Category Archives: Classical

Lou Harrison and the Fab Four Spark 24 Rapidfire Miniatures at Charlotte New Music Festival

Review:  Charlotte New Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

Partnering with UNC Charlotte and picking up prestigious sponsors such as the Knight Foundation and the NEA, the Charlotte New Music Festival continues to draw topnotch composers and musicians for an intriguing variety of workshops, concerts, and competitions. The sixth annual CNMF ran from June 19 through July 1, and I caught the last concert on the final day, which also turned out to be a competition of sorts. Hosted by festival founder and executive artistic director Elizabeth Kowalski, “Contest in the Concert of the Miniatures” presented 24 new pieces written within the space of a week. All of the pieces were performed by members of Pittsburgh’s Beo String Quartet in a wide variety of instrumental configurations, from solo to full quartet, with only two days for the players to learn the music. And just because there were no laptops, Wiimotes, Xboxes, tape loops, or pre-recorded sound, the feel of this concert was anything but retro. The event was staged behind the taproom at the Lenny Boy Brewing Co. in a warehouse ambiance further compromised by mechanical outbursts of brewing activity and spasms of a rainstorm pelting the roof.

Amid this din, I was unable to catch all of Kowalski’s introductory remarks. The audience was configured around the quartet in a roughly circular or octagonal formation two rows deep, providing seating for approximately 60 people. Wooden picnic tables supplied the octagonal component of the seating. What I did make out of Kowalski’s remarks – and from Drew Dolan, program director of the composers workshop, who spoke after the intermission – was that the audience would be voting for the winner of the Contest on their smartphones, with the announcement of the winner following shortly after the concert concluded. Whether this was exactly what happened is open to doubt, since I overheard the winning composer protesting his own victory – on the grounds that he had voted for himself 10 times. Nor could I say how diligently the 24 composers followed the suggestion that their music celebrate the centenary of Lou Harrison or the 50-year anniversary of The Beatles’ landmark album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Opening the concert, Nathan Scalise’s “A Day in Lou Harrison’s Life” addressed both prompts – or at least the title did. A duo for violin and cello, the piece leaned toward Appalachia with its pizzicatos after opening with some weird and evocative cello glisses, clearly an early contender. Other pieces that seemed to address the prompts even obliquely included Ian Wiese’s “Hard Day,” Stephen Wiegel’s “Genesis, Gamelan, and Birth,” and – a solo for viola, and another contender – Zach Davis’s “On a Melody of Lou Harrison.” Writing a quiet piece became a risky strategy at Lenny Boy if you wanted to win. Swallowed up by brewing noises, I couldn’t fully hear or judge the latter stages of Yasha Hoffman’s “Exploration” for solo violin after a variety of bowing effects, but fortune smiled a few pieces later on when Lewis Ingham’s “A Sharper Breath” for two violins and viola premiered. Violinist Jason Neukom called us all together to stand around the trio as they played, helping us. I can’t recall any previous concert where I was close enough to a violinist to see the hairs on his bow arm.

After that unique powwow, notable for the pianissimo harmonics from the other violinist, Sandro Leal Santiesteban, I found Colin Payne’s “Sullivan in Song” for viola and cello to be equally enjoyable, purposeful in its counterpoint. Yet the piece afterwards, “Cogs” by Victor Zheng, won my smartphone vote. Written for violin, viola, and cello, the piece began with a minimalist backbeat from the cello and pizzicatos from the higher strings, coalescing into a wisp of melody, with a propulsive syncopation that reminded me of Bartók quartets. Slowing things down, Chelsea Williamson’s “Portrait of a Concerto” for violin and viola was a shrewd programming placement, a little like the Barber Adagio in its melancholy. No other composition impressed me quite as much before intermission, though cellist Ryan Ash was notably effective playing eerie harmonics, some below his instrument’s bridge, in Chase Jordan’s dark and brooding “Atlantic Opalescence I.”

That and a few other pieces fell short of winning my heartiest approval due to their brevity. To cite one example, Logan Rutledge’s “Problem Child” for violin, viola, and cello sported interesting pizzicatos but ultimately too little development. A fuller architecture could be discerned in Daniel Fawcett’s “ECHOING RISE” for two violins and viola, not unlike Vaughan Williams’ A Lark Ascending but with a more insect-like busyness. Written for the same instrumentation, Tyler Waters’ “The Center of the Circle” spotlighted violist Sean Neukom amid a mist of violin harmonics. Sean figured prominently in the next two compositions that I fancied, converging effectively with Ash in “a glimpse of something passed” after composer Tim Clay launched them on separate paths. Immediately afterwards, the violist brought a nice improvisatory energy to the Davis piece. Not to be outdone, Christopher Miller’s “Experiment 625” for violin and cello had all the kinetic energy of a mad scientist’s lab, harmonious pizzicatos bending toward melody, with the violin briefly taking on a banjo’s timbre.

Concluding the program, Maya Johnson’s “Turn Off Your Mind” was one of just two new pieces written for a full string quartet, with bluegrass flavorings from the violins and the first percussive burst from Ash’s cello all evening long. Together with Williamson’s dirge-like piece and Julie Mitchell’s “Phantasm” for violin and cello – very mainstream until its outbreak of violin pizzicatos – there was evidence that the women composers on the program more readily embraced traditional forms and sounds. But with new European and Asian composers returning toward tonality, it may be argued that these feminine composers are really more au courante, while the lingering iconoclasm, electronica, and academic nerdiness that still prevail across the USA are exactly what is isolating America from the new millennium of classical music.

Don’t get me wrong. There was a discernable difference overall between the four compositions by women and the more outré works I heard from the men, but not a radical one. More memorable, as the members of the Beo Quartet acknowledged the composers strewn among the audience, was sense of community. Seated in a circle as we were, it was impossible to ignore the expressions of joy on the faces of the composers as they listened to their new works being played for the first time. Those joyous expressions remained even when the compositions weren’t their own – even when those sounds were mostly swallowed by a sea of brewing suds and the clatter of falling rain.

 

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Warren-Green’s Reading of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Stamps It as an Instant Favorite

Review:  Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’ve had quite a week in and around Charlotte for jubilant choral symphonies, first with A Sea Symphony up in Davidson and now with Mahler’s stirring “Resurrection” capping Charlotte Symphony’s 85th season. Turnout at Belk Theater for the grand work was robust, especially when the many latecomers were seated after the opening Allegro maestoso. Of course, the stage was heavily populated as well, the presence of the Charlotte Symphony Chorus pushing the musicians downstage and a sizeable contingent of freelance musicians further cramping their space – extra percussion, extra woodwinds, extra brass, second harp, second timpani, and lurking somewhere offstage, four more French horns. Mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani made her entrance halfway into the third movement for the fourth movement “Urlicht (Primal Light)” alto solo, and soprano Kathleen Kim entered during the final Scherzo to join in singing Mahler’s setting of Friedrich Klopstock’s “Auferstehungslied (Resurrection Song).”

Beyond the executive decisions to beef up the orchestra and enable the horn players to follow his baton (presumably with a video installation), music director Christopher Warren-Green was artistically faultless in managing the pacing, the dynamics, and the overarching structure of Mahler’s music. There was plenty of muscle from the double basses in the opening bars, burrowing their way toward the dazzling entrance of the brass, who were as powerful and incisive as I’ve ever heard them. The winds worked well with the brass once the basses faded, and there was lovely work from the oboes, the upper strings, and – with the only imperfections of the night – the onstage horns. Percussion during the climactic explosion was thrilling, yet the strings retained a soft, kinetic excitement in the sudden hush afterwards.

Maybe the only questionable call Warren-Green made all evening was heeding Mahler’s call for a five-minute pause between the first two movements. The break was a welcome spot after more than 20 minutes of music to finally seat those patient latecomers (watching a performance on the big screens in the lobbies is far from ideal). But the audience treated the interval like an intermission, applauding what they had already heard and, in some instances, rushing for the exits for assorted urgencies. Mahler and Warren-Green undoubtedly thought the pause was a time for reflection, a grace period to accommodate the changing mood of the second Andante moderato movement, rather than an applause cue. If Warren-Green is rethinking the pause idea after its first trial, he certainly didn’t need to question whether his orchestra communicated the contrast that followed. The opening episode was suave and urbane, radically different from the thunderous and heart-rending Allegro that had preceded, until we reached a percolating section that could remind listeners of the vivace second movement of Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony No. 9 – not andante at all. Principal flutist Victor Wang sounded ebullient over pizzicato strings, and principal harpist Andrea Mumm provided a nice sheen over another delicate ending.

The whirling motion of the third movement could lull listeners into thinking that Mahler was revisiting the waltzing “Un Bal” movement of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, but there are sudden outbreaks of brass that give this “In calm, flowing motion” movement more jagged edges. Charlotte Symphony’s brasses were undeniably forceful but never overdone, and the brassy blends in the tranquil section of this movement were outstanding. Distant horns camping out backstage until their moment were as fine as the visible players, coming into view after the last big explosion of the movement – and a pair of beautifully articulated solo spots from principal trombonist John Bartlett and principal trumpeter Richard Harris.

I could assemble a fairly lengthy list of so-so mezzos who have sung with the Charlotte Symphony over the past 25 years, but I wouldn’t include the Israeli-born Lahyani on that list. From her first sweet exclamations, “O red rose!” and “Man lies in greatest need,” there was no doubting the purity and control of this voice, perfectly pointed in a hopeful, yearning direction. Beautiful fills by principal oboist Hollis Ulaky, concertmaster Calin Lupanu, and – in the faceoff between the singer and a heavenly angel – principal flutist Wang added to the delight.

Before we reach the dazzling resurrection light of the final Scherzo, there is a tumultuous instrumental drama that is longer than the previous two movements combined. A long crescendo of portentous percussion flowed naturally into the first volley of brass. Amid the general turmoil that followed, the French horn quartet departed once more with a percussionist. Sadly, these offstage voices would be more audible than a tubular bell that was misstruck by an errant mallet about three feet above all the other instruments. But the other onstage percussion during the hushed middle of the movement, a soft bass drum tattoo under the hidden horns, was absolutely spellbinding, and the piccolo filigree from Erinn Frechette was beguiling.

Entrances by the Symphony Chorus and soprano Kim were nothing short of magical, swelling up out of thin air with their wakening affirmation: “Rise again, yes, you will rise again, My dust after a short rest!” For the last sublime six minutes or so, the voices and instruments grew in strength, conviction, and triumph until all were jubilant together, cresting with a burst of brass, cymbals, a gong, and – no misfiring this time – repeated poundings of the tubular bell. It isn’t easy to shoulder aside the various Beethoven masterworks that comprise the core of Charlotte subscribers’ favorite symphonies, but with this milestone performance from Warren-Green and his musicians, Mahler’s “Resurrection” has clearly broken through to claim its place alongside the Beethoven hegemony. The spontaneity and fervor of the standing, cheering ovation that showered down on the singers, the musicians, and the directors – including Chorus director Kenney Potter – stamped this concert as one that will be talked about and remembered for a long time.

Davidson Armada Captures the Grandeur and the American Voice of Vaughn Williams’ Sea Symphony

Review: A Sea Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

Unlike the beauteous and quiescent beginning of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” that we hear more often in live performance, A Sea Symphony is rousing, massive, commanding, and majestic soon after its opening measures, with the pomp and arrogance of empire pulsing through its exclamatory choral armada. The audience at the Duke Family Performance Hall may have been startled by the onslaught of this opening movement, but with three Davidson College choruses, two vocal soloists, and the Davidson College Pro Arte Orchestra arrayed before them, they couldn’t have been completely surprised. A glance at the first line, “Behold, the sea itself,” of the Walt Whitman text tipped us off to the imperative tone that was coming, and the three teeming pages of text that followed in the program booklet were a clear indication that it would not be long delayed.

The juxtaposition of America’s signature poet with this British composer’s first symphony becomes more natural when you realize that the lives of Whitman (1819-92) and Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) overlapped a full 20 years and that the composer began the piece just eleven years after the Good Gray Poet’s death. Two of the five poems that form the text were actually published during the composer’s lifetime and two others were first unveiled just a year before he was born. The exuberance of a composer reaching his prime blends powerfully with the confidence of a poet who had already become his nation’s voice. Similarly, the commercial aspects of Whitman’s “Song of the Exposition,” written and read at the invitation of the American Institute at the opening of 40th Annual Exhibition in New York (1871), blend perfectly with the sea-spectacle of ocean vessels that Vaughan Williams paints with his chorale.

While this concert was staged at the Knobloch Campus Center at Davidson College, it quickly became apparent that I might construe the “Pro” component of Davidson Pro Arte in a couple of ways. Most of the musicians, 68 percent of the 40-piece ensemble, were indeed professionals, recognizable as members of the Charlotte Symphony, including four of its principals. Nor did I need to worry about the maturity of the solo vocalists. Bass-baritone Dan Boye and soprano Jacquelyn Culpepper have sung with the Charlotte and North Carolina Symphonies as well as appearing in numerous Opera Carolina productions. With all that local professionalism on hand, it might be useful to step back and appreciate how special this event was. Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony isn’t merely outside the core repertoire that most American orchestras perform; the only American recording I can find of this grand work came from the Atlanta Symphony on the Telarc label in 2006.

No, American singers do not often take on this quintessentially American text, and everybody on hand seemed buoyed by the occasion, including Pro Arte director Christopher Gilliam. And why not? The brass section, the three choruses, and timpanist Justin Bunting were all called into action before the strings. Once this éclat is exuberantly played out, the piece becomes more interesting as the text shifts from its brief “Exposition” excerpt to a judiciously trimmed version of “Song for All Seas, All Ships.” In a piece headed toward the mystic universality of Whitman’s visionary “Passage to India,” these invocations of all nations’ flags, all captains, all sailors on all seas serve as a bustling, worldly foreshadowing. To give us this bustling sensation, Vaughan Williams stirred in all his forces.

Boye took up most of the opening stanza alone, beginning with “Today a rude recitative,” but after the baritone invoked the sea’s “dashing spray,” the choruses – with another thump of timpani – whooshed in with the sudden onset of “the winds piping and blowing.” We stayed on a fairly even keel when the focus shifted from the elements to the captains and sailors. It was only when Culpepper launched the final stanza, “Flaunt out O sea your separate flags,” with a flourish of the brass behind her, that the full grandeur and variety of the opening Moderato maestoso movement was reached, fueled by the soprano’s most forceful and memorable work. Like Boye, she interacted with the chorus, but before fading into sublimity, Culpepper gave way to mighty entrances from Boye and the chorus in the penultimate line, “A pennant universal,” as her entrance – and her high notes – sealed the kinship between this first movement of Vaughan Williams’ symphonic output and Beethoven’s last.

To contrast with this sunny, majestic opening, Vaughan Williams chose “On the Beach at Night, Alone” for his Largo sostenuto. Boye was sterner than necessary, sterner than the gentle women’s voices behind him, in the meditative opening lines before the music and the text rose up to the cosmic “All souls, all living bodies.” Like the opening “Song for all Seas,” the second movement circled back to its opening line, but here the cellos and Erica Cice’s oboe increased the darkling solemnity. For his other middle movement, a Scherzo, the composer chose even more brilliantly, since “After the Sea-Ship” gave him a chance for a stylistic excursion into overtly programmatic music, most of it feasted upon by the choruses, though it was Bunting’s timpani that cued up the oceanic turbulence. The singing grew almost anthemic in the penultimate line that began with “A motley procession,” and the four-time repetition of the final word, “following,” sounded like a volley of amens in sacred music, except that the crashing of cymbals by Tara Villa Keith convinced me that it was a joyous plunge, over and over, into the waves.

A triumphal ending like this in a section Vaughan Williams titled “The Waves” might have seemed excessive if his outer movements hadn’t ended in sublimity. The beginning of the final “Explorers” movement, with text culled from three of the nine sections of “Passage to India,” offered a different kind of contrast. Orchestra and chorus grew so soft, delicate, and slow that we seemed to be floating in a mist, perfectly complementing the first line of Whitman’s section 5, “O vast Rondure, swimming in space.” The chorus built to an affirmation nearly as mighty as the waves’ when we reached the description of a poet, “The true son of God,” who shall come after scientists and engineers have done their work. But this concluding movement was not yet half done. Vaughan Williams re-launched his finale from total silence, setting the last two sections of Whitman’s “Passage” and bringing the solo voices back into his grand scheme.

After the largely devotional section 8, we set sail jubilantly as Culpepper, Boye, and the chorus took turns proclaiming “Away O soul!” Timpani and cymbals piled on shortly afterwards in the “Sail forth” stanza of section 9, punctuating a piercing high note from Culpepper. Softer at the end and fading away, Culpepper and Boye were at their sweetest, truly sailing away into the horizon – and because it was to India, eastward into a gleaming sunrise. Only the strings remained with the basses in the wake of the departed voices, reminding me of the primal quality that underpins creation in the opening bars of Wagner’s Ring cycle. It’s so soft and low that neither of the recordings I have – or a couple more I referenced on Spotify – comes close to replicating the special benediction the contrabasses bestowed on the ending. That’s another reason why this live Sea Symphony was so rare and treasurable.

Carolina Pro Musica: Serving Early Music, Family Style

Review:  Carolina Pro Musica

By Perry Tannenbaum

Come to a rehearsal of Carolina Pro Musica and you visit the cozy home of the group’s founder, Karen Hite Jacob, in Charlotte’s bosky Elizabeth neighborhood. Past the porch and the parlor, you enter the hub of the home, a dining room that opens up to the rest of the house, bedrooms and study to your left and kitchen straight ahead. The voice of soprano Rebecca Miller Saunders, polishing the last strains of “Solo per voi tra mille” from Handel’s Pastorella vagha bella, carries easily to the front porch, signaling to me that rehearsal has already begun.

 

Sidling past Edward Ferrell, already poised behind his music stand to play his flauto traverso in a Bach aria, you find Jacob sitting behind her harpsichord at the opposite corner. Next to the leader sits Holly Wright Maurer, her viola da gamba nestled between her knees. You can’t say she’s in the rhythm corner with Jacob because, in this intimate space, she partially obstructs the way to the kitchen.

Carolina Pro Musica has been playing Early Music since 1977, when Jacob, after founding the Charlotte Chamber Music Workshop and its baroque ensemble, the Carolina Consort, broke away and – because lawyers confirmed that she couldn’t take the Consort name with her – drew up papers with a new name to seal the separation. Ferrell, a student at Central Piedmont Community College when Jacob taught there, joined the ensemble at the end of the 1978-79 season after earning his degree at the New England Conservatory.

Saunders and Maurer didn’t arrive until Carolina Pro Musica had undergone a few other permutations of personnel, always with the same basic instrumental-vocal makeup – with guest artists tossed into the mix. In fact, when Saunders first sang with the group in 1992, it was as a guest artist at a pair of Christmas concerts, shortly after her graduate studies at Indiana University’s Institute for Early Music. Wedding bells and a one-year sojourn in New York intervened before Saunders and her husband returned to Charlotte.

“I reunited with the group after running into Eddie at a local soccer game,” she recalls. “At that point, Holly entered the scene, and we became the foursome that you see today.”

Once again, Ferrell was a factor in Maurer’s joining. Shortly after arriving in 1994 with her husband and three sons, Maurer went to a Carolina Pro Musica concert and recognized a name. While Maurer was completing her graduate work in Early Music performance at the New England Conservatory, Ferrell had been an undergrad there. The timing was as serendipitous as their meeting, because Pro Musica was losing their viol player.

During a post-concert chat, Maurer arranged an audition with Jacob. The completed group has played contentedly together for over 22 years. When needed, Maurer adds an extra dimension to the instrumentation, for she can play a second flute or recorder behind Ferrell on pieces that call for it.

“Despite the fact that I started as a flute player,” she says, “I am most content playing viola da gamba. From the moment I first heard it, I was attracted to the mellow sound.” Teaming up with Jacob as the group’s “left hand” continuo may bring Maurer inner joy, but outwardly she’s a study in concentration and precision, tuning her gamba with an electronic device between pieces.

Crossed-up on the meeting arrangements, guest artist Carl DuPont arrives at rehearsal just in time for his vocal duet, the famed “Mein Freund Ist Mein” from Bach’s “Wachet Auf!” cantata. When the bass baritone sings as Jesus opposite Saunders’ Soul later in the week at the Sharon Presbyterian Chapel, he will need to hold back to keep from overpowering the hall. So he really needed to hold back in this quaint rehearsal space.

Slated to make his Opera Carolina debut in La Fanciulla del West next month, DuPont unquestionably has operatic power, but he’s hardly new to Early Music, having been invited to participate in the XXth International Bach Competition last year in Leipzig, Germany. Tasked with preparing two hours of compulsory repertoire for the competition, DuPont reached out to Carolina Pro Musica so he could feel more comfortable with the music.

One week before his flight to Leipzig, DuPont and Pro Musica previewed his competitive performances in a free concert at Belmont Abbey College, where Jacob’s bulging portfolio of instructional and performance duties includes directing the Arts at the Abbey concert series. It’s a collegial doorway that swings both ways, since DuPont has been an assistant professor of voice at UNC Charlotte since 2014.

Two or three run-throughs of the “Mein Freund” are performed to get tempo right for Saunders, allow DuPont to adjust his projection, and give Ferrell, playing the oboe part on flute, the chance to wrestle with Bach’s zigzags from major to minor. With the concert just days away, interchange between the artists is relaxed and quiet, not a sliver of anxiety or nerves in the air.

Without anything being said, the ensemble adjourns to the kitchen after a rehearsal that has ended less than 50 minutes past the time I was told it would start. [Pausing for a moment as I pick up my coat, I notice another keyboard that had eluded me while watching and photographing the rehearsal. Obligingly, Jacob opens two tall cabinet doors and, voilà, a tracker chamber pipe organ!

Customized to the specifications of Bach scholar Peter Williams, Neil Richerby built the organ for him in Scotland before he came to North Carolina and Duke University in 1985. When he returned to the UK, Williams prevailed upon Jacob to buy the organ rather than selling it to someone he didn’t know. What looks like an heirloom turns out to be younger than Carolina Pro Musica.]

In the kitchen, it turns out that the musicians aren’t munching or snacking as anticipated. Three stacks of newly printed paper need folding so that they can become the 12 pages of program booklet copy for Pro Musica’s upcoming concert, “Harmony of the Spheres or The Vault of Heaven.” Every sheet is in full color, handsomely designed with two-sided printing. Marketing is as professional here as the musicianship.

An outer cover of finer glossy paper completes the booklet, providing consistency for the ensemble’s 39th season. When each set of papers is properly folded and aligned, the cover is draped over the new program, becoming a booklet with a single staple punched into the middle of its spine.

So I leave the Jacobs home, [whose address isn’t visible from the nearby street where I’m parked,] thinking that Carolina Pro Musica is something of a cottage industry. The other outsider, DuPont, feels similarly as it turns out. What he finds unique is the family feel of the group’s synchronicity and rehearsal dynamic, reminding him of the gospel trio he, his mother, and his sister formed when he was younger.

DuPont may be on to something. In our follow-up interview, Ferrell informs me that his relationship with Jacob actually dates back to 1973, when she heard him play a Handel sonata for a music history class. Overhearing the performance, Jacob asked him to play at her upcoming wedding.

“So my first public performance on the recorder was in her wedding [that year].”

Notwithstanding their homespun warmth and industry, Carolina Pro Musica isn’t at all provincial – or tethered in their programming to Bach and Handel. In the “Harmony of the Spheres” concert dominated by Bach, Handel, and Telemann, there was room for a gamba sonata Johannes Schenck (1660-1712), a name absent from most music cyclopedias, while the upcoming “Paris au Printemps” in April roams through works by Clerambault, Morel, Jacquet de La Guerre, and LeClair.

When Ferrell was getting his master’s in musicology at UNC Chapel Hill, he ran across a listing of cantatas for flute, soprano, and continuo by Johann Hasse (1699-1783) in the music library. That was enough to set Jacob off on an epic quest for manuscripts in libraries across Europe – in Germany, the UK, and Sweden – so Carolina Pro Musica could publish performing editions of the works.

“The hang-up was a copy from the Benedictine monastery at Montecassino,” Jacob remembers. “No letter on my behalf from Belmont Abbey got acknowledged back around 2003 or 2004. I decided to try again in 2014 and got an email response to a letter translated to Italian for me by a monk here at the Abbey.”

Jacob was able to photograph the manuscript – “probably the autograph” – at the monastery, enabling Carolina Pro Musica to publish its own edition of Hasse’s “Pallido il volto.” A journey to the Montserrat Monastery in Spain, and jousts by various members of the group with Catalan texts and chant notation, led up to the Pro Musica’s edition of the Llibre Vermeil – years before the manuscript was available online.

Themes and songs for concerts have also come from places as far-flung as Arequipa, Charlotte’s sister city in Peru, and St. Petersburg, where Jacob visited Catherine the Great’s theater and the music museum at Sheremetev Palace, which boasts a diverse collection of instruments that includes keyboards once owned by famous Russian composers. Less frequently, the entire ensemble travels together. The flew to Wroclaw, Charlotte’s sister city in Poland, for a 1994 visit that included performances and teaching Early Music history.

Mostly fondly remembered among the group’s travels was the London trip in 2005, when Pro Musica performed at Hatchlands Park and at Handel’s House before it became a museum. “The house has historic instruments belonging to various composers, too,” says Jacob of the Hatchlands concert, “so we got a treat after the great lunch they fixed for us.”

[Closer to home, Pro Musica spent part of the summer on the road in 2005. First they gave a fringe concert – of both old and new music – during the Boston Early Music Festival, before participating in the Moravian Music Festival in Winston-Salem, performing works by Moravian composers with some Bach tossed in. Jacob still has memories of the old-style flat pedalboard she found on the Tannenburg organ in Old Salem.]

Looking ahead, musicians eager to explore a variety of Pro Musica possibilities. Widening their horizons with new guest artists is one likely direction. Larger productions – such as their “Bach Church Service” in 2000, celebrations of the ensemble’s 25th and 35th anniversaries, or the more recent collaboration with the UNC Charlotte Chorale – are another option. A lingering trove of manuscript photocopies, yet to be turned into performing editions and public performances, also beckons.

Ferrell is enthused about the near future as well: “I am really excited about our plans to do a performance next season of Bach’s complete cantata BWV 152, ‘Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn.’ It uses only two singers, a soprano and a bass, along with recorder, oboe, viola d’amore and viola da gamba.” He already has a candidate in mind for the viola d’amore part.

On the same night that Carolina Pro Musica performs their “Paris au Printemps” at St Martin’s Episcopal Church, DuPont will be returning to Sharon Presbyterian Chapel. There he will sing the role of Pontius Pilate for a staged production of Bach’s St. John Passion, presented by the Firebird Arts Alliance under the direction of David Tang.

It’s significant that Tang is the founding father of the Firebird, for he is also music director at Sharon Presbyterian. With firm roots at Belmont Abbey, UNC Charlotte, Central Piedmont Community College, and Sharon Presbyterian, there are good reasons for the Carolina Pro Musica family to be optimistic about the continued vitality of Early Music in and around Charlotte.

Hope Prevails With Quatuor Ébène at Savannah

Ébène and Daniel Hope at Savanah Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

Celebrated for their recordings of Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel, the Quatuor Ébène have shown themselves to be equally comfortable in repertoire by Haydn, Mozart, Bartók, the Mendelssohn siblings, Jobim, Piazzola, Sting, and Erroll Garner. The string quartet is currently touring the US with new infusions of Beethoven, culminating with an all-Beethoven program at Carnegie Hall on March 31 and a Beethoven-Debussy mix at the Kimmel Center six nights later.

Yet Savannah Music Festival artistic director Rob Gibson and violin colossus Daniel Hope, the festival’s associate artistic director for classical programming, could legitimately claim a coup for the Ébène’s return to Savannah, where they had played an all-French program in 2011. Wowed by their performance of the Ravel, Hope had prevailed upon the quartet to join him and pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips in Ernest Chausson’s Concert in D Major for Violin, Piano and String Quartet.

Prior to intermission, the program foreshadowed what New Yorkers will hear on Friday at Carnegie: the String Quartet in B-flat, Opus 18, No. 6, followed by the String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Opus 95, “Serioso.” Based on the performances we heard down in Savannah, New York concertgoers need only fear that what follows after intermission might be anticlimactic.

Having listened to the great recorded Beethoven traversals of the past by the Takács, Tokyo, Guarneri, Juilliard, Italiano, Alban Berg, and Budapest quartets, I still found the live performances by the Quatuor Ébène at Trinity United Methodist Church astonishing. Part of the wonder, no doubt, was the church’s acoustics, even friendlier to strings than to either vocal or keyboard performances – though I’ve never heard its gilded organ pipes in action.

More decisive were the ensemble’s creamy approach to the harmonized sections of the score, the conversational interplay of the musicians, and the sheer excellence of first violinist Pierre Colombet. Of the recent surveys I’ve listened to, only the Belcea Quartet comes close in their recording of the B-flat Quartet No. 6 to matching the relish that Ébène took in the harmonious ritardandos of the opening Allegro con brio movement, which usually sound like lulls between the fireworks. That same attention to detail was also evident within those fireworks as the quartet zestfully leapt upon the opening exposition, varying tempos and dynamics with restless precision.

What surprised me most, from musicians making their first forays into Beethoven’s quartets, was the liveliness of their interplay. Adrien Boisseau sounded buoyant when he peeped in on viola, and the dialogue between Colombet and cellist Raphaël Merlin was even richer, the first responses by the cello playful and the last answer delivered with abrupt, prankish ferocity. Colombet’s artistry was more exquisite in the ensuing Adagio, as he floated lyrically above the soft accompanying trio before gracefully landing with a couple of delicate pizzicato chords.

In the bubbly Scherzo, Colombet and second violinist Gabriel La Magadure drove the music, darting around unpredictably while the lower strings were restrained. Any worries that the Ébènes might not be up to the demands of heavier Beethoven were largely dispelled in the “Malinconia” section of the final movement. Slow, and darkly harmonized, Merlin’s cello was especially morose as the instrumental lines diverged, until Colombet ignited a quicker, folksier tempo.

While no one questions the position of Quartet No. 6 as the last of Beethoven’s early Opus 18 period, offering tantalizing hints of the more turbulent middle period ahead, the No. 11 “Serioso” seems to lie slightly on the cusp. Nearly all quartets group the F Minor Opus 95 with their Rasumovsky and “Harp” recordings from the middle period, but a few let it lead off their compilations of the Late Quartets.

With the onset of the opening Allegro con brio, the Quatuor Ébène emphatically let us know, in a stunning wave of collective turbulence, that their most intense ferocity and flame throwing still lay ahead. Not immediately, of course, for middle Beethoven is ever mercurial, and we’re never sure if he’s wickedly mischievous with his surprises or divinely deranged. The opening storm soon gives way to reflective unrest, enabling a second onrushing wave to be more ferocious – cycling back and forth to a quiescent close.

Quiet returned throughout mournful Allegretto, beginning with Merlin’s lachrymose intro on cello, transitioning to a fugal section launched by Boisseau’s viola, and growing exquisitely slow and eerie with Colombet softly ascending the treble. Now came the time for peak ferocity, a final fury somehow kept in reserve, as we moved without pausing into the signature Allegro assai vivace ma serioso movement.

Diabolically, the pause missing at the start of this movement gets transferred to the middle – more than once after comparative lulls. Even when I knew another sforzando was coming after the second pause, it came with a jolt. Lacking the same fury as the Serioso movement, the concluding Larghett0-Allegretto might have been sorely anticlimactic if it weren’t so melodious and joyful, the contagious tune handed to each of the musicians as part of the jocund farewell.

It isn’t the last we’ll be hearing of Beethoven’s music at the Savannah Music Festival this year. The special Ébène event came between two “Beethoven and Beyond” concerts fronted by violinists Hope and Benny Kim with pianists Crawford-Phillips and Sebastian Knauer, backed by a quartet festival regulars. Each of those concerts had a Beethoven piece paired with works by his musical contemporaries or descendants – before and after intermission. My deadline for this review strikes in the middle of another mammoth Beethoven event, Stewart Goodyear’s three-concert “Sonatathon,” presenting all 32 piano sonatas in a single morning, afternoon, and evening.

A kind of closure with Beethoven will happen this Saturday when the Dover Quartet follows the latest of Mozart’s “Prussian” quartets with two late Beethovens, No. 13 in B-flat and the Grosse Fuge. Cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han add a charming coda next week when they perform the 12 Variations on Handel’s “See the Conqu’ring Hero” in the middle of a program that includes pieces by Bach, Shostakovich, and Rachmaninov.

Amid a 17-day festival that also embraces jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, pop, and world music, the aforementioned are barely half of the classical offerings. Tops among other headliners include pianists Jan Lisiecki and Knauer, violist Lawrence Power, and the Atlanta Symphony under the direction of Robert Spano, presenting an all-Rachmaninov program with Stephen Hough playing the Piano Concerto No. 1.

All of these will struggle to eclipse the éclat of Hope, Crawford-Phillips, and the Quatuor Ébène in Chausson’s Concert in D. After three harsh opening chords from Crawford-Phillips, the quartet’s entry was happily ominous, still restless when the piano part suddenly became rhapsodic. Hope soared above this conflict, and while the quartet – individually and collectively – continued to make telling contributions, it was Hope and Crawford-Phillips, playing off each other, who built to a climax of resounding joy, ecstatic joy, yearning joy, fulfilled joy, and purely sweet joy. That was merely the epic Décidé, Animé movement, with three more to come.

In the splendor that followed, the Quatuor Ébène ran the gamut from orchestral might to mute passivity. These extremes were crystalized in the final Très animé. After some galvanic fireworks from the keyboard, the sliding ensemble work with looping crescendos and decrescendos made me think that Chausson could have easily added a extra o to his title, for here his Concert seemed to have the fullness of a piano concerto. Moments later, the quartet wasn’t playing at all during an extended episode that was a fiery Hope/Crawford-Phillips violin sonata. None of the Quatuor members bothered to hide their frank awe of the violinist standing before them.

Joining in after this violin sonata eruption, the quartet played with a richness that made me wish to hear them taking on Dvořák’s quartets. Then a pizzicato shower as Hope and Crawford-Phillips crested to peak intensity again. No, there was one more detonation from the keyboard – and yet another before the final satisfying chords.

Thrilling was almost an adequate description of the first Chausson Concert that I heard at Spoleto Festival in 2002 and two others that followed, most notably with Chee-Yun and Anne-Marie McDermott in 2009. With Quatuor Ébène behind them, Hope and Crawford-Phillips set the bar even higher.

Last night at “Beethoven and Beyond, Part II,” Hope and Crawford-Phillips came perilously close to topping themselves – with Keith Robinson playing cello – in Shostakovich’s harrowing Piano Concerto No. 2. Prior to the concert, Gibson revealed that the festival’s 2018 slate had been set. He divulged only two tantalizing bookings: Pinchas Zukerman is on the guest list, and (after taking over the reins of leadership from Sir Roger Norrington) Daniel Hope is bringing the Zurich Chamber Orchestra to Savannah.

Everything I’ve heard at Savannah Music Festival this year has been encouraging, especially the music. That’s why I’m filing this review early and making sure I don’t miss a note of Goodyear’s “Sonatathon.”

Steinway Concert Injects Jazzy New Notes Into Aging NC Bach Fest

Review: NC Bach Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

Now concluding its 38th season, the North Carolina Bach Festival has a big name and a rich history. But when its new artistic director, Dr. Roman Placzek, asked his Charlotte audience at the Steinway Piano Gallery whether anyone had ever heard of the festival before, he confidently expected no hands to be raised. That’s because the festival, previously staged exclusively in Raleigh, hasn’t run long or traveled far until this year’s edition. Consisting of one featured artist concert and a small youth concert, the NC Bach was barely larger than the BachFest at St. Alban’s Church in Davidson or Charlotte Symphony’s Bachtoberfest, neither of which sport statewide pretensions.

Placzek fixed that in 2017, for there had been two guest artist concerts in Raleigh after the February 26 youth concert, with each of these subsequent concerts spotlighting another award-winning young instrumentalist chosen by the Festival. Featured artists were Placzek and guitarist José Manuel Lezcano on March 4 after pianist William Wolfram had been featured the previous evening. Placzek and his cello, along with NC Bach Festival youth program director Elena Nezhdanova, proceeded with the most notable trailblazing, spreading the good news of the Bach Festival to the Steinway Gallery in Greensboro on March 5 and to the Steinway Gallery in Charlotte the following Saturday. Above the duo’s names in the program booklet, pianist John Salmon appeared. That began to make very good sense when Dr. Salmon took over most of the hosting chores.

The ensemble offered the same all-Bach program at both Steinway Galleries – but most of the offerings were boldly rearranged by Salmon. You don’t expect jazz to predominate at a Bach festival, and perhaps not at a Steinway gallery. Many of the hour-long concerts in Steinway Piano Gallery Live series have, in fact, featured jazz artists, and the mingling of jazz improvisation with works by Bach dates back to the Swingle Singers’ landmark Bach’s Greatest Hits album that won two Grammy Awards in 1963. If you’re tempted to check the Swingles out on Spotify, the Jazz Classical Crossings channel will stream more of the same. As for Salmon, he’s been jazzing up Bach for a few years, too. On the faculty at the UNC Greensboro’s School of Music since 1989, Salmon has published Jazz Up the Sinfonias, Jazz Up the Inventions, as well as a more varied Add on Bach. At the Steinway concerts, Salmon targeted the Sinfonias seven times and the Inventions five.

Whetting our appetites and barely hinting at the mayhem to follow, Salmon began with the Partita in B-flat, BWV 825. Contrapuntal lines in the opening Praeludium came through with admirable clarity, and Salmon had no problem at all dramatically quickening the pace of the Allemande and keeping tempo brisk in the Courante. We began to see what Salmon would be about in the elegant Sarabande where the pianist subtly modulated that halting tempo. But it was in the two Menuets and the concluding Gigue that Salmon’s playing became noticeably freer.

Tempo modulated more openly in the first Minuet and there was an interesting mix of freedom and rigidity in the second, but as he accelerated gleefully into the Gigue, there was an even more daring concept. In addition to the tempo modulations, Salmon overlaid a long decrescendo followed by an equally long crescendo, adding new drama. Next he played the Invention No. 1 in relatively traditional fashion, adding ornamentation that would probably not have scandalized 18th Century listeners. Only at the end did Salmon add an extra coda, finishing with a faintly bluesy chord – one that became bluesier after he confessed his crime to the audience and gave a brief demonstration.

Prelude No. 1 from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, wasn’t appreciably jazzier, but here Salmon added a bass-line for the cello that was a nice introduction to the warm tones that Placzek can coax from his instrument. Next came a before-and-after pairing of two arrangements that Salmon has done for Invention No. 8, both of them calling for two pianos. With the first No. 8, done for the second piano in a Baroque continuo style, Nezhdanova appeared totally relaxed and unchallenged, but the second arrangement was a radical change that noticeably increased her alertness and involvement.

Subtitled “Great Bach’s Afire,” Salmon swept from Baroque and past jazz, landing firmly in the rock-and-roll style of Jerry Lee Lewis, though I didn’t actually catch the melodic link between Jerry Lee’s “Great Balls of Fire” and this Bach standby. But goodness gracious, the Lewis fire was definitely in evidence, so much so that, as Salmon was clanking the keyboard at the end, I signaled to him that he needed to sweep the keys with his elbow. That’s what Lewis, nicknamed “The Killer” in his rowdiest heydays, would do at the keyboard before his signature finish, lifting a leg and pounding the last treble notes with his heel.

Invention No. 6, scored for all three players in the style of a Baroque trio, was more than a little anticlimactic after these fireworks, for Nezhdanova didn’t even need to raise her left hand to play her part. So the last Invention on the program, the same No. 6 turned into “There’s A Banjo in the House,” turned out to be the jazziest so far, with Salmon tossing off some pleasurable improvisation and the ensemble sounding more like a jazz trio than a bluegrass ensemble. Moving forward into Salmon’s Sinfonia arrangements, the music stayed jazzier with no more relatively ancient and tame variants preceding the arranger’s quirkily titled ones.

The Steinway Gallery was best acoustically when one of the pianists played and/or Placzek gushed forth his mellow sounds. The two dovetailed Steinways looked so perfect together that I needed to assure my wife that they were two separate pianos (even though I wasn’t absolutely sure). But while Salmon’s keyboard was further away from my front row seat to my right, his soundboard was closer. That made a difference when he and Nezhdanova played together.

With his jazz and rock proclivities, Salmon was already the more gregarious player, but the placement of the two pianos double-underlined the difference. Nezhdanova was fairly buried in the C-Major Sinfonia No. 1, renamed “A Rush of Happiness Is Here and Makes Me Want to Spread the Joy.” She had better chances to show her mettle in the introductory portions of the “Ray Brown, Come Lay It Down” reincarnation of Sinfonia No. 2 in C Minor, and in the “You Are So Nice” remake of Sinfonia No. 3 in D, where Salmon divided the melody line into call-and-response form.

The Nezhdanova-Placzek duo shone brightest in the final piece, Salmon’s charming transformation of Sinfonia 10 in G into “Scamper ‘Round and Make Some Sound.” Here the pianist and cellist were allowed to languish in their accustomed classical mode while playing the long introductory episode. In a sense, by giving his accompanists this space before he roared in with his improvisatory licks, Salmon was observing a longtime tradition in the jazz world. As often as not, the leader of a combo at a club date will allow every member of the band to solo during the final tune.

Yet the jazziest collaboration of this trio happened in the penultimate arrangement of Sinfonia No. 8 in F, newly minted as “Double Time Times Two.” Both the title and the arranger warned us that this would be fast, and it was. Even after the second concert with Salmon, NC Bach artistic director Placzek seemed to be marveling as much as we were, cooling down behind his cello – but for a different reason. “Every one of the notes I just played was what Bach wrote!” he told us. So he can return to Raleigh with another new idea. While Wolfram playing the complete Goldbergs and even Lezcano playing Fernando Sor’s Fantasie in D are what we should expect at a Bach Festival, it might not be amiss to look for fresh new ways our state’s annual Bach celebration could be more celebratory. More festive! With Salmon and Nezhdanova at his Steinway concerts, Placzek certainly hit the right notes.

Side-by-Side, Davidson College Symphony and Charlotte Symphony Perform Schubert’s “Great”

Review: Schubert Symphony No. 9 in C Major (“The Great”)

By Perry Tannenbaum

There are members of the Theatre Department at Davidson College who will tell you – off the record, of course – that Duke Family Performance Hall, notwithstanding its fine physical appearance and advanced technical capabilities, presents formidable acoustic challenges for their dramatic and musical productions. It’s difficult for actors to project their voices to the back of the hall and up to the highest balcony, more so when musicians in the orchestra present a further barrier. So it was with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation that I attended my first purely musical event at the Duke. Considering that this was a Side-by-Side concert by the Davidson College Symphony and the Charlotte Symphony, I had to do a double-take when I saw our CVNC listing that specified Tyler-Tallman Hall as the venue. I’d gone to concerts at Tyler-Tallman on numerous occasions and, even with its balcony overhang, the room seats less than 200, hardly ideal for a confluence of two orchestras with 98 musicians listed on the program. So after my double-take, I made sure to double-check.

Now I don’t wish to exaggerate. When Christopher Warren-Green took the stage to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Jurists’ March followed by Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, I never counted more than 91 musicians at one time from the combined ensembles. The Schubert actually thinned out the ranks, for the phalanx of five percussionists for the Tchaikovsky was reduced to one principal from the college ensemble when we reached the symphony. You might think that the dampening effect that bedevils theatrical productions at the Duke might actually benefit such a mighty orchestral armada, but that hypothesis wasn’t tested in my presence. The hall was outfitted with an acoustic shell that prevented sound waves from escaping to the wings of the stage or to the impressively tall fly loft above.

In a hall that hardly seats more than 600, less than a third of the size of Belk Theater in Charlotte, a little more breathing room for the sound would have been welcome. The blare of the nine-piece brass section at various points in the Tchaikovsky could be especially unnerving. Davidson College Symphony director Tara Villa Keith had told us in her opening remarks that the last Side-by-Side rendezvous of the orchestras had been ten years ago, so the Tchaikovsky seemed to turn into an adjustment period for both the musicians and the audience. Compounding those adjustments was the unfamiliarity of the music. With only a single oft-anthologized recording to be found in searches of Spotify and Amazon, it’s unlikely that anyone who wasn’t onstage or in the college’s music department had ever heard of the D Major composition before.

More clarity amid the assaults of percussion would have made this new experience more enjoyable, along with greater precision when the 67 strings played at maximum speed. Along the way, introductions to the main theme and its reprises, sounded very much like similar episodes in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and other ballet suites, and the brass steadied themselves in the latter segments, especially the trombones, so I was encouraged as I became more accustomed to the acoustics. Hopefully, this performance was a tune-up for a future encore at the Belk, where I doubt this march has ever been played.

As the Schubert Ninth (“The Great”) unfolded, I found that I was able to ignore the acoustics for a while. When the passages verged on fortissimo, I found that I’d occasionally recover my objectivity and reaffirm that there was little more warmth or clarity in the music than you might hear on an old broadcast where the radio had been turned up to an unwise volume level. Yet in between those trying fortissimos, Schubert’s grand tapestry contains plenty of passages that allowed individual sections and soloists to shine. That didn’t happen immediately in the Andante section of the opening movement. Violas and cellos were sleek and mellow, but the brasses were collectively smudged and the French horns, so crucial at the very beginning, were somewhat fuzzy. Order prevailed with the first marching episode and hints of the big tune to follow when Schubert would decisively plunge into his Allegro ma non troppo section. Numerous relapses into muddiness plagued the music until the trombones entered with a firm, focused sound. Only one treacherous episode marred the rest: in a work scored for two flutes, the five who played together here – two from Charlotte, three from Davidson – sounded mushy and shrill. The speed-up led by the clarinets helped us forget this discomfort and the reprise of the trombones was even better.

While the ensuing Andante con moto wasn’t all quietude, it wasn’t pocked with the fearsome fortissimos we had to weather up until then, so the performance became rather pleasurable. Early and late in the movement, there were some gorgeous passages delivered by Davidson’s principal oboist Katherine Copenhaver, discreetly backed by principal clarinetist Ava Pomerantz. The tutti were far crisper at reduced volume and the sforzandos, punctuated by principal Davidson timpanist Cole Warlick, struck with a zesty exhilaration. Section work from the French horns and the flutes – only three playing here – snapped into a sharp unison. After a lovely hush, the entrance of the cellos over pizzicato violins propelled us toward a deftly managed resolution. The penultimate Scherzo movement swayed attractively in its 3/4 tempo with occasional detours into gravitas that made the prevailing lightness all the more beguiling. Warren-Green deployed four of the trombones here, one more than specified in the score, and he once again ventured to field five flutes. Everything remained under superb control, and the tutti at the end of the movement was the best so far.

Clarinets and woodwinds had their finest moments igniting the Finale, where Schubert’s valedictory C Major Symphony truly becomes “Great” for me. Copenhaver and Pomerantz had more fine moments here, especially when we arrived at my favorite theme, which always strikes me as having a circus or carnival essence when it gathers its full force. But there is also an exotic beauty to this memorable tune as the woodwinds majestically marshal its pace to full cruising gear. The full brass section was very fine with its answering heraldry, but the trombones, used by Schubert with unprecedented daring, were exemplary – all six of them sharing the spotlight here. The trumpets also shone when their big moment came, just after the oboes signaled for the circus parade one last time.

Exactly half of the musicians listed in the program were from the Davidson College Symphony, so this was truly an equal partnership. Presumably, the Duke is a more convivial venue when this Symphony is 49 members strong instead of 98, but there were likely some hidden benefits to the collaboration process even if more of the rehearsal time should have been spent in Davidson. Early last month, the Charlotte Symphony performed the Schubert Ninth at Belk Theater as part of a larger program that included Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture and the world premiere of Leonard Mark Lewis’ percussion concerto. However intense or organized the college students’ participation in that earlier rehearsal may have been, it surely enriched the overall collaboration in a unique way, a win-win-win for the Charlotte Symphony, the Davidson College Symphony, and all of the devoted patrons who filled the Duke for this Side-by-Side effort.

One Amazing Voice Stands Out at Suspicious Cheese Lords Concert

Review: Suspicious Cheese Lords

By Perry Tannenbaum

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You probably wouldn’t guess it by their name, but the Suspicious Cheese Lords are a vocal group hailing from Washington, DC. Their name derives from the mischievously mistranslated title of a Thomas Tallis motet, “Suscipe quæso Domine,” a work that their website tells us the Cheese Lords have never performed. Suspicious! Considering that the Lords proudly specialize in works, from Gregorian chant through the Renaissance, that have never been recorded before, we cannot know whether these eccentric choristers will ever perform their quasi-namesake motet. Eccentric or not, the Cheese Lords had plenty of church gigs under their belts, participating in services at places as awesome as Washington’s National Cathedral, before they arrived at the Abbey Basilica on the Belmont Abbey College campus for their Sunday afternoon concert.

Those belts were conventional leather rather than thick rope, although the Cheese Lords were the choir-in-residence at DC’s Franciscan Monastery from 1998 to 2006. Attired in dark slacks and burgundy shirts, the Cheese Lords looked rather humdrum compared to their name. Nor were they terribly suspicious – except for their prime spokesperson and leader, Christopher Riggs. After emcee Karen Hite Jacob had just made the blunder of speaking to us via a lectern microphone, rendering her intro almost completely unintelligible, Riggs separated himself from the ensemble and offered greetings, individual intros of his colleagues and, with the assistance of each of the Lords’ four sections, a thorough demonstration of polyphony. Yet his first words to us, “Can you hear me?” must surely have been rhetorical, notwithstanding the fact that he had disdained the microphone. Riggs’ big baritone voice boomed across the hall effortlessly.

What was suspicious, surprising, and sensational was yet to come. Riggs, known as “Lord Taskmaster” at the Cheese Lords website, receded into the ensemble and proceeded to tune and cue the other singers – from the countertenor section. Neither “receded” or even “blended” would be entirely accurate here. As we moved from the demonstration snippet of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s “Sicut cervus” (Psalm 42:2) to a full performance of the piece, it became apparent first that Riggs’ singing voice was a gleaming countertenor, as effortless as his speaking voice. More remarkable, as the concert continued, it became obvious that Riggs’ countertenor was a dominant voice. I have no trouble believing Riggs’ website blurb where it claims that Lord Taskmaster’s range extends from bass to countertenor. It’s just hard for me to believe that he isn’t better known.

After the Palestrina, the program took a hairpin turn that I loved – to a living composer’s setting of Psalm 43. Tony Domenick’s “Vindicate Me, O God” not only livened the program with its contrast, it enabled the Cheese Lords to re-emphasize the differences between modern harmony and polyphony. Better yet, the work was the first winner of a compositional prize, contested by composers aged 35 or younger, awarded in 2016. Where the effect of the Palestrina had been somewhat intoxicating, overlapping words blending in a language I don’t speak, the Domenick performance glowed in English with clarity and plainspoken emotion. The Abbey Basilica may be unkind to softspoken people who resort to amplification, but it’s very much like heaven for a choir, uncompromised by dead-end nooks that might muffle the commingling of sound waves.

Unfortunately, the shuttle between ancient and modern compositions wasn’t repeated. Nor was there a return to English, though translations abounded in the eight-page program booklet. The Cheese Lords proceeded to stitch together a “FrankenMass” from sources and parodies spanning five centuries, beginning (chronologically, anyway) with a Gregoria chant by Hermannus Contractus (1013-54) and terminating with a pair of pieces by Elzéar Genet (c1470-1548). Pieces were grouped in the order of the five sections of the ordinary Mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Most of the sections led off with a piece that was later parodied. Now Riggs was careful to explain that the parodists weren’t at all mocking their sources as Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein mocked the Boris Karloff classic. These were simply choral pieces that used earlier pieces as jumping-off points for development and elaboration, so Ludwig Senfl’s “Gloria” from Missa L’Homme armé no more mocked the anonymous 15th century composer of “L’homme armé” than Rachmaninoff mocked Paganini. In between these two pieces, we heard a different repurposing of “L’homme armé” by Robert Morton, who composed an “Il sera pour vu conbatu” overlay for the earlier song.

A bit of convoluted logic justified the inclusion of the unparodied “Kyrie” from an anonymous 13th century Messe de Tournai, and the messy formatting of the printed material, where a lyric might appear four boldfaced headers after a song title was mentioned, had my head spinning a bit. Compounding my confusion, a “Gloria” heading appeared in boldface on the line directly above the two Palestrina pieces where the composer parodied himself with his “Credo” from Missa O admirabile commercium. The music itself soothed my confusion, and a few more of the 10 Lords came forward to personably introduce the pieces. By far the least informative – and most entertaining – of these presentations was Cheese Lords founder and president Clifton “Skip” West III, who gave a lively account of the Tallis-based etymology of the group.

There were interesting wrinkles in the arrangements. The “Kyrie” began with a tenor-countertenor duet, baritone Sargon de Jesus soloed to kick off Senfl’s “Gloria” (where the tenors soon took the lead), and after disappearing behind the far altar before West’s remarks, two basses and a baritone began the “Alma Redemptoris Mater” plainchant from their distant concealment. Reunited, the full ensemble turned in some of their most beautiful work on Jean Mouton’s “Sanctus,” though lyrics were missing from the booklet, which repeated its misleading layout.

Even more delightful was the arrival at the music of Genet and the unexpectedly worldly source of his “Agnus Dei” from Missa Se mieulx ne vient. The first line of the original French rondeau translates as “If it doesn’t get any better, I’m not content with love.” Surprisingly, searches of Spotify and Amazon confirm that recordings of Genet are almost exclusively a Cheese Lords domain: no other full-length CD devoted to Genet is available at either outlet. The Cheese Lords’ 2002 Maestro Di Capella, including the complete Se mieulx mass, has no competition. Now if they had to do it all over again, I suspect they would have recorded the parodied song, as they subsequently did prefacing their recordings of the L’Homme armé, O admirabile commercium, and Alma Redeptoris Mater masses.

Our sampling of the piece confirmed that Genet’s music deserves a full hearing as much as the more frequently recorded Palestrina, Senfl, and Mouton. The warmth of the ensemble in live performance at the Basilica surpassed the engineered recording, where the post-production mix may have enabled Riggs to sound more subdued if no less distinctive. Added to the completed “FrankenMass” was another Genet gem, “Tibi Christe,” a hymn for the feast of St. Michael. The special treat here was the shuttling alternatum style, alternating verses of chant and polyphony. Riggs called our attention to the first of the two polyphonic stanzas, where brave Michael pulverizes the devil. Actually, the live performance far exceeded the recorded version in clarity and excitement, which was held in check until the final stanza on the CD. For the encore, one of the tenors – Kevin Elam, I believe – brought out a tambourine as the Cheese Lords finished with an even more freewheeling Spanish tune, “Rey a Quien Reyes Adoran.” People lined up after the concert for the merch that discreetly appeared on the Basilica’s piano. More gathered around the remarkable Riggs and his cohorts.

Four Guest Soloists Combine With Charlotte Symphony and Chorus in a Walloping Bruckner “Te Deum”

Reviews:  Bruckner’s Te Deum and Psalm 150, Wagner’s “Overture to Tannhaüser,” and Strauss’s “First Waltz Sequence from Der Rosenkavalier

Georgia Jarman, soprano, performs in Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi in the Venetian Theater at Caramoor in Katonah New York on July 19, 2014. (photo by Gabe Palacio)

By Perry Tannenbaum

The cramped look of the Charlotte Symphony onstage at the Belk Theater clearly confirmed to me that the music we were about to hear would be similarly dense and weighty, particularly when the Charlotte Symphony Chorus arrived to fill the many empty chairs at the rear of the stage. Before those mighty liturgical choral salvos from Bruckner, we had a couple of suitable preambles gleaned from operatic scores.

Placement of the orchestra at the Belk has a noticeable impact on how they sound. Rising out of the pit, the sound of the Symphony was satisfactory enough last month when they played Rossini’s score for the Opera Carolina production of The Barber of Seville. Yet if you had seen them spread out onstage the previous weekend for performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, the ensemble now sounded comparatively muzzled. A similar constriction – but not nearly so pronounced – was evident last night when music director Christopher Warren-Green launched the Symphony into Wagner’s “Overture to Tannhäuser.” With Bruckner’s Psalm 150 and his Te Deum yet to come, the Wagner overture really would seem like a prelude by evening’s end.

In between the densities of Wagner and Bruckner, maestro Warren-Green made an excellent programming choice in inserting the “First Waltz Sequence from Der Rosenkavalier” by Richard Strauss. The flatulent French horns and trombones at the beginning of the piece, followed by a tumult of the violins reminiscent of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, formed a witty bridge back to the Wagner overture. A welcome oasis of comparative quietude featured some fine work principal clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo and a lilting solo from concertmaster Calin Lupanu as we leisurely traveled to the grand dancehall of Strauss’s big waltz. Warren-Green adroitly varied tempos as the familiar waltz slowly, gorgeously developed from a tentative bud to a giddy frolic before bursting forth in its full orchestral bloom.

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Easily the shortest piece on the program, the full éclat of the Psalm 150 manifests itself almost immediately with the hallelujahs of the chorus, a battering of timpani, and flourishes of the trumpets. Lupanu exceled on a tender interlude as we transitioned from the thunder of the chorus to the sweetness of the soprano soloist, Georgia Jarman. The contrast between the chorus and the single female voice had the impact of a descent from the heavenly host of angels praising the Lord’s mighty firmament to the simple awe of a solitary human extoling his mighty deeds. Somehow the juxtaposition of that sweet episode with the finale, where all living things give praise to their creator, was even more awesome, introduced by a second volley of hallelujahs and whipping up from there to a divine frenzy. All creation seemed joined in a jubilant tribute.

530b8ba206611-preview-620After hearing the glorious conclusion of the Psalm 150, it was hard to grasp that an even grander work was yet to come, but the return of Jarman for the Te Deum with three other vocalists – including mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Paul Appleby, and bass baritone Davóne Tines – certainly fueled our anticipation. Like Psalm 150, the Te Deum shoots its volleys of chorus and brass from the start, but the onslaught isn’t as prolonged. Duos between Appleby and Jarman proved to be the most memorable moments of the opening Allegro moderato section, as Appleby distinguished himself with the purest, most penetrating voice. Cano participated in some trio episodes before the mighty return of the chorus, but she really wasn’t a legitimate rival for either Jarman or Appleby.

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On the other hand, I was mostly impressed when Tines made his contributions later on. Though he didn’t project the lowest notes as fully and confidently as I would have hoped, Tines’s warm solo in the penultimate “Salvum fac” section of the prayer remained a thing of beauty. In the fifth and final “In te, Domine speravi” section, the interplay of the solo voices was effectively mirrored – and magnified – by the interplay of the men’s and women’s sections of the chorus. Under the leadership of Kenney Potter, Symphony Chorus delivered some of their most thrilling moments as we hurtled toward Bruckner’s concluding supplications. Backed by the full orchestra, most notably the trumpets, the liturgical piece remained piously devotional. Yet it became electric with affirmation and thunderous with finality.

 

Fung’s Virtuosity Pushes the Bechtler’s Schubertiade Envelope

Review: “Schubertiade…and Then Some!”

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By Perry Tannenbaum

The whole idea of a Schubertiades, impromptu revels organized by musician friends during Franz Schubert’s lifetime to keep abreast of the composer’s astonishing output, would seem to be inimical to the traditional concert format or a museum setting. Yet it has been the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art that has brought the idea to Charlotte. Early in 2013, a First Tuesday program imported a chamber ensemble from the UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem to serve up Schubert’s “Trout Quintet” with a side dish of the Notturno piano trio in E flat. So the original Schubertiade up in the Bechtler’s fourth floor gallery didn’t stray from its namesake’s work.

The sequel, with a main dish of the “Arpeggione” Sonata, featuring pianist Bruce Murray and 17-year-old cello phenom Zlatomir Fung, expanded the concept. Yielding to additions from J.S. Bach and Krzysztof Penderecki, the Bechtler made their “Schubertiade… and Then Some” mostly Schubert. Murray and Fung combined on an adaptation of a song, “Ständchen,” from Schubert’s posthumously published Schwanengesang, before the pianist took over the floor for two of the four posthumous Impromptus. Those solo selections helped the ensuing departures make more sense, since there are no solo works by Schubert for a cellist to play.

“Ständchen” or “Serenade” is certainly a dark and lovely ballad, but it offered no great challenges to either musician. The wordless lyricism of the piece likely did more to ingratiate the players with the audience than it did to warm them up. Winner of numerous competitions in the US and Europe, with six appearances logged on NPR’s From the Top, Fung has a luscious tone on his instrument – and, one guesses from his surprisingly mellow speaking voice, an affinity for singing. Sitting in the front row, maybe five feet from the platform that Fung was playing on, I found the sound of his cello more powerful than expected. I’d also recommend the left side of the room, where I found myself near the wall, over my customary spot on the right side near the passageway to the main exhibition hall. The sound of the Steinway also seemed better defined from this fresh vantage point.

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While Benjamin K. Roe, long associated with both the WDAV classical station and NPR, did the initial introduction for the concert, Murray zeroed in on Impromptu No.’s 2 and 4, clearly indicating his preference for the latter and its touch of madness. He played the A flat No. 2 with admirably contrasting dynamics within each of the three sections and linked the middle section to the outer sections in a manner that made them sound very much like a set of variations on the same theme. But the liveliness of Murray’s playing sounded nothing like madness at the start of the F minor No. 4, with jollity echoing Mozart giving way to waves of romanticism presaging Chopin and Liszt. The sudden stops and plunges into more ruminative passages were a different matter, indeed simulating the depths of a depression, when we reached the midsection of the piece before jollity returned.

Fung’s introductions were no less lucid than Murray’s, making a virtue out of the necessity of explaining why Bach and Penderecki belonged at a Schubertiade. Apparently, Bach inspired Schubert to take up the study of counterpoint late in his abbreviated life, a fair connection, but the charm of Fung’s intro to the Penderecki was his frank acknowledgement of how weak and lame his explanation was for any linkage at all. The two pieces fit the profiles of these introductions very nicely, for the Prelude from the Cello Suite No. 6 in D was rich and meditative, more like Yo-Yo Ma’s account of the Bach classic than Rostropovich’s. Aside from one stray squeak, the only complaint I can lodge against the performance was that Fung only played one of the six movements.

If the 1994 Divertimento by Penderecki wasn’t as whimsical as Fung’s intro, it was certainly as unusual and unpredictable. Perhaps the better course of linking the piece to the Schubert repertoire would have been to underscore the title of the first movement, Serenade, as the translation of the opening “Ständchen” he had played with Murray. Certainly, there was something to say about how different a serenade this was. No wooing here. On the contrary, after the preliminary pizzicatos and soft tapping of the wooden side of the bow on the strings – a soft knocking on milady’s door? – the knocking grew more violent after a gentle section of conventional bowing, hinting at a growing desperation. The ensuing Scherzo movement (Fung only played two of the three listed on the program) was less playful than the Serenade was tender, quickening the pace and hurtling into chaos with furious double bowing, leavened only with a sprinkling of harmonics. This was the most startling display of Fung’s virtuosity that we would see but definitely not a piece that I would expect Yo-Yo Ma to record soon.

Completing the “posthumous-ness” of the Schubert selections, Fung and Murray played the “Arpeggione” Sonata in A minor after a brief intro from the pianist that chiefly described the instrument. The six-stringed guitar-like cello with its fretted fingerboard passed out of vogue not long after Schubert wrote his sonata, perhaps because this piece wasn’t published until 47 years after it was written in 1824. My late father introduced me to the work many years ago when he asked me to buy him a recording of it for Hannukah, and I was fortunate enough to hear Mischa Maisky play it live to a standing-room-only audience at the Verbier Festival in 2004.

In this more sedate museum setting, Fung’s adrenalin didn’t seem to be pumping nearly as hard as Maisky’s when he took the fast outer movements, the opening Allegro moderato and the closing Allegretto, at a dangerous clip. At a more prudent pace, I did detect one little scrape as Fung sped along, but there were none of Maisky’s intonation errors marring his celebratory virtuosity. Fung’s heavenly tone was showcased once again in the middle Adagio movement, and there was a nice clearing in the closing movement for Murray to shine in before Fung made his most intensely joyous entrance. Such a rousing ending deserved a mellow encore, and the duo obliged with an eloquent transcription of “An die Musik,” another Schubert favorite. The translation of that title, “Ode to Music,” could accurately be applied to all we heard.