Review: “Meymandi Concert Hall was relatively teeming with musicians”.
By Perry Tannenbaum
Gradually, the classical music scene is coming back to life across the state, with fuller ensembles performing in our concert halls and audiences finding more access to seats. Back in December, streaming was our only avenue to Meymandi Concert Hall when cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Natasha Paremski performed an all-Rachmaninoff program to an empty house. Even then, the incremental return to normal was foreshadowed in the second half of the program. Having followed pandemic propriety in collaborating with North Carolina Symphony associate concertmaster Karen Strittmatter Galvin on the Trio élégiaque, the duo shed their masks for Sergei’s Cello Sonata.
Flash forward to last Saturday night’s NCS concert, and the Meymandi was relatively teeming with musicians. Two percussionists and 23 string players were now on the Woolner Stage, along with 13 brass and wind players splayed across the upstage in two rows, separated by plexiglass panels – all gathered to perform Joan Tower’s Chamber Dance and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. Looking over guest conductor Brett Mitchell’s shoulders, we could see socially-distanced audience members as close as the third or fourth row, masked as dutifully as the maestro, the string players, and the percussionists.
Unchanged were the evocative footage introducing the pre-recorded webcast, ushering us into the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, settling us its eerily empty lobby, and leading us up the stairway to Meymandi, where oboist Joseph Peters greeted us as before. Peters’ hosting reached a higher level here, both in his introduction to the Tower piece and in his onstage sit-down with Mitchell between pieces. So did the camera work at Meymandi, offering us more vantage points, closer views of the musicians, and far more polished editing. Recorded sound was also outstanding, on par with last month’s Mozart-Handel concert by the Charlotte Symphony.
Peters ably described the treacherous terrain of Chamber Dance, written for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2006, pointing out its unusual scales and harmonies, its rhythmic intensity, and complexity – particularly in sections where rhythm and meter changed in every bar. Our host’s credibility was quickly underscored when the performance began, for the oboist drew the first solo. After volleying with principal clarinetist Samuel Almaguer, principal flutist Anne Whaley Laney drew a solo that was arguably lovelier than the oboe’s. You’ll need to have the volume up if you wish to hear the beginning of Galvin’s violin solo, the loveliest of all, with Almaguer layering on. Yet it was also refreshing to see the timpani, tambourine, and two trumpets back in action after their COVID lockdowns. There were other interesting chamber-sized matchups besides violin and clarinet as the cameras zeroed in on a wind quartet and afterwards split-screened pairings of principal bassoonist Aaron Apaza with principal cellist Bonnie Thron and Peters with violist .
Belying Peters’ description, which had me bracing for a work that was rhythmically jagged and musically discordant, Chamber Dance turned out to be energetic and invigorating, with a natural flow between its solo, chamber, and orchestral episodes – though Dick Clark and I would refrain from calling it a dance. What I found most refreshing when Peters and Mitchell sat down at the break was the non-passive attitude Peters took as an interviewer and the pushback from Mitchell. Rather than agreeing with the description of Tower’s piece as a hybrid between chamber music and symphonic dance, Mitchell favored the idea that Chamber Dance was more like a concerto for orchestra.
The two also split on where the influence of Haydn was strongest in Beethoven’s Fourth, Peters hearing it in the pulse of Adagio second movement and Mitchell pointing to the mischief and misdirection in the Allegro ma non troppo finale, where Beethoven brings the music to a hushed halt before the furious gallop to the finish. Mitchell was also provocative in describing what the impact of this Symphony must have had at its Vienna premieres in 1807 and 1808, two to three years after the mighty Eroica. The ghostly, creepy, stealthy opening, circling back to solemnity, does seem to signal an even graver, more monumental work than its predecessor – until Beethoven’s infectious giddyaps merrily assure us that we’re off to the races.
The double basses deepened the spell of Beethoven’s intro in his Adagio–Allegro vivace opening movement, and a couple of timpani tattoos triggered Mitchell’s well-judged ignition of the conquering merriment. Laney offered a lithe repeat of the main theme on flute, and we had nice contrasts in those delightful moments when the restless strings quieted and chomped at the bit until Beethoven applied the whip. There was plenty in the ensuing Adagio besides its Haydnesque lilt at the start. The timps alerted us once again that there was more in the larder. A fade-dissolve to the clarinet spotlighted Almaguer’s admirable contributions to come as he dominated the solos. Beethoven’s own restlessness wasn’t ignored, and we could discern in his faintly militaristic moments what Mitchell had meant when he had prompted us on the rigor in this movement.
Shuttling between the blaring ensemble and Apaza’s gurgling bassoon, the penultimate Allegro vivace had as much mischief as merriment to delight us, with quiet passages that had light fluty colorings and oboe shadings. Of course, Apaza had his most special moment when he keyed the recap of the final Allegro ma non troppo movement. That should tell you that Beethoven has taken us far from this Symphony’s brooding beginnings, that it was written when the composer could still joyously hear, see, smell, taste, and touch our material world in the full flush of his success and celebrity. Sunlight suffused this grand finale, with none of the gloom of the cathedral or the grave in sight. The stop-and-go was more dramatic here than it was in the opening, yet there was no sadness sat all mixed into the affirmation that Beethoven offered or in the way the North Carolina Symphony played. Looking forward to the end of a plague instead of back to its havoc and carnage, Symphony struck the right notes and a responsive chord.
Review: Celebration of Amy Beach and Florence Price
By Perry Tannenbaum
Surely there couldn’t be a more natural concept than having two women instrumentalists sharing a concert stage and playing works by two female composers on Mother’s Day weekend. Or we can certainly hope that view will continue to prevail when we are past COVID-19, now that #MeToo has swept the nation, now that Black Lives Matter is opening the way to reconsidering African-American composers, and now that Trumpism is on the wane. Right now, I think we must admit, this oh-so-natural concept, brought to life on the UNC Department of Music’s YouTube channel by pianist Clara Yang and violinist Sunmi Chang, still felt rather refreshing and innovative. The duo showcased two pieces by Amy Beach, one of them excerpted from her epic Violin Sonata, plus a welcome reclamation from Florence Price, the African-American composer’s Fantasie No. 1 in G Minor.
The 30-minute stream was impeccably recorded at two locations with an imaginative video mix layered on in post-production. Just to disabuse us of the notion that all this wizardry was happening live – and maybe to add some glam – the ladies changed costumes between each of the pieces. Nor was there much of a letup before the evening’s encore, William Bolcom’s “Graceful Ghost Rag.” It was rather charming, in fact, to see Chang going casual and sporting a tee shirt, ponytail, and jeans to underscore the bluesy informality of this segment, while the video mixers had some fun of their own, tossing in some funky effects, including a foray into artsy black-and-white.
Compared with traditional chamber music programs staged in concert halls – or even those convened in the parlors of wealthy patrons – this offering had the claustrophobic TikTok feel we have grown familiar with during the pandemic. No view of Yang included all of her piano, and as the more mobile Chang moved from an austere bare wall for the Sonata to a furnished room for the Romance, her visible stage was barely as wide as her mantelpiece, slightly expanded after Chang introduced us to Price. Viewers will be able to see the earbuds sprouting from the ladies’ ears as they performed, but whether they were in any proximity with each other for their “remote collaborations” remains cloaked in mystery. Both of the Beach pieces began with piano intros, so synchronization was relatively easy to achieve. Price’s Fantasie, however, required instant alignment between the musicians, visually cued, which may be why there was a wee tablet (or a very large cellphone) perched next to Yang’s score on her piano.
Introducing Beach and her works, Yang readily admitted that the logistics of these collaborations had been challenging, but there was no strain evident as she played the lyrical intro to the Allegro moderato opening movement. Although the distributor of these UNC webcasts is YouTube and not Sony, the sonic quality when Chang layered on in the treble was on a par with any of the half dozen studio recordings you can readily hunt down on Spotify, possibly eclipsed only by the Chandos recording with Tasmin Little teaming with pianist John Lenehan. The challenges facing UNC’s duo inhibited the kind of fluid synergy captured by Chandos, but Yang triggered plenty turbulence and drama from Chang, and the video editing underscores the dialogue between the two musicians in the refrain that partitions Beach’s structure.
Actually, there was marvelous ebb and flow as the repeated refrains dominated by Yang gave way to more and more turbulence each time the focus switched back to Chang’s violin. Perhaps the more obvious choice for sampling the grandeur of Beach’s Violin Sonata would have been the concluding Allegro con fuoco with its rousing final rush, but the opening movement is lengthier, and the women ably advocated the ethereal virtue of the Allegro moderato’s serene final bars. I’d gladly listen to this duo in a performance of the full Sonata, especially if it were boosted by the electricity of a live concert with all of us in the same hall.
While the changes in attire and location for Chang chimed well with the more luxuriant lyricism of Beach’s Romance, this piece also plunged into turbulence in response to Yang’s eloquence at the keyboard. Beautiful ebb-and-flow was evident once again in the duo’s sculpting of this piece, both Chang and Yang tethering their crescendos and decrescendos to the intensity or tenderness of the moment, ending with a more soaring sublimity than we had heard in the Sonata. Apparently, multiple takes went into this segment of the video. How else can we explain a fade-dissolve from pianist Yang to… pianist Yang? Yet the audio seemed to flow seamlessly, a feat not quite replicated at the outset of Price’s Fantasie, after Chang gave us an impressive spoken intro and an even more impressive cadenza.
Was that merely an awkward fade after the duo veered into an outburst of folksy merriment – or was that an edit? While the web reliably confirms Price’s 1933 crowd-pleaser and the cover page of the sheet music, there is no confirmation that this piece has ever had a studio recording. All three of the YouTube listings have been logged in since last March, the majority by masked musicians, so when Chang told us in her intro that the piece was new to the duo, she was speaking for the rest of us. Total number of views has yet to reach four thousand, and only Dawn Posey’s recording with pianist Jack Kurutz (618 views) is truly a worthy rival to the new Chang-Yang offering in sound quality and artistry. As Chang rightly observed, Fantasy No. 1 in G Minor is a beautiful mix of classical tradition and African-American folk heritage, and we can see that the criminal neglect of this composer is only now beginning to be rectified. There’s obviously a long way to go as the piddling YouTube roster of videos attests, for a black violinist or pianist has yet to check in with this piece.
That would also be a natural concept. In the meanwhile, kudos to the ladies for their inclusiveness in holding a place open for Bolcom’s piece in signing off, a courtesy that I’ve never seen extended by male performers to a female composer. “Graceful Ghost” appears in numerous forms, including for solo piano, four-hands piano, and string quartet. Chang’s genial performance, wresting dominance from the piano, hasn’t been equaled yet by any that I’ve auditioned on Spotify. There are 35, so I’m not done. I’d resist the lure of Gil Shaham’s star quality if you’re interested in samples of this work, for he perversely ignores Bolcom’s injunction against letting the moderate tempo drag, giving us a singularly lugubrious and listless “Ghost.” Chang’s bouncy take was far more preferable, a very enjoyable way to end a concert that left me wishing for much, much more.
Review: Mozart’s Great G Minor Symphony at Belk Theater
By Perry Tannenbaum
April 24, 2021, Charlotte, NC – Exactly one year after I last saw the Charlotte Symphony in live performance at Belk Theater, the Orchestra returned to that same stage with music director Christopher Warren-Green at the podium. Much had changed. String players were all masked in the midst of the ongoing pandemic – and socially distanced, reducing their number to 22. Performing with the Symphony strings for the first time in a year, seven wind players were spread out across the upstage, socially distanced from one another, even more distanced from the strings, and slightly elevated above them.
Apparently, the spread left no room for the two clarinets that Mozart added to his revised version of Symphony No. 40, so originalism was forced to prevail. The most heartbreaking austerity, however, was the continued absence of an audience, myself included. Keeping Mozart under wraps for seven Saturdays, along with Handel’s “Entrance of the Queen of Sheba,” Symphony did not stream their March 6 concert until this past weekend.
That seemed more than ample time to perfect the audio and engineering for prime time, but when I screened the concert on Saturday on my desktop computer, feeding the audio to my estimable home theater setup, my audiophile sensibilities were appalled by the missing clarity, definition, transparency, and stereo imaging that emerged from my loudspeakers. Hoping for an enhanced experience, I switched to the YouTube version and streamed the concert through the same sound system on Chromecast.
The difference was decisive. All the sounds blossomed and fell into place. It was emotional for me just to see principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and principal English hornist Terry Maskin returning to action on Saturday night after their long absence, playing prominent roles almost from the opening measures as they personified the Queen of Sheba while the strings represented King Solomon and his court. But I needed the YouTube version to discern Maskin layering onto Ulaky with a second oboe and to fully savor the beauty of their duets.
“Entrance of the Queen of Sheba” might seem to demand a solemn, stately tempo to evoke the arrival of a monarch bearing gifts and questions, but Warren-Green took the music from Act 3 of Solomon – a biblical oratorio that should be performed more often in full, like Handel’s Saul, Joshua, and Deborah – at a brisk pace that infused the occasion with merriment and excitement. I’ve heard performances that were even swifter, but the pace that Warren-Green chose allowed the interpolations of the twin winds to sound relatively reposeful. Any worry that the Queen would become unduly effeminate was silenced by the presence of flutist Erinn Frechette, who remained stolidly masked as she sat beside the oboists. The bustle of the strings, answering the oboes, was beautifully blithe and textured, the first violins securely on the left side of the YouTube sound image.
Under normal circumstances, we would have presumably seen the two clarinets onstage that Mozart added with his afterthoughts, but I wonder how many more Charlotte Symphony string players would have been deployed. The balance between the winds and the strings was noticeably tilted toward the upstage winds, particularly in the slow Andante movement that follows the familiar Molto allegro that engraves this masterwork in our memories. Throbbing just a little more prominently in the background, the bassoons and French horns supplied the forlorn music with its pulse. In the Menuetto, where martial urgency battled against leisurely elegance in triple meter, Frechette joined with the oboes for the final bars in delivering the unexpected victory to elegance. Far from distressing me, these new emphases consistently brought delight.
Again, I needed the YouTube stream in the finely judged Molto allegro to fully perceive the separation between the sections and fully appreciate the silkiness of the strings where they needed to glide – and their crispness each time they needed to make a point. Midway through this opening movement, the orchestra masterfully executed the intricate quasi-fugal layering of Mozart’s main theme as various sections juggled it and took turns seizing our attention. Frechette and Ulaky were the most eloquent voices in the beguiling dialogue between strings and winds in the Andante, where Warren-Green built the lurking turbulence to the brink of an outcry, granting it the power of insistence before the delicacy and transparency of the strings reclaimed dominance.
In his personable introductory remarks, resident conductor Christopher James Lees earmarked the Menuetto rather than the outer movements as the spot where Mozart anticipated the glories of Beethoven, still a teenager when the “Great G Minor Symphony” was written in 1788 – but it didn’t sound as if Warren-Green and his ensemble had gotten the memo. Maybe more strings would have helped Lees’ words to ring more true, for the battle waged in this movement for rhythmic supremacy remained effective without bursting Mozart’s parlor.
The concluding Allegro assai was where restraint was most emphatically tossed aside, clearing the path for turbulence to occasionally prevail. While principals from the violin and cello sections weren’t in their customary chairs, musicians who moved up in rank to replace them and their absent peers breezed through the busiest passages of this symphony with the same poise as they had shown in less finger-busting episodes. Tempos charged ahead with thrilling momentum. Here the flute was more consonant with the strings, allowing the oboes and bassoons playing against the grain to stand out prominently.
Camera work from four different locations was as capable as the sound engineering, especially perceptive when the French horns, principal Byron Johns and Andrew Fierova, drew the spotlight. This 45-minute concert continues streaming through May 1, a tantalizing foretaste of that delicious moment when a real audience will reward Symphony with the real applause it so richly deserves. Mark your calendar for May 14 if you wish to be in the room where it happens, when Branford Marsalis will join the orchestra to play Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera.
Review: Duke Performances’ The Show Must Go Online series
By Perry Tannenbaum
Broadway has been closed down for nearly a year, opera remains in hibernation, while symphony and chamber concerts have slimmed down and gone virtual. Local theatre works, when they aren’t masked or outdoors, have diminished to Zoom or Skype proportions, modest in length and ambition. The preeminent pre-pandemic buzzwords, premiere and debut, when they’re used at all, are now applied by publicists to hurriedly-produced series of webcasts rather to performers or works.
How refreshing, then, to come upon the latest installment in Duke Performances’ The Show Must Go Online series, which sported the Duke debut of two-time Grammy Award-winning violinist James Ehnes and the world premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Sonatine for Violin and Piano. After acknowledging in his opening remarks that Duke Performances was “trying to celebrate its 75th anniversary,” Chamber Arts Society of Durham director George Copen proclaimed that the Kernis piece would formally premiere “this very hour.” That’s about as precise as you can be on a webcast that remains continuously accessible to ticket holders for three days.
Fleshed out with additional sonatas by Schubert, Prokofiev, and Saint-Saëns, the video stretched out for over 90 minutes, almost epic for a webcast. There was no intermission, of course, and the estimable Orion Weiss, no stranger to Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium, was at the keyboard. Weiss remained in the background during Ehnes’s intros, but as soon as the duo launched into Schubert’s Sonata in G Minor, it was clear that he was a full partner in the musical collaboration. There were extended passages in the opening Allegro giusto when Ehnes was quietly sawing away while Weiss merrily carried the main load. Conversely, when Ehnes had the lead, Weiss was churning away behind him, probably more challenged in his backup chores. A syncopated three-note phrase that the men played together at the outset was the only turbulence on the otherwise placid flow of the movement, recurring intermittently along the way and reprised emphatically to crisply close out.
An early work written at the age of 19 but only published after Schubert’s death, when the composer had left us far mightier works, this sonata and two others written even earlier were called Sonatinas when they were originally published – and Jascha Heifetz hasn’t been alone in retaining that title in recordings. But Schubert comes through in the Andante as the imaginative melodicist we associate with his maturity, and it was pleasurable watching Ehnes and Weiss as they took turns embracing the enchanting lyricism. The ensuing Menuetto: Allegro vivace proved to be the shortest and swiftest movement. Yet this little movement, despite its sonatina scale, developed a pair of themes and delivered some of the most rugged moments overall. Three thumping chords introduced the final Allegro moderato, like an invitation to dance, and the celebration slowed down for romantic episodes a couple of times, swept aside by the prevailing party spirit.
Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D was originally written for flute and piano in 1943, but violinist David Oistrakh was so enamored with the piece that he had the composer adapt it for violin, with extra trimmings (double bowing and harmonics), by the following year when he premiered it. Having already recorded the piece twice with different pianists, Ehnes probably didn’t need to say that he preferred the violin version, but the declaration certainly raised my expectations, since I’ve loved the piece ever since the vinyl recording by Jean-Pierre Rampal with Alfred Holeček became one of that great flutist’s first albums to grace my collection. In recent years, I’ve acquired two Oistrakh recordings of the piece as well. Ehnes didn’t fall short of any of those recordings, so I can only envy those who might hear this piece for the first time in his performance. On violin, the opening Moderato is more tender with more pent-up passion in the agitated passages; on flute, the music is more soaring, soulful, and serene.
Thrilling, exuberant, and frantic as it was, Ehnes’s bravura on the ensuing Presto did not bear out the violinist’s claim that Oistrakh had called for a brisker tempo than you would hear on flute. Some of the recordings I’ve tracked down on Spotify present this Scherzo as an Allegretto, to be sure, but the label on Rampal’s vinyl has said Presto for upwards of a half century. It wasn’t just a madcap romp in Ehnes’s hands, for there are tender moments amid the frenzy with wicked interjections, and Weiss was also very impressive here, responding assertively right up to the movement’s abrupt conclusion. Ehnes showcased the extra tenderness of this violin version most emphatically in the lovely Andante, dramatically tamping down the pulse of the piece and finding sensuous allure in the sinuous melody. The concluding Allegro con brio was brimful of triumphal zest, bursting with energy and virtuosity. Even the contemplative second theme built to a proud passion.
The diminutive suffix for Kernis’s Sonatine, Ehnes revealed, came from the composer’s mischievous determination to rhyme his title with his daughter’s name, Delphine. As the kaleidoscopic markings of the opening movement prove – including Oracle, Larkspur, and Delphinium – the composer was keenly aware of the geographic, mythic, and botanical associations with that name. Additional markings in that movement, Cetacea and Dolphinic Syncopation, hint at the probability that the girl has acquired an aquatic nickname at home or in the schoolyard. Although there is a Delicato embedded among the tempo markings, “Oracle” is anything but delicate – or feminine – at the outset, moving from fury to foreboding with enough energy to fray the horsehair on Ehnes’s bow. An ominous, somewhat uncomfortable lullaby followed a complete stop. Eventually, we circled back to tempestuous drama, capped with a vicious pizzicato.
The middle movement, “Shaded Blue,” was intimate, personal, and once again allusive. Taking his cue from Delphine’s tendency to dye her hair blue, Kernis gave this slow movement a sad opening, lightly textured with the blues. Some of the slower, quieter passages were downright eerie and despondent, building to anguished shrieks before descending to another depression that distilled into a long, sustained harmonic note – almost as memorable an ending as the pizzicato had been. Once again, the concluding movement’s title had personal and musical connotations. “Catch That Train!” recalls the composer’s anxiety the first time he and his wife allowed Delphine and her twin brother to ride the New York subway by themselves – using the kind of train rhythms common to bluegrass and boogie-woogie. Of course, it was Weiss at the keyboard who was most propulsive in taking the musical train from a standstill to full steam. But if Weiss was the rhythm of the rails, then Ehnes was surely the train whistle, with wailing double bowing and fadeaway glissandos. Ehnes also drew a hefty share of the rhythm, fiddling furiously at times in bluegrass mode and even strumming for a while and producing a hollow banjo sound. No, Kernis’s “Train” wasn’t the most New York in spirit, but it was definitely rousing and entertaining.
For their closer, Ehnes and Weiss presented the most often recorded piece on their program, Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, ruefully nicknamed “The Hippogriff Sonata” by the composer when a mere human violinist couldn’t cope with its technical challenges at the 1885 premiere. A special alertness is necessary to review the piece, for two of the three divisions between movements occur without a pause. Ehnes and Heifetz are among the heavyweights who have tackled the “Hippogriff” in the recording studio, a roster that also includes Sarah Chang, Gil Shaham, Pinchas Zukerman, and Salvatore Accardo. Listening to the Ehnes recording with Wendy Chen in the wake of this explosive performance, I found that Weiss was an edgier partner, drawing more snap and ferocity from Ehnes, making for more excitement in the majestic Allegro agitato. After that opening, Weiss subordinated himself more than Chen did in the Adagio, mixing more of an accompanist’s role into his reading, where Chen maintained more autonomy.
Chen’s approach yielded sweeter, happier results in the pivotal Allegretto moderato, whereas Weiss was more impish, moody, and modern. Rounding into the beehive buzz of the Allegro molto finale, Weiss offered more puckish punctuation amid Ehnes’s awesome cascade, working into a more feverish mode when the violin began floating above in more of a legato. There was more intricacy to the interplay in the middle of this movement as Weiss and Ehnes handed over dominance to each other. Then the ending built and built and built, each flurry from Ehnes delivered with more fire and fury than the last, Weiss prodding him on with more intensity, quicker pace, to a final explosion.
To be sure, the audio engineering by Christopher Scully-Thurston captured the sound of this concert with studio-level clarity; and filming by John Laww and Saleem Rehsamwala, edited by Rehsamwala, was beautifully conceived, varied but never gimmicky. What was perhaps most memorable and encouraging, however, was that Kernis proved he belonged in this company of titans as much as Ehnes and Weiss. Another Grammy nomination likely awaits the Kernis-Ehnes team when a recording is released.
Review: Burgeoning optimism could be found in Symphony’s most recent Mozart + Wirén concert
By Perry Tannenbaum
Unless a fourth wave of COVID-19 takes us by surprise and the 2020-21 season has to be “reimagined” yet again, Charlotte Symphony seems to be moving slowly, cautiously back towards full-sized concerts with their entire orchestra. Later this month, principal harpist Andrea Mumm will be reunited with the string players, taking a lead role in Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane, and next month, we can look forward to Mozart’s beloved Symphony No. 40, presumably with a full complement of woodwinds. As I sit down to write, Haydn’s Symphony No. 64 has been announced for May, bringing us oboes and horns. Meanwhile a fresh series of five outdoor concerts has been scheduled this spring at the NoDa Brewing Company, all on Tuesdays, with a discreet 7:00pm starting time, improving our chances of keeping warm.
Another harbinger of spring and burgeoning optimism could be found in Symphony’s most recent Mozart + Wirén concert. Back in February at the Holst + Elgar concert, only Holst’s St. Paul Suite was lively and sunny enough to get musical director Christopher Warren-Green jumping up and down on the podium. Check out the webcast of the Mozart + Wirén program, still replaying online, and you’ll find that both of these composers had the same effect, Mozart with his Divertimento for Strings in D major and Swedish composer Dag Wirén with his Serenade for Strings. In between these two, Warren-Green offered the Charlotte premiere of Jessica Meyer’s Slow Burn, a piece originally devised two years ago to accompany a burlesque dancer in Saratoga. Jumping was probably not the proper response.
Mozart wrote no fewer than five Divertmenti in D Major, so it’s necessary to add that this was the earliest, K. 136, written at the age of 16 – or that it’s the one Divertimento that Yehudi Menuhin recorded in his Mozart collection for Virgin Classics, leading the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne. The youthful energy of the piece burst immediately upon us in the opening Allegro, with churning propulsion from the lower strings and lithe buoyancy from the violins and violas. Dynamics undulated with the floating grace of a glider as the steady churning continued below in rhythmic waves. The sound of the Knight Theater space added the faintest echo, and the airiness of the sound recording was close to the standard set for this piece by the Seiji Ozawa recording of 1994.
Coming after this sunny effervescence, the middle Andante was so sweet and nostalgic, reminding me of one of the first Mozart pieces I was able to master on the piano more than 60 years ago. Lovely as it is, it was the only one of the three movements that could be imagined as royal background music, which is how a divertimento is normally regarded – and what resident conductor Christopher James Lees warned us against expecting in his introductory remarks. Attcked by the strings with at least as much zest as the Allegro, the closing Presto commanded attention, six staccato notes followed by the kind of explosive ignition we associate with Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which Symphony performed just a month ago. Along with the exciting flux of dynamics, there were also zigs and zags of tempo navigated by Warren-Green, layers of repetition from the three main string sections overlapping one another. The ensemble surpassed themselves with their legerity and clarity in long, swift sweeps of melody.
Slow or not, Meyer’s dancer evidently preferred to ply her trade in a steady 4/4 time as the piece began, with suggestive gestures from principal violist Benjamin Geller, principal second violin Oliver Kot, and concertmaster Calin Lupanu. Action halted before these solo voices – and after slaps on the double basses that sounded like whip cracks. Resuming the Burn, the music slid into swooning glissandos that allowed the dancer to surrender as much as her audience. Urgency and fury crept in as the tempo accelerated with frequent slaps on the basses, alternating with jazzy pizzicatos. The next halt gave way to a longer statement from Geller on viola that triggered a more frantic acceleration from the orchestra than before, this final gallop prodded by a constant cracking on the necks and sides of the two basses. What a dancer would do at this climax was enticing to imagine. Certainly it would be more like a flamenco flowering than a bump and grind.
Wirén had never crossed my radar before this Charlotte Symphony debut. He merits only a brief paragraph in my two music cyclopedias and only three entries in my last copy of the Penguin Guide, which did declare Wirén’s Serenade of 1937 to have been his greatest international hit. Apple Music is a better place than Spotify to hunt for it, but Symphony’s account was as exemplary as its previous two performances. Lees peeped in for another intro, describing the piece as a blend Mozart lightness and 1930s Paris, where Wirén studied composition. With long sweeping melodic phrases from the violins conveying Mozartian lightness, the opening Preludium had the urban bustle of Gershwin’s Paris – or the Londons evoked by Eric Coates and Noël Coward – and Symphony was not at all tentative about zooming into the cityscape. The cellos and double basses actually injected a heavy, foreboding undertow at times, as if a spot of rain were on the way or the specter of a traffic jam.
The rustic quality presaged by Lees in his intro was further delayed by the Andante espressivo, which began softly with pizzicatos spanning the Knight stage followed by an outbreak of melancholy from the second violins. First violins only intensified the poignancy when they layered on with their bowing, taking us further into solemnity and coloring it faintly with regret. A second round of pizzicatos from the lower strings led into deeper keening from the violas, intensified by another onset of the violins. Cellos blended with violins before a concluding pizzicato hush. The ensuing Scherzo was where Wirén finally fulfilled Lees’ rustic description, though I’d have to guess that the composer had Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony closer to heart than anything Mozart wrote, and a few notes struck up by the second violins had a kinship with “Willow Weep for Me,” written five years earlier by Ann Ronell and dedicated to Gershwin. Amid the hairpin turns of this impetuous movement, interspersed with the laughter of the violins, the cellos took over briefly with their sobriety.
With violas, cellos, and basses beating their bows on their strings, the beat of the final grand march began, reminding me most vividly of Coates’s British pomp. But here we swerved dramatically, slowing down for our first genuine B section of the evening before circling back to the forceful main theme. This Marcía is the movement that is most excerpted from this most popular Wirén work, and there’s nothing subtle about its appeal. Little strums from the basses thicken its pulse and there are moments when the beat is so strong that you could suspect a drum or two lurking somewhere offstage. Its giddy spirit had Warren-Green on his toes, waving his arms with the sweep of it all, and ultimately jumping. For joy, no doubt.
Review: Four Nations Ensemble’s Baroque Valentine’s Day Celebration
By Perry Tannenbaum
Chamber Music Raleigh and their latest guest artists, Four Nations Ensemble, had a different idea for a Valentine’s Day concert than you might expect, disdaining both the saintliness of religious music and the Hallmark Cards sentimentality of sappy love songs and madrigals. Their Baroque Valentine’s Day Celebration took up the theme of “When Love Goes Wrong,” and like the “Treacherous Love” concert by L’Académie du Roi Solei that we reviewed two years ago, reminded us that early music had a raw side, not circumscribed by salons or churches. Four Nations did indeed roam Europe more widely than the Roi Soleil group, presenting music by Handel, Vivaldi, François Couperin, Barbara Strozzi, Michael Haydn, Jean-Paul Martini, and Giuseppe Tartini. Both groups played the same trump card for their finales, the Médée cantata for soprano and instruments by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault.
Andrew Appel, who directs Four Nations from the harpsichord, acted as our host and offered his first thanks to the Chamber Music Society of Detroit, who produced “When Love Goes Wrong” as part of their new CameraMusic series. In order to remain unmasked, he introduced all the pieces – and all his fellow musicians – before we saw anyone else onscreen, lingering over the two prima donnas in the music, Queen Dido from Vergil’s Aeneid and Jason’s scorned wife Medea, somewhat softened in comparison with Euripides’ tragedy. Appel found them both extremely attractive to baroque composers in the sense that both delivered high drama and sharp contrasts, the antithesis of mellow background music for a dimly lit romantic rendezvous.
We could see the full Four Nations onstage (location never mentioned) when Appel began with a superb rendition of Couperin’s utterly gorgeous Prelude No. 5 from L’art de toucher le clavecin – on a lovely, ornate harpsichord that wasn’t quite as wide as his piano bench. The program was arranged in a way that gradually introduced us to the full Ensemble, with cellist Loretta O’Sullivan taking the lead on Couperin’s “Le Dodo ou l’amour au berceau,” a piece normally heard on solo piano or harpsichord to somewhat better advantage. By jettisoning the charming trill that infiltrates the recurring melody, O’Sullivan slowed the piece down and invited a downcast “Three Blind Mice” monotony, though Appel’s accompaniment was helpful.
Energy rose conspicuously when soprano Pascale Beaudin joined lutenist Scott Pauley for Strozzi’s “Amor Dormiglione.” It’s unknown whether Strozzi was a courtesan, but the Venetian was incontrovertibly prolific as a songwriter and no doubt wanton, since the one formal portrait we have of her (clasping a lute) shows her with one breast bared. Appel pointed out the suggestiveness of the song, and lines like “Love sleep no more!” and “Arrows, arrows, fire, fire, arise, arise!” weren’t about a cute cuddly concept of Cupid awakening. This was indeed the sort of song that Strozzi, a renowned singer, might have sung in plying a lewd trade.
Curiously enough, Beaudin eschewed much of the song’s seductive drama by remaining seated beside Pauley, who was brilliant in accompaniment. Nor was that the best position onstage for her to be singing, from an acoustic standpoint. The soprano’s voice came to us muted with a distancing echo contrasting with the lute’s clarity, but we could already espy loveliness in her sustained notes. Beaudin foreshadowed her fitness for the Médée when she detoured into moments of pouty resentment and amorous longing.
Shorter and darker than his previous Couperin solo, Prelude No. 2 was another beauty from Appel that perfectly bridged the importunate Strozzi and Handel’s more emotional “Credete al mio dolo” (Believe my pain). Discreetly, Beaudin switched chairs with Pauley while Appel soloed and rose while O’Sullivan played an aching intro on the cello, easily her most affecting playing so far. This put the soprano near the far end of the harpsichord, roughly parallel with O’Sullivan at the other side, by far the sweetest spot onstage for her to sing. Beaudin projected the opening ache of the song, intensified her expression for the crying midsection – after more affecting work from O’Sullivan – and returned even more appealingly to the plaintive theme.
Following the pattern set by Beaudin, violinist Andrew Fouts remained seated in his chair as he made his long-awaited musical entrance, playing the lead in the Andante from Michael Haydn’s Divertimento in C major. Pacing was more in the Adagio range compared with other recordings I’ve sampled, but Fouts’s tone was a fruity delight up in the treble, and the interplay between him and O’Sullivan, seated to his left, was quite enchanting. Fouts sounded even more commanding in Tartini’s Sonata No. 10 in G minor, “Didone abbandonata” (Dido Abandoned). Nor did it hurt that this piece, originally written for violin and continuo, was expanded for Four Nations to include the entire instrumental quartet.
Standing near the middle of the harpsichord, Fouts delivered lively contrasts from the beginning of the opening Affettuoso, including some transporting double-bowing that made the suicidal queen’s lament all the more poignant. Backed by Appel’s thrashing harpsichord rather than a mere piano, Fouts brought more clout to the turbulent Presto movement than Oistrakh delivered in his Paris recital album from 1959. In this and in the dancing Allegro finale, where the heroic Aeneas has left Dido far behind, Four Nations sounded more like the Fabio Biondi recording of 1992, another full-bodied performance.
Between these two instrumental exploits, Beaudin sang “Plaisir d’Amour,” Martini’s greatest hit – and one of Elvis Presley’s greatest when it was transformed into “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Best authentic recording I’ve heard is Bidu Sayão’s radio performance from 1950, collected in 2009, and my all-time favorite commercial adaptation remains the incomparably sweet Joan Baez recording of 1961, uniquely sublime and heartbreaking. Like Suyão’s version, Beaudin couldn’t escape the comparatively earthbound lyric of the original work, brooding about the love and the lies of a faithless Sylvia, so anger and bitterness inhabit the middle of the song instead of bliss. Thanks to the lovely work by Appel at the keyboard, however, I was able to rediscover the two fine melodies so finely interwoven by Martini – and Beaudin’s anger augured well for the Medea that lay ahead.
O’Sullivan moved over toward the middle of the harpsichord to take the lead in Vivaldi’s Sonata No. 4 in B-flat major, a spot that added echo to her cello. My favorite recording of this cello sonata by Jean-Guihen Queyras uses an organ and a theorbo to magical effect as opposed to the harpsichord-theorbo basso continuo offered by the Four Nations’ Appel and Pauley. The cellist sounded best in the even-numbered Allegro movements, while Pauley’s theorbo was most effective in the two odd-numbered Largos, particularly in the third movement, where his light strums and fingerings formed a halo around O’Sullivan’s richly forlorn playing. Appel’s thrashing harpsichord was most effective in the closing Allegro, combining with O’Sullivan’s nimble work on Vivaldi’s catchy melody to create the merriest music of the evening.
Both of the live Médée performances I’ve heard in the past two years, by Margaret Carpenter Haigh and Beaudin, have been more than equal to the best recording I’ve been able to audition, featuring Agnes Mellon. The spark of both these women, dressed to kill and spitting fire, bestowed a fierce energy on both live performances and ignited spirited accompaniment on both occasions. On my second go-round with the piece as Beaudin sang, I could pick up on two patterns of ebb and flow that Clérambault had crafted in his cantata. Structurally, the cantata shuttles between recitatives or preludes and arias, slowed fluid tempos and speed-ups that became increasingly dramatic when they recurred. Emotionally, the lulls corresponded with a narrator’s objectivity, with Medea’s nostalgia as she recalls her seduction and the sacrifices she made, with her retreat from murderous intent to poignant reconsideration as her heart rebels, and with the calm before the final storm when she contentedly observes that her spell has been cast. The quickenings connect with Medea’s remembrances of her betrayal; with her jealousy and her thirst for vengeance; with her renewed fury when she realizes how foolish she is to be hesitant, loving, and merciful; and with her summons as she unleashes the forces of Hell to mete out her revenge. Capping the portrayal, there was an ebb-and-flow within Medea’s frenzied wickedness as her outbursts of rage were punctuated with expressions of delight at the prospect of seeing her rival and her betrayer destroyed.
Fouts was at the forefront with Beaudin’s deadly conjurations throughout this riveting performance, particularly when the last of the 12 sections turned into a frenzied witches’ sabbath, and he kept fiddling – at a furious tempo – long past the moment of Medea’s final words of hellish triumph. But perhaps the signature episode of Médée, and surely the most chilling, came when Fouts, Appel, and O’Sullivan – in a stop-and-go tattoo – cued up the march that became the undercurrent for Beaudain’s wicked sorcery. No doubt about it now, this “Cruelle Fille des Enfers” evocation was cold, calculated murder, not a sudden impulse. And in her ensuing deployment of her spellbound fiends, “Volez, Démons, Volez!” Beaudin became regal, delighting in the mayhem while sustaining her fury. Insanity! No, this Medea did not tweet “This is what happens” after completing her handiwork, but Beaudin’s majestic arrogance, as she stood there defiantly in the middle of the stage, emphatically stated that her Medea was capable of such monstrous vindictiveness.
Review: Mozart’s Night Music
By Perry Tannenbaum
One of Mozart’s most beloved compositions and the inspiration for the title of a Stephen Sondheim musical, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is perennially popular on streaming sites, CD players, and classical radio stations. WQXR’s annual countdown of audience favorites listed Eine Kleine Nachtmusik at Number 38 in its Top 100 for 2020 – ahead of Mozart’s own Clarinet Concerto, his Symphonies 40 and 41, and two of his most familiar operas, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute. Yet if Charlotte Symphony is an accurate barometer, this Mozart masterwork is rarely heard in public. Until last Saturday night, the piece hadn’t been played in Charlotte on CSO’s classics series during the current millennium. The performances led by Christof Perick in September 2004 were played out of town at the Matthews United Methodist Church, Winthrop University in Rock Hill, and Davidson College.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has refocused our thinking about what music can be performed safely by symphony orchestras, while the BLM movement has been shuffling our thinking on what music should be offered. So it’s natural to conclude that Symphony’s dusting off of this old chestnut was purely in response to pandemic conditions, for the Nachtmusik is actually the 13th – and last – of Mozart’s string serenades, written in 1787 for string orchestra (or quintet).
Opting for safety first and omitting wind players from their recent performances at Knight Theater, Symphony must have found Mozart’s G Major to be an inevitable choice, especially since they’ve already dusted off Barber’s Adagio, the only piece for string orchestra that currently polls better than Nachtmusik. Notwithstanding this logic – and Symphony’s history – it must be remembered that Nachtmusik was already scheduled for a rendezvous at the Knight last April, under the baton of guest conductor Jeannette Sorrell, when the pandemic struck. So there may be an additional logic at work: very likely, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik rehearsals had already commenced. Certainly the musical scores were already in the string players’ hands.
The real responses to 2020 and the “New Normal” actually lay elsewhere in the program, most notably in the resourceful pairing of Mozart’s famed Serenade with Leonardo Balada’s A Little Night Music in Harlem, premiered in 2007. The preamble to this Nachtmusik pairing on the program, Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst, was also noteworthy. Starburst was commissioned by The Sphinx Organization, a non-profit dedicated to the development of young Black and Latino classical musicians, and The Sphinx Virtuosi, who performed its 2012 premiere. Capping the live-streamed concert from Knight Theater, concertmaster Calin Lupanu spearheaded the Charlotte premiere of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D, a work discovered and premiered in 1952 by violinist Yehudi Menuhin, 130 years after it was composed. Like the Balada and the Montgomery, this excavated Mendelssohn was the antithesis of the utterly predictable Mozart revival.
Clocking in at 3:31 on Montgomery’s own Strum CD in 2015, “Starburst” was a perfect prelude to the lengthier nocturnal works that followed, cued by resident conductor Christopher James Lees with an effervescent vitality that augured well for the rest of the concert. The minimalistic repetitions didn’t last long enough to become stale monotony, churned our way with infectious enthusiasm. Strands of melody were sprinkled with pizzicatos, and the bracing celestial explosions came in collective four-note clusters at the tail end of cheery sawing from the violins.
After explaining the interconnection between the Mozart and Balada pieces, Lees drove the orchestra into the opening Allegro of the Eine Kleine Nachtmusik with the same zest he lavished on the Montgomery aperitif. There was a dramatic contrast between the delicate passages in the treble and the onset of the full orchestra’s robust responses, which always came back louder, accelerated, and edgy. While you might prefer the way Sir Neville Marriner interpreted the music with his Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields on their Philips CD, allowing the music to speak for itself, the CSO reading was more exciting. Lees not only hears the sturdiness of the melodies we so readily remember in movements 1, 2, and 4 (not performed) of the Nachtmusik – and their amazing simplicity, anticipating the miraculous opening of Symphony No. 40 – he hears the dialectic in Mozart’s idiom. Even in the ensuing Romance: Andante, where repose might be more readily excused, Lees had Symphony playing crisply, so this wasn’t a lullaby. The brief second theme had some zip to it, subsiding graciously into the more familiar strain.
Born in Barcelona, Balada studied composition at Juilliard with Aaron Copland, began teaching at Carnegie Mellon University in 1970, and became a naturalized citizen in 1981 at the age of 48. The two Naxos albums of Balada’s music on my shelves; featuring concertos for Violin, for Cello, and for Four Guitars; both left me hungry for more. Both were recorded by the Barcelona Symphony, so it would have been easy to overlook Balada’s American ties if it weren’t for the Cello Concerto’s alias, “New Orleans.” A Little Night Music in Harlem, one blushes to say, was commissioned by the Hungarian Chamber Orchestra and recorded on Naxos by the Iberian Chamber Orchestra, underscoring the simple fact that Balada is underappreciated and neglected in his adopted homeland.
Music in Harlem is merely a peephole into Balada’s capabilities, but many of us who watched this Symphony webcast will not only accept Lees’ invitation to replay this performance online but also to seek out more of the composer’s output. A recurrent baseline through this composition, bowed or in plucked pizzicatos, could be construed as locals walking up and down Lenox Avenue or back and forth along 125th Street, also known as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Or it could just as easily be heard as the spirit of jazz clubs along that street, the pulsebeat of Harlem. Like Mozart’s Nachtmusik, perhaps even more so, Balada’s piece displays its layers, denser and more pictorial than the Serenade. Aside from Balada’s echoes of the second and fourth movements of Nachtmusik, the new piece evokes vehicular traffic with its occasional glisses and takes us underground for the rumble of the subway. Lees told us that he hears the extended whistling sounds toward the end of the piece as commuters emerging from a subway station whistling together. It was certainly an eerie, sad, and ethereal contrast with much of the big city bustle and cacophony we had heard before.
Listening to Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D minor for the first time, I couldn’t help thinking that the reason it’s so rarely heard can be traced, like the absence of Mozart’s Nachtmusik from our concert halls, to its having been written for string orchestra. The biggest names to have recorded the work since the piece was discovered 69 years ago are Menuhin and Kyoko Takezawa. On the strength of their performance on Saturday, the CSO’s Lupanu, Lees, and the 22 string players onstage at the Knight can thus be counted among this concerto’s leading exponents. The sound from the orchestra was full-bodied and satisfying from the outset of the opening Allegro. After playing along with the others through most of the prologue, Lupanu showed that he was fully warmed-up, attacking the opening bars of his solo fiercely, bowing with bold panache, sharply punctuating the swiftest passages and then singing the lyrical sections with ardor, all the while producing the fullest, loveliest tone I’ve ever heard from him.
As the middle Andante movement began, I had momentary fears that Mendelssohn’s immaturity – he composed this concerto at the age of 13, after all – might have been too much of an impediment to achieving true excellence in a slow movement. However, soon as Lupanu ascended into the treble in his first solo, all doubts were dispelled, for there were no pedestrian moments afterwards. On the contrary, Lupanu’s soulfulness increased with his silvery pianissimos. The catchiest theme in Mendelssohn’s youthful concerto came in the final Allegro, enabling Lupanu to play with greater verve and virtuosity than ever. Lees and the CSO seemed to be lifted by Lupanu’s brio, maintaining the torrid pace set by the concertmaster while he rested briefly before his crowning cadenza. Some fancy bowing gave way to a final burst of ethereal lyricism as Lupanu circled back to the sunny main theme. The soloist and the orchestra tossed it back and forth with engaging spirit, triumphantly finishing in just under an hour.
Review: NC School of the Arts Alum Jessica McJunkins, Rebranded as Lady Jess, Returns to Winston-Salem
By Perry Tannenbaum
When she graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree in 2009, Jessica McJunkins was already known at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts as a promising violinist. Returning to her alma mater as winner of UNCSA’s 2020 Alumni Artpreneur Award, the guest soloist at the Watson Chamber Music Hall was established in a career that has extended beyond the classical genre into theatrical and commercial music – and beyond music performance into contracting freelance artists and promoting racial diversity in the industry. And she returned as Lady Jess, somewhat scrambling my expectations.
The name change was not the only last-minute alteration of the program that hit my Inbox on the morning of the concert. Two groups that we had listed on our CVNC calendar, the Brandenburg Ensemble and the Amadeus Players, had withdrawn from the program along with two faculty members. Other than that, only the venue had changed, from the Stevens Center to Watson Hall. The Bartók Ensemble, under the direction of Winston-Salem Symphony associate conductor Karen Ní Bhroin, would play the previously announced works by Paul Hindemith and Samuel Barber, and Lady Jess would appear with the alumni quintet and UNCSA students who had rehearsed with her in two works by Joseph Bologne (1745-1799). Faculty member Kevin Lawrence shared soloing honors with Lady Jess in the Symphonie Concertante for Two Violins.
Ní Bhroin and the musicians seemed to adjust more readily to the venue change than the audio engineers, for the sound, which seemed to satisfy a scattered live audience at the Watson, was often rudimentary at the other end of the online webcast through my loudspeakers. The new W-S associate conductor had a microphone with her on the podium as she introduced the pieces by Hindemith and Barber that she and her 14-member ensemble would perform, yet the streamed volume was hardly adequate and the clarity of her voice was far from studio quality.
Of course, Ní Bhroin’s COVID mask and her Irish accent weren’t helpful, but here the advantages of Livestream came instantly into play. If your setup at home is like mine, you simply pick up a remote control and increase the volume on your home theatre receiver – or you can replay the whole concert later at your leisure. Now it may have made some of the Bartók group uncomfortable to hear their leader quoting Hindemith on the subject of composing for amateur musicians, but it was certainly illuminating for me.
Yet it quickly became clear that Ní Bhroin had no intentions of going easy on her students even if Hindemith had titled his 1927 compositions Schulwerk. Nor was she inclined to be servile or worshipful toward the music, for the opening Slow movement wasn’t as slow as it could be, and the second movement, marked Slow – Fast, seemed to almost flip the order of these tempos in the Bartóks’ performance, rather brisk from the outset. Ní Bhroin was equally aggressive in shaping her ensemble’s dynamics, adding to the freshness of her approach. She chose the first three of Hindemith’s Five Pieces, ending with the first of two sections marked Lively. There’s an extended stretch where only the first violins are pitted against the violas, before the second violins, cellos, and double basses enter the fray, and the Bartok Ensemble delivered a fine account of the contrast, so the dramatic effect of a finale was achieved.
Barber’s 1936 Adagio for Strings, originally a movement from the composer’s String Quartet that was famously magnified for orchestra at the request of Arturo Toscanini, doubly fits our moment. It’s well-aligned with performance restrictions imposed statewide and by the CDC, and it’s attuned to our mood – and the need to voice our feelings as the holiday season approaches and the pandemic worsens. My thoughts ran to it recently when Charlotte Symphony performed the Andante religioso movement of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, and it was certainly welcome to hear such a heartfelt rendition from the Bartók Ensemble. Here the sculpting of the dynamics by Ní Bhroin was far subtler and more gradual, peaking to a dramatic full stop before subsiding into a musical sigh and returning to its signature mournful plaint.
Surely, a couple of 18th century allegros was exactly what a doctor would order after the lugubrious Barber and an intermission, but webcasts, where live and pre-recorded performance seamlessly intermix, need not be saddled with intermissions. UNCSA chancellor Brian Cole sat down with Lady Jess – who sported a completely different mask, dress, and hairdo from what she would be performing with just minutes later. It was definitely a visual sampling of what the lauded alumna’s branding was all about. Cole described the Artpreneur award as recognizing grads who are “business savvy and technologically aware.”
The conversation not only highlighted Lady Jess’s eclectic musical and business interests but also how UNCSA had nurtured them during her undergrad years. Her aims, like those of Yuja Wang and Lang Lang, are to boost classical music into mainstream culture, though the pop stage name seems to take Lady Jess’s pursuit to a more aggressive level. She is also focused on making classical music, the arts, and society more receptive to African Americans – voicing her goals with a certain amount of eloquent, muted impatience as she looks forward to a time when black people have the cultural equity they earned long ago. Her down-to-earth Promised Land is a place where overdue respect is “not something we need to roundtable every time someone dies at the hands of police.” The only sour note in this fascinating colloquy came when Cole lauded his guest as a Fighting Pickle, an albatross all UNCSA alumni must bear.
Born a little more than 10 years before Mozart, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was certainly a fine figure for Lady Jess to champion – and to emulate. As Ní Bhroin rightly observed in her introduction, Bologne was more than a fine composer and violinist who was regarded as “the Black Mozart” (and likely a Mozart mentor), he was also a champion fencer, knighted by the King of France. A few things she might have added to make him worthier of emulation and attention: he was an important orchestra conductor, an important political activist, and a charismatic military leader.
As a promoter, Bologne prevailed upon Haydn to accept the commission for his “Paris” Symphonies. For her Bartók Ensemble, now gone from the Watson stage, she could have added that Bologne had starred in composer François Gossec’s Le Concert des Amateurs orchestra. The rest of us, in the live audience or watching the webcast, would have benefited from knowing that Bologne’s most famous opera, The Anonymous Lover, is currently streaming as a free digital experience at the L.A. Opera website through November 29.
If you’re familiar with Anne-Marie McDermott’s audacious 2013 recording of three Mozart piano concertos, accompanied by only a string quartet plus double bass, you already know how effective such reductions can be. Playing the Op. 13 Symphonie Concertante in G for Two Violins and Orchestra, Lady Jess and Lawrence enjoyed the advantage of being able to join their accompanying mini-orchestra in playing the intro to the opening Allegro and to rejoin them between their soloing episodes. Unfortunately, the two soloists were not equally well-miked, disadvantaging Lady Jess.
Only one microphone was visible in the video feed, suspended from overhead, slightly right of center. Lady Jess was further left of center, and her solo passages, often repeating what Lawrence had just played, consistently sounded softer and thinner. The five UNCSA alums, with a string quartet spaced evenly around the mic and the double bass in the opposite corner from the soloists, projected nicely. Hints of Lady Jess’s silvery brilliance came across in her first foray, but Lawrence was mellower and turned up his intensity as the movement climaxed, demonstrating that the prof could still keep pace with the alum.
Compared with the London Symphony recording on the Columbia label, the UNCSA performance most noticeably fell short of capturing the beauties of the Symphonie Concertante when the two soloists duetted. Balance and clarity are most important in these exquisite passages. The Watson Hall setup, evidently a work-in-progress if we consider how suddenly the venue was brought into play for this Livestream, was better suited for the Violin Concerto No. 1, which saw Ní Bhroin return to the stage and Lady Jess move closer to centerstage. Both of those moves were helpful, while Lady Jess’s mini-orchestra was beneficially fortified with the addition of two student oboists and two French horns. The wind players were unmasked, of course, housed behind a phalanx of four plexiglass cubicles.
The Violin Concerto seemed to challenge and excite Lady Jess more than the Symphonie Concertante, offering her longer solos that frisked in the treble and called forth more virtuosity in her fingering and bowing. From the beginning, Ní Bhroin spurred the tempo into its Allegro without letting the pace slacken as it does on the comparatively lackadaisical recording I was able to track down on the Oehms label played by Yura Lee. The ensemble was more spirited here than previously, crisp when their pizzicatos occurred, and buoyed by the wailing of the French horns.
Because of her placement onstage and perhaps because she was so often iterating what the other soloist had just played, Lady Jess seemed to wilt when matched with Lawrence. Alone in the spotlight and allowed to gather more steam, the violinist showed us some true Lady Jess swagger. Throughout the Concerto, she seemed to relish the dialogue with her mini-orchestra, particularly as the tension of the Allegro built at the end with rapidfire exchanges with the alumni army. More than ever, I was convinced that we need to hear more of Joseph Bologne – and more often.
Review: Wu Han and David Finckel at Duke Performances
By Perry Tannenbaum
Wu Han and David Finckel, longtime artistic directors of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, are among the world’s greatest ambassadors of chamber music – with talents and personalities worthy of their mission. I’ve seen them together in live performance on at least three occasions in past years at the Savannah Music Festival, and before those encounters, I had seen Finckel play without his wife at the Aspen Music Festival in epic two-night traversal of the Bartok string quartets while he was still the cellist with the Emerson String Quartet.
I’m still hoping to see them together at the Music@Menlo festival, which the New York-based couple established in California back in 2003, at some future date when air travel is no longer a game of Russian roulette, provided that the premises haven’t been reduced to cinders. In the meantime, I was delighted that Duke Performances was offering a virtual opportunity to see Han and Finckel online in a concert of works by Beethoven and Brahms – and curious to see how these elegant performers would handle the technical side of their webcast.
The video setup was fairly inconspicuous as the power couple opened with Beethoven’s pioneering Sonata for Cello and Piano in F Major, the first of two pieces written in 1796 for no less than Friedrich Wilhelm II, the cello-playing Emperor of Prussia. It was Finckel, in the charmingly shared introductory remarks, who pointed out that this was the first piece written for these instruments that placed the cello on equal footing. Three unseen cameras faced the players as they began the Adagio sostenuto against a bosky backdrop of what appeared to be the couple’s back porch, looking out on a brightly-lit forest that filled up nearly all we could see through the generously-sized sliding glass doors of their studio. Sound was warm and rich as Finckel immediately took the lead, Han helping to build the tension of the movement until we reached its crest.
Around that point, when we verged on the seamless transition to the middle Allegro, without our having seen a cameraman silhouetted against the burnt-out background, there were suddenly close-up shots of Han from a camera in the opposite direction that somehow didn’t expose any of the three camera placements that had already been deployed. When video was handed back to the frontal cameras, I finally noticed what looked like an iPhone mounted inconspicuously on a slender tripod just beyond the Han’s Steinway, roughly parallel with her left ear.
This was an excellent vantage point to watch Han’s light touch as she sped the tempo into the brighter Allegro and its sunnier melody, the most dramatic moment of the linked movements before they concluded. Finckel repeated the catchy melody with less filigree but no shortage of merriment and gusto. Overhead shots, which began to proliferate toward the end of the Allegro, revealed a dangling microphone less than a yard above Finckel’s right shoulder, almost directly in line with his bowing elbow.
With Finckel performing the Cello Sonata without any visible score and his microphone mostly out of sight, the look was very clean, particularly since Han was using a tablet to read her part, obviating the need for a page-turner. The two shared a dramatic cadenza, Finckel supplying most of the gravitas, before the rousing, effervescent finish. The sonata’s finale, a Rondo marked Allegro vivace, initially sounded anticlimactic in the wake of the middle Allegro, which is more than twice as long. Finckel and Han gradually stirred up its strength and intensity without sacrificing its essential merriment.
After the ensuing blackout, violinist Arnaud Sussmann and violist Paul Neubauer materialized, bows at the ready, for Brahms’ Quartet for Piano and Strings No. 1 in G Minor, firmly settled in the space formerly occupied by Finckel, while the cellist crossed over to the right side of our screens. Camera positions also changed. One placement put the newcomers exclusively in view, and the cellphone near Han was repositioned to give us a more frontal – and greatly improved – view of the keyboard. Lighting was also enhanced: the background greenery was not so nearly bleached away by the sun and additional indoor light insinuated itself upon the string players.
While it was natural to see Han and Finckel performing unmasked as a duo, I was a little surprised to see no adjustment with the arrival of Sussmann and Neubauer, who also played unmasked. Further decluttering the presentation, both the violinist and the violist mounted tablets on their music stands, so I never saw any pages turning. Finckel alone was old school, with a score that protruded from the right side of his stand, presumably paper.
All of the musicians knew their way around this Brahms, confident and collegial in a setting that was marvelously intimate. Acoustics were so beautifully balanced that no engineering seemed to be involved, the music forward and effortlessly in our faces in a way that chamber music in a concert hall rarely is. Seemingly positioned so close to the performers, we could easily see their camaraderie as they collectively savored the twists and turns – and the peaks and valleys – of the opening Allegro, described by Finckel as “almost epic.” The group was genial and jolly in this performance than Emil Gilels’ mighty DGG recording with the Amadeus Quartet but no less convincing. The ensuing Intermezzo had a nice brisk tempo for its Allegro ma non troppo marking, with plenty of moody, brooding heft, culminating with a charming little coda where Han shined – somewhat belying Finckel’s description of the movement as “perhaps the most wistful scherzo-style movement ever composed,” but never disappointing.
More twists and turns greeted us in the Andante con moto with sweet lyricism early on, Han continuing to assert herself, followed by a majestic rhapsodic episode that broke into a deliciously pompous military march. The upper strings combined to steer us into lullaby land, and Sussman took the lead in a climactic ascent before the other players imposed a soft touch-down. It was in the closing Rondo alla Zingarese, described by Finckel as “one of the wildest folkdances in chamber music,” that the congeniality between the players paid off most handsomely.
From the outset, a thrilling gallop, there was no question that this foursome was taking the Presto marking seriously, increasing the excitement with sudden decisive shifts in dynamics, triggered by Sussmann’s assaults on the treble. Han took over control, calming things down, while the strings plucked pizzicatos in anticipation of the restart. The upper strings launched a new theme before Finckel and Neubauer sweetly launched another. Ideas continued to bounce unpredictably between the strings and the piano with hairpin changes in mood and tempo until Han triggered the final frenzy. There was enough speed and fire to convince you that the musicians were racing each other to the finish – but more than enough virtuosity and togetherness to reassure us that they were all fully synchronized and having tremendous fun. It wasn’t relief flowing through the room and through the screen when the music was done. It was pure Gypsy joy.