oboes of Owens and Sung behind alto Elizabeth Eschen’s sweet recitative (“The wondrous hand of God’s omnipotence”). For sheer luminosity, however, nothing could compare with the live performances of the “Jesu” movements, numbers 6 (“I am blest to have Jesus”) and 10 (“Jesus remains my joy”). The familiar melody is played by the orchestra, but it’s the stately choral singing that elevates the music heavenward. Which melody is accompanying the other? Part of what nearly brought me to tears, besides the sheer beauty of the performance, were the realizations of how rarely such music is heard in a live concert and the foretaste of how much this new festival could mean to this community. Jarrett delivered an additional foretaste in his introduction to this cantata, explaining its architecture, a glimpse of what he would be doing later in the Festival when will clone his work at OBF’s Discovery Series and bring it Charlotte as The Bach Experience, exploring and then performing Cantatas 75 and 76 at Myers Park United Methodist Church in separate midday concerts.

Concluding the Opening Celebration, the Cantata Choir sounded relaxed and celebratory in their motet after scaling to the pinnacle of this concert. Jarrett didn’t let up on the ensemble in the opening movement (“Sing a new song to the Lord”), calling for a slightly brisker tempo than I’ve usually heard, and I’ve certainly encountered more hushed and reverent accounts of the choruses in the middle movement. Yet there was still a definite éclat when the ensemble lit into the final “Lobet den Herrn in seinen Taten” (“Praise the Lord in His works”), similar to the opening movement in its ecumenical return to the mother of us all, the Psalms of the Old Testament. Once more, Jarrett and the Choir accelerated with effortless speed, producing satisfying layers of melody, rich textures and counterpoint, building to what many people would call a cathedral of sound. Less pretentious folk could simply – and rightly – call this concert a grand opening.

“Rite of Spring” Showcases the Best of Charlotte Symphony and Ballet

Review:  Rite of Spring: Reinvented

By Perry Tannenbaum

As scarce as modern music was in Charlotte Symphony’s classics concerts last fall – or anything that wasn’t by Beethoven – subscribers can be delighted (or appalled) by the cavalcade of moderns this spring. Sibelius, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Bernstein were all beautifully represented at Belk Theater in March, encouraging Charlotte’s staunch traditionalists to discard their modern music trepidations at the beginning of April and come out en masse for Rite of Spring: Reinvented, an evening of Stravinsky.

Further enticement to come and hear Christopher Warren-Green leading the orchestra came from Charlotte Ballet. Newly led by Hope Muir in her first season as artistic director, the company would not only reprise George Balanchine’s setting for Apollon musagète, they would also be premiering a new choreographic setting by Peter Chu for the seminal Rite of Spring.

The proven excellence of Symphony in modern repertoire, the excitement of a collaboration with Charlotte Ballet, and the lure of a world premiere probably all contributed to filling the hall with subscribers and newcomers. Yet there was another element in play. While the Apollon served as a calling card for the company’s magisterial authority in all things Balanchine, the world premiere of Chu’s Rite served as a showcase for their backup Charlotte Ballet II troupe, as well as their company apprentices, youth ballet participants, and students in the Charlotte Ballet Reach program.

Serving children 7-13, Reach is obviously an impressive program with branches at the Ivory Baker Recreation Center, the Albemarle Road Recreation Center, and the Hickory Grove Recreation Center. Of the 67 performers involved in Rite of Spring, 48 were from the Reach program, all performing for the first time at Belk Theater. Some of these kids had never attended any event there before.

Such an event would be a big deal for parents and relatives – as it is when Charlotte Youth Ballet performs Ovens Auditorium or Knight Theater elsewhere in town. Conceiving his Rite of Spring as a community event, Chu didn’t hurt ticket sales at all, for those friends, parents, and relatives certainly came out to see these students perform.

What they saw raised Symphony and Ballet to a higher plateau, even in the Apollon reprise. Because Symphony had been reduced to approximately 30 players for the most recent run of Ballet’s annual Nutcracker, it had been awhile since the full ensemble had performed from the orchestra pit in their collaborative relationship. And because Opera Carolina seats the press down at stage level, this may have been the first time I’d heard them performing in the pit from the vantage point of the grand tier.

From the downstairs level, the sound of the Charlotte Symphony can be slightly constricted from the pit, although our main attention in opera is always on the stage. Up in the grand tier, where my Symphony tickets are, I found that the confines of the pit added a warm glow to the sound, a welcome aura for patrons who might find the Belk’s acoustics too clinical and in-your-face when the orchestra plays from the stage.

Performing Apollon to live music also had a gratifying effect on the Charlotte Ballet performance. Strumming on Apollo’s lyre, Josh Hall seemed to be playing the instrument for the first time, precisely in sync with Stravinsky’s score instead of vaguely going through the motions. The newfound synergy between Balanchine’s choreography and Stravinsky’s helped to make the reprise of Hall’s performance fresh again.

So did the continuing grace and charm of his three muses, Chelsea Dumas as Calliope, Sarah Hayes Harkins as Polyhymnia, and Alessandra Ball James as Terpsichore. Even the iconic sun-god tableau, perhaps the most compelling Balanchine image that Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride gave to us when they took the reins of Charlotte Ballet, was freshened by the live music. Hearing the delighted surprise of so many ballet newbies in the crowd to this famous ending freshened it more.

Depicting a human sacrifice, Stravinsky’s scenario was definitely communal – but also barbaric, no more heartwarming than Shirley Jackson’s classic, “The Lottery.” Yet in setting this oftentimes harsh music for a large group of children who hadn’t finished middle school, Chu and costume director Aimee Coleman weren’t aiming to turn this scenario into pure sunshine.

On the contrary, the most haunting images Chu and Coleman created with their large cast was of waves of migration – poor peoples under stress, fleeing war and tyranny, caring deeply for their children, and looking for a peaceful homeland. Exactly the kind of people that America’s ruling party doesn’t want to think about, let alone welcome. Chu and his large cast, to put it another way, turned the primitive barbarity of Stravinsky’s original scenario for the Ballet Russes in 1913 into a more modern barbarism – showing the effects of tyranny, war, and callous indifference upon unmistakably good people.

I’m not sure Chu’s scenario needed to be quite as inchoate as the refugees’ lives that he depicts. Showing us the tyrants, the jackboots, or the marauders that the good folk were fleeing might have given a more substantial shape to what we were witnessing. Nor did I feel that the Charlotte Ballet II dancers were stretched anywhere near to their fullest. Yet Chu’s images of mass migration and parents fretting their children’s survival were more than sufficiently powerful to make the big audience at the Belk feel involved in this community happening.

The event also seemed to be special for Warren-Green and the Symphony musicians. Apollon is more sedate than you expect Stravinsky to be, and the ensemble called forth all its beauties. But when we reached barbarities of Stravinsky’s Rite, nobody in the pit was holding back, and the essence of the music came through with all its primal force.

Amid a Record Cold Wave, Nosky Brings the Heat of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”

Review:  Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

By Perry Tannenbaum

With only string players on assignment, Charlotte Symphony was a noticeably smaller orchestra at Belk Theater last Saturday night. But with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the program and redheaded Aisslinn Nosky both playing the violin solos and guest conducting, the house was as unusually full as the stage was empty. People don’t merely adore Antonio Vivaldi’s signature set of concertos. If WDAV, Charlotte’s notably successful classical FM station, has it right, they also dig all things baroque.

Aside from an excursion into Felix Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia for Strings No. 1 – written when the prodigy was a boy of 12 – that’s what Nosky brought to the podium. Nosky is one of the pre-eminent authenticists on the continent, having served as concertmaster for both Tafelmusik in Toronto and the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston. Historical practices and authentic historical instruments are her customary métier.

So is rocking a punk hairdo, flaming pink or fuchsia on some nights, and anchoring I Furiosi, an avant-garde quartet. With fellow emissaries from H+H, Nosky has gigged at Le Poisson Rouge, one of the hippest clubs in Greenwich Village. An aura of unpredictability shimmers around her.

Of course, Nosky adapted to Symphony by playing a modern violin, but tantalizing stylistic questions needed to be answered on how she would approach the music and Charlotte’s classical audience. Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1 provided answers at the top of the program.

Nosky’s tone on the modern violin was laser thin and strong, most attractive just before her highest notes and infectiously cheerful with Symphony’s strings. The brisk pace that Nosky called for added to the sunniness of the opening movement, yet there was no superficiality to the lightness. When we moved to the middle Andante movement, Nosky entered with an exquisite pianissimo that was barely audible at first, swelling to full bloom while still allowing the cellos to dominate with their spare accompaniment. Spikey hairdo or not, Nosky subtly sculpted the closing Allegro, achieving a fine balance between her violin and the ensemble, building almost imperceptibly to the climax with gradual acceleration and crescendo.

As her concert-black outfit had signaled, Nosky wasn’t out to create outré sensations. The warmth of her chat with the audience, introducing Georg Philipp Telemann’s Don Quixote Suite, was an extension of principal cellist Alan Black’s earlier intro to the whole baroque program. Nosky reminded us that pianists and violinists, many doubling as famed composers, had led orchestras through most of classical music history, and she dished on the friendly rivalry between Bach and Telemann.

Notwithstanding the spikey punk do, you could bring this redhead home to meet your Republican dad.

I’ve found a CD, played and conducted by Jan Stanienda, that programs The Four Seasons and Don Quixote together, and the pairing makes sense. Both pieces are very imagistic, so the Telemann served as a fine foreshadowing for the Vivaldi. It would have been helpful, especially in the absence of any detailing from Nosky in her intro, to have seen the descriptive titles of the eight segments of the suite on the page with the program listings.

Flip ahead to the program notes, however, and the titles printed there would have better prepared you to fully savor the woeful waking of the Don, his adoration of Princess Dulcinea, Rosinante, Sancho, and the renowned windmills. What came through best without these prompts were the horsey flavors of the suite, the stately cantering of the overture, the quarter horse sprint of the windmill sketch, the sudden crowdpleasing interjections evoking Sancho’s donkey (effects Haydn would perfect), and the farewell gallop of the finale, ending not with a Rossini-like bang but with a surprising, slightly affecting fadeout.

Spearheaded by Nosky, the Symphony strings made an excellent case for the outer movements of Mendelssohn’s C Major Sinfonia, the second Allegro particularly impressive for its precocity. By comparison, the middle Andante in A minor struck me as moribund. Or I should say that it hardly struck me at all.

Nosky jokingly told us that, in view of the record cold weather outside the concert hall, she had considered only playing Vivaldi’s “Summer” concerto to warm us up. Then she promised there would be additional heat in the other Seasons – even in “Winter” – and there was. Written within the framework of four Italian sonnets, conveniently translated in our programs, the musical imagery of Four Seasons is probably best followed by playing a CD with the text in front of you, so Vivaldi’s backtracking refrains and mood-shifting don’t make you lose your place.

Not an absurd expectation at all: Symphony’s pre-New Year’s email blast to subscribers not only offered concertgoers a link to the translated poems, it also provided a Spotify playlist to The Four Seasons and the rest of last week’s Classics concert. Another handy subscription for Symphony supporters. Lack of such prep accounted for the major glitch of the night, when the audience applauded prematurely, forcing Nosky to confide that “Winter” was yet to come.

At the beginning of Four Seasons, “Spring” crests with a thunderstorm in the second half of its opening Allegro, and the onset demonstrated that there was sufficient artillery onstage at Belk Theater for the fireworks and hailstones to come. Nosky was at her most soulful in the middle Largo as the goatherd lay down to sleep in the meadow, and the sweetness lingered into the concluding pastoral dance with a nice attention to the strings’ harmonies.

Forebodings of the ultimate storm in the “Summer” concerto spread dramatic contrasts throughout the first two movements, both of which have fast sections, but it wasn’t until the concluding Presto that Vivaldi and Nosky reached their fullest fury. Here the flaming redhead was clearly torching the Red Priest, finally breaking into her bacchante mode, sustaining the lightning with a sizzling cadenza.

She is too authentic to linger in sensationalism, and there was plenty of artistry to display in the remaining concertos. Soloing in “Autumn,” it seemed to me that Nosky was caricaturing one of Vivaldi’s drunken peasants with a witty twist of her glissandos, and she made sure to emphasize the fadeout at the end of this season, reminding us of the kinship between Vivaldi’s sketchings and Telemann’s.

“Winter” was not only the most shivery season, it was also the darkest, bleakest, and loneliest as Nosky gave us a wan cadenza backed only by Black on cello. North winds howl in the final Allegro, allowing Nosky and Symphony to whip up one last tumult. Maybe the sun didn’t quite shine through this icy gloom, but the joy and warmth of the music did, just as the Red Priest prescribed.

A Flaming Redhead Scorches the Red Priest

Preview:  Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

By Perry Tannenbaum

Even in Charlotte, the would-be crown of the New South, you occasionally hear the grumblings backstage – or in the boardrooms of our leading performing arts companies. Our audiences are graying. Who ya gonna call? For Charlotte Symphony, this week’s startling answer is their guest soloist, Aisslinn Nosky, a redheaded violinist – sometimes fire engine red when the mood hits – who usually rocks a punk hairdo.

A blatant appeal, you could say, to younger people who might otherwise be wary of a formal concertgoing experience or just plain classical-averse. But that’s hardly half of the Nosky story. Far from dolling up and dumbing down the music she plays, Nosky is highly regarded as one of today’s prime exponents of music by Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Franz Joseph Haydn.

Canadian born, Nosky has strong ties to three of the most important groups in North America that specialize in this music. She’s a core member of the Toronto-based I FURIOSI Baroque Ensemble and the concertmaster at Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society. Nosky’s 10 years with the famed Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra culminated in the 2015-16 season when she toured as their featured soloist.

Although she’ll be playing a modern violin when she teams up this weekend for a concert that will showcase works by Bach, Telemann, and Mendelssohn – while headlining Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – Nosky usually plays authentic period instruments when she performs and records with H+H or Tafelmusik. She dismisses the notion that there’s some kind of disconnect between her punkish stage persona and her punctilious preservation of authentic practices.

“I can see how on the surface it might strike some people as a jarring contradiction,” Nosky admits. “What our current audience may not know is that the idea of classical music being a highbrow/conservative art form was born entirely in the 19th century. In the 18th century, the star singers of the opera world and the most famous instrumental performers were treated like rock stars. One need only read contemporary accounts of audiences’ reactions to someone like the great opera star Farinelli to have a glimpse into the excitement and glamor which was a part of experiencing Western art music in the past.”

Many other classical musicians, conductors, or academicians are on the record with similar observations about classical music’s less stuffy, more spontaneous past. Nosky separates herself from those laments, living that bygone spontaneity right now. Check out the I FURIOSI website if you have any doubts. Or watch Nosky rockin’ out on Bach with Tafelmusik in a YouTube video.

Something unusual there: Nosky is not only playing with the ensemble, she’s directing it. That’s the plan for this weekend at Belk Auditorium. In both the Bach Violin Concerto No. 1 and the Four Seasons, Nosky will be soloing while leading the orchestra. Although the ensemble doesn’t figure to be as small as Tafelmusik’s, with 19 full-time members, you can count on Charlotte Symphony to field a smaller armada of musicians than the one that played Brahms and Beethoven back in November.

Trimming the size of the ensemble performing Haydn and Mozart became a routine practice at Symphony during the aught decade when Christof Perick wielded the baton as music director. But aside from Bach’s B Minor Mass (2002 and 2009), a Vivaldi Piccolo Concerto rearranged by and for percussionist Evelyn Glennie (2005), nothing written before Papa Haydn was presented at the Belk to Symphony’s Classics Series subscribers during those years.

Curiously enough, that Vivaldi Piccolo Concerto was conducted by Christopher Warren-Green, five years before he took over as Symphony’s maestro for the 2010-11 season. So it figured that Warren-Green would be programming more baroque at the Belk than his predecessor.

“Musicians of a symphony orchestra are expected to be extremely versatile and be able to juggle different musical styles,” says Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, Charlotte Symphony’s concertmaster since 2003. “We usually switch from a classical repertoire to a more jazzy or Broadway type of repertoire, from modern classical to baroque. Especially with the arrival of Maestro Warren-Green in Charlotte, the number of baroque programs has increased. I am sure that Aisslinn will bring her own interpretation and expertise to the stage.”

What might seem unusual, a concertmaster leading an orchestra while he or she plays the solos, is often the practice when performing Four Seasons, according to Lupanu. That didn’t happen the last time Symphony presented Vivaldi’s most famous composition in early 2010. Lupanu would know. On that January night, with Michael Christie as guest conductor, Lupanu himself was the soloist.

Oh, and this just in: Lupanu kicked off a new Charlotte Symphony chamber music series in October at Tate Hall on the CPCC campus, leading a “conductorless” concert of works by Elgar, Britten, and Shostakovich. So for the record, he set the precedent.

Nosky has a different perspective on compounding her instrumental work with conducting, reminding us that before the 19th century, concertmaster and director were interchangeable titles.

“Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra was directed from the concertmaster’s chair by Jeanne Lamon,” Nosky recalls. “It never occurred to me that playing baroque and classical music needed to be done any other way. In fact, after a lot if research into the subject, I can say positively that the majority of orchestra music before the 20th [century] was directed by either the concertmaster or the keyboard player. People may forget that Vivaldi and Telemann and Bach initially achieved their enormous fame as performers!”

Both concertmasters, Lupanu and Nosky, cite chamber music as central to their tastes and training, so both are comfortable in reduced-size ensembles where all the musicians must keep a sharp ear out to blend and synchronize with their colleagues. Where the two seem to part company is in the outré flair that Nosky brings to the task.

“In a culture that is geared towards young performers playing for an older audience,” Lupanu observes, “someone of Aisslinn’s quality can be extremely helpful in bringing more of the baroque and early music repertoire in the concert halls. And – why not? – maybe having the younger audience attracted to this kind of music.”

Nigel Kennedy? Peter Sellars? Peter Pan? Nosky pushes back against the notion that her spiky hairdo is modeled on anybody else’s – or that it’s calculated to position her as a Pied Piper for a new generation of classical audience.

“All I can say is that my inspiration comes completely from what makes me feel comfortable when I perform. I couldn’t possibly try to look like or be anybody other than myself. If I did, I would not be true to myself. Or the music.”

Nonetheless, when Nosky moves from Handel and Haydn to the music of Vivaldi, her spiky red do inevitably takes on the tinge of an homage. Born in 1678 and ordained in 1703, Vivaldi was nicknamed the Red Priest because of his curly red locks.

It’s uncertain how much red Nosky will be sporting onstage as she plays her concertos and leads Charlotte Symphony in a Sinfonia by Mendelssohn and a “Suite from Don Quixote” by Telemann. There’s a 2013 video of Nosky clad in red lapels when she played with an H+H quartet at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. On second glance, maybe those silky lapels were fuchsia.

One thing is certain: Just being herself, Nosky will surely be a redhead playing the Red Priest, often at a fiery clip. It will be interesting to see how many other punks show up.

Christopher Warren-Green Conducts a Dramatic, Joyful “Messiah” at Knight Theater

Review: Messiah

By Perry Tannenbaum

Until my first year of college, I thought I knew all that operatic singers and composers could do. My parameters were set by the matinee performances of the Metropolitan Opera and the iconic Texaco broadcasts. But on a freezing December evening at Colden Auditorium on the Queens College campus in New York, I attended my first live performance of George Frederic Handel’s Messiah, my first inkling that there were whole vocal worlds beyond Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Wagner, and Verdi. The first hint that I was in unexplored territory was when the tenor sang his “Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted” air, where the melody line straightens out the crooked and makes the rough places plain.

More jarring than that was the sound of a bass baritone shortly afterwards in the “Thus Saith the Lord” recitative performing the coloratura runs declaring he will “shake all nations.” I’d previously assumed that such virtuosic runs were reserved for higher voices – almost always female. Since then, I rarely allow a Yuletide season to go by without revisiting Handel’s most frequently performed oratorio. During those years, a couple of trends have impacted how we hear the operas and oratorios by Baroque and pre-Romantic composers. Both were in evidence as Christopher Warren-Green, for the first time in his eight seasons as music director of the Charlotte Symphony, conducted Messiah at the Knight Theater.

Both trends, when they hit, were championed in the name of authenticity. The first had to do with the modern tendency to perform Early and Renaissance music on modern instruments with larger orchestras. Authenticists trimmed the size of their orchestras and brought back original instruments. Then came the countertenors to further shake up authentic performance. Although Alfred Deller was established in his career in the late 1940s, but there was no mass influx of countertenors, reclaiming the roles originally assigned by early opera composers to castrati, until at least 50 years later.

Charlotte Symphony subscribers may have been surprised to see countertenor Brennan Hall singing the alto parts formerly taken by contraltos or mezzo-sopranos, but those who were knowledgeable could hardly have been shocked. In years gone by, purists spearheading the authentic instruments trend might have bridled at the idea that Warren-Green was bowing to ancient practice by trimming the size of his orchestra without adapting original instruments, but the requisite treaties in those wars were tacitly signed a couple of decades ago.

The zest that Warren-Green brought to the task wasn’t fully manifested until we reached the mighty “Hallelujah Chorus” at the end of Part 2. Somehow, while the audience was rising to their feet, two trumpeters and timpanist Leonardo Soto made their way through the Knight Theater’s acoustic shell, filling out the Symphony ensemble to 29 members. The hall shook with the sound of the orchestra and the more than nine dozen singers of the Symphony Chorus. Warren-Green was transported enough at one point to leap into the air, and the collective power of his “Lord of Lords” sent chills through me.

There was not only thunderous applause at the conclusion but also bows from the orchestra, the chorus, and the soloists, though Part 3 still lay ahead. More chills came with the tender contrast of soprano Kathryn Mueller singing “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” after we were back in our seats. I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard Mueller’s last phrase, “the first fruits of them that sleep,” delivered with such beguiling fructose.

Those dramatic contrasts typified Warren-Green’s approach. Tempos were quicker than we usually hear on the familiar “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” and “All We Like Sheep,” further lightened by a noticeably more staccato attack from the singers. Yet the excellent tenor, William Hite, could follow the choir’s gamboling “Sheep” with an unusually strong rendition of the “All They That See Him” recitative. Other moments foreshadowing the “Hallelujah” thunder were the declamatory “The Lord Gave the Word,” a choral segment that usually escapes notice, and Symphony’s fierce introduction to bass baritone Troy Cook’s “Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together?”

Cook seemed to grow continuously in power throughout the evening. His “Thus Saith the Lord” was more stolid than the best I’ve heard, not nearly in the same class as his “Why Do the Nations?” after intermission. I had already hoped for mightier deeds when I heard Cook’s unexpected sweetness in his “For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth” recitative. But the baritone’s finest moments came later with the recitative and air that culminated in “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” volleying back and forth with principal trumpeter Richard Harris, who was in fine form. Along with Mueller’s sweetness, these two men conspired to prove that Part 3 isn’t at all an anticlimax after the mighty “Hallelujah.” Warren-Green discreetly axed four segments from Part 3, “Oh Death, Where Is Thy Sting?” the most familiar, to help keep that notion afloat.

The other soloists distinguished themselves before Part 3. Hall had a more suitable range for “O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion” than many contraltos I’ve heard, though his runs weren’t the most even. Together he and Warren-Green emphasized the 3/4 meter of this air more delightfully than I could recall hearing before. The countertenor was most affecting after intermission when he sang “He Was Despised and Rejected,” layering on a superb soulfulness as he sang the verse from Isaiah for the last time.

I was even more impressed by Hite’s emotional range, whose power was the last of his attributes to be revealed. The tenderness of the tenor’s rendition of “Comfort Ye, My People” – a slight sob detectable in his delivery – served instant notice that this was going to be a special Messiah, one that respected the Charles Jennens libretto culled from the Old and New Testaments, and Hite’s “Ev’ry Valley” signaled that it would be wrapped in joy. Anyone who doubts that Warren-Green adores this score only needs to hear him conduct it.

A Transcendent New Perspective on Verdi’s Requiem – as Sung by Jewish Prisoners Earmarked for Extermination by the Nazis

Review: Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín

By Perry Tannenbaum

Ever since Verdi’s Requiem was first presented in 1874, singers and musicians have often observed that the composer, not a particularly religious man, steered the text of the Roman Catholic funeral mass in the direction of opera. Considering that Verdi had begun this work as a tribute to Rossini shortly after his death in 1868, those observations may be precisely what Verdi intended. Arranger/conductor Murry Sidlin offered a new perspective in Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín with his new version of the Requiem for chorus, soloists and piano that premiered at the Anne R. Belk Theater on the UNC Charlotte campus. His pared-down instrumentation was not an arbitrary choice. Sidlin was aiming to pay tribute to Rafael Schächter, the Holocaust victim who organized and led the choir of Jewish prisoners that performed for the International Red Cross during their infamous inspection of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in June 1944.

In a miracle that faintly echoes the Hanukkah miracle, Schächter only had a single musical score – for piano and chorus – when the pianist-conductor arrived at Terezín. From that one little musical light, Schächter forged a chorus that offered solace to its members at evening rehearsals after hard days of labor at the concentration camp. And in the text of the Requiem, he found a massive voice that would “sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.”

Interspersed with a recreation of the 16 performances that Schächter conducted for the edification and delight of their fellow prisoners (there is no evidence that the Nazis in attendance were ever entertained or that those Red Cross emissaries were ever enlightened), Sidlin has interspersed clips from Defiant Requiem, a documentary that tells the story of the Theresienstadt Chorus with help from filmed interviews of its living survivors. There were also segments where Sidlin himself, turning towards us after conducting a section of the Requiem, would add his voice to the narrative. If that weren’t enough to evoke the presence of Schächter and the role he played at the original performances, one of the two actors who stepped out of the chorus and participated in this unique concert drama also portrayed Schächter.

Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín has been around since 2002 and has twice been presented at New York’s Lincoln Center in Avery Fisher Hall. But those 2013 and 2015 performances at the home of the NY Philharmonic were with full orchestras. What we saw at the Anne R. Belk may have literally proven that less is more, for the replication of Schächter’s performances was certainly more faithful with just a single piano – plus a violin – replacing the orchestra at a more intimate venue. Nor was the drama diminished when we learned that the final Theresienstadt Requiem for the Red Cross was performed by a depleted choir of about 60 members: the choral group standing before us, from The University Chorale and We Are Sine Nomine, numbered 62 according to our program booklets.

Stripped down to these essentials, and replenished with the contexts supplied by Sidlin and the documentary, what usually sounds devotional and fearful now felt, by turns, poignant and defiant, dripping with vengeful fury. The “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy on us), sung first by tenor soloist Brian Cheney and followed by bass Carl DuPont, soprano Christina Pier, and mezzo Victoria Livengood sounded less like a supplication than a demand.

When the full chorus broke in with their first “Dies irae” (Day of wrath), the performance actually increased in its defiance. Prior to the ensuing “Tuba mirum” chorale, an extended solo from Arlene Shrut firmly established that the piano wasn’t to be limited to passive comping. The hushed pianissimos after DuPont softly uttered his last “Mors stupebit” (Death shall stand amazed) had a solemn eeriness that was unprecedented in the performances and DVD that I’d previously witnessed. Livengood, more reliably dramatic than on-pitch, was regally up to her supreme moment of defiance in “Liber scriptus” (Written book), where she proclaimed – with prophetic volume and fury – that on the Day of Judgment, “what is hidden shall be made manifest, nothing shall be unavenged.”

Spitting defiance in the face of the Nazis and obliquely sending an SOS to the Red Cross were the most important aspects of Schächter’s payload, but the intervening narrative gave us more nuance. There were Jews at Terezín who objected to the embrace of a Catholic Mass – and to the danger that the conductor was subjecting his choristers to should their defiant message be fully grasped by the Nazis. These nuances came from the lips of the survivors on film, who clearly viewed Schächter as an inspiration, a godsend, and even a lifesaver.

idlin’s concert drama also drove home the point that, for the Terezín singers, the “Libera me” (Deliver me) was no longer a plea to be spared from fires of hell sometime in the indeterminate future but a plea to be delivered now from their monstrous captors. Another set of testimonies told us of the uplift that the choristers felt singing the “Sanctus” (Holy, holy, holy) section of the Requiem. Somehow it escaped Sidlin that the first two lines of this section are translated from one of the most sacred Hebrew prayers, when pious Jews not only rise to recite the words but also rise on tiptoe for each of the three “Holies.”

There was plenty of engaging lagniappe to make up for this omission, including a memorable evocation of the artistic beehive of musical activity happening nightly at Theresienstadt, intertwining wisps of Schubert’s “Trout” with “Bei Mir bist du Schoen” and the bittersweet Russian Yiddish folksong, “Tumbalalaika.” But the most sobering addition that Sidlin made to his drama came in the coda that he added on after the Requiem. Instead of the customary applause, we were prompted to remain silent as the musicians filed down the aisles through hall and out into the lobby.

Violinist Oliver Kot was the only musician who remained onstage, and the exit music that he played was the melody to another prayer, the “Oseh Shalom.” It’s not only the most frequently uttered sentence in synagogue, it’s also the ending to two of our most important prayers, the “Amidah” and the various permutations of the “Kaddish” – half, full, teachers’ and mourner’s. “The maker of peace in his high places, he will make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say, ‘Amen.’” Iconic last words, for it is customary to say them in Hebrew while taking three steps backwards, as if taking leave of a king.

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The new ending (a clarinetist had played it in previous orchestral performances) doubly evoked Fiddler on the Roof for me. All productions of Fiddler begin with the sound of a single violinist and many end that way. When I played Motel the Tailor in a 1987 production by Rock Hill Little Theatre at Winthrop University, it was my honor, under the cover of all the helter-skelter of Jews leaving Anatevka by decree of the Russian Czar, to light a single candle. That candle remained lit – on Tevye the Dairyman’s wagon – after the entire cast had left the stage, our tribute to the Six Million. Sidler’s staging could be taken the same way or as a direct tribute to Schächter and the Theresienstadt choristers who didn’t survive the Holocaust. We learned that Schächter had been deported to Auschwitz in October 1944, four months after the Red Cross Requiem. He survived his time there, but in the spring of 1945, he died in a death march, a month before Czechoslovakia was liberated. With that last “Oseh Shalom” tacked on, Sidler succeeded in creating the illusion that we had just witnessed something tantalizingly close to the promising conductor’s final performance.

Of course, we had the luxury of listening to better singers who had musical scores and could read them. I was most impressed overall by Cheney, who excelled in the “Ingemisco” (I groan) tenor aria. Pier sang very sweetly but was occasionally underpowered compared to some of the divas who have taken on the soprano role, so her best moment wasn’t in the powerful entrance to the “Libera me” but later on after the final “Dies irae” thunder from the chorus. Cheney’s “Requiem aeterna dona eis” (Grant them eternal rest) was nothing less than sublime, floating ethereally over the hushed chorus, a timeless little capsule that reminded me how live performance can triumphantly transcend any recording.