Category Archives: Concert

Thorgy Brings Plenty of Christmas Cheer – and Drag Artistry – to the Queen City

Review: Charlotte Symphony Premieres A Very Thorgy Christmas

By Perry Tannenbaum

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The first thing to know about Thorgy Thor, a distinguished alum from the eighth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, is that she is outrageous. If political correctness is your passion, then the next thing to know is that I’ve chosen her pronouns after consulting the program for the world premiere of A Very Thorgy Christmas, performed with the Charlotte Symphony and resident conductor Christopher James Lees. The Wikipedia entry for Thor, née Shane Galligan, is a tossed salad of pronouns that doesn’t conclusively settle the question.

Headlining a Christmas show with a full symphony orchestra, Thorgy proved to have multiple talents. Not only did she serve as a guest violin soloist on three Christmas songs, she performed a standup monologue, screened a self-produced takeoff on an NPR podcast, presided like a gameshow host over a farcical giftwrap contest between four Symphony musicians, sang an autobiographical rewrite of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” and interviewed Lees a la late-night TV.2021~Thorgy Xmas-18

If Thorgy’s debut with Symphony in January 2020 had even half the variety and surprises of her Christmas extravaganza, it’s easy to understand why she was invited back so quickly – to basically do whatever she wished. The only restriction she acknowledged was an imposed limit of one f-bomb, and she certainly detonated that one with maximum impact. Lees and the ensemble began conventionally enough at Knight Theater for a very full house, launching into a merry rendition of “Joy to the World.” But the arrangement of this familiar carol soon became a mashup of several other carols and then an outright Christmas barrage – “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night” at the same time? – before I began to wonder what few Christmas carols might be left over after this extravagant overture.

Unlike Jack Benny or Henny Youngman, the only other violinist comedians I can reference, Thorgy took herself seriously as she came on to play “O Holy Night.” Her tone was actually quite beautiful when she played, even though the arrangement and tempo didn’t demand impressive dexterity. “Carol of the Bells,” played just before intermission, required fleeter fingering, but even with this more energetic fare, Thorgy was flawless, unstressed, and only wisecracked once or twice over her performance. More of her freewheeling flamboyance came out when she put away the lumber and spoke out. This Very Thorgy Christmas was clearly a 2021 edition if Thor has any intentions of reprising her show as a Yuletide tradition. Not only was the new show silly, as Thorgy herself off-handedly remarked, it was also ephemeral.

Thorgy’s monologue was largely about her upcoming prospects and what she had done during the pandemic. Her pandemic shenanigans were plentiful enough, in fact, to supply prime fodder for her next two comical exploits prior to intermission. In the first, she went through the lowlights of her stint as a cameo celeb, that seemingly wholesome profession of producing customized video greetings for clients’ loved ones. As the smut piled on, we quickly realized that Thorgy didn’t attract a Hallmark Cards clientele. In the NPR video she showed us afterwards, Thorgy and a fellow drag queen, rather sedately dressed for this studio format, interviewed a comparatively blue-collar guy named Chef Schwetty. Judging by the varied colors of the samples he brought with him, I’d say Schwetty was a pastry chef. Without adding flavors or adjectives, Schwetty described his specialty as balls. Needless to say, the two gay interviewers feasted on the possibilities.

2021~Thorgy Xmas-36.jpgMore signals came after intermission that a 2022 edition of Thorgy Christmas would undergo drastic changes, for it was obvious that Thor revels in surprises. Dispensing with the customary concert preludes served up by her symphonic hosts, Thorgy burst onto the stage and kicked things off with a brash “Jingle Bells” spot. Of course, she had changed her outfit during intermission – from an ensemble highlighted by garish red-and-green-striped slacks to a fiery, glittery, fuchsia spectacular. She almost visually jingled in this one-piece caprice, and she discarded her dazzling Dolly Parton white wig in favor of a towering brunette bouffant. Thorgy is rather tall already.

Genial, easygoing, and relaxed, Lees complemented his guest artist handsomely. After the opening overture pillaged a huge chunk of Christmas inventory, Lees allowed the orchestra to stray briefly from holiday fare with an excursion to Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King.” When he returned to the podium, after the screening of Thorgy’s cameos, he and his cohort basically coasted along with a couple of snatches from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, rep that they play repeatedly for Charlotte Ballet every December. After Thorgy made her splash to open the second half, Lees engaged with the Knight Theater audience to help him out with the whipcracks in Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” A woman in a lower box seat happened to have a black fan that made a whippier sound than our claps when she opened it, adding to the fun (especially when she was late).

Although the Knight audience was heavily infused with RuPaul devotees, the “12 Days of Christmas” parody was too crammed with obscure references to Thorgy’s misadventures on Drag Race and its All-Stars spinoff – and often too unintelligible – to garner universal laughter. And of course, the repetitions built into the familiar song didn’t help, a lesson for Thorgy to learn for her 2022 edition. After this partial misfire, Thorgy came up with her most hilarious bit of the night, the giftwrap contest with four surprisingly smart-alecky Symphony musicians. With a connoisseur’s unerring judgment, Thorgy chose four gifts for wrapping that offered maximum opportunity for failure and embarrassment: a cluster of inflated balloons, an open umbrella (closing it was strictly forbidden), a toilet plunger, and a broom and dustpan combo.

Like those frenetic cookoffs you may have watched on TV, the four wrappers had to cope with a tight time limit, so Lees and the orchestra timed the competition by performing… something. The action was too engrossing for me to take heed, but the ending and Thorgy’s flamboyant flourish were emphatic enough to signal the sudden frantic finish. The cluster of balloons proved to be disappointingly wrappable and humdrum, but the unopened umbrella was such a colossal fail that I found myself howling with laughter.2021~Thorgy Xmas-29

On the other hand, the wrapping for the plunger, cunningly separated into two pieces, was an absolute triumph. But flutist Jill O’Neill ultimately won the night – via a plurality of audience applause – with her amazing wrapping for the broom and dustpan. Audaciously rolling the merchandise on the floor helped O’Neill execute her design, and I suspect that adopting a witch persona as soon as she first held the broom helped to sway the judges. I was actually impressed by the rapport that Thorgy developed with each of the four contestants as they displayed their handiwork.2021~Thorgy Xmas-31

We gracefully glided homeward after this high-energy highlight, as Thorgy sat down for her cozy interview with Lees, occasionally prompting principal cellist Alan Black to imbibe from a tumbler of alcoholic beverage during the course of the conversation. Things became unexpectedly revelatory when, after a very personal question, Lees suddenly asked his interrogator if they could continue their conversation backstage later on. Some marital history soon followed. Those hilarious moments prevented the sitdown with Thorgy from becoming overly anticlimactic after the madcap giftwrap – and it segued nicely into Thorgy’s closing performance on violin, a beautiful and heartfelt “Silent Night.”

Originally published on 12/25 at CVNC.org

The Bechtler Ensemble’s Birthday Beatles Is a Big Hit

Review: The Bechtler Ensemble Plays The Beatles

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Celebrating her father’s 80th birthday, Tanja Bechtler and her string quartet found a charming way to mark the occasion, commissioning composer/arranger Mark Adam Watkins to produce a bouquet of a dozen new Beatle song arrangements for the Bechtler Ensemble. The gift was presented in the form of a world premiere concert, part of the Music and Museum series at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, where Andreas Bechtler, founder of the Museum, sat proudly and happily in the front row. Making the concert even more of an artsy (and family) affair, Polaroid shots of the Bechtler family taken by Andy Warhol in 1973 – and the artworks that resulted from them – were projected on the upstage wall, during the musicmaking and during Tanja’s meticulously researched remarks on the tunes and arrangements.

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Watkins’ arrangements gave due deference to the leader of the Bechtler Ensemble’s instrument, the cello, but they were remarkably even-handed in offering extended opportunities for violist Vasily Gorkovoy and second violinist Tatiana Karpova to excel. Lenora Leggatt on first violin hardly eclipsed her cohorts, so evenly were the labors divided, and guitarist Bob Teixeira joined this Fab Four on a couple of the tunes, becoming an honorary Fifth Bechtler.

Watkins lists Beyoncé, Al Jarreau, and Lou Rawls most prominently among his previous collaborations, but it quickly became apparent that he knew his way around arranging for string quartet. On the other hand, arrangements of “Eleanor Rigby,” “Let It Be,” and “Live and Let Die” underscored how much classical influence already infused the original Top 40 hits. Lesser known selections like “Julia,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “Blackbird” supplanted such imperishable earworms as “Yesterdays,” “Lady Madonna,” and “Penny Lane” in the Ensemble’s survey, making the daughter’s gift to her father more heartfelt and personal. Oftentimes in her intros, Tanja would also spotlight phrases or sections of a lyric that were meaningful for her.

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Not at all surprisingly, the Ensemble started off with one of the Beatles’ most familiar tunes, George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” the most streamed song on Spotify by the British rockers. Conceived as a song celebrating the joyous arrival of spring after “a long cold lonely winter,” Watkins seemed to imagine a more instantaneous scenario, sprinkling a series of pizzicatos across his quartet and then launching the melody from Bechtler’s cello as the plucking subsided – like his sun was emerging after rain showers. The melody itself never quite made it up to the violins as Gorkovoy carried us forward on viola, but there was a radiant aura of violins as the arrangement crested to its zenith.

Notorious for its cryptic and surreal John Lennon lyric – and its infusion of Eastern sitar by Harrison – “Norwegian Wood” became even friskier in Watkins’ hands as the bridge of the song, lugubriously slowed down by Bechtler, circled back to a lively intro that reminded me of a Latin street dance. Gorkovoy and Leggatt restarted the song, handing the melody back and forth until Bechtler checked back in. The Latin syncopation hung around stealthily in various guises underneath, maybe a sly suggestion of the song’s extramarital origin.

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There were other instances where Watkins reacted as thoughtfully to the lyric as to the music. Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” began very low in the cello with a mournful gliss from Bechtler, reminding us that the song was a breakthrough for a pop music confection in dealing with the loneliness and depression of the elderly. The inchoate intro of “Imagine,” as Bechtler pointed out, was like a blind groping for a melody – the cello seemed to hit the tune tentatively, and suddenly when it found the path, the sound became achingly sweet. “Revolution” started out like the four instruments were an inarticulate, unruly mob, but the melody lightened to a relaxed Western swing groove when Gorkovoy played it over volleys of triplets – as far from angry as Lennon’s lyric was from supporting violent revolution. When the violins took it to the next level, corresponding with Lennon’s “don’t you know it’s going to be,” the pulse was so swift that it sounded like the Gypsy jazz that violinist Stephane Grappelli pioneered with Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt. Karpova played the full-out licks, soaring high into the treble while Leggatt bowed ferociously behind her.

Hints of jazz lightened a couple of other Watkins arrangements. There was a bluesy boogie-woogie insistence from Bechtler, churning like the pistons of a locomotive or an R&B combustion engine, under the blend of the higher strings in McCartney’s “Drive My Car.” We nearly ended in jubilation when we reached the repeated “beep beep yeah” exclamations, but a wicked decelerating gliss instigated by Bechtler on her cello hinted instead that the car may have comically run out of gas. Karpova had the loveliest variants on the memorable melody of “Michelle,” the song McCartney serenaded the First Lady with at the White House, before Gorkovoy and Leggatt had a nice exchange over Bechtler’s jazzy pizzicato.

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Teixeira first appeared with the Ensemble to enrich the very classical-sounding rendition of McCartney’s “Let It Be,” and he returned, logically enough, for the grand finale, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Bechtler came most beautifully to the fore starting the melody, Leggatt was a fine exponent of the first violin’s role, and Karpova shone in some truly sublime treble, but Teixeira’s guitar was mostly relegated to a subservient strumming role, nothing at all like Eric Clapton’s electric exploits on the Beatles famed White Album. The Bechtler Museum’s lobby, where I was hearing my first classical concert after many amplified jazz concerts, wasn’t as kind to Teixeira’s acoustic guitar as it was to the other string instruments onstage. Bechtler, in fact, sounded far richer here on her cello than I’d heard her many times before upstairs at the Museum. Hopefully, Music and Museum will continue downstairs alongside the Jazz at the Bechtler series, but I hope more care will be taken in the future the next time Teixeira is called upon to mesh with the Bechtler Ensemble’s wonderful ecology.

Originally published on 11/14 at CVNC.org

Major and Minor Keys and Composers Besprinkle NC Baroque’s “Les fontaines de Versailles”

Review: Les fontaines de Versailles – Music @ St. Alban’s

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Yet another classical music ensemble, the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, has joyfully returned to the stage and the thrill of live performance. Led by Frances Blaker, who also presided as emcee and took a turn as a recorder soloist, the authentic-instrument players assembled at Sharon Presbyterian Church, which has happily returned to hosting and sponsoring concerts in their sanctuary. The title of the concert, “Les fontaines de Versailles,” deftly signaled that the baroque offerings would not be limited to works by the usual German and Italian suspects. Aside from pieces by Handel, Telemann, Vivaldi and Albinoni, we heard music by Michel-Richard de Lalande, André Campra, Johann Fasch, Michel Corrette, and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Lalande’s Les fontaines de Versailles wasn’t the pièce de resistance of the evening, but it certainly keynoted the multiple infusions of Gallic flavor into the program.

2021~NC Baroque-14Georg Friedrich Handel’s “Overture to Alessandro” was likely the most familiar composition on a warhorse-free playlist, so there were multiple reasons for us sitting in the Sharon Presbyterian pews to experience frissons of pleasure. We could be surprised by the unexpected familiarity of the music or by how wonderful a live baroque orchestra sounded in a sanctuary after more than a year-and-a-half of being deprived of the satisfaction. This place was what this kind of music was for, though the complete Alessandro was a somewhat comical opera of royal intrigue with Alexander the Great in the middle of a romantic triangle. Violins were at the center of the gorgeous orchestral texture at the start of the Overture, its stately gait blooming emphatically and effortlessly throughout the hall. Tempos sped up and slowed with an ebb and flow that suggested the full opera in miniature – responses by the wind instruments growing boldest in the swift episode before the music settled into its ultimate repose.2021~NC Baroque-02

Lalande’s little gem, with grand treble harmonies from trilling winds over dancing strings in 3/4 meter, was actually nestled between two multi-movement concertos by Georg Philipp Telemann and Antonio Vivaldi. Each of these concertos, in turn, featured multiple soloists. In Telemann’s E Minor Concerto for Recorder and Flute, TWV 52:e1, Blaker teamed with flutist Kathleen Kraft on the first two movements of the four-movement work. The opening Largo had a more balanced interplay between the soloists, with exquisitely intertwined melodies and harmonies, but Kraft was clearly at the forefront in the ensuing Allegro, delightfully fleet in her playing with Blaker surfacing most deliciously when her recorder blended with the virtuosic flute.

Vivaldi’s D Major Concerto for two violins and two cellos, RV 564, was presented in its entirety, two Allegro movements separated by a shorter Largo. Blaker added some engaging showmanship by calling upon a different pair of violinists for each movement, thereby showcasing most of the section. Tom Lajoie and concertmaster Martie Perry, playing the violin solos in the brisk opening movement, with churning violins and foreboding cellos behind them, proved to be a tough act to follow. The Largo, pairing violinists David Wilson and Janelle Davis, reminded me of Vivaldi’s most familiar Mandolin Concerto, and the closing Allegro brought us spirited exchanges between Annie Loud and Steph Zimmerman – with cellists Alexa Hanes-Pilon and Lisa Liske making their most distinctive contributions.

After a halved intermission that Blaker proclaimed would be seven-and-a-half minutes, NC Baroque demonstrated that multi-movement pieces would not be devoted exclusively to famous composers. Gleaned from Campra’s three-act comédie-lyrique of 1699, Le Carnaval de Venise, the ensemble played four instrumental excerpts, shuttling between slow and fast. The Ouverture began as a stately processional before the winds began mimicking the accelerated strings in canonical fashion, gliding into a dignified slowdown. Two “Airs pour les Arts” followed, the second noticeably swifter than the first, and then a “Marche de la Fortune” for the Followers of Fortune, achingly slow and mesmerizing. Two passe-pieds offered joyous compensation for this lull, closing out this charming sampler, both of them very sprightly, bringing smiles to those faces that weren’t masked.2021~NC Baroque-10

Looking forward to the oncoming classical period, Fasch’s Allegro, from his three-movement Concerto Grosso in D minor, FaWV L:d7, was the pleasant little departure that Blaker promised, retaining many baroque traits with its woodwind filigree, yet more homophonic in its string textures. At times, the wind voicings sounded almost brassy. In the French segment that followed, Blaker and the orchestra began with the “Rondeau – Danse exécutée par les sauvages” from Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes and moved smoothly into Corrette’s “Carillon des Mortes.” Compared with the most outré moments of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Rameau’s Danse was not savage at all, rather formal, and the alternate title, “Danse du Grand Calumet de la Paix,” is more accurately descriptive of this Rondeau, which was nearly as familiar to me as the Handel selection. Similarly, the back and forth of flutes in the Corrette composition was rather blandly descriptive compared to more percussive evocations of bells by modern composers. All in all, there was an amusing quaintness and restraint to these paired programmatic ventures.

Albinoni’s Sinfonia in G minor for two flutes, two oboes, bassoon and strings, Si 7, was a great way to conclude this concert, though I wondered why the wind soloists didn’t come downstage as Blaker and Kraft had done. On an I Solisti Veneti compilation of 12 concertos and three Sinfonias, conducted by Claudio Scimone, this G minor also concludes that program, so its appeal is far from subtle – which was likely why we heard much of the finest playing of the night in these three delectable movements, the whole of this petite symphony. Liveliness was apparent in the first notes of the Allegro, featuring some choice exchanges between bassoonists Chuck Wines and Hanes-Pilon, who abandoned her cello here. Flutes separated themselves melodiously from the full ensemble in the ensuing Larghetto e sempre piano, offered up in beguiling 3/4 time. We finished with what sounded like the fastest Allegro of the night, with especially dazzling ensemble bowing from the violins. This was not only a joyous return for NC Baroque, it was also a reaffirmation that Charlotte, with a return of our Bach Festival looming in 2022, is a hotbed for this music.

Originally published on 11/12 at CVNC.org

“Appalachian Spring” Brings Glory to Picnickers on the Symphony Park Greensward

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Evenings at the Park Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Whether or not history ultimately judges them premature, the reawakenings happening across America this past month – at sports and performing arts – are destined to be lasting memories for those of us who make it to the other side of this waning pandemic. More than Charlotte Symphony’s return to Belk Theater five weeks ago, more than the five events my wife Sue and I attended at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston earlier this month, the most recent Evenings at the Park concert at Symphony Park felt like a regathering and reaffirmation of our community. String players and the Symphony president had worn masks on the Belk Theater stage, and the spacing of the musicians underscored how few there were behind guest soloist Branford Marsalis. At Spoleto, the absence of the usual opera, orchestral, and choral presentations left the indoor and outdoor stages in Charleston similarly depopulated.

Onstage at Symphony Park for Father’s Day weekend, the string players, associate conductor Christopher James Lees, and all the other players were unmasked, apparently spaced normally. Woodwinds, brass, and percussion were amply represented, so the selections from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite weren’t drained of their customary colors. Wedged between them, David R. Gillingham’s Appalachian Counterpoint rounded out a 50-minute program of music connected to the Carolinas.

2021~Symphony Evening @ Park-03Malleted percussion and a harp were in the forefront as the Porgy and Bess selections began in a mysterious mood, veering toward the romantic with the iconic “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and – after an interjection from a 747 jet – taking a jaunty, brassy turn with “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.” Violins ushered in “Summertime” with a softly cradling sway, handing off to a forlorn oboe before “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’” entered brashly with the swagger of a trombone over a clarinet. After so many months of watching masked string players soldiering on, I felt gratified to be in a crowd listening to long-sidelined flutes, a muted trumpet, wood blocks, and a xylophone joining with their bowing comrades as the orchestra cruised through “There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way” before circling back to the inevitable “Bess.”

After all the heavy-lifting and going-it-alone that the string sections of Charlotte Symphony have done on local stages since last October, it was nice to hear Lees telling us that the strings would be sitting out the next piece while the winds, brass, and percussion carried on. A luxury well-earned! Originally written for a tuba-euphonium quartet last year, Gillingham based his Appalachian Counterpoint on an old folk lullaby, “All the Pretty Little Horses.” As the absence of strings hints, Gillingham didn’t keep the tune in that sleepy idiom in composing his contrapuntal contortions. This expanded version gave the different strands of the original quartet to different instruments, so it lost much of its original mellowness while ascending into the treble.

Even in the slow middle section, sandwiched between the two speedier sections that were conspicuously cast in a mountain mode, Gillingham wasn’t about lulling us. Since a brassy modernistic scattering was happening in this more diverse version than in the quartet original, it would have been useful for Lees to let us hear the traditional “All the Pretty Little Horses” melody briefly before performing Gillingham’s Counterpoint. That way, those of us hearing the piece for the first time could track the theme more easily.

Darkness didn’t envelop the park until after Appalachian Spring concluded, so those attending an outdoor Charlotte Symphony concert for the first time never did get to see the beauty of the vast stage canopy when it is lit up – in a succession of vivid colors – under the stars. Nonetheless, we could hear how ideally suited this vernal piece is for the outdoors in its quiet beginnings when the chirping of the birds and the chuffing of the cicadas mingled with the music, casting a twilight spell over the greensward and our assembly of picnickers. The cavalcade of beautifully-stitched-together ballet episodes ranged from hoedown to scenic grandeur and from slapstick to sanctity, giving various sections of the orchestra a workout while evoking the variety of moods and costumes that Martha Graham and her dance company envisioned in the 1944 choreography.

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During the ebb and flow of energy and sublimity, Lees never allowed his ensemble – or his audience – to drift into doldrums, deftly insinuating the strains of the Shaker tune, “Simple Gifts,” into the shifting panorama. At first, the tune danced tentatively. Soon it frolicked. While the stage never illuminated, it seemed to burst into bloom at that spectacular moment when, out of an expectant hush, Copland brings his recurring tune to full force and glory. It was only in the quiet aftermath that the riskiness of programming Appalachian Spring as an outdoor concert finale was cruelly exposed. However this performance may have ended, presumably with a poignantly fading flute solo peeping out in the gloaming, it was almost totally upstaged by the drone of a passing passenger jet overhead. While this wasn’t a triumphant note to end on, few in the crowd left unsatisfied with the occasion – or unaware of its overall uplift.

NC Symphony, Audience, and Life-Affirming Beethoven Return to Meymandi

Review: “Meymandi Concert Hall was relatively teeming with musicians”.

By Perry Tannenbaum

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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.2021~NCSymphony Beethoven-11

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 2021~NCSymphony Beethoven-39.

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.2021~NCSymphony Beethoven-05

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.

2021~NCSymphony Beethoven-37Shuttling 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.

Branford Marsalis Helps Bring Charlotte Symphony and Subscribers Back Together at Last

Review:  Branford Marsalis Plays Ibert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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More than 15 months had elapsed since my wife Sue and I had sat together at Belk Theater and enjoyed a Charlotte Symphony concert – exactly 15 months since we had seen Gabriella Martinez with the orchestra on Valentine’s Day at Knight Theater. Needless to say, much had changed since our last night out in Uptown Charlotte. Until we turned off the I-287 innerbelt onto College Street, we had no idea what a solemn concrete canyon the Center City has become – because the explosion of new buildings, high-rises, penthouses, and parking garages has hit us while foot traffic on a Friday night remains nearly extinct. Fortunately, we had allowed for extra travel time as we made our way to the landmark “Branford Marsalis Plays Ibert” concert, for the capricious Saturday night traffic was as heavy as usual, doubling our surprise when we left I-77. There wasn’t a Hornets basketball game scheduled that night, so we were among the first to enter the BankAmerica parking garage, with hundreds of spaces to choose from.

Thwarted by travel restrictions that kept him on the other side of the Atlantic, Christopher Warren-Green was unable to preside over our auspicious reunion, so resident conductor Christopher James Lees was called into action, acquitting himself quite brilliantly. Attendance for the concert was capped at 500, about 24% of capacity, and our tickets had been channeled to the Apple Wallet app on my iPhone, which the usher firing his QR scanner gun was able to wield better than I. We were so eager to enter the hall and see the CSO again that I forgot to get an exit parking stub in the lobby, but there was no crowd lined up for them after the concert when I did remember. Masking was still in effect for everyone except wind players, so it was helpful to find staff at their customary posts in the lobby – at the ticket booths and at the entry to the grand tier – so we could recognize and happily greet one another.

Marsalis, the Grammy Award-winning saxophonist, would be playing Erwin Schulhoff’s Hot-Sonate in addition to Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera, so there was plenty to bone up on in our seats before the lights went down. Sadly, there were no program booklets to assist our preparations, only the sort of glossy 5”x8” cards subscribers will remember from the pre-pandemic KnightSounds series. An informational email from the ticket office had popped into my inbox that afternoon, which contained a link to a PDF version of a 24-page program booklet. If you’re among the lucky 500 attending the sold-out concerts, you’re covered.

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Filled out by Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances and Gershwin’s Lullaby for string orchestra, the program was an adventurous delight from start to finish – about an hour in length, as promised in that handy email, without an intermission. Bartók was particularly shortchanged by the abbreviated program handouts, for the names and tempos of his six Folk Dances couldn’t fit on the same card with all the movements Marsalis would be playing. Even if the Bartók movements had been listed they would hardly be indicative of what we would see and hear. Until the penultimate “Poargă românească (Romanian Polka): Allegro,” the dances weren’t at all festive. The “Brâul (Sash Dance): Allegro” was rather poignant, despite its nimble pace, and the “Pê-loc (Stamping Dance): Andante” was actually bleak. Even the gorgeous “Buciumeana (Hornpipe Dance): Moderato” had a forlorn fiddler-on-the-roof sadness to it. Otherwise, what was surprising was the extent that all these arrangements by Arthur Willner were miniature violin concertos, here featuring concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, who was especially impressive high up in the treble of the “Stamping Dance.”

A nice array of winds and brass – including principals Victor Wang on flute, French hornist Byron Johns, and trumpeter Alex Wilborn – joined the strings onstage as Marsalis made his first appearance. Beginning with “quarter note = 66,” the movement markings in Schulhoff’s concerto for alto saxophone were deceptively fussy and clinical, for the heat of the Hot-Sonate came from jazz, just emerging from its raucous childhood when this suite was composed in 1930. Originally written for sax and piano, the arrangement by Harry Kinross White is most beguiling in its bluesy third movement, where the horns added an astringent accompaniment. Quaintly described by the composer “lamentuoso ma molto grottesco (plaintive, but very grotesque),” this “quarter note = 80” movement delivered the deepest jazz flavor, and I could easily imagine Johnny Hodges, on leave from Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, playing its premiere. Unfortunately, Schulhoff’s idea of the grotesque was no more edgy than his grasp of the alto saxophone’s capabilities. Despite the undeniable appeal of the music, Marsalis wasn’t really tested by the demands of Hot-Sonate.

Gershwin’s Lullaby, not jazzy at all, was a perfect palate cleanser between the two Marsalis stints. The strings wafted a tropical lightness that had a “Catch a Falling Star” lilt and laziness. Little showcases were set aside for the string section leaders, most notably Lupanu and cellist Alan Black, and the piece ended deliciously in bubbly geniality, with rounds of delicate pizzicatos. Absent during the Gershwin, horns and winds reasserted themselves forcefully in the Concertino da camera, originally scored by Ibert for 12 instruments, including the soloist, with only five string players. Marsalis was noticeably more tasked now, from the opening Allegro con moto movement onwards: more speed, more range, more complexity, and more technique were required from him, while the vibrant accompaniment offered more distractions. There’s actually some percussion from the strings amid this opening movement, but I was so focused on Marsalis and his unmasked accompanists that I didn’t notice which string players were tapping their bows.

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An achingly lovely, oboe-like lament by Marsalis began the Larghetto section, with the strings gradually creeping in ever-so-stealthily behind him. Extra strings, 22 in all, were a definite asset here as the music swelled. Wang’s flute and Wilborn’s trumpet had the most impact behind Marsalis as we cheerfully swung into the concluding Animato. Though often labeled as separate movements on CDs (including Branford’s recording with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2000), this concluding Larghetto-Animato was in itself like a three-movement concerto, for Marsalis drew a second cadenza between orchestral bursts that was far more demanding than anything he had played so far, nearly requiring circular breathing to execute its cascading, fleet-fingered runs. The audience was keenly attuned to the saxophonist’s virtuosity, for they gave him a lusty standing ovation when he was done, a judicious upgrade from the warm applause showered on the Schulhoff.

A wonderful evening, all in all, and a giant step back to normality.

Chang and Yang Offer a Rousing Ladies’ Night Before Mother’s Day

Review: Celebration of Amy Beach and Florence Price

By Perry Tannenbaum

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Despite Benched Clarinets, Charlotte Symphony Shines in Mozart and Handel

Review: Mozart’s Great G Minor Symphony at Belk Theater

By Perry Tannenbaum

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ehnes and Weiss Deliver a Full-Length, High-Energy Concert – and a Memorable World Premiere

Review: Duke Performances’ The Show Must Go Online series

By Perry Tannenbaum

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

On Your Toes for a Lively Mix of Mozart, Meyer, and Wirén

Review: Burgeoning optimism could be found in Symphony’s most recent Mozart + Wirén concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

2021~Mozart + Wirén-12

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.