Category Archives: Classical

No Joke: Al Fresco Continues in a Modern Vein With “Romance of the Viola”

Review: Al Fresco concert under COVID

By Perry Tannenbaum

On the day of the latest Al Fresco concert, Charlotte Symphony had good news and bad news. Getting ready to set a YouTube reminder for my Chromecast hookup to the 7:30 webcast, I was encouraged to discover – on the Al Fresco webpage – that the Wednesday night series had been extended through at least July 29. Unfortunately, that good news may have been an outgrowth of the bad news announced earlier in the day: Symphony had canceled their Three-Week Summer Festival, slated to begin on August 7. All of the Festival events – a finely judged assortment that included Beethoven’s “Pastoral,” The Best of James Bond, Peter and the Wolf, On Tap at the Triple C brewery, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a free community concert – had been scheduled at indoor venues, running afoul of public assembly restrictions mandated in Raleigh and still in effect. It was merciful that Al Fresco concerts are pre-recorded, for host Alan Black and his “Romance of the Viola” guest musicians would have certainly been downcast if they were giving a live performance in the wake of this daunting setback.

As the latest program began in Black’s bosky backyard, with the CSO principal cellist in conversation with violist Kirsten Swanson, the series’ subtitle, “changing venues for changing times,” more than ever seemed to evoke an escape from Charlotte’s barren cultural climate under COVID siege, a welcome oasis in the musical wasteland. Adding to the freshness, Swanson and Black were discussing a pair of composers few Symphony subscribers had come across, Kjell Marcussen (1952-   ) and Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979).

Black admitted discovering Marcussen a mere three weeks earlier while combing the internet – and, presumably, streaming services – in search of music written for the unique viola-cello instrumental combo. As a cursory YouTube search will confirm, the Norwegian composer does favor viola among orchestral instruments. Black could easily have found Marcussen’s “Berceuse” there, for it’s the first video that comes up in a Google search for the composer, but the composition also pops up readily on Spotify in a 2017 album, Dedications, recorded by the same Duo Oktava musicians, violist Povilas Syrrist-Gelgota and cellist Toril Syrrist-Gelgota. In solo compositions, Marcussen gravitates toward his own preferred instrument, the guitar, so it’s not at all surprising that guitarist Anders Clemens Øien shares the spotlight on the CD.

After watching Swanson and Black perform the “Berceuse,” I must say that I found the Oktava video stuffy and pretentious by comparison, and I’m only finding a new way to praise Bob Rydel’s audio engineering when I say that the sound at this Al Fresco concert was richer and more detailed than either the YouTube video or the CD (available on Apple Music as well as Spotify). Black gets a rich dark tone when he moves to the forefront in the exposition of this morose lullaby, but he’s more varied in his dynamics – and the pace is quicker, cutting more than 25 seconds off the Oktava’s fastest performance. The real difference maker, though, is Swanson when she takes the lead in the concluding half of the work with her lighter tone, making for a far more poignant experience than the Norwegian duo can muster. To be fair, I should say that I’ve been captivated – and perhaps swayed – by the open-air informality of the Al Fresco format, which certainly accentuated the élan of Black’s approach.

I have no record of hearing or reviewing Clarke’s music before March 2019 at the Savannah Music Festival, where chamber music host Daniel Hope reprised the composer’s Dumka, a piece the famed violinist had played on a Naxos recording of Clarke’s music. That estimable album, recorded in 2007, showcased Clarke’s most famous work, her Viola Sonata – played by violist Philip Dukes. As you may know, Dukes would have succeeded Hope as the chamber music director at Savannah Music Festival this year if the 17-day event hadn’t been canceled. Black and Swanson discussed Viola Sonata in the context of Clarke’s stature among her contemporaries. Clarke herself was a world-class violist (and violinist), and she submitted her chef d’oeuvre to a 1919 competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge at the Berkshire Festival. Ernest Bloch and Paul Hindemith were also among the 72 entries, Swanson noted. Depending on which account you read, Clarke either tied Bloch for the Coolidge Prize until Coolidge bumped her down to second place, or she took the runner-up spot outright.

The piece that Swanson and Black would play, “Lullaby,” was more modest in its aspirations than the brooding, turbulent, three-movement Sonata – its epic first movement is marked Impetuoso! – but this more abbreviated work probably dates from the same period, in 1918. Black was quick to point out the piece’s accidental relevance to today, written during the Spanish Flu pandemic, and though Swanson remarked on how such periods of confinement often prove fertile for creativity, this “Lullaby” had an unmistakably mournful sound, not unlike Samuel Barber’s more funereal “Adagio,” with a similar peak before taking a breath for the last third of the piece. As beautiful as the playing is, from Black in particular, this duo’s interpretation lacks the contours you’ll find on the excellent Centaur recording of this work, where both cellist Moisés Molina and violist Kenneth Martinson assert themselves more forcefully and emotionally.

With Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960) taking us back to the brink of the modernity with his 1902 Serenade in C Major for string trio, Al Fresco completed its second consecutive concert of music written entirely since the dawn of the 20th century. Both Swanson and Black lauded the solos Dohnányi had written for viola at the outset of the Romanza second movement and toward the end of the theme-and-variations fourth movement. Submitting his regrets for sitting out the trio, Black was replaced onstage by cellist Marlene Ballena and associate concertmaster Joseph Meyer.

I found this performance more likable, in the early movements and in the Rondo Finale, than on my 2003 Naxos CD with members of the Spectrum Concerts Berlin, where the players sounded too slick and harmonious after hearing the fresher, livelier Charlotte trio. The Symphony musicians skipped over the middle Scherzo movement and didn’t find nearly as much emotion in the Tema con variazioni because their pacing and dynamics were more monochromatic. Yet in the passages extolled by our host and Swanson in their conversation, the violist lived up to the hype. Even so, it can be said that Swanson’s softly accompanied solo in the Romanza, about 75 seconds in length, became a launchpad when Meyer entered with his violin, picked up the pace, turned up the volume, and soared. Between Swanson’s best bits in the Tema con Variazioni, Ballena had her finest moments. Rydel’s engineering also merits special praise here, for the entire trio is subtly encased in a warm concert hall ambiance.

With the cancellation of Charlotte Symphony’s Three-Week Summer Festival, extension of this Al Fresco series was obviously a logical move. But it should be remarked that, with the cancellation of six upcoming programs, and with no orchestral programming on the near horizon, more of Symphony musicians’ energies can be devoted to future Al Fresco concerts. In their sound and musicianship, they can’t get much better, but in their scope, we can certainly anticipate bigger things to come. If there’s anything to carry away from Al Fresco – and carry over to CSO programming when it returns to our familiar concert halls – it’s the notion that repertoire isn’t merely a balancing act between what the public craves and what Symphony’s maestro longs to present. As we’ve already seen, Symphony’s musicians also have some entertaining and rewarding ideas.

Symphony’s Al Fresco Doubles Its Originality With “All-Lamb Jam”

Review: Al Fresco “All-Lamb Jam” Webcast

By Perry Tannenbaum

Charlotte Symphony’s new Al Fresco series had already reached an admirable level of originality in its first four installments. Although they had launched many inventive series in the past, chamber music had been off-limits programming before the current pandemic, and we can only attribute the birth of an online-only series to the necessities of our current plight. But thanks to two multi-talented Symphony musicians, principal cellist Alan Black and French hornist Bob Rydel, weekly Al Fresco webcasts have not only been judiciously programmed and masterfully played, they have risen to admirable distinction with Black’s insightful interviews and Rydel’s remarkable audio engineering in an outdoor setting and his immaculate video editing.

The original touches enhancing all this artistry and virtuosity have been in Black’s emphasis on the musicians’ point-of-view in interviewing his guests and in the creative editing of each episode. Unlike a concert in real time, a prerecorded concert can dispense with scenery changes as we shift from one set of players to another – or from interview mode to performance. Beyond that, Black and Rydel have occasionally flipped the chronology of interviews and performances in their episodes. That innovation allows Black to discuss performances we’re about to see with his fellow musicians – as in the previous “Viennese Serenades” concert, where Black and two Symphony violinist discussed what it was like to play a swift Haydn divertimento while wearing masks.

The latest Al Fresco concert, “All-Lamb Jam,” added new layers of originality, an entire program of new compositions by Symphony cellist Jeremy Lamb and interviews with the composer that took us through how his music came to be written. After a brief welcome to us and an intro to Lamb, now a member of Symphony’s cello corps for three-and-a-half years, Black plunged right into the unique titles of the three-part Lamb Jam Set. As it turns out, they had a lot to do with the musicians that Lamb wrote the piece for, cellist Sarah Markle and bassist Taddes Korris, with whom he bonded shortly after joining Charlotte Symphony.

A prime motive for writing all the pieces on the program turned out to be the scarcity of music previously written for two cellos and a bass. Both Markle and Korris, Lamb soon found out, were vegans, so “The Hempeh Tempeh Jam” was an outgrowth of Lamb’s learning curve as he struggled to remember the difference between the two soy products. The entire Lamb Jam was itself an outgrowth, the composer revealed, of a melody that hit him during work on A Ride on Oumuamua, the more ambitious piece that would conclude the concert.

As for Lamb’s anecdotes about the other titles in the Lamb Jam, “A Stroll Down Alpha Mill Lane” and “Keepin’ It Schwifty,” those would have to wait until I replayed the episode later. Weather at my viewing location, across the state line in York County, scrambled the audio and visual signals that followed in this conversation between Black and Lamb. Fortunately, I was able to recover the YouTube channel in time for the music to begin. “Hempeh Tempeh” sported the back-and-forth feeling that might have been evoked by its title, for the harmonized melody line of the two cellos drew shuffling answers from Korris’s bowed double bass. In the next chorus, Lamb and Markle played higher and longer, and the Korris answer bridged the end of this chorus and the beginning of the next, where the cellos were now answering him. Lamb was clearly the lead afterwards as the music grew bluesier in the closing chorus. It was only after I replayed the episode that I heard Lamb’s confirmation that his template for “Hempeh Tempeh” and the ensuing “Alpha Mill Lane” was a 12-bar blues. As you could expect, “A Stroll Down Alpha Mill Lane,” named after the street where Markle and Korris reside, ambled along at a medium-speed loping gait, and you might find it (at the Al Fresco webpage) even jazzier than the opening piece in the Jam, with a nifty Korris glissando launching the final chorus.

The “Schwifty” title derives from the cartoon world of Rick and Morty, a realm where my erudition is limited to an animated 87-second clip on YouTube. It’s easily the most free and provocative movement in Lamb’s suite – and the one that most decisively deserves to be called a jam. It began with a Korris pizzicato intro, taken up by Markle as Lamb carried the melody. Two of the sections had the feel of an accelerating locomotive, with Markle emphatically seizing the lead at cruising speed the first time around as Lamb sawed a propulsive ostinato. Korris also had some telling licks during the fray, which was driving and bluesy in the medium-tempo sections. The rocking sway of the most memorable passages were even more reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s “Any Way You Want Me” than parts of “Alpha Mill Lane” had been.

Named for the first interstellar stellar object to have ever been observed passing through our solar system, A Ride on Oumuamua ambitiously chronicles the birth of the object (estimated in 2017 at perhaps more than a half-mile in length), its epic journey through space, its arrival in our solar system, its flybys the sun and the Earth, and its voyage beyond. In his second conversation with Black, Lamb credited a Glass-like riff that he heard Korris playing for inspiring his Oumuamua, but in his opening section, “In the beginning, the motion of the stars,” Korris contributes richly yet sparingly, his long, widely spaced notes simulating the primordial darkness in which the cellos’ arpeggios play out. With the opening notes of the ensuing section, “Oumuamua is hurled away; the journey begins,” Lamb has already broken free from Glass’s minimalism. Other notable sections follow before Oumuamua reaches our solar system. Korris has a fine melodic lead in “…icy worlds appear,” where the cellists both get chances to sing, and in “…a lonely voyage; calling out,” there was a forlorn cadenza for Lamb that seemed to float in deep space.

Because the titles flash only briefly onscreen, in thin white letters spread across an orange brushstroke design, you might miss some of the 14 section titles on your first viewing. That’s the only significant production flaw I’ve found so far in the Al Fresco concerts, requiring me to “rewind” numerous times as I documented the titles that flashed on and off the bottom of the screen. Oumuamua went on to make Lamb’s strongest case for composing music for this unique instrumental combination – and a strong argument for applying Glass’s hypnotic arpeggios to space travel. In the course of “…Earth appears,” “…Earth fades into the distance,” and his concluding “…infinite vistas: time loses meaning,” Lamb reminded me more than once of the sensation of interstellar travel that Star Trek delivered on TV, his fadeaways particularly evocative. Yet Lamb didn’t conclude with a fadeout. Instead, he seemed to circle back to the cello arpeggios that had signaled Oumuamua’s birth, stopping abruptly when the reprise had barely begun. The more I thought about it, the more appropriate it seemed.

New Al Fresco Series Delivers Fine Sound, Gorgeous Music, and a More Personal View of Symphony’s Musicians

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Al Fresco Concerts

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’ve learned so much about our nation’s leadership in the past few months – and perhaps even more about ourselves. Much of what we’ve seen has been disheartening and infuriating. Aside from the horrifying death and economic devastation, sweeping the globe and becoming so intense here in North Carolina, I’m most heartbroken by the spectacle of what has happened to arts and education. Vitally important to our quality-of-life and our future, both arts and education have been forced to retreat into self-imposed isolation while politicians and citizens have so catastrophically bungled our response to COVID-19. Virtuality has often been our refuge, a poor substitute for so many plans we made. One by one in May, my mom’s 100th birthday, Spoleto Festival USA, and a class reunion dropped off my event planner, so like many of you, I’ve had revelatory experiences in recent months coping with the quirks of ZOOM meetings and discovering new frontiers in streaming. Neither of these comes close to matching the benefits of live meetings and performances, but they do offer consolation.

Occasionally, the necessities of confinement and social distancing have mothered some worthwhile inventions. Celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday in April, the Chickspeare theatre company began with a fairly common 24-hour new play format, issuing a prompt to a select group of playwrights and expecting original 10-minute plays by each of them to be written, cast, rehearsed, and presented 24 hours later. Instead of the community projects I’d seen in past incarnations of this format, the new works were household creations – written, acted, and recorded by small groups of people, usually pairs, who were quarantining together. The results showed that these writers, actors .and stage directors were also quite adept at filming and wielding video editing software. Chickspeare had broken into an entirely new medium.

Charlotte Symphony’s new Al Fresco series of chamber music concerts has been similarly revelatory. The webcasts began steaming weekly on Wednesday nights on June 10, in a more relaxed environment than Belk or Knight Theater, where Symphony’s classics series is presented, and on a more intimate scale. Not surprisingly, the Al Fresco series is the brainchild of principal cellist Alan Black, a longtime catalyst for chamber music programming in the Charlotte area, beginning with a monthly series at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church back in the ‘90s and continuing with more acoustically pleasing seasons of Sunday afternoon concerts at Tyler-Tallman Hall on the Davidson College campus. The new series, subtitled “changing venues for changing times,” is performed outdoors in the backyard of Black’s bosky Davidson home.

Fortunately, while choosing his programming and recruiting personnel, Black brought French hornist Bob Rydel into the process for a set of wind quintets by Josef Haydn and Robert Muczynski. As Black tells us during the “Winds in the Woods” program, first streamed on June 24, his original concept called for recording the concerts with an iPhone or two, tools we have seen so very often behind the scenes at ZOOM meetings and guerilla theatre productions. Operating the Acoustic Mobility remote recording service, Rydel has been able to bring his engineering expertise to the task with state-of-the-art microphones, digital recording, and editing equipment. Video production has been a tack-sharp as the audio, boasting HD quality, with at least three cameras superbly integrated in the editing mix.

Before tuning in to “Viennese Serenades,” I had caught up on the previous Al Fresco concerts at their convenient webpage [https://www.charlottesymphony.org/csoalfresco/], playing the first three concerts through my home theatre system on the YouTube channel with a Chromecast streamer. This “Viennese” concert was already posted when I looked in on the site on Tuesday, so I was able to set a reminder at YouTube that worked perfectly, counting down the minutes to showtime. At exactly 7:30, a two-minute timer flashed colorfully onto my TV monitor, with jazzier old-style movie graphics counting down the final 10 seconds. In a rather elegant touch, you hear wind chimes when the opening title flashes on the screen.

The atmosphere is relaxed and informal, with Black invariably dressed in jeans, already sitting as our show begins. One or two other musicians are also seated on the small stage, which is still sufficiently large to devoutly maintain social distancing. They will talk before they play. In an earlier show, Black explained how he has chosen to deal with masks: if one of the musicians wishes to don a mask, all must. Only wind instrument players draw an exemption, so on a previous “Music in the Time of Mozart” webcast, flutist Victor Wang played the lead in Mozart’s Flute Quartet without a mask while the string players were all masked. Interestingly, Wang had a special appliance attached to his instrument, a Wind Defender. The device was originally designed to help flute players to perform outdoors, but in his conversation with Black, Wang said he was finding that it was useful during the COVID-19 crisis in minimizing the spread of airborne droplets as he blew across the instrument.

Black’s conversations with his guests frequently veer toward the players’ experiences in performing the music rather than sticking with the customary descriptions of the music and how it came to be written. More intriguing, Black doesn’t stick to the convention of talking about the music before it’s performed. We might see an interview that was recorded after a performance shown to us before the music begins – or Black and Rydel might edit the webcast so that an interview segment airs between movements.

Altering the focus and chronology was particularly insightful when, prior to airing Haydn’s Divertimento No. 12, Black interviewed his “Viennese Serenades” guests, violinists Jenny Topilow and Lenora Leggatt, and asked them point-blank what it had been like playing their music with masks on. Leggatt was almost exclusively concerned with the heat that wearing a mask dictated and its cumulative oppressiveness, but both Topilow and Black cited multiple challenges and annoyances that illuminated physical aspects of playing stringed instruments and the added communication needs of chamber music performance that go beyond playing in an orchestra.

After revealing that the neck of her violin collided unpleasantly with the part of her mask covering her chin and jaw, Topilow went on to describe how visibility, breathing, communication, and cuing were affected. Black confided that he hoped that a portion of his performance, when the fingers of his left hand got stuck momentarily in his mask, would be edited out of the final cut. Visibility and breathing were linked problems for Black, who customarily wears glasses when he plays the cello. Because his glasses repeatedly fog up in performance, Black finds that he needs to time his breathing as he plays! He also finds that he needs to listen more intently when seeing is so spotty. For her part, Topilow finds it startling to realize how much she normally uses her face for communicating in a chamber music setting, yet she vows to continue wearing a mask when Charlotte Symphony resumes live performances. Next month? Hope so.

The individuality of the musicians’ conversations carries over to their musicmaking. Uniform dress codes have been discarded for this series, so the players can be showy and comfortable at the same time. Topilow and Leggatt were the first guests so far to opt for standing as they played their violins in Stamitz’s Trio in G, and while I can remember Topilow rocking a splotch of blue hair at the Belk, I’m sure that I’ve never previously glimpsed her tattoo. Facing each other from opposite corners across the front of the cozy stage, the two violinists blended exquisitely in the opening Allegro moderato while Black, seated upstage between them, added a rich undercurrent as the tempo never quickened far beyond andante.

The mellow sound of the ensuing Andante made the best case for earlier remarks emphasizing how much both Stamitz and Haydn reflected their era. Although we could see fronds and leaves swaying throughout this concert – and multiple clips holding Topilow’s score in place – the sound maintained a studio-quality presence without a hint of wind even in the quietest moments. In the concluding Rondo-Allegretto, I found the most persuasive proof that both violinists revel in playing fast. Topilow remained the lead voice, but Leggatt kept pace beautifully with the harmony. I wasn’t completely pleased with the way Stamitz abruptly transitioned to the slow section of this movement, where Black shifted to a suddenly somber pizzicato, but the slowdown at the end of this section and the accelerating return to jollity were very satisfying.

What I wrote about Black’s series of St. Peter’s concerts in the ‘90s, that they show off the virtuosity of Charlotte Symphony’s musicians more fully, remains true today. But now that this new series is actually a part of Symphony’s programming, I can further observe that it offers the opportunity to venture beyond the composers who figure most prominently in the orchestra’s rotation of classics. Beside the likes of Stamitz, Muczynski, and Ignaz Pleyel, whose music has already been featured in Al Fresco, we can add Haydn to the roster of the neglected, for only two of his symphonies – and none of his concertos – have been presented in the classics series since 2015, and none are on tap in the already-announced 2020-21 lineup. And how many of us have heard of Haydn’s Divertimentos – or knew that they were chamber music? My 11-CD set of Mozart Divertimenti on Phillips certainly didn’t prepare me for anything as small as the string trio configuration of Haydn’s No. 12, the second to be featured in this series.

It’s a beautiful piece from the start, a soulful Adagio that was more serious and tender than the Stamitz, with a yearning undertow from Topilow’s lyrical lead. Hardly a leaf was stirring as she wove her spell, yet Haydn brightened the tone and quickened the pace to andante in a more genial midsection of this movement. Topilow was most fully in the spotlight when she leapt into the ensuing Allegro, sawing away with plenty of verve. The weather wasn’t quite as tranquil where I was watching, but it only stressed the transmission here once. What looked and sounded like a split-second edit disappeared when I subsequently replayed the movement – twice to be sure. The final movement, Tempo di Menuet, seemed to be a misstep at its somewhat plodding start. Once the 3/4 rhythm was established, however, Haydn loosened the reins, and Topilow had ample opportunity to show off her dexterity and Papa’s joie de vivre.

The concerts, the conversations, and Black’s hosting style are all winners for Symphony’s new Al Fresco. I’m hoping for more sinewy music, like a Beethoven string quartet, if the series reprises after the traditionally lighthearted summer season, and I’d love to see programs at least as long as the 75-minute noonday concerts that are traditional at Spoleto Festival USA. But what’s so nice about the Al Fresco format and its webpage is that you can replay multiple concerts one after another. More than enough for an evening out – or in – is now very handsomely at our disposal.

Charlotte Symphony’s Missa Solemnis Thrills With Power and Sublimity

Review:  Missa Solemnis

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Beethoven’s original intent, when he conceived his Missa Solemnis, was to honor one of his foremost patrons, Rudolf, the Archduke of Austria, who was to be installed as an archbishop on March 9, 1820, in what is now the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, Beethoven missed his self-imposed deadline, so we are not on the brink of celebrating the bicentennial of one of this composer’s most towering achievements. The score wasn’t placed in Archbishop Rudolf’s hands until the third anniversary of his installation, wasn’t premiered until the spring of 1824 in St. Petersburg, and Beethoven never saw (by this time, he was deaf) a complete performance during his lifetime. Only the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei were offered when Beethoven presided over the only performance of the Missa Solemnis that he ever attended on May 7, 1824. Yet it cannot be said that the Vienna audience was shortchanged, for on the same night, Beethoven’s immortal “Choral” Symphony had its world premiere.

There is certainly a kinship between the two works, which call upon the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra to bring a chorus and four special guest vocalists to the stage each time they are presented. Last conducted at the Belk Theater by maestro Christopher Warren-Green at the season finale for 2011-12, Missa Solemnis has a power and visceral impact that rivals Beethoven’s mighty Ninth, but it is nowhere near the same magnitude as a box office attraction. Symphony has wisely pushed the chorale to an earlier spot in this season’s calendar and, compared with recent Beethoven programs when Emperor Concerto and Symphony No. 8 were given three times each, limited performances to two. Most concertgoers who were there on opening night would enthusiastically confirm that this singular mass was well worth hearing.

Warren-Green’s guest vocalists and the orchestra seemed slightly tentative – and the timpanist slightly timid – in setting up the opening Kyrie, and the ethereal music that Beethoven wrote for organ was conspicuously AWOL during Gloria and the penultimate Sanctus. But the confidence of the singers and musicians firmed up quickly enough for the hesitant opening moments to be forgotten by evening’s end – while the excellence of the guest vocalists remained a constant. In the company of tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan, soprano Christina Pier, and bass Jordan Bisch, mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller initially sounded underpowered in the alto part.

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Satisfaction in hearing Miller tracked similarly to the performance as a whole. When we reached the second section, the Gloria, Warren-Green jumped up and down to spur the musicians on, tempo quickened excitedly with an awesome leap in loudness, horns and brass entered zestfully into the fray, and the chorus – especially the sopranos – sang with heightened crispness and enthusiasm. After the opening Kyrie, each of the remaining four sections was well over 15 minutes in length, epic enough to go through multiple changes in tempo and mood. Beginning with the Gloria, we heard Miller to better advantage when she was freed to explore her upper range.

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Manucharyan and Piers were more consistently strong, powerful enough to assert themselves distinctively even when the Charlotte Master Chorale – known as the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte in 2012 when they previously teamed with Symphony on this work – sang robustly behind them. Displaying admirable stamina merely by remaining standing for the entire 80-minute performance, the Master Chorale were marvelous throughout. Perhaps their most thrilling work occurred in the insistent Credo section, but their hushed moments in the sacred episodes strewn across the work were equally treasurable, more than compensating for the sacramental void left by the absent organ continuo.

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Bisch had his best moments as he opened the climactic Agnus Dei section, which was eventually crowned with military thunder and harmonious choral glory. Perhaps the most memorable moments of the entire concert were cued during the Sanctus when concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu raised his music stand, signaling that he himself would soon stand up and deliver a silvery solo before merging blissfully with the guest soloists, most especially Piers and Manucharyan, in the sublime “Benedictus” portion of this section.

The elegant Preludio played by Lupanu, almost entirely far up in the violin’s range, is said to have been Beethoven’s attempt to simulate the descent of the Holy Spirit into the midst of his solemn creation. Most of the concertgoers at Belk Theater would likely testify to the composer’s success.

Cherokee Nation Claims Territory Next to “Appalachian Spring”

Review: Appalachian Spring

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prague Symphony Stages a Glamorous Zukerman-Forsyth Season Opener

Review: Prague Symphony at Smetana Hall

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bach Akademie’s “German Requiem” Concert Offers Heavenly Music at St. Alban’s

Review:  St. Matthew Passion performed brilliantly by Bach Akademie Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Once you’ve performed the St. Matthew Passion, as Bach Akademie Charlotte did so brilliantly in concluding its second annual Charlotte Bach Festival back on June 15, there is little left for this powerhouse company to prove as it begins its third season. In fact, their third season began in Charlotte and then Davidson after a weeklong residency at the University of Iowa, so they arrived at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church with their “Bach & the Class of ‘85” program well-rehearsed, glowing with the honor of their invitation to perform in Iowa City, and polished after performing the same program in concert twice in the previous three days.

Both born in 1685, JS Bach and Domenico Scarlatti fit the original program title best, Bach represented by his BWV 229 Motet, “Komm, Jesu, komm,” and Scarlatti contributing the more substantial Stabat Mater. Emphasizing the liturgical aspect of the concert, Music @ St. Alban’s rebranded it as “German Requiem,” for the program built up to Heinrich Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien, the first German requiem. The afternoon concert, led by Scott Allen Jarrett, began with Schütz’s less ambitious “Selig sind die Toten” and paid homage to Schütz’s teacher, Claudio Monteverdi, with “Audi coelum,” excerpted from Vespro della beata vergine.

Jarrett made no mention of the change, and seemed quite comfortable with it, revealing that the Scarlatti was chosen more to accommodate his traveling ensemble of 10 voices than to celebrate the composer’s birthdate. That was giving up the cause too easily, in my view, for Schütz was born in 1585 and there was no mention at all of the composers’ dates, either live or in our program booklets. It was unclear whether the vocalists from the BA|CH Cantata Choir – four sopranos, two altos, two tenors, and two basses – were chosen on the basis of merit or availability, for the level of excellence among the 25 singers who had performed the Matthew Passion had been so high.

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There was certainly no diminution of excellence among the instrumentalists who accompanied them. Seattle-based theorbo player John Lenti distinguished himself immediately in the first two pieces, strumming vigorously over the continuo in the opening Schütz song, and giving the fiery closing section of the ensuing Stabat Mater a percussive edge. Nicolas Haigh had already distinguished himself at the organ throughout the Akademie’s brief history, and cellist Guy Fishman, a principal with the Handel & Haydn Society in Boston, was returning to the Charlotte area for the first time since his stellar solo concert at the first Charlotte Bach Festival last year.

The Cantata Choir had dipped into Schütz’s work back in February, when Jarrett showed his inclination to point up the dramatic contrast embedded in “Das ist je gewisslich wahr.” Once again, the Choir began by ravishing the harmonies of the opening lines of “Selig sind die Toten,” the four men in the ensemble answering and enriching melodies beautifully initiated by the six women. Lenti’s strumming was at the vanguard of the mood change when the choir shifted with a quickened pace from their consoling words, “Blessed are the dead which died in the Lord,” to the more vigorous and affirmative “their works do follow after them.”

A more dramatic shift, from German to Latin and from the promise of heavenly reward to Mary’s keening at the Crucifixion, was in store with the onset of Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater. Jarrett didn’t venture to say where this Stabat Mater ranked among over 80 settings of this 13th century hymn listed in Wikipedia, but it’s certainly among his top choices for works scored for 10 voices – and he was obviously excited to add it to the Cantata Choir’s repertoire and share it with us.

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Unlike the traditional Requiem, which is broken into distinctive stages, the poem venerating Mary is continuous and rhymed, following an aabccb scheme from beginning to end. When printed in stanzas, it’s usually presented in three-line tercets, so it’s interesting to observe how various composers divide the 20 tercets in their settings. Pergolesi and Poulenc, for example, wrote their settings with 12 sections, while Rossini and Dvořák preferred 10 – not agreeing at all where the intervals should be. Domenico Scarlatti’s setting was presented in eight parts (his dad, Alessandro, also set the hymn – in 18 sections), tilted more toward the choral idiom than Rossini’s and Vivaldi’s without layering on Dvořák’s orchestral preamble and blandishments.

There was no instrumental preamble at all in the opening “Stabat mater dolorosa” (“The sorrowful Mother”) section, and though the sopranos dominated early here over Haigh’s organ, the men added warm empathy and deeply textured gravity. By the end of the ensuing “Cuius animam gementum” (“Her grieving heart”) section, the Cantata Choir produced a more massive sound in the passage depicting Mary’s grieving and trembling, growing plaintive and pleading at its concluding question: “What man would not weep if he saw the Mother of Christ in such torment?”

Scarlatti’s third section, “Quis no posset” (“Who would not share her sorrow”) was hushed and slowed in Jarrett’s interpretation, so the ensuing “Eia Mater, fons amoris” (“O Mother, fount of love”), addressed to Mary, sounded freshened with heightened speed and volume, with a spate of new counterpoint launched by the female voices. The Choir’s ardor bordered on joy in the penultimate “Juxta crucem tecum stare” (“To stand beside the cross with you”), yet the closing “Inflammatus et accencus” (“Lest I burn, set afire by flames”) began more quietly and focused than the text suggested, virtually a duet with tenor Steven Soph most prominent. Stately harmonies took over in the final tercet, “Quando corpus morietur” (“When my body dies”), cresting in resolute affirmation with the Amens.

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Soph moved downstage to sing the lead voice in Monteverdi’s “Audi coelum” (“Hear, O heaven”), literally upstaged by tenor Patrick Muehleise who vanished behind the Choir and sang the “echo” role at the end of each stanza – and by Jarrett, who gave way to Soph and led the other singers from upstage when they entered upon the duet for the final three stanzas. Certainly this was a lighter, cleverer veneration of Mary, for the vanished tenor only sang the last word of the previous stanza, usually abbreviating that word and transforming it into a different word. Soph’s “benedicam” (“bless her”) thus led to Muehleise’s “Dicam” (“I shall tell you”), but “maria” (“the seas”) was fully echoed to become “Maria,” introducing the song’s subject at last in the fourth stanza. The device persisted after the Choir joined the fun, until the penultimate stanza, ending in “solamen” (“solace”), segued into a full-throated Amen.

Pointing up the inner contrasts of Bach’s motet, Jarrett smoothed the transition between the beguiling Monteverdi devotional to the lachrymose opening line, “Komm, Jesu, komm mein Leib ist müde” (“Come, Jesus, come, my body is weary”). The singers’ acceleration in the ensuing line, saying they grew weaker and weaker, somewhat belied that resigned text before subsiding into a repeated lament on the sourness of their difficult path. Suddenly there was a complete hairpin turn toward happiness when the words “Komm, komm” repeated. Instead of their prior funereal lassitude, the singers merrily bounced the repeated words and the phrase that followed, “I will yield myself to you,” as if they were singing “Mr. Sandman.” After that upbeat ending to the Choral section, the concluding Aria began more slowly, comparatively hushed, and sleepier. But here Bach’s change of mood became more cohesive in Jarrett’s hands, giving us a satisfying ascent and resolution as we reached “the true path to life.”

If it were actually the traditional Latin Requiem translated into German, Musikalische Exequien would be far easier to describe, summarize, and pass judgment on concisely. The genesis of the piece is a little macabre, commissioned by Count Heinrich Posthumous Reuss for his own funeral in 1636 – with texts he chose himself and ordered engraved on the inside of his coffin. Only the first of the three parts of the work has anything to do with the Lutheran mass, embracing a Kyrie and a Gloria in a lengthy Concert section of 27 parts. Scored for six voices and continuo, the Concert comprises about three-quarters of the whole Exequien. It was a wonderful showcase for the BA|CH Cantata Choir’s singers as soloists, as deliverers of delicious harmonies, and as instruments of varied contrapuntal delights. Soph and alto Elizabeth Eschen impressed me most here.

Jarrett once again brought more contrasting contours in the middle Motette section, written for an eight-voice double choir. The prayerful opening line, “Herr, wenn ich nur Dich habe” (“Whom have I in heaven but you”), zigzagged no less than three times in the next four lines, sprightly, then morose, and then almost dancing in finishing with “God is my strength and portion forever.” Concluding his requiem, Schütz puts on his most elaborate – and confusing – show, scoring two different texts, the biblical “Song of Simeon” for a five-voice choir and a trio of soloists singing “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.”

The trio is directed by Schütz to sing at a distance from the main choir, so Jarrett deployed them to the rear of the chapel during the second interval. Quite a spectacle to take all this in at a live performance! The program booklet helped me to understand that the soloists behind me were finishing with a declaration that the dead “are in the hands of the Lord and there is no sorrow that disturbs them.” Up front, the chorus overlapped the trio and seized the final words, extoling the Christian messiah as “a light to enlighten all gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”

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Wrestling with two foreign languages and waves of contrapuntal complications with no instrumental respite – and no intermission – for over 100 minutes, the audience earned the praise that Jarrett offered them for their zeal and endurance. I strongly suspect they were ready for more.

CSO Takes Flight With Stravinsky “Firebird”

Review: Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite

By Perry Tannenbaum

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If you think The Donald is in cahoots with the Russians, take a look at the Charlotte Symphony. They began their 2019-20 Classics season with an all-Tchaikovsky program late last month and continued with another all-Russian bill last weekend featuring music by Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Glazunov, and Anatoly Liadov before climaxing with the Igor Stravinsky Firebird. Are the musicians of Charlotte Symphony and their conductors, first music director Christopher Warren-Green and now resident conductor Christopher James Lees, leading us into the arms of Vladimir Putin?

Or just maybe… they’re following their audience’s inclinations in melting into the bosom of Mother Russia!

Principal flutist Victor Wang started off the evening with his introductory remarks, citing a previous experience with Lees, when he led Symphony in the pivotal “Infernal Dance” from The Firebird, as emblematic of the special enthusiasm that he brings to the podium. But Lees would first need to conquer Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain in the fearsome arrangement by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Under Warren-Green’s baton, CSO had failed in its two previous assaults on the Mountain – in 2009, when the British conductor was auditioning for his Charlotte post, and in 2016.

Strangely, it’s the most familiar part of the tone poem – the macabre, witches’ sabbath part – that eluded Warren-Green on both occasions. All the chaotic, nocturnal terror of the piece was drained from the 2009 performance, though the tolling of the bells and the onset of morning at the end of the piece were gorgeous. The more recent performance three years ago attempted to restore the original snap and crackle of the piece, pushing the tempo from the violins, turning up the volume from the brass, and unleashing more sforzando crispness from the percussion. A bit over-the-top, I thought, and not convincing – until the bells sounded, more glorious than ever because of the heightened contrast.

The 2019 version glowed even more fabulously with the dawn as Wang, principal clarinetist Taylor Marino, and principal harpist Andrea Mumm worked their magic. The calm resolution was nearly as impressive as the diablerie that preceded it – so overall, I was still disappointed with our nighttime sojourn. Lees certainly brought all the percussive razor sharpness you could want on the Bald Mountain, and the brass were excellent, with full-bodied trombones rocking the house. Violins were note-perfect quailing before the onset of the brass and astringent in reacting.

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Trouble was, Lees eased off the pedal in pushing tempo. Nothing about the witches’ sabbath was ever maniacal or threatening to lurch out of control, and the interplay between the violins and the brass, particularly when the strings were asked to suddenly pounce, was lacking in visceral excitement. Listen to how electric it can be on the Naxos recording by Theodor Kuchar and the Ukraine National Symphony.

While you’re there, you can also listen to Mussorgsky’s original orchestration. You’ll likely reach the same conclusion I have: it was Rimsky-Korsakov who was being “modest” if he termed the work we know today an orchestration or even an arrangement. Only six of the familiar notes from the fearsome brass theme were written by Mussorgsky. The next nine add-ons were Rimsky’s invention – and all of the concluding dawn episode was his as well. Joint attribution is very much warranted for Bald Mountain, and Ken Meltzer needs to go back to the drawing board with his program notes.

Once Lees and the CSO had exorcised the Halloween – or St. John’s Night – demons haunting them on Bald Mountain with Rimsky-Korsakov’s original music, they continued to warrant Wang’s praise. Glazunov’s Stenka Razin was delightfully contoured, though the Cossack rebel’s bellicose episodes could have been more turbulent and his dalliance with a Persian princess would have benefited from another splash of Rimsky, namely Scheherezade. The recurring theme, an old Russian folksong known as the “Song of the Volga Boatmen” on recordings by Glenn Miller and Paul Robeson, was handsomely passed back and forth from the brass to the French horns, and Mumm and Marino were again a beguiling combo on harp and clarinet.

Lees continued to be at a loss about creating maximum drama in Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake (listen to Vassily Sinaisky’s account on Chandos with the Slovak Phil to hear what I mean). But there was no lack of atmosphere here as tremolos from the strings vividly simulated Liadov’s lake. Nor was there a dearth of enchantment as the woodwinds made telling contributions and Mumm again excelled, even on the smallest strings of her harp.

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With the 1919 Suite from The Firebird, the most-frequently heard of the three suites that Stravinsky distilled from his 1910 ballet score, Symphony achieved lift-off, playing with their most admirably controlled fury. Lees not only captured the bacchanalian abandon of the “Infernal Dance of King Kastchei” as Wang had predicted, he and the orchestra brought orgiastic celebration to the Finale, where Prince Igor weds his chosen Princess after freeing her from Kastchei’s captivity, using the Firebird’s magical feather.

Amid the collective sparkle and might of The Firebird, there were individual exploits to magnify the triumph. Principal oboist Hollis Ulaky had lovely spots in the opening “Introduction and Dance of the Firebird” and later in the tender “Berceuse,” where principal bassoonist Olivia Oh spread additional nocturnal wonder. Principal cellist Alan Black and concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu were both eloquent in the “Dance of the Princesses,” but none of the principals made a more memorable impression than Byron Johns, launching the Finale with his beautiful work on the French horn. The forlorn splendor of it gave the fireworks that followed added impact and an onrush of drama.

Prague Is the Coolest Place for the Classics in September

Reviews: The Classics in the Czech Republic’s Capital City

By Perry Tannenbaum

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The Czech national river, Vltava, flows through the Republic’s capital city of Prague, crossed by no fewer than 18 city bridges and most famously memorialized in Bedřich Smetana’s Ma Vlast (My Country) – where the river usually goes under its German name, “The Moldau.” A rich vein of classical music also flows through Prague, as you might expect in the heart of Bohemia. The gorgeous city not only nurtured Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, it was a friendly haven for Mozart, who premiered Don Giovanni and La Clemenza di Tito at the Estates Theatre.

Classics still pulse through the city. Daily. At the Church of Nicholas in the Old Town, posters proclaim two concerts every day. The Czech Philharmonic, the Prague Symphony, and the National Theatre Opera all have their own venues, and they don’t seem to fret over performing on the same nights as the others. In mid-September, when we visited, the Prague scene was conspicuously intense, diverting us from Vienna and Budapest, where the new seasons had not quite begun.

The National was offering the last performance in its 2019 run of Don Giovanni – at the Estates Theatre! – and Prague Symphony was opening its season with guest shots by Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth. Two festivals were in full swing when we arrived, the Young Prague International and the star-studded Dvořák Prague International. By star-studded, we’re talking Gil Shaham, Nicola Benedetti, Ivo Pogorelich, Gautier and Renaud Capuçon, and Boris Giltburg among this year’s virtuosi; Zubin Mehta, Neeme Järvi, Christoph Eschenbach, Semyon Bychkov, and Emmanuel Villaume among the conductors; and the Israel Phil, the Estonian National, the Prague Radio Symphony, the Essen Phil and the Italian National Radio and TV Symphony among the orchestras.

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We could have concentrated on the Dvořák Prague Festival, which offered five concerts during our five-night stay, but we opted for a broader survey of the local companies and venues. The National’s Don Giovanni was obviously a more Prague-infused choice than its La Traviata, so we pounced on that opportunity. Nor were we passing up the Zukerman opener, offered on the same evening as the Verdi. Our dance card was rounded out by the all-Tchaikovsky concert featuring Gautier Capuçon, my one chance to sample the Czech Phil in action.

To our surprise, National Opera was nearly as excited about our coverage of their Don Giovanni as we were about seeing it in the same hall where Mozart conducted it for the first time on October 29, 1787 – and where Czech director Miloš Forman insisted on filming his Oscar-winning Amadeus. National’s stock of production photos evidently didn’t replicate the cast that we would see on September 15, so they committed to providing us with photos from that performance!

The offer certainly didn’t stem from a desperate need for audience or publicity. Notwithstanding the fact that the Dvořák Festival was offering two concerts that evening – one featuring Shaham and the other showcasing Mehta’s Israelis performing Mahler’s Third – the Estates with its five tiers of boxes and balconies was packed to capacity. We were given aisle seats, to be sure, but it was necessary for management to bring in chairs to make that happen.

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Musicians of the State Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Richard Hein, likely numbered less than 30, even with a fortepiano and a mandolinist on hand, a prudent size for Mozart’s music. The Ouvertura probably would have sounded firmer and more sinewy from one of those mid-level boxes, if my experience at the similarly cylindrical La Scala can serve as a guide. But the hall seemed to warmly embrace operatic voices whether you were seated at ground level or up in the rafters.

A statue of the Commendatore lurks outside of the Estates, indicative of the dark hues often attributed to Giovanni and reinforced by Amadeus. But if you delight in seeing a brighter balance of comedy and drama in Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto, this cast directed by Jiří Nekvasil (reviving the 1969 production conceived by Václav Kašlík) was ready to deliver heartily. As the Don, baritone Martin Bárta was more than sufficiently virile and predatory, but there was a smoothness in his serenading that underscored his legendary charm. Bass-baritone František Zahradníček maintained a pragmatic ambivalence toward his master as Leporello, and his quick tongue on his most familiar arias proved that he was Rossini-ready.

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Giovanni’s lady conquests were wonderfully differentiated by the sopranos who sang them and in the sumptuous costume designs by Theodor Pištěk, who took home an Oscar for his work on Amadeus. Veronika Hajnová was elegant, wanton, and insatiable as the love-blinded Donna Elvira, and Petra Alvarez Šimková was so starchy and pure as the grieving Donna Anna that she actually drew laughs when she put off Don Ottavio yet again after Giovanni had gotten his comeuppance. Upstaging both of these nobles was Lenka Pavlovič as Zerlina, deliciously vamping her Masetto in two of her arias.

Utilizing the side aisles and a couple of the audience’s side exits, Nekvasil heightened the comical flow of the action and the sense that Giovanni was constantly pursued by Donna Anna and Donna Elvira. From our ground-level vantage point, it seemed doubtful that folks seated in some of those side boxes and balconies could see all of the offstage action at the sides of the hall, but they were better situated for the Czech and English supertitles, which were projected high above the stage near the proscenium.

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There were no such tradeoffs between ground level and the balconies at the Smetana Hall in the Municipal House, where Zukerman and Forsyth teamed up on the Brahms Double Concerto for Violin and Cello. To see them or hear them, ground level was best. Elsewhere in the art nouveau Smetana, you will feel a little exiled from conductor Pietari Inkinen and his Prague Symphony, though the hall’s design spares ticketholders below from any overhangs.

The opening night program was deftly crafted so Zukerman fans wouldn’t feel cheated by his sharing the spotlight in the Brahms. Both Zukerman and his wife of 15 years had individual turns in the spotlight at the start of the evening when they presented two Dvořák gems, the Romance for Violin and Orchestra followed by a showcase for Forsyth, Silent Woods. When we reached the Brahms, it was Forsyth’s cello that was most favored by the hall’s acoustics in the dreamy Andante middle movement, but the couple’s musical chemistry crested in the closing Vivace non troppo.

Slated to conduct a new Wagner Ring next summer at Bayreuth, Inkinen also holds chief conductorships at the Japan Philharmonic and Deutsche Radio Philharmonie. In a cute encore after the Brahms, he picked up his violin and traded pizzicatos with Forsyth, radiating genuine charm. Then after intermission, the 39-year-old Finn displayed his affinity with Jean Sibelius in a majestic rendition of the Symphony No. 5. By evening’s end, the Smetana’s quirky acoustics were no longer a worry.web_DP19_1709_ČF_Bychkov_Capucon_photo_Martin_Divisek_15

No acoustic blemishes marred the all-Tchaikovsky concert at the Rudolfinum’s glorious Dvořák Hall, where we heard a transcendent account of the Variations on a Rococo Theme from Capuçon. The gorgeous, impactful Symphony No. 5 from Bychkov and the Czech Phil was not at all anticlimactic, with splendid playing from the principal French horn, bravura from the timpanist, and tack-sharp section work from the brass. But the shape, control, and opulence that the orchestra brought to the Serenade for Strings in C to start the evening – plus the Viennese lilt to the Valse movement – demonstrated that the Czechs’ excellence encompasses sensitivity and finesse as well as brilliance and power.

Capuçon was amazing, the enduring pinnacle of the evening. I’ve heard Alban Gerhardt, Lynn Harrell, Mischa Maisky, Daniel Müller-Schott, Pieter Wispelwey, Alisa Weilerstein, Zuill Bailey, Joshua Roman, and Steven Isserlis in live performance. None of them surpassed the exquisite pianissimos, the gleaming harmonics, or the stunning virtuosity I heard from Capuçon as he possessed the Rococo Theme and each of its eight variations.

Ah, but I’ve never heard any of those other cellists at the beautiful Neo-Renaissance Rudolfinum! Capuçon himself seemed inspired by the sounds that reverberated back to him from the Dvořák Hall. It wasn’t surprising at all that so many orchestras from near and far were converging on the Dvořák Prague International: the sonics at the Rudolfinum have that kind of ravishing, Siren appeal.web_DP19_1709_ČF_Bychkov_Capucon_photo_Martin_Divisek_23So does the September weather in Prague. High temperatures ranged between 58° and 75°F during our five-day stay, ideal for strolling through this walkable and photogenic city, and nighttime lows dipped down to 48°F, justifying my choice of a long-sleeve dress shirt under my blazer for our after-concert walks back to our hotel – along the rim of the Vltava when we attended the Festival.

Preceded on the Prague cultural calendar by the now-defunct Prague Autumn International Music Festival, the Dvořák Prague Festival website yields no hints of kinship to – or rebranding of – the event it replaced. Yet it remains locally and internationally in the shadow of the older and broader Prague Spring International Music Festival, which begins annually on May 12, the anniversary of Smetana’s death.

The Dvořák event has plenty in its favor. Prague’s weather isn’t quite as unique in May, which is why classical music is especially cool here in September.