Category Archives: Classical

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

42857183534_3fc07101fe_kReview: Charlotte Bach Festival~Opening Celebration

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review:  Rite of Spring: Reinvented

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review:  Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Flaming Redhead Scorches the Red Priest

Preview:  Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Messiah

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symphony Demonstrates Their Seasoning in Beethoven

Review:  Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

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By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of Charlotte, 2017

Best of Charlotte, 2017

By Perry Tannenbaum

                                           Best ActorJeremy DeCarlos

 

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

Best Actress – Shar Marlin

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

Best Comedy – Women Playing Hamlet

 

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

Best Musical – Ragtime

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

Best Drama – Jitney

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

Best Night @ Symphony – Mahler’s “Resurrection”

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

Best Night @ the Opera – The Girl of the West

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

 

First Night at the Knight Succeeds With Rodrigo Concerto

Review: Rodrigo Guitar Concerto

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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