Category Archives: Classical

Symphony Demonstrates Their Seasoning in Beethoven

Review:  Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

Beilman3(credit_GiorgiaBertazzi

By Perry Tannenbaum

Beginning in September with two of the pinnacles of Western music, the Emperor Concerto #5 and the Choral Symphony #9, the Charlotte Symphony has been presenting an autumn of Beethoven. They rewound Ludwig to Symphony #1 in October and checked in with two more symphonic works earlier this month, the Violin Concerto and the rarely performed “Overture to The Consecration of the House.” So it figures. They’re getting good at it.

Unlike the masses, I look forward to live performances of the Beethoven’s Violin Concerto far more eagerly than yet another iteration of the mighty Symphony #9. In fact, I played hooky from the earlier concert where the great Chorale kicked off the 2017-18 Classics Series. If Leo Direhuys, Peter McCoppin, and Christof Perick could triumph with the Symphony and their chorus (formerly known as the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte), so could their current maestro, Christopher Warren-Green.

Brassy, stately, contrapuntal, and grand, the Consecration overture convinces you that Beethoven had an English period like Haydn and Handel. Ludwig was likely studying Handel, along with Bach, when he received this commission in 1822 – or harvesting the fruits of recently studying those giants. It is music that Warren-Green, hailing from the UK, showed a natural affinity for. The maestro certainly sparked a fleet, zesty performance from the orchestra, especially the trumpets and the trombones, who brought gilded fire to the heraldic episodes.

Earmarks of the second movement of Choral Symphony showed up in the bustling section of this delightfully chameleonic work, and the ending took a similar path in amping up its intensity. I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that the composer was putting the finishing touches on both works at about the same time.

Beethoven had already completed his Symphony #5 when he wrote his lone Violin Concerto in 1805, so we can count it as one more glory of his wondrous Middle Period. After triumphing with the overture, Warren-Green wasn’t letting up on the orchestral power. The violins, sweet in their opening passages, became sharp and lively with the onset of the timpani.

You could say, then, that after 13+ minutes of prime orchestral Beethoven, guest soloist Benjamin Beilman had a tough act to follow in his Charlotte debut. But this wasn’t his Carolinas debut, for the violinist has been one of the featured artists in the Bank of America chamber music series at Spoleto Festival USA for the past three years. He makes a suave impression, and I’ve heard him excel down in Charleston in a Beethoven string trio, a Ravel duo, and piano quartets by Dvorak and Fauré. But I was interested to see what would happen when he collided with this concerto colossus.

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When the collision occurs, the music should win, carrying the soloist with it. You can hear that happening on the very best recordings, such as Itzhak Perlman’s with the Philharmonia Orchestra or Isabelle Faust’s with the Orchestra Mozart. Nothing quite that magical happened as Beilman took on the epic Allegro ma non troppo opening movement. But if Beilman didn’t sweep us up to the skies, he certainly treated us to some of the most muscular high notes I’ve heard at Belk Theater and – within his first solo spot – some stunning pianissimos.

While the ideal flow of the labyrinthine lines eluded him in the early part of the movement, the virtuosity demanded by the climatic cadenza did not. In the Larghetto middle movement, the woodwinds supplied cathedral-like sounds for Beilman’s rapturous entrance, a perfect showcase for his burnished midrange.

Flaunting tradition, he actually paused before the captivating Rondo-Allegro finale. After the dilatory opening notes, however, Beilman pounced on the familiar theme like a panther and infused the pizzicato passages afterwards with eager delight. The majestic cadenza was like a mini-concerto of its own, sweet and wistful at its center with fire and intensity on both ends.

After intermission, Warren-Green needed to grab a microphone and tell us about the novelty he had embedded in Symphony’s rendition of Johannes Brahms’s Symphony #4. Apparently, the composer had attended a performance where the conductor had reduced the violas to a mere two players when their section was to be most prominent. Brahms heartily approved, so Warren-Green decided to revive the practice.

When that hushed moment came in the Andante moderato second movement, and principal violist Benjamin Geller and Ning Zhao brought brief attention to their oft-overlooked section of the orchestra, it was a curiously effective way to evoke the living presence of the composer – 132 years after his death. Warren-Green’s anecdote also subtly pointed up the meticulous preparation of the entire performance.

You could hear the scrupulous attention to detail in the sweep of the violins in the opening Allegro. Aside from the violas, principal clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo and principal oboist Hollis Ulaky distinguished themselves in the newly emphasized second movement. The ensuing Allegro giocoso had a frolicsome feel as timpanist Leonardo Soto pleasantly traded licks with a triangle. After a long respite from Beethovenian fire, the flame was relit in the Allegro energico finale.

Battles between the violins and the trumpets were deliciously intense. These were counterbalanced with solo dialogues between principal French hornist Frank Portone and principal flautist Victor Wang – and a second helping with Portone and Kavadlo. Heading out of that quiet section into the rousing finish, the whole French horn section had their best showing of the night.

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Best of Charlotte, 2017

Best of Charlotte, 2017

By Perry Tannenbaum

                                           Best ActorJeremy DeCarlos

 

Among local performers, there are strong candidacies from Brian Logsdon (Pride and Prejudice and Ragtime), Jonavan Adams (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and The Christians), Scott A. Miller (Stupid F@#%ing Bird and The Submission), Jermaine Gamble (A Raisin in the Sun and Jitney) and Tyler Smith (Ragtime and Memphis). All of them sparkled on multiple occasions. But the runaway victory goes to Jeremy DeCarlos, who laps the field – in range and productivity – with four scintillating outings. Draped in a braided Hussar jacket, DeCarlos just finished channeling his inner Jimi Hendrix as the devilish St. Jimmy in American Idiot. That was the last of his Actor’s Theatre gems over the past year, including some cross-dressing preaching in Bootycandy, his insouciant devotion in Stupid F@#%ing Bird, and his amazing transformation – from Jerry Lewis nerd to Incredible Hulk-ish monster – in The Toxic Avenger.

Best Actress – Shar Marlin

The field of contenders is larger among the ladies, but the roles were more thinly distributed, eliminating productivity as a decisive criterion. But which other benchmark should override all others? If it’s flesh-crawling menace, Sarah Woldum gets the edge, bringing Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla to life in She Who Watches. Leslie Giles was the funniest as the blind librarian in The Toxic Avenger, Lucia Stetson the most revelatory as Mother in Ragtime, and Allison Snow Rhinehart was better than her Broadway counterpart as Mama in Memphis. And how can I forget the sizzling dominatrix arrogance of Nonye Obichere as Whatsername in American Idiot? I’m turning instead to Shar Marlin for her sheer power and imperial dominance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a dramatic stunner that also showed Shar’s blues singing chops. Dignity in the face of exploitation and discrimination. Diva!

Best Comedy – Women Playing Hamlet

 

Theatre Charlotte’s You Can’t Take It With You and the Citizens of the Universe farewell, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, were arguably the zaniest productions of the 2016-17, while the Chekhov knockoff from Actor’s Theatre, Stupid F@#%ing Bird, was surely the most poignant. And what about OnQ Productions’ A Brown Tale from James T. Alfred, maybe the funniest one-man show I’ve ever seen? All were worthy candidates, but I’m going to let Chickspeare split this prize with Donna Scott Productions for their joint production of Women Playing Hamlet. Glynnis O’Donoghue starred as the soap queen saddled with the lead role in the Mona Lisa of tragedies, and the galaxy of comediennes – all in multiple roles – offering her questionable advice included Tania Kelly, Andrea King, Vivian T Howell, and Sheila Snow Proctor.

Best Musical – Ragtime

Ragtime Promo Photos

Folks who confine their diet of musicals in Charlotte to touring productions at the PAC are missing out bigtime on the locally-produced blockbusters playing out at smaller venues around town. Actor’s Theatre scrambled to produce a marvelous Toxic Avenger at a storefront church because this city doesn’t have the vision to see the arts flourish on Freedom Drive without a needless morass of red tape. Still in exile, they just brought the noise of American Idiot to Queens University for a face-melting month. After reminding us how finely they can produce A Year With Frog and Toad, Children’s Theatre astonished with the world premiere of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical. With more than one Broadway-level performance, Theatre showed us their mettle with Memphis, and CPCC re-emphasized that their musical excellence isn’t confined to summer anymore. Maybe it was sheer luck, but CP’s wintertime production of Ragtime was the most timely of the year, underscoring the sad fact that institutional racism, police brutality, and prejudice against immigrants aren’t quaint relics of the Jazz Age. As the martyred Coalhouse Walker, Tyler Smith’s impassioned “We are all Coalhouse!” reverberated through a city in turmoil.

Best Drama – Jitney

Early last season, PaperHouse Theatre proved that The Frock Shop on Central Avenue was the perfect site for a creepshow with a dazzling She Who Watches, and early this season, a legend made a comeback when Steve Umberger and his Playworks Group brought a sterling production of The Christians to Booth Playhouse. In between, as Charlotte was fully wakening to how badly we have neglected and mistreated our underclass, theatergoers may have finally been zonked by the realization that our city is exceptionally rife with African American acting and directing talent. Kim Parati made an auspicious directorial debut at Theatre Charlotte with a freshened-up Raisin in the Sun, but this was a vintage year for August Wilson – in two dramas directed by Corlis Hayes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at CPCC and Brand New Sheriff’s Jitney at Spirit Square. Hayes brought out the best in John W. Price and Jermaine Gamble as the father-son antagonists in Jitney, with Gerard Hazelton adding a mix of comedy and poignancy as the gypsy cab company’s resident lush. Move over OnQ Productions, there really is a brand new black company in town – our second! – producing professional-grade work.

Best Night @ Symphony – Mahler’s “Resurrection”

While a well-played Beethoven symphony, a Rossini overture, a Strauss tone poem, or a Mozart concerto might be the secret sauce to get newcomers to become Charlotte Symphony subscribers, longtime concertgoers like me wish to dismount the warhorses and hear something off the beaten trail. There’s plenty out there that will please both camps: big, unfamiliar orchestral works that will instantly grab you by the lapels even if Symphony hasn’t reprised them within the last decade. Armed with an audacious orchestra and choir, plus two soloists who have sung with Opera Carolina, Davidson College showed the way with a rousing performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, set to poetry by Walt Whitman. That’s the sort of daring we hope for from Charlotte Symphony’s British maestro, Christopher Warren-Green. We did get a British Isles-themed evening when pieces by Edward Elgar and Peter Maxwell Davies, spiced up with a bagpiper, were served with Mendelssohn’s “Scottish.” Utilizing the Symphony Chorus and distinguished guest vocalists, Warren-Green turned up the power with a pair of Bruckner chorales last November and Mendelssohn’s Elijah last March. If you wanted to sample the full capabilities of Symphony, their chorus, and the guest vocalists Warren-Green can summon to Belk Theater, you had to hear them introducing the wonders of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 to an astounded audience.

Best Night @ the Opera – The Girl of the West

Under maestro James Meena, Opera Carolina does the oldies better than ever, as their uproarious Barber of Seville and their vivacious, ultimately anguished La Traviata amply proved. There was even some audacity in the 2016-17 programming as OpCar partnered with Warehouse Performing Arts Center and the D9 Brewing Company to produce an evening of three short operas – including the world premiere of Scott Joiner’s “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera)” – at the brewery in Cornelius. Yes, a world premiere on Treynorth Drive! But most exciting was the Charlotte premiere of Puccini’s The Girl of the West, as Meena collaborated with six other international companies, including New York City Opera and Teatro del Giglio in Lucca, Puccini’s hometown. Singing was exemplary, persuading me that this second-tier Puccini opera was actually a first-rate work, and staging was anything but stodgy or conservative: much of the scenery was animated and bold, with authentic relics evoking the Wild West supplied by our own dearly beloved Wells Fargo. An appreciable, if infinitesimal, atonement for all the bank’s Wild West chicanery.

 

First Night at the Knight Succeeds With Rodrigo Concerto

Review: Rodrigo Guitar Concerto

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Christopher Warren-Green has done some new and innovative things since becoming the musical director at Charlotte Symphony: KnightSounds concerts aimed at young professionals, Thursday evening concerts, and live outdoor video broadcasts. But last week’s Rodrigo Guitar Concerto, the first Classics Series concert ever at Knight Theater, was unique, for Warren-Green himself wasn’t there to launch the new venture.

Not to worry, his stand-ins were sensational in their Charlotte debuts. First, there was guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger, who brought with him an engaging program of Latin-flavored pieces written between 1913 and 2003 by five different composers, most of them new to Symphony and to its subscribers.

How many pieces they played is actually open to dispute. There were two different Astor Piazzola selections, “Oblivion” and “Spring” (from Four Seasons in Buenos Aires), but pieces by Alberto Ginastera and Gabriela Lena Frank might be called single multiples. Frank’s 2003 suite was Three Latin-American Dances, each with its own title, and Ginastera’s Four Dances were no less individualized, excerpted from his 1941 Estancia ballet score.

Even the opening piece, Manuel De Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat Suite No. 1, was brimming with titles, four of them. The first, “Introduction – Afternoon,” was bold, brash, and filled with sunny fiesta exuberance, but everyone’s adrenalin onstage was flowing too freely, for the volume level was a little too fierce for the house. One wonders whether the orchestra had rehearsed without the acoustic shell that now surrounded them, since the brass especially needed taming.

While Symphony adjusted to the hall, Classics subscribers habituated to Belk Theater were also acclimating themselves to the greater immediacy of the orchestra sound at the Knight. There were also quieter episodes after the opening trumpet and timpani cannonade where we heard the clarinet, French horn, and oboe carving out space for themselves – even a rare bassoon spot – so the orchestra’s principals could recalibrate how loudly they played. Already the evening promised to be very colorful, with flute, harp, and a muted trumpet joining the symposium before “The Grapes” steered us back to jubilation.

Despite his Madrid concert with Plácido Domingo in front of 85,000 people, I had never heard of Pablo Sáinz Villegas before he strode into Knight Theater for his first Charlotte performance. Unlike the better-known Sharon Isbin, who played Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez at Belk Theater in 2009, Villegas didn’t bring any amplification with him.

He didn’t need it. Villegas quickly proved his virtuosity and charisma in the opening Allegro con spirito movement of the Concierto. Almost as quickly, the sound of his guitar became the preeminent reason why the Knight was such a brilliant choice for this music. Warren-Green should have been there, if only to hear his choice vindicated. He might also have joined with the audience in giving Villegas an unusual ovation at the end of the first movement. The strumming and the Spanish tinge that Villegas poured so plentifully into his playing seemed to infuse the strings with a special transparency when they entered.

But of course an Aranjuez must be judged by how well the soloist plays the familiar middle movement Adagio. The score has such sublimity to begin with that a critic finds it difficult to remember his pen, and Villegas treated this Adagio with no less reverence. Where the solo part touches the stratosphere with high harmonics, Villegas was exquisite, and where the long cadenza later on goes low, he caressed it with a fervid vibrato and a soft touch, providing a long runway to ramp up his intensity. Lehninger and Charlotte Symphony didn’t spoil the magic. Terry Maskin played the English horn’s runs at the melody as beautifully as ever, the ensemble’s answer to the mighty cadenza was never rushed, and the flurry of harmonics from Villegas at the end was the best I’ve ever heard.

Instead of a standing, stomping ovation, the audience maintained a rapt, stunned silence. Two or three people actually walked out, possibly because that music alone was what they had come to hear, or possibly because they didn’t wish to sully their ears with anything that might erase the deep impression lingering there. Not even Rodrigo’s next movement.

Fortunately, Villegas didn’t get the wrong impression himself, for he played the final Allegro gentile as if he were already celebrating a triumph, not the slightest restraint remaining in his strumming. The previously withheld ovation burst forth with equal joy that clearly touched the young guitarist, even if it didn’t surprise him. The first encore he delivered, “Gran Jota de concierto” by Francisco Tárrega, sported tuned percussive effects delivered by hitting the body of his instrument with an open right hand while playing the neck with his left. Another section sounded so dry that it was like hearing the tattoo of a snare drum. Impossible for us to let him go after that display.

So Villegas finished with Tárrega’s melancholy classic, “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” returning us to Spain for his farewell. The beauty of it is the melody and the tremolo rolling together in wistful waves. Villegas kept the two strands separate and soulful, so it never sounded the least bit like an etude.

If the two encores kept the concert from ending at 9pm as promised in the program booklet, intermission added further delay, for Villegas was out in the Knight lobby signing his CD, and an unusually hefty line formed for the privilege.

Before the lollipops of Piazzolla and the beefier Ginastera, the little suite by Frank assuaged anxieties that 21st century composers are all about chaotic cacophony. Many Americans have now awakened to contemporary works emanating from Europe, Asia, and South America and realized that they are out of step.

After a deluge of mallet percussion, Frank used the violins to build a bridge to tonality in “Jungle Jaunt,” the first of her three dances. “Highland Harawi” was more tranquil in its percussion, most unique for the unusual instrument that Lehninger thoughtfully introduced us to, percussion tubes that produced gentle sounds of rain. Tubular bells, woodblocks, harp, and voodoo piano runs were part of the mystery. As if reaching a clearing, “The Mestizo Waltz” began with the kind of trumpet heraldry that conjured up Mexico and mariachi before settling into 3/4 time as promised.

Uncharacteristically, concertmaster Calin Lupanu began the evening with a paean to live music, confiding in us that nearly all recorded music is fake, edited and doctored by sound engineers before it’s reproduced on the medium and player of your choice. Lupanu’s frank intro, the new venue, and the preponderance of unfamiliar music were all symptoms of a basic urge to break some of the old rules. So nobody seemed to mind the breach of etiquette when the audience applauded Villegas two movements early.

It was all good, exciting, youthful and fresh, without the slightest hint of dumbing down or condescension. The exhilaration in the lobby at intermission carried over to the end of the concert, because new discoveries kept coming.

 

Bach and O’Carolan Mesh in a Genial Robin Bullock Recital

Review:Music @ St. Alban’s with Robin Bullock

By Perry Tannenbaum

Guitar, mandolin and their kindred are among the earliest classical instruments, so finding them up in Davidson at a Music @ St. Alban’s concert wasn’t exactly shocking, but when I sat down at the Episcopal Church and noticed that Robin Bullock’s instruments would be steel-stringed, I began to expect something unusual. There was also a network of electrical wires snaking across the platform, a small speaker lurking behind the chair where Bullock would sit, and the cittern that rounded out his arsenal – an oversized “octave” mandolin, he would later explain – was double-strung like a 12-string guitar.

Program booklets handed out as we entered St. Alban’s didn’t reinforce my faith that a classical concert was about to begin, since no musical selections were listed, but the personable Bullock allayed my misgivings with his opening remarks. Yes, a couple of these instruments would be stretched into the realm of J.S. Bach, but more often, they would be deployed in the more predictable confines of Celtic and Americana.

Virtuosity was certainly plentiful as Bullock launched into “Riding the Road,” a piece he has played with fellow guitarist Alex de Grassi. The admirable density in Bullock’s playing was not coupled with sufficient variety or beauty to sustain my interest. More to my liking was the second guitar selection, “Lord Inchiquin” by Turlough O’Carolan, an Irish composer who has become a longtime crusade for Bullock.

A contemporary of Bach’s, O’Carolan’s interest in music was a survival tool when he was blinded by smallpox at the age of 18. With the aid of a horse, a guide, and three years of musical training, he set out as a roving composer/harpist, and his tunes are often named for the patrons he found during his travels across Ireland. There were some dulcimer glints in Bullock’s adaptation for guitar – and obvious affection.

The most comical and risqué song of the concert was the only one that Bullock actually sang (in a folksy winsome style that certainly warranted an encore), and the only one he played on cittern, “The Fair Maid of Northumberland.” Its plucky heroine from England’s northernmost county devises a modest stratagem to avoid becoming a serial murderer-rapist’s seventh victim, clearly the primary spark for the audience’s enthusiastic response, but the two instrumental breaks that Bullock tossed into the middle and end of the song added to the heat – and of course, the suspense.

Switching back to guitar, Bullock made his first foray into Bach with “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” which he described as Bach’s “greatest hit.” Naturally, this hit has been done on guitar before, by Leo Kottke with steel strings and Christopher Parkening in his arrangement for classical nylon. Bullock made more of an attempt to point us toward the original Cantata 147 experience that Bach intended, once again impressing me with the sheer density of his rendition. The sound on steel strings was noticeably crisper than you would hear on my vinyl Parkening Plays Bach LP, and Bullock snuck in a wisp of rubato as the piece wound down, very gracefully done. The speaker Bullock hooked up to with his guitar was no bigger than eight-by-eight inches, smaller than the rig classical soloist Sharon Isbin tours with, so there was no degradation in the sound quality.

As a result, I was more eager to hear what Bullock would do with a Bach cello suite on mandolin, but first the guitarist reverted to folk mode with a coupling of “Shaker Hymn” and “Salutation,” a combo that appears on his Alone and Together CD from 2015. Around the corner from WDAV, the college FM station that touts itself as “your classical companion for relaxing,” this piece was right at home, slightly more engaging than elevator or station break music. Programmatically, we had been offered a palate cleanser before the main dish.

It was a little odd to see the wee mandolin chosen for the lordly Bach Cello Suite No. 1, part of an ongoing project which will culminate with Bullock transcribing – and subsequently recording – all six of the suites. Even as Bullock tuned the instrument, it sounded tinnier than the guitar, and when he launched into the opening Prelude movement, the tinny quality remained. If you knew this music through the classic cello recordings of Casals or Rostropovich, rather than the guitar transcriptions played by John Williams, the absence of legato would strike you as forcefully as the higher pitch of the mandolin. Knowing the Williams version, I also picked up on the whinier, sometimes twangy sound of the smaller instrument, though this still wasn’t bluegrass Bach.

In the livelier movements, Bullock took advantage of the mandolin’s graceful way with triplets and strummed chords; and in the slower middle movements, he discreetly added harmonics, underscoring the higher pitch rather than attempting to minimize it. In the concluding Gigue, Bullock showed us that he was not to be confined by the top speeds we associate with cello or guitar, making for a very invigorating finale that metabolized like a hummingbird while maintaining a driving 3/4 pulse.

The O’Carolan that followed, “Bishop John Hart,” was more satisfying than the first by the Irish bard – and more like Bach, with a sunniness that faintly resembled the previously heard “Jesu.” What followed is part of a project that is taking shape alongside the Bach cello initiative, a compilation of folk instrumentals with a blues tinge. The proffered pairing, “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains” and “Poor Boy a Long Ways from Home,” reached an intensity and funkiness from Bullock that we hadn’t heard before, at a speed even brisker than the Bach Gigue when the guitarist crossed over to the second tune.

There could be no more perfect moment for Bullock to turn to the Gavotte from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 for its calming effect, augmented in this church setting. Reaching in a more overtly spiritual direction, Bullock played what he called “the American folksong,” the traditional “Oh, Shenandoah,” though the memorable notes of the melody at “you rolling river” and “Across the wide Missouri” were all but submerged in this arrangement. Nonetheless, the sanctified tone was unmistakable and heartwarming.

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.

 

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.