Category Archives: Concert

A Well-Proportioned “Passion” Caps the Charlotte Bach Fest

Review: St. Matthew Passion at the Charlotte Bach Festival

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By Perry Tannenbaum

The most dramatic moment at the second annual Charlotte Bach Festival may have been a moment of silence – at the climax of the St. Matthew Passion, after Bach’s Evangelist had declared that Jesus had died. Festival conductor and artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett maintained that silence longer than any I could remember on a recording or at a live performance, including Jarrett’s own with the Charlotte Symphony in November 2013.

After this loaded interlude at Myers Park Presbyterian Church, like the world itself coming to a halt, the BA|Charlotte Cantata Choir was exquisitely empathetic and hushed singing, “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden, So scheide nicht von me” (When I depart one day, do not depart from me). The chilling desolation of this reaction was all the more poignant because of the power that the 25 singers in the Cantata Choir had poured forth just minutes earlier in mocking and taunting the crucified Jesus as he was dying on the cross.

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There had also been power aplenty from the soloists, as we were quickly reminded after the prayerful choral lament, when tenor Stephen Soph as the Evangelist continued Matthew’s narrative – with the rending of the Holy Temple, the earthquake, the opening of graves, and the rising of the dead upon Jesus’ death. No less powerful as Jesus, baritone Jason Steigerwalt’s most memorable singing had come in his Part I recitatives, at the Last Supper and during the subsequent episodes leading up to his arrest on the first day of Passover. Of course, his last words, “Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?” had a special plaintiveness.

With Jarrett’s past and present connections to the Oregon Bach Festival, the Handel and Haydn Society, Seraphic Fire, and Charlotte Symphony, the high quality of the Cantata Choir – and the instrumental and vocal soloists he can lure to Charlotte – is not at all surprising, even if their power and dynamic range can sometimes come as a shock. All 22 of the core members were accorded extended bios in the rear of the festival program booklet. Additional space was carved out for the four Vocal Fellows who fortified the Choir during the Passion and figured prominently in the midweek, midday Bach Experience performances of two Michaelmas cantatas, Nos. 19 and 149.

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Since both the core singers and fellows were chosen by Jarrett from nationwide talent pools, it wasn’t surprising that soloists singing the Passion arias were on the same level as those who had sung for Jarrett in 2013. What astonished me more was what soloists from a reduced core Choir had achieved the previous Saturday night when they performed Bach’s Magnificat at the festival’s Opening Celebration. Overall, performances at the more intimate Christ Church by sopranos Sarah Yanovitch and MaryRuth Lown, mezzos Elizabeth Eschen and Kim Leeds, tenors Patrick Muehleise and Gene Stenger, and baritone Steigerwalt had equaled or surpassed those I’ve heard on recordings conducted by Helmuth Rilling, John Eliot Gardiner, and Masaaki Suzuki.

There were additional soloists awaiting their turns at the Celebration when another Michaelmas cantata, No. 130, followed the Orchestral Suite No. 2. These included the sweet-voiced tenor David Kurtenbach, who would sing the recitative and aria at the Matthew Passion during the High Priests’ interrogation of Jesus, and – more impressive yet – bass-baritone Charles Wesley Evans, who would take the stage at the Passion in the wake of Judas’ remorse and suicide, transforming after the touching “Gebt mir meinem Jesum weider!” (Give me my Jesus back!) into the role of Pontius Pilate.

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Other superb choristers stepped forth at Myers Park Presbyterian who had not soloed during the Opening Celebration. Most conspicuous was countertenor Jay Carter, whose recitatives and arias suffused the most intense episodes of Part II with sublimity and pathos, during the scourging of Jesus and at Golgatha, the site of the crucifixion. Edmund Milly, who hadn’t sung at the Celebration, didn’t get his first solos until Simon of Cyrene carried the holy cross, lavishing his rich bass-baritone on “Komm, sübes Kreuz” (Come, sweet Cross), with a viola da gamba obbligato from Gail Schroeder. We had no sampling of soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh’s silvery lyricism until Jesus was brought before Pilate and she sang her recitative and the “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” (Out of love my Savior wants to die) aria, with traverso flutist Colin St. Martin playing the intro and obbligato. St. Martin’s work at the Celebration in the Orchestral Suite No. 2 had been even more substantial and impressive.

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Five other members of the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra played obbligatos with Cantata vocalists, none more ballyhooed than concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, who made gorgeous music together with Leeds in the mezzo’s “Erbarme dich” (Have mercy) aria. Following in the footsteps of cellist Guy Fishman, Nosky had been the second Handel and Haydn Society principal in successive years to perform at Charlotte Bach’s Visiting Artist Recital Series. In partnership with the American Guild of Organists, the festival presented Isabelle Demers as their other recitalist. The big improvement here was a change from the Uptown location at St. Peter’s Episcopal, where Bálint Karosi had performed, to Myers Park United Methodist. Not only did the chocolatey organ sound marvelous, it was at the front of the sanctuary, where we could actually see Demers play without having to turn around awkwardly in our seats.

Keeping with the precedent set by last year’s recitalists, both Demers and Nosky expanded the scope of the festival beyond all-Bach. Demers branched out into organ works by Alkan and Widor, and Nosky brought us a Fantaisie for Solo Violin by Telemann as well as two sections from Stand Still, a piece written for her by Michael Oesterle. Funkier by far, Charlotte Symphony trombonist Tom Burge inaugurated a new Bach at the Brauhaus event in the back room of Free Range Brewing on a wee stage that seemed, with its string of carnival bulbs and crimson curtains, best suited for magic acts or stand-up comics. Between sips of the pub’s brew – and banter from the audience – Burge played a Bach transcription, selections from Bone Kill by Michael Davis, and after slyly fishing out a euphonium from behind the curtain, Paganini’s most famous Caprice.

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Nosky’s appearance was another kind of departure from last year, extended so that she could linger and gently whip the NC Baroque’s strings into sharper shape for the Passion – and to help in spreading the festival to Chapel Hill, where the masterwork was given at University United Methodist before its closing night performance in Charlotte. The were fewer hired guns brought in from afar to fortify NC Baroque than came to sing with the Cantata Choir, and the Passion ensemble was a lean-and-mean 32, including Nosky and organist Nicolas Haigh.

The anemic organ Haigh contended with was the only fault I found with the Baroque Orchestra, not their SlimFast number. Playing on period instruments, the company places a greater premium on authenticity – and precision – than on raw power, which is fine with me. When added muscle was needed, Steven Marquardt and Josh Cohen shared leadership of a corps of valveless baroque trumpets that bloomed gloriously in the Magnificat to launch the festival and in three Michaelmas cantatas afterwards. And just before the halfway mark at the Passion, a 10-voice children’s choir from Charlotte Latin School briefly appeared.

Never too big, and never too small. When the Cantata Choir and the Orchestra reached the final “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen neider” (We sit down with tears) of the Passion, there was soothing lullaby aspect to the music that overshadowed the usual community lamentation we hear from larger groups. Tuning in to the “rest gently” motif later in this chorus, Jarrett likely had that restful aim in mind when he hushed his forces once again. That was also fine with me. Very fine.

Charlotte Bach Festival Kicks Off Year Two in Astonishing Style

Review: Charlotte Bach Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Capping its second full season of operations and concerts, Bach Akademie Charlotte has launched its second Charlotte Bach Festival, and my first impressions tell me that this festival will be slightly larger than last year’s impressive inaugural. They’ve widened the reach of the eight-day event so that it stretches from Asheville to Chapel Hill, and they’ve expanded the concert lineup with a ninth offering, breaking out of their churches-only mold with “Bach at the Brauhaus” at Free Range Brewing.

Largely because they’re performing the St. Matthew Passion – and printing the entire text for festivalgoers – the handsome festival program booklet has also expanded, including 57% more advertising pages. Most exciting at the Festival Opening Celebration in Myers Park, it was obvious that awareness of the festival had grown. Last year, I could describe attendance at Christ Church Charlotte as excellent for a weakly publicized new event. This year, they were so near capacity that you have to wonder whether Charlotte Bach will be turning away customers next year or turning to a new location for their big events.

Since Johann Sebastian Bach was tasked with producing new work like clockwork – and keeping it aligned with his church’s calendar – it shouldn’t surprise us that, in some ways, festival artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett’s programming choices are formulaic. Last year and this year, for example, one of the visiting artist recitals will be by an organist – churches do come in handy at a Bach festival! – and the other will be performed by a principal from Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, last year cellist Guy Fishman and this year concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky. Similarly, both last year’s and this year’s Opening Celebrations, performed by the BA|Charlotte Cantata Choir and the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, have consisted of two vocal works and one of Bach’s Orchestral Suites.

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Beginning with the Magnificat, Bach’s setting for the Virgin Mary’s prayer to God (Luke 1:46-55), Jarrett was able to regale his audience immediately with the Baroque Orchestra’s heavy artillery – timpanist Jonathan Hess and three trumpeters playing valveless baroque instruments. Yet they only needed to rock the hall for about a minute before the chorus entered and began swelling toward their full volume, adding thunder to thunder. Intermediate sections reminded us of the Cantata Choir’s collective power from time to time but also spotlighted seven of the ensemble’s 17 members in solo, duet, and trio performances.

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Sopranos Sarah Yanovitch and MaryRuth Lown immediately set the bar high in their arias, baritone Jason Stegerwalt was both nimble and mellow with easy low notes in his “Quia fecit mihi magna,” and the blend between Elizabeth Eschen and Patrick Muehleise was exquisite in their alto-tenor duet. In brief intervals between the arias or in obbligato behind the soloists, there was admirable work from a solo oboe and a pair of flutes. Midway, trumpets and timpani returned for the mighty “Fecit potentiam” chorus and immediately exited, returning once more for a triumphal “Gloria Patri.” Glorious it truly was, outshining the lauded Magnificat recording conducted by Richard Hickox.

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In Season Two, we were offered Orchestral Suite No. 2, sensibly following the Suite No. 1 that launched last year’s Charlotte Bach Festival. It’s a much quieter and more intimate piece, giving flutist Colin St. Martin the opportunity to come forward and sparkle. The slightly slow tempo Jarrett chose for the long Ouverture movement certainly made me yearn for the speed-up that was telegraphed. When the tempo did quicken, it was still a half-step slow, but there was a nice gradual gain in momentum until the slow-fast cycle repeated. St. Martin produced charming staccatos in the lovely little Rondeau and renewed the appeal of the familiar melodies that crop up later in the Polonaise and the concluding Badinerie movements.

The Cantata presented after intermission was shorter than either of the pieces that preceded it, but there was a handy “To be continued…” label attached to Cantata 130 by Jarrett in his introductory remarks. This would be the first of three Cantatas to be performed at the 2019 festival written by Bach for the Feast of St. Michael. The other two – Cantata 19, Es erhub sich ein Streit (“There arose a war”), and Cantata 149, Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg (“The voice of joy and redemption”) – would be performed separately at midday “Bach Experience” concerts during the week, fortified with analytic lectures from Jarrett. So 130, Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (“Lord God, we all praise you”), was a gateway to those lengthier celebrations of St. Michael’s victory over Satan, alias “Der alte Drache” (“the ancient dragon”).

Slightly stunted compared with the other two Michaelmas cantatas, six movements rather than seven, Cantata 130 didn’t lack for vocal and instrumental muscle, as Jarrett brought back all the choristers who had departed for the Suite and all three trumpeters – Josh Cohen, Steve Marquardt, and Perry Sutton. But again, comparing this performance to recordings conducted by Helmuth Rilling, John Eliot Gardiner, and Masaaki Suzuki, I found the excellence of the choir and the vocalists to be most astonishing. With all the instrumental big guns firing instantly, the musical praise seemed to begin before the vocalists joined in on the opening chorus, and Eschen was no less luminous in her mezzo-soprano recit than she had been in her previous Magnificat duet.

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Any suspicion that all of the Cantata Choir’s top vocalists had already been deployed was dispelled when baritone Charles Wesley Evans, preceded and accompanied by trumpet heraldry and timpani thunder, sang his powerful “Ancient Dragon” aria, neither eclipsed nor strained by the brass and drums. Jarrett also had the luxury of spotlighting additional singers in duet, for soprano Emily Shusdock and tenor David Kurtenbach harmonized deliciously on their recitative. Kurtenbach lingered for the prayerful aria that that followed, a soft lyrical movement that saw him in duet with flutist Rodrigo Tarraza before the stately, anthemic final chorus.

One last item to pass along after attending Monday’s “Bach Experience”: Aisslinn Nosky, slated to deliver her solo violin concert on Wednesday, will linger at the festival through its conclusion, serving as concertmaster at the upcoming performances of the St. Matthew Passion.

Torrid Times on Charleston Streets and Spoleto Stages

Reviews: Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

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What’s hot at Spoleto Festival USA this year? By far the hottest is the Charleston weather, stringing together multiple record-breaking 100℉ days, absolutely unprecedented for the month of May. Upstaged by the heat, the next hottest trend is theatre.

Hard to say why, but at this year’s Spoleto, the trend is toward more theatre presentations and less opera. Even the lone opera, Richard Strauss’s edgy Salome, has a theatrical flair. We hear German sung in a modernized production that transports us from King Herod’s biblical-era palace to a swank rooftop soiree at a luxury high-rise. Yet the libretto adheres faithfully to the original tragedy, so it’s like reading the Oscar Wilde text on supertitles while the action unfolds. More about the body heat later.

When all is done on June 9, six different companies will have presented eight different stage works at various venues across Charleston, including two world premieres and a US premiere. From what we could see, the expanded number of choices was spurring ticket sales rather than diluting them, for at Gaillard Center, Memminger Auditorium, Dock Street Theatre, the Emmett Robinson Theatre, and the Woolfe Street Playhouse, my wife Sue and I encountered sellout or near-capacity houses. Even during midweek.

That applies even more intensely to the one production we couldn’t see, Target Margin Theater’s Pay No Attention to the Girl. All six performances of that show were sold out weeks before it arrived.

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World premiere or not, 1927’s Roots was hardly a leap of faith, since Spoleto has featured writer Suzanne Andrade and her company’s work before, beginning with Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea in 2008 and more recently with The Animals and Children Took to the Streets in 2012 and Golem in 2016. If you’ve never seen Andrade and 1927 at work before, it will be helpful to know that silent film and Lemony Snicket are their creative lodestars.

If Andrade wanted you to know that, she would have titled her new show A Series of Unfortunate Folktales, Anecdotes, and Myths. She couldn’t be nearly as coy about her silent film inspiration, for Paul Barritt’s animations, projected onto the upstage wall at Emmett Robinson, were charmingly integrated into each of the 10 stories that Andrade told – using unseen storytellers’ voices rather than the silent actors we see onstage.

Blocking was very precise when Andrade and the other three actors stood in front of the upstage wall, synchronizing their actions with Barritt’s silent movie. Integration is easier when actors walk through doorways cut into the wall or peep through boxy little windows. The latter effect was probably most enjoyable in the opening tale of a Fat Cat who begins his cosmic rampage by eating a maid’s porridge in her absence – and goes on to bigger, badder things. While the feline’s body is Barritt’s domain, Andrade or the equally adorable Esme Appleton peeps through the wall to become its conspicuously unferocious face.

Both Andrade and Appleton don 1927’s customary whiteface, making it difficult to tell them apart. Neither of them has much use for facial expression, their silent style favoring Buster Keaton more than Charlie Chaplin.

Students of literature could recognize two of Andrade’s other tales, for the King and his pathologically loyal wife Griselda are clearly on loan from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale. The tale of the two copulating snakes and their surprising effect on the person who observes them dates back to Greek myth and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Andrade’s cover was blown on that source when a chamber music program over at Dock Street Theatre featured Doug Balliett’s Echo and Narcissus, where all was revealed about how Teiresias happened to become the world’s best judge of whether men or women enjoy sex more.

Andrade’s concluding tale could itself be called “Roots,” since what happens to two siblings plotting to escape grandma’s dominion is clearly a vegetative intervention. 1927 Doug Balliett’seems to take a wicked delight in showing us that fairy tales aren’t always fair or happily-ever-after. The straight-faced soulfulness of the company made that delight fatally and deliciously contagious.

Shakespeare’s Globe, long an outdoor theatre fixture on the London scene, made their Spoleto debut at Dock Street in 2015 with the most affecting Romeo and Juliet that I’ve ever seen. Sadly, none of the actors or directors involved in that triumph have returned. What’s most recognizably Globe is the feel of their eight-person troupe and their approach to the Bard. They aren’t merely actors, for before our plays begin, they prove to be reasonably capable musicians!

Eleven of the 20 performances are pre-ordained, divvied up between the three plays that Globe has brought to Dock Street this year – Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, and Pericles. The other nine shows of Globe’s run are “Audience Choice,” with the troupe at the service of the ticketholders’ will, expressed in a voice vote. Like the London Globe, scenery doesn’t change much. But costumes definitely do.

As Pericles, the Prince of Tyre, moves from Antioch to Tarsus to Pentapolis to Ephesus and to Mytilene, costumes become very useful in keeping us informed on where we are, whether we’ve landed at someplace new, or we’ve circled back to a previous king and country. Pericles’ troubles and wanderings begin when he ventures to solve a riddle to win the hand of the King of Antioch’s daughter. Death is the stated penalty for failing to solve the riddle, and death would be equally inevitable if Pericles proclaimed the solution in public – revealing that King Antiochus is in an incestuous relationship with his daughter.

Since most people aren’t as familiar with Pericles as they are with Romeo and Juliet, when Pericles flees for his life from Antioch to Tyre, then sails on to Tarsus to elude Antiochus’s hired assassin, our hero may not only be leaving his pursuer in the dust but also newcomers to the story. Why does Prince Pericles flee from a country he himself rules after so clearly showing his bravery in Antioch? And why does he then leave Tarsus, and where does he think he’s going?

Pericles can be rough sailing during the Prince’s early travels, and players changing costumes and nationalities can further jostle perceptions. As fine as Colin Campbell is in the title role, even he pops up in different guises, once as a Pirate who kidnaps Pericles’ daughter. The one constant in the cast, Natasha Magigi as Gower, wasn’t as clear and relaxed as she could be as our narrator. Many among us had left at intermission before Magigi redeemed herself during the epic resolution of Pericles’ woes.

Much of the hurly-burly settles down after the chief catastrophes, when Pericles believes he has lost his daughter Marina and his wife Thaisa, the king’s daughter he won in Pentapolis. Silly man, they’re merely scattered across the seas, one of them revived in a coffin. Mogali Masuku has an imposing dignity as Thaisa before and after her coffin sojourn, and Evelyn Miller as Marina has a saintly luminosity, suffering every bit as much as her dad. Tears flowed during both of the long-delayed reunions for those of us who had persevered.

Apportioning multiple roles to most of your actors usually works better in Shakespeare’s comedies, so I expected to be better pleased with The Comedy of Errors. What surprised me here was director Brendan O’Hea’s unusually dramatic approach to the action. With Mark Deselbeck as Egeon and Masuku as the Duke of Ephesus, the agony of Egeon’s trials, seeking his long-lost son, and the severity of his oncoming punishment – death for merely visiting Ephesus – take on a little more weight.

While the two servile Dromios of the story, Beau Holland visiting from Syracuse and Eric Sirakian residing in Ephesus, are comical enough in their confounded confusion, the slapstick aspect of their repeated thrashings by their masters is conspicuously toned-down. O’Hea is taking the candy wrapping off the abuses meted out by the twin Antipholuses upon their obedient Dromios. Campbell, as the Antipholus from Syracuse, is the more benign of the identical twin masters, getting comical mileage out of his absurdly familiar reception throughout Syracuse, especially from his twin’s wife Adriana.

But he has no patience with his Dromio’s apparent misconduct, and the slaps and kicks he delivers to her might appear a bit Three Stooges at first, but only if we’re conditioned by Comedy of Errors productions we’ve seen before. We are soon disabused. This is a master objectionably mistreating his slave. Bigger point: Shakespeare’s Globe, apparently, is no longer the grand museum it once was, where you simply go to see how the Bard’s works were presented during the Elizabethan Era. Updates and reconsiderations are now possible.

Antipholus of Ephesus was always a meaner piece of work, cheating on his wife Adriana and devaluing her virtues, but Anthony Gaučas takes this master’s unsavoriness further. There’s nothing comical about his reaction to being locked out of his own house, nothing comical about his resulting enmity toward Adriana, and we see a wildfire of jealousy break out when he learns that it was his twin brother who “dined” with her earlier in the day. Mistakenly taken into custody for an unpaid debt, Gaučas earns the presumptions from onlookers that he has gone insane. Nor does this Antipholus instantly reconcile with Adriana once all the mistaken identities have been cleared – and he has absolutely no welcome for his long-lost twin brother.

Amid all of these alterations – none of them violating Shakespeare’s text – Miller as Adriana emerges as the most admirable master or mistress that we see. She is clearly not a dainty pushover. Miller wears a larger cape than either of the identically clad Antipholuses, and she swishes it around in far more swashbuckling style. Hers is the noblest rage at this performance. Fully digesting the brothers’ origins and biographies on your ride home, you might find yourself realizing that Antipholus of Ephesus probably owes all of his fortune and property to this formidable, beautiful lady, making him an even more despicable heel.

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People still talk about the Salomé that directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser brought to Spoleto back in 1987, and it’s clear that the directing duo was bent on duplicating that éclat in their current reimagining of Strauss’s sizzling opera. They’ve succeeded – and you only have a couple of more chances to witness it on June 2 and 5.

The singing from the cast is rich and strong, allowing conductor Steven Sloane and the Spoleto Festival Orchestra to fill beautiful Gaillard Center with the sounds of Strauss’s score without drowning out the vocalists. Teaming up with set designer Christian Fenouillat and lighting designer Christophe Forey, Caurier and Leiser deliver a spectacular visual experience.

Looking out on night-time Jerusalem from a swank high-rise, we can’t expect the divine prophet Jokanaan to be imprisoned in a dingy dungeon. No, he’s confined in an apartment below. But after hearing Jokanaan’s powerful denunciations and imprecations from offstage during the opening scene, we first see baritone Erik Van Heyningen as the seer when his suite is lowered down from high above, far brighter than the surrounding night. Illumination and severe simplicity come with him.

What Caurier and Leiser bring to this holy sanctuary – and later, back at Herod’s rooftop – is wickedly, sensationally profane. They don’t merely ask soprano Melanie Henley Heyn to open her heart to Jokanaan in Salomé’s attempt to seduce the prophet. They also call upon her to bare her breasts in his bedroom. Nor was that necessarily the most shocking episode of the night, for when tenor Paul Groves as Herod prevailed upon Salomé to dance for him, he did more than join in. He dropped his pants, and Strauss’s famed “Dance of the Seven Veils” became the dance of the 10 thrusts. Or maybe that’s where I stopped counting.

Since Salomé knows she will be rewarded before her dance begins, you might say she isn’t abused here. But if she is, we feel uncomfortably supportive toward the horrific price she names – over and over, stretching the name of Jokanaan to seven syllables each time she demands his head. Even with all this salacious business, Heyn isn’t the most wanton or alluring Salomé that I’ve seen. The audacity of her overture to Jokanaan seems fueled by privilege more than vanity, so there’s enough youthful simplicity left in her to make Herod’s advances a stunning violation.

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Yet I’ve never heard more powerful demands for Jokanaan’s head, wickedly seconded by Edna Prochnik as the jealous and vengeful Herodias. Caurier and Leiser are somewhat remiss in not attempting to make an ultimate horror out of Salomé’s love song to the decapitated Jokanaan, but Heyn is also supreme in those moments. We expect the mighty righteousness of Van Heyningen lashing out at the “daughters of Babylon” who assail him, and Groves is a perfect fit for the powerful, conscience-stricken, and infatuated Herod. The most surprising vocal exploits came from tenor Zach Borichevsky as Narraboth, the captain of the guard who unwisely grants Salomé her visit with Jokanaan.

But it’s the production concept by Caurier and Leiser that will live longest in my memory – and Heyn’s performance that crowned it.

 

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Other highlights of Spoleto’s first week start with the jazz lineup – including Esperanza Spalding, the Dafnis Prieto Big Band, David Virelles, and an all-star tribute to Geri Allen from Terri Lyne Carrington, Craig Taborn, and Ravi Coltrane.

 

Meanwhile, the Chamber Music series hosted by Geoff Nuttall keeps getting edgier and wackier. Aside from Balliett’s hip refresh of Ovid, Stephen Prutsman’s new score for Buster Keaton’s old silent film, College, was smashing – when I was able to stop laughing at Keaton’s antics and pay attention to Prutsman’s.

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You have plenty of time – and multiple opportunities – to catch Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson (June 5-8) at the Simons Center Recital Hall, but jazz fanatics must hurry or they will miss Carla Bley Trio (May 31) at Cistern Yard. Six more programs and 18 performances remain in the BofA Chamber Music series, twice daily through June 9. After making a delightful surprise appearance earlier this week singing a piece by Henri Duparc, tenor Paul Groves returns for Program VIII, headlining Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings.

The range, power, and delight of the lunchtime concerts is best illustrated by the concluding Program XI, slated for next weekend. Members of the band warm up with an 18th century bassoon sonata by Georg Philipp Telemann, followed by a recent Disco-Toccata for clarinet and cello by Guillaume Connesson. Then a deep dive into Beethoven’s “Ghost” Piano Trio with Inon Barnatan at the keyboard, Joshua Roman behind the cello, and Karen Gomyo on violin. All of the musicians heard thus far – and more – gather for the finale, a merry chamber music reduction of Rossini’s “Overture from Barber of Seville,” arranged by clarinetist Todd Palmer.

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In the dance realm, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s five-day sojourn in Charleston concludes this Saturday with repeats of all three parts of their Analogy Trilogy. For more lavish spectacle, stand by for Caracalla Dance Theatre’s One Thousand and One Nights (June 7-9), as the Lebanese company fuses Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Ravel’s Bolero with traditional Arabic instruments, melodies, and costumes. Expect this hottie to be a tough ticket.

Plenty more excitement awaits theatergoers, headlined by two Israeli and two Palestinian actors onstage together in the multimedia world premiere of Letters to a Friend in Gaza (May 30-June 2) at the Emmett Robinson. Up at the Woolfe Street Playhouse, 600 Highwaymen brings on The Fever (June 4-9), exploring group dynamics with audience participation. Cora Bissett’s What Girls Are Made Of (June 4-8) keeps it just as real at Memminger Auditorium, with the rock star bringing her teen diaries to life. Backed by a live rock band, of course!

There’s more. Find out what Circa, I’m With Her, Music in Time, St. John Passion, Westminster Choir, and the Festival Finale are all about at spoletousa.org.

 

Reservations Are Required – and Rewarded – at Charlotte Symphony’s “On Tap” Concert

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s “On Tap” Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Beer gardens, rathskellers, and brewpubs have traditionally encouraged their patrons to listen to music, lift their glasses in song, and maybe dance a polka, but for many classical music enthusiasts, Charlotte Symphony’s excursions to local breweries for their Symphony on Tap concerts may seem to be pioneering. Apparently, they originated in 2015 with a season kickoff party at Belk Theater, evolved into a similar event the following September at Booth Playhouse, before Symphony ventured forth to the NoDa Brewing Company for their third Symphony on Tap in November 2016. In terms of sampling these more informal concerts – and getting the word out – I will freely admit that I’m late to the party. Special dispensation was required to review the latest in this concert series, since it was sold-out weeks in advance.

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Obtaining their tickets in advance, patrons pre-qualified themselves as interested in Symphony’s product, though you had to wonder how many of them had bothered to check out the CSO website and see what they would actually hear. When NoDa Brewing owner Susie Ford drew attention to the stage, the crowd quieted, and there was no great commotion when the musicians performed. Yet there were limits to the decorum. Lines to the taps got shorter when the concert started and, after a strategically placed intermission, when it resumed, but people continued to line up for their pints and sampler flights of NoDa brew. Symphony conductor Christopher James Lees was not all perturbed. On the contrary, he encouraged the relaxed atmosphere and even plugged the brewery’s award-winning Hop, Drop ‘n Roll on numerous occasions.

In a place where you couldn’t call for a Bud, a Blue Ribbon, or a Miller Lite, it was encouraging – but not altogether surprising – that Lees was emboldened to offer us more than a strict Haydn-Mozart diet. After opening with the “Adagio and Fugue,” not the lightest of Mozart’s works, we detoured into Gustav Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite. Further out on the musical frontier, the second half of the program began with “Tango” by Alicia Bachorik Armstrong, a living composer who was on hand to introduce the piece. Even the Haydn symphony that closed out the evening, the No. 30 “Alleluja,” was off the beaten path.

As I quickly discovered in the Mozart, the hall was unkind to low decibels and high frequencies. While the bass-heavy opening to the Adagio segment sounded natural enough, it had to compete for my attention with the churning hum of the brewing apparatus in the adjoining space behind the bar. By the time we reached the Fugue section, initiated by the double basses, I was fairly well acclimated to the steady hum, but I wasn’t pleased by the thin querulous sound of the violins as they layered on. Without the resonance of a church or concert hall, the trebles were more like the sounds we hear on authentic ancient instruments. The bass foundation under the violins was rich and lovely as the performance climaxed.

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Unacquainted with the Symphony on Tap ground rules, I was afraid that we were only going to hear the spirited Jig from the St. Paul’s Suite. It transitioned nicely from a merry dance to a briefer, more insistent episode – almost a march – before the Vivace movement accelerated to an even quicker pace. Effectively shaped and very well suited to the room, the movement drew applause. Lees not only tolerated this beerhall response, he encouraged it, for he proceeded to introduce each of the next three movements before they were played.

Just as he had explained what a fugue was prior to the Mozart, he now deciphered the mystery of what an ostinato was before playing the movement that bore that title. Second violins initiated this repetitive figure over pizzicatos from the other strings, not the swiftest presto I’ve heard on this movement, and concertmaster Calin Lupanu soloed gracefully. Lovelier Lupanu was wrapped into the ensuing Intermezzo as he entered over delicate pizzicatos – and over a baby’s cries in his most virtuosic passages. Violist Ning Zhao engaged Lupanu in a couple of satisfying duets here as well. Probably the most engaging music of the evening, Holst’s Finale ended by meshing an Irish folk dance with the traditional “Greensleeves,” both melodies frequently playing simultaneously in this rousing Allegro. Even without the customary percussion, it energized the audience.

Born in the Philippines, schooled at the NC School of the Arts (when Lees was on the faculty), and currently residing in Greensboro, Bachorik Armstrong wrote her “Tango” for orchestra in 2016 and last year completed a string quartet version that can be auditioned at her website. Her personable intro of the orchestral piece rivaled those delivered by her mentor, chiefly pointing out that the piece grew out of her lifelong love of dance – and repeated efforts to excel at it. We could relate. Reflecting her tentative starts and reboots, Bachorik Armstrong could have easily titled her dance “Attempted Tango,” for its beginning was indeed tentative over a pizzicato vamp, until the violins danced more confidently to the plucked lower strings, and there were two definite restarts later on, initiated by the cellos and the double basses. Over the sustained bass figures, there were unexpected shifts in tone and tempo, with a modicum of modernism instead of a noxious deluge. Lupanu and a second violin had tasty little cameos toward the end.

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A mini-break followed Bachorik Armstrong’s “Tango” – and the composer’s bows – as a modest group of wind players joined the strings. Still no percussion, but the question of whether Haydn’s Symphony No. 30 should be performed with timpani remains under dispute. The chronology of Papa’s early symphonies hasn’t been settled by the numbers assigned to them, but the “Alleluja” is the last of the numbered symphonies to be written in three movements. Surprisingly for a symphony that may have premiered on Easter of 1765 – or the Holy Week preceding – the “Alleluja” spirit is rather festive, with no slow or mournful movements. In other words, “Alleluja” was a perfect cloudless finale for a brewpub concert.

Wind instruments fared far better at NoDa Brewing than the violins, instantly pleasurable in the opening Allegro with a nicely gauged crescendo from the cellos toward the end. After setting the stage for flutist Erinn Frechette’s exploits in the ensuing Andante, Lees didn’t allow the tempo to flag to anything slower than a brisk canter. At that speed, Frechette’s filigree became brilliant over the crisp strings, and the flute’s birdlike warblings remained jocund, unalloyed by any solitary gloom. Collectively, the winds reached their fullest bloom in the impressive allegretto Finale. If Lees kept them a little too subdued in the opening Allegro, he unmistakably unleashed the woodwinds here to rollicking effect, establishing a clear 3/4 minuet sway along the way.

Although this was the last official Symphony on Tap for the 2018-19 season, the uniquely relaxed vibe of the series lingered on after the final note. Along with an audience mostly seated in casual dress at tables, instrument cases stowed under musicians’ chairs, and audience applause between movements, there was no sudden rush for the exits after the final note. The night was young and the taps hadn’t shut down. Charlotte Symphony has obviously reached out successfully to the community with these concerts, and NoDa Brewing Company isn’t the only joint they visit. Come summer, Symphony will return to Triple C Brewing for a June 27 concert in the Barrel Room, and a whole new flight of On Tap events is already booked for 2019-20.

Hope Plays His Swan Song in Savannah in an Epic Exit

Review: Celebrating its 30th season, the Savannah Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Celebrating its 30th season, the Savannah Music Festival is weathering a series of transitions that began less than a year ago. After 16 seasons as the SMF artistic and executive director, Rob Gibson abruptly resigned last summer. Marketing director Ryan McMaken moved up to the artistic directorship and David Pratt, formerly with the Queensland Symphony in Australia and the Savannah Philharmonic, returned to the US as the new SMF chief executive.

The new leadership didn’t stumble dramatically in the shadow of a 2018 classical lineup that included guest appearances by Murray Perahia, Audra McDonald, Marc-André Hamelin, the Zukerman Trio, Yekwon Sunwoo, and a residency with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, newly headed by star violinist Daniel Hope, SMF’s associate artistic director in the classical sphere. Lars Vogt, Juho Pohjonen, The Tallis Scholars, and the Jerusalem Quartet are on the bill for 2019, and in the first full-scale collaboration between the Festival and the Savannah Philharmonic, a new piece by jazz pianist Marcus Roberts will premiere in a Phil concert that will also include works by Borodin, Stravinsky, and Gershwin.

Perhaps the news that was forthcoming from Hope was telegraphed when Zurich did not commit to repeating its visit in 2019. Stating that the decision had been made “to reduce the amount of international travel time to which he is obligated,” the announcement that Hope’s 16th season at SMF would be his last officially dropped on March 5 – barely three weeks before the 2019 Festival began.

We can begin to grasp the impact of Hope’s departure on SMF’s 2020 programming by surveying the scope of his participation this year. Easily the most active performer at the Festival, he is slated to appear in five of the six “Daniel Hope & Friends” concerts. During the 17-day festival, Hope is also performing with the Atlanta Symphony (March 30) and teaming with Saebstian Knauer on an “Homage to Yehudi Menuhin” (April 12). In what will no doubt be a touching valedictory, Hope will play and his novelist father will narrate “Christopher Hope Presents ‘My Son the Fiddler.’” (April 13).

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In his first three performances of 2019, Hope was playing with a zest and dedication that indicated he is sorry to be leaving. Few of the occasions I’ve covered in the past 10 years – only the “Kreutzer Sonata” he played with Knauer in 2011 comes instantly to mind – saw Hope in the same fiery form he brought to the stage of the Lucas Theatre on Saturday night, playing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with the Atlanta Symphony, pianist Wu Han and her husband, cellist David Finckel.

The crowd, the occasion, and the gauntlet laid down by Beethoven’s score – not to mention having his name up in lights on the Lucas’s movie theatre marquee – might have actually given Hope a touch of the jitters as he fussed over the location of his iPad-holding music stand near the lip of the stage. Frankly, Finckel was the steadier string player in the first solo salvos of the Triple’s opening Allegro, but after the ebullient trialogue with Han and a spirited interjection by Robert Spano and the Symphony, Hope was locked in and absolutely brilliant, his double-bowing as sharp as steel.

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Finckel was a mellowing agent throughout, graciously restoring calm in the outer movements and surpassing himself with a heartfelt intro to the middle Largo. Han proved to be an equal partner and provocateur in the outer movements, especially conspicuous in the closing Rondo alla Polacca where she delivered dreamy excursions in the middle and an extended ramble away from closure before Hope pounced on the presto-paced exchange that carried us to the end. Hope’s fireworks with Han had made it obvious that applause was forthcoming at the end of the epic opening movement, and a standing ovation was no less inevitable here.

Gravitating toward the extreme downstage at the Lucas, Hope and his trio mates were unintentionally underscoring the acoustic problems faced by Spano and his orchestra. Behind the proscenium, the strings tend to get muddied and high frequencies are noticeably muffled. Cellos and clarinets sound best, but extra piccolos would have made the ending of “Overture to Egmont” sound more like Beethoven intended, though Spano beautifully judged the contrast between the final rousing rally and the calm that preceded it.

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Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony No. 1 showcased Spano’s deftness even better, with sharper section work from his players and balances that played better with the hall. There was fine thrust from the strings stating the opening Andante, although brighter percussion sounds other than the triangle were missing on the fringes of the later Allegro marking. Cellos and French horns excelled in the ensuing Larghetto, where Spano sculpted the fluid tempos and dynamics into pleasing shapes. Repetitions of the big tune never dulled the penultimate Scherzo, and the Allegretto animato e grazioso brought the evening to an exciting close, with the drums, trombones, and strings delivering the knockout punch.

Hope didn’t appear at the first “Hope & Friends” of the season on Friday night, and his entrance at the Lucas the following evening, notwithstanding the marquee, was without any fanfare marking his farewell season. Touchingly, that moment came late Sunday afternoon when Han mounted the Trinity United Methodist Church platform and warmly dedicated the ensuing Chamber Music of Lincoln Center concert to Hope, describing the joys of his playing and the joys of playing with him. Han also proved quite adept at emceeing, personably introducing the three piano quartets on the bill. She vividly described the relationship between Suk and Dvořák and detailed the despondency that sparked Brahms’s Quartet No. 3, along with the gun-to-the-head moment that concludes it.

Han, Finckel, Hope, and violist Paul Neubauer did the rest of the talking with their instruments – until Neubauer’s ill-fated maiden voyage playing with an iPad after intermission. While Hope sat back in his chair, grinning and laughing and in no hurry, Han explained the situation and helped turn the damn contraption on. Hope’s ease and relaxation probably served him best in the ensuing Dvořák Piano Quartet No. 2 when we reached the luscious Lento second movement. After yet another achingly lovely intro by Finckel – and an exquisite fadeaway – Hope began the same melody extremely softly yet piercingly, working up to a blaze of high intensity. Another ebb then flowed into a reprise from Finckel. With Han’s interjections, the movement was like a miniature concerto until the give-and-take abruptly ended with a couple of unison sforzandos that tossed us into a maelstrom.

The Suk that opened the program was brimming with inspiration and showy bowing. Yet it was useful for Han to have reminded us that this was Josef Suk’s Opus 1, finished with Dvořák’s encouragement and premiered when the composer was just 17. For all its excitement and appeal, I couldn’t push away the thought, especially in the tempestuous outer movements, that a Beethoven or a Brahms would have made even more of the inspired materials that Suk was working with. The inner Adagio, with another soulful Finckel intro was a nice foretaste of the Lento to come from Dvořák – not to mention the wondrous Andante at the heart of the epically anguished Brahms 3, which began with an eloquent and sad intro from Finckel and featured Neubauer’s best moments.

Both the Brahms 3 and the Dvorak 2 had been presented twice before in Savannah at previous festivals, but the Suk was an SMF premiere. With such a dazzling quartet of musicians advocating for it so passionately, the Suk proved worthy of such esteemed company.

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A similar mix of familiar and unfamiliar informs the “& Friends” concerts. Hope sat out the all-Mozart opener that I attended, but Pohjonen was at the keyboard for both piano quartets – with an extraordinary feel for the composer – so all was well. This was the second go-round for No. 1 and the fourth for No. 2, but the String Duo No. 2 for Violin and Viola and the Prelude and Fugue No. 2 for String Trio were new to Savannah. The “& Friends” sequel offered edgier fare, with Hope playing lead violin opposite Vogt in Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, the third time this gem has been presented during Hope’s tenure, alternately raucous and haunting in its pivotal Scherzo and Lento movements.

Otherwise, Hope sat on the sidelines. Rebecca Clarke’s Dumka, ranging from pizzicato delicacy to Gypsy fire, was presented by pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips, Neubauer, and violinist Simos Papanas. Nice to know that this piece, championed by Hope on a Naxos recording, was getting a second hearing at SMF, but Schubert’s Fantasy for Piano Four Hands and Niels W. Gade’s String Sextet were actually receiving their SMF premieres.

As the stage was being reset for the Sextet, Hope sauntered to the front of the church from his seat in the second row of pews, not bothering to climb up onstage, and gave us an impromptu introduction to Gade. Our host emphasized Gade’s talents, his travels back and forth from his native Copenhagen to Leipzig, and his association with Mendelssohn, then the director of the Leipzig Orchestra. It was the first time Hope had addressed an audience at the 2019 Savannah Music Festival, seemingly spontaneous and unplanned.

Keeping Hope’s remarks in mind, I suspected that Gade had taken some of Mendelssohn’s influence back home with him when he wrote his Sextet some 16 years after his mentor’s death, for there are echoes of the elder’s Octet in the Dane’s music, especially in the opening movement. The Kim brothers, violinist Benny and cellist Eric, longtime members of the Festival’s “& Friends” ensemble, played the leads on their instruments, prime reasons why this premiere was a resounding success.

Getting ready for the long drive home to Charlotte, I turned around in my front row seat and told Hope, “Well done, sir.” Shrugging, he replied, “They did all the work,” no doubt assuming that I was referring to his prefatory remarks.

Reading this, he’ll likely see otherwise.

Mozart Requiem Clashes With Sunny Salieri Symphony

Review: Charlotte Symphony “Mozart and Salieri”

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s been 40 years since Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus vilified, ridiculed, defamed, and demonized Mozart’s less-gifted contemporary, Antonio Salieri, presenting the prolific composer and conductor as Wolfgang’s fiendish murderer. Shaffer wasn’t the first to riff on this unfounded smear, for the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin peddled it in Mozart and Salieri, his 1830 verse play.

Although he omitted his villain’s name from his title, Shaffer has proven equally bountiful to both composers, humanizing Mozart and bringing fresh life to Salieri’s name. Ian McKellan won a Tony Award as Salieri in the 1980 Broadway production and F. Murray Abraham repeated the triumph in the 1984 Miloš Forman film, winning the Oscar over Tom Hulce, who was a runner-up playing the title role.

So it’s altogether fitting that Salieri’s 1775 Symphony in D “Il giorno onamstico,” likely marking the Italian’s Belk Theater and Charlotte Symphony debuts, should be in the shadow of Mozart’s Requiem. During the composition of this work, which remained unfinished at his death, it was Mozart who first voiced the suspicion that he was being poisoned and that his mysteriously commissioned Requiem was diabolically planned for his own funeral.

Mozart later scoffed at his own poisoning paranoia, and the Requiem wasn’t premiered until late 1793, two years after his death, completed by his student, Franz Xaver Süssmyer. But the baseless murder accusation affixed itself to Salieri. And why not take advantage of Shaffer’s preposterous mythologizing if it draws more people to the music? Symphony was only too glad to borrow the indelible Amadeus poster art for this concert’s prepublicity. “Poor Salieri!” said Charlotte Symphony music director Christopher Warren-Green, upon picking up a hand mic to introduce Antonio’s piece.

That was after a reprise of Nkeiru Okoye’s “Charlotte Mecklenburg,” which received its world premiere last September, kicking off the current season. The encore was triply justified: the piece was originally performed one night only at a special opening night gala and not part of the season’s subscription, we’re still celebrating the 250th anniversary of the city’s incorporation, and the piece – commissioned by Symphony – is non-threatening to traditionalists and worth a second hearing.

It was easier for me to ascertain on my second go-round that the opening theme, very much in the Aaron Copland manner of evoking Appalachia and the American heartland, was something that Okoye would circle back to near the end of her historical portrait. What came in between statements of her “Queen City Hymn” was more daring and original. There was urban bustle and cacophony mixed with a mountain lilt, snatches of a Scottish fiddle tune and a post-Civil War protest song, and an unexpected glance southward.

A brief marimba concerto popped up, then a muted trumpet and a cool samba beat. Okoye’s objective of portraying the city’s multiethnicity was more successfully reached than her objective of depicting our racial tensions. The codetta, beautifully played by harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell, expressed hopes for the future residing in the innocence of our children. Or that was Okoye’s stated intent. For an affirmation, it was notably faint.

Not at all saturnine like Salieri’s stage and screen image, his Symphony in D was sunny and cheerful from the outset, the opening Allegro launched with a lively flourish of horns and winds. Both of the middle movements offered opportunities for principal bassoonist Olivia Oh. The charming Larghetto remained summery in spite of its weepy violins, and the Minuet alternated attractively between mellow and anthemic themes. Warren-Green vigorously pushed the pace of the closing Allegretto, lightly carried forward by the strings when the winds weren’t adding body and zest.

When the entire orchestra joined together toward the end of “The Name Day,” the music briefly grew joyous and grand. It was almost as if Salieri was apologizing for this outburst when the strings alone crept around stealthily in staccato phrases, but the whole orchestra came back for a crisp, good-humored finish.

Warren-Green’s programming effectively flipped the Hulce-Abraham characters we remember from Hollywood’s Amadeus, assigning all the frivolity to Salieri, but he didn’t mess with the awesome impression of Mozart’s Requiem that lingers after we have seen the film. Unlike some of the Mozart performances we’ve seen before from Warren-Green and his predecessor, Christof Perick, a robust assembly of musicians, guest soloists, and the Charlotte Symphony Chorus filled the Belk stage.

If the occasionally fierce reading that emerged from this formidable congress didn’t totally accord with Mozart’s accepting intentions, there was no doubting its power. The “Dies irae” rang out impressively, taut with terror, and the “Tuba mirum” was a fine spotlight for all four guest vocalists, particularly bass Adam Lau, smoothly accompanied by principal trombonist John Bartlett before giving way to tenor Isaiah Bell. Having already distinguished herself in the soprano section of the opening “Requiem aeternum” segment with the Chorus, Margot Rood floated in gracefully over mezzo Sofia Selowsky toward the end of the “Tuba.”

Overshadowed here somewhat, Selowsky had better opportunities further along in the mass, leading off the “Recordare” and “Benedictus” sections when all the solo vocalists stood up again. Still it was Rood who shone brightest, drawing the opening moments of the concluding “Lux aeterna” and sprinkling her loveliness all over before the music grew grander and fugal with the full ensemble joining in.

The orchestra made its presence known most emphatically when the brass and timpani underscored the most dramatic choral moments. Aside from the whiplash “Dies irae,” there was ringing majesty at the start of the “Rex tremendae” that contrasted affectingly with the hushed women when we reached the “salve me” pleas. Symphony Chorus showed more finesse in the “Lacrimosa,” beginning softly over the orchestra’s keening strings, with some satisfying crescendos preceding the satisfying “Amen.”

Warren-Green and chorus director Kenney Potter may have been thinking more of Buckingham Palace than a church when they prepared Symphony Chorus for the climactic “Sanctus.” Both the orchestra and the choir suffused the repeated holies with a pomp and fervor of “God Save the Queen” proportions. Or maybe they had Westminster Abbey in mind. Warren-Green has played that joint as well.

Christopher Warren-Green Expands Symphony’s “Titan” Concert to Rousing Effect

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Mahler 1

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Charlotte Symphony’s season announcements and brochures were issued last July, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 “The Titan” stood alone on the program for their concert coinciding with semifinals of the ACC basketball tournament at the nearby Spectrum Center. Whether there were second thoughts on the length of that program or worries about automobile traffic inconveniencing concertgoers, two additional works – and an intermission – were added to the evening. Mahler’s Symphonic Movement: Blumine seemed a natural add-on, since it was part of an earlier draft of the symphony, which premiered in 1889 as a five-movement piece titled “Symphonic Poem in Two Parts.”

Adding a piece by Strauss wouldn’t appear much less apt – if it were Richard Strauss, not quite four years younger than Mahler and very much his contemporary. But Johann Strauss, Jr., the renowned “Waltz King”? Picking up a microphone as soon as he appeared onstage at Belk Theater, music director Christopher Warren-Green immediately cleared things up. Far from a grotesque contrast, parts of Strauss II’s Emperor Waltzes were actually echoed in the second movement of “The Titan.” And since Blumine was the second movement in the original “Symphonic Poem” before Mahler excised it, the whole grouping had an elegant logic to it.

Implicit in Warren-Green’s intro were dual assignments – with dual effects. We were subtly being asked to catalogue the musical and melodic content of the Emperor Waltzes and retain our findings until after intermission. Then we were to identify an undisclosed fragment of what we had heard when it was echoed in “The Titan.” Listeners were thus encouraged to take Strauss’s work a little more seriously in searching for enduring substance and to realize that Mahler’s music, with its fun-loving Viennese influences, wasn’t as ponderous and forbidding as they might have believed. Whether such attitude adjustments actually factored into the audience’s enthusiasm for the performances, they certainly sounded like fruitful approaches for the musicians to take as they played.

Unburdened of the worry that they were tossing off light fare, the orchestra played the Emperor Waltzes with infectious zest. Principal percussionist Brice Burton’s snare drum caught my attention first, before the woodwinds announced the idiomatic Strauss sound. Principal cellist Alan Black and principal timpanist Ariel Zaviezo kindled our anticipation as the most familiar of the melodies drew near. Weighted toward the trombones, the brass episode was impressive, and as the piece climaxed, four percussionists were on their feet, as cymbals and a bass drum joined the fray.

Logical choice or not, Blumine was a fairly odd piece to send us off to intermission with, for it conformed to the relative quietude we expect of second movements in large orchestral works. Surprisingly, this andante sounded nothing like the sort of derivative apprentice work you might expect a major composer to discard upon mature reflection. As performed by Warren-Green and his players, Blumine had some of the ethereal flavor we might associate with Mahler’s middle symphonies, especially at the end of the piece, where the playing of the strings, lightly tinged with Andrea Mumm Trammell’s harp, was quite exquisite. Yet it was principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn who made the deepest imprint on the performance, playing his serenading episodes with a mellow and magnificent softness. Principals Victor Wang on flute and Taylor Marino on clarinet had gleaming moments of their own, but principal Hollis Ulaky drew the best solo wind passages and played them flawlessly on her oboe.

None of the recordings of “The Titan” that I looked up reach the length of a full hour except for that of Seiji Ozawa with the Boston Symphony, who just ekes past the 60-minute mark after restoring Blumine as his second movement. So I heartily endorse Warren-Green’s decision to fortify and vary the originally-announced program with judiciously selected appetizers, but you just needed to look at the Belk Theater stage to see that “The Titan” was the evening’s main dish. At the outset of the “Langsam” (Slow) portion of the opening movement, a phalanx of eight French hornists was seated in front of the battery of percussion, which included two sets of timpani drums.

More brass lurked offstage. After softly churning strings, reminiscent of Wagner’s famed evocation of the Rhine River, played under mournful woodwinds – with just a glint of piccolo – a trio of distant trumpets was heard, triggering a response from the horns. Then as the trumpeters entered from offstage, the cellos steered us toward echoes of Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” bringing us the springtime awakening of nature promised in Mahler’s 1893 program notes. When the winds reached their bright, full-throated twittering, the season burst into blossom. But with solo spots from Wang’s flute, Marino’s clarinet, a soft tattoo on the bass drum, and more fine section work from the French horns, there was ample space for reflection afterwards.

Echoes of Strauss II were readily apparent in the “Kräftig bewegt” (Forceful animated) movement that followed, not subtle at all once we had been alerted to them; and in the trio section that followed, the waltzing spirit of the orchestra became more contagious. After timpani and percussion had engaged, there was a nice simple spotlight for Byron Johns and his French horn. The other middle movement, “Feirlich und gemessen” (Solemn and measured), lost its power to intimidate as soon as the listener realized that the fugal figure was a slowed-down, macabre mutation of the familiar “Frère Jacques” nursery song. Initiating the round, principal Kurt Riecken had the rare opportunity to offer us a sampling of his solo handiwork on the double bass, with oboe and clarinet taking us to higher frequencies. Cellos and violas initiated another round before the clarinets lightened the gloom with a klezmer-like interlude.

Aside from the cresting of the opening movement, there was nothing titanic about “The Titan” until we reached the “Stürmisch bewegt” (Stormy animated) finale. Here is where the double-duty barrage of timpani was detonated, though there also was some finesse from the lyrical violins in the early stages. With the entrance of the trombones, the horns, the woodwinds, and the trumpets, the strings throbbed with more urgency. Increasing the final drama, Mahler circled back to the calm, the distant heraldry, and even some of the vernal twittering of the opening movement, and Warren-Green obviously reveled in quietly setting up his final explosion. The entire phalanx of eight French horns stood up, punctuating the majesty and the showmanship of the climax. Programming Mahler yielded some vacant patches down in the orchestra seats – and a totally empty upper balcony – but the Belk Theater audience responded to “The Titan” with a lusty standing ovation that was as enthusiastic as any I’ve seen there. Ultimately, they bought into the whole “Mahler Lite” concept as completely as the musicians.

 

Cherokee Anguish Upstages “Sleeping Beauty” in Symphony Concert

Review:  Sleeping Beauty

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’ve had a copious amount of Russian music from Charlotte Symphony this year. Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade headlined the first two classics concerts of 2019, and Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty suite is continuing the trend. Even after Symphony emerged from their annual retreat in the Belk Theater pit with Charlotte Ballet’s production of Nutcracker, subscribers do not seem to tire of this steady Russian diet.

The presumption may be that we’ll see better attendance if the featured piece is Russian rather than American, old-style rather than new. Sleeping Beauty wasn’t as long as Michael Daugherty’s Trail of Tears concerto or as new as Aaron Copland’s more familiar Billy the Kid suite, which kicked off the evening. Nor was it played with the same verve at Knight Theater under the baton of guest conductor Joseph Young, who actually has educational, vocational and family ties in the Carolinas.

Principal flutist Victor Wang stepped downstage to play the solos in Daugherty’s concerto, deftly flutter-tonguing, overblowing, and producing multiphonics and glissandos – upstaging the marquee ballet suite that followed after intermission. In the context of the forced Cherokee migration carried out by the U.S. Army in 1838-39, pursuant to Indian Removal Act of 1830, the chord-like multiphonics and glissandos sounded like laments or nostalgic reflections, the overblowing sounded somber and contemplative like a Japanese shakuhachi flute, and the flutter-tonguing had a range of emotional connotations, submission one moment and terror at other times.

There was so much more to admire in Wang’s playing beyond the special effects, particularly in the lyrical middle movement “incantation” that followed the longer, more turbulent “where the wind blew free” section. You might wonder why the concluding “sun dance,” starting off so lightly, becomes as turbulent as the opening movement. Daugherty gives us a moving explanation in his program notes, reminding us that the religious dance ceremony of the Plains Indians was banned for a full century by the U.S. government.

While Wang had a clear path, consistently giving voice to the soul and anguish of Native Americans, Young had a more jagged course steering the orchestra. The delicate early percussion at the start of the outer movements – xylophone, harp, and piano – was obviously consonant with the flute, but the drums sent different signals. In the opening “wind blew free” movement, the snares cued the Trail of Tears march, taking on the role of the Army tormentors, but in the closing “dance,” the timpani were unmistakably tom-toms. Strings could also be mellow or suddenly abrasive as Young navigated this fascinating, bumpy trail.

Notwithstanding the timings provided in Symphony’s program booklet, the Sleeping Beauty suite was actually the shortest piece on the program. But there’s nothing at all sleepy about the opening episode of its opening movement. It should sound like we’ve been improbably dropped into the raucous section of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture where the composer simulates the strife between the Montagues and the Capulets. Instead of medieval Verona or ancient fairyland, the orchestra sounded more like contemporary Vegas – or a carryover of Daugherty’s prairie.

When the music becalmed the brass bloomed, and the Tchaikovsky ballet style became recognizable, but rarely with the charm that Symphony radiates every December in Nutcracker. The grandeur of the Pas d’action didn’t quite wake up, and though I love the eerie foreboding sound of the Puss and Boots sketch, this performance didn’t deliver the predatory snap that should make it memorable. The shimmering magic of the “Panorama” section was mostly moribund until principal harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell gracefully soloed to close it out.

Symphony recovered its swagger to close the evening with the familiar Sleeping Beauty waltz, but this wasn’t the sort of piece that Peter Ilyich intended to climax an evening of ballet, let alone an evening of orchestral music. A lead-off spot would have been more appropriate. As it turned out, Copland’s Billy the Kid suite vied with Trail of Tears as the best performance on this night.

Amy Orsinger Whitehead ably took over the flute chair while Wang waited in the wings, leading a volley of wind solos sounding Copland’s recurring “Open Prairie” theme, followed by principal clarinet Taylor Marino, principal oboe Hollis Ulaky, and French hornist Byron Johns. Pounding the timpani, acting principal Ariel Zaviezo Arriagada signaled the onset of the “Gun Battle,” but this dark episode didn’t eclipse the sunny impression made by Erinn Frechette, merrily playing the piccolo solo when we reached Copland’s “Frontier Town.”

With players of this caliber – and the zest that Young brought to this repertoire – I daresay that even Symphony’s stodgy subscribers would have been better pleased by an All-American evening. Whether they would have attended is a different question.

Traveling Light, Pan Harmonia Brings Resounding Lyricism and Beauty to Abbey Basilica

Review: Pan Harmonia

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Based in Asheville, Pan Harmonia can muster a wide variety of chamber music combos, listing 18 performing musicians at their website on their roster for the current season. For their most recent outing, they traveled light to Belmont College, where Pan Harmonia founder, flutist Kate Steinbeck teamed with harpist Jacquelyn Bartlett in an Arts at the Abbey concert. Although there is relatively scant repertoire written for flute and harp, a simple Spotify search will confirm that recordings abound.

My search didn’t uncover any notable music that paired the instruments together before Mozart’s Concerto in C for Flute and Harp in 1778. Nor did I find a flute and harp recording for the two solo instruments that pre-dated the 1964 collection by flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and harpist Lily Laskine, where pieces by Rossini, Fauré, Ibert, Damase, and J.B. Krumpholz were programmed – one of my earliest LPs and still a favorite. The two sounds complement each other ideally, the harp providing a watery or ethereal medium where the flute can glide and soar.

Atmosphere at the Abbey Basilica was a little more polished and formal than usual. Nobody was still onstage rehearsing when we took our seats, and when Karen Hite Jacob stepped up to a marble lectern to offer her customary introduction, her microphone worked so we could hear her. Anyone unfamiliar with the works recorded by flute-and-harp would have found the entire Pan Harmonia program fresh and new, with works by Jacques Ibert, Camille Saint-Saëns, Dana Wilson, Joseph Jongen, Osvaldo Lacerda, Alan Hovhaness, and Witold Lutoslawski. Starting off with Ibert and Saint-Saëns, the affable duo was actually leading off with two of the most recorded pieces in the repertoire.

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Ibert’s “Entr’acte” may be the most-often covered of all, appearing in the landmark Rampal-Laskine collection just 10 years after it was written, according to the liner notes. It was a particularly tough test for Steinbeck, for Ibert begins with a challenging run, fairly up in the instrument’s range, that’s hard enough for a flutist to play cleanly even when the Basilica’s warm acoustic isn’t punctuating the run with echoes. The first iteration of that run was a bit shrill and sloppy, mainly because Steinbeck was too vigorous – keyed up, perhaps – in her attack. But Ibert provided numerous reprises of his catchy run, and the ones that ensued were calmer and more controlled. After Bartlett plucked the exquisite harmonics midway through, Steinbeck’s grace notes were more graceful.

Saint-Saëns’s Op. 37 “Romance” was written for flute or violin, but as Bartlett explained, the accompaniment was originally for piano and subsequently adapted to harp. The adaptation proved to be very challenging, varied, and delightful in Bartlett’s hands, ideally suited for harp, while Steinbeck’s playing was also more appealing at a slower tempo, as she nestled into her instrument’s luxurious midrange, and dialed in her dynamics more felicitously. After these two flute-and-harp chestnuts, Dana Wilson’s “And longing to be the singing master of my soul” was the rarest work of the evening, commissioned for Steinbeck by her husband in 2011.

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Taking his title from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” a goldmine of quotes beginning with “no country for old men” in the opening line, Wilson emphatically shone the spotlight on the flutist in this duet, not only giving Steinbeck some attractive blue notes at the start of the piece but also clearing the way later on for a cadenza with impressive virtuosic sparkle.

Jongen’s “Danse Lente” was as beautifully balanced between the two players as the Saint-Saëns piece. Perhaps buoyed by her conquest of the Wilson cadenza, Steinbeck reached loftier levels of confidence and joy, her soaring highs as attuned to the Basilica’s acoustics as her luscious midrange, while Bartlett reasserted herself as a full partner in the musicmaking. Bartlett was a prime factor in establishing the Brazilian ambiance of “Balada” with her pellucid harp intro, but there was plenty of idiomatic writing for the flute as well, even a couple of opportunities for Steinbeck to impart a samba sway to her performance.

Clearly the chief work of the evening was The Garden of Adonis by Hovhaness, inspired by Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. If you’re already familiar with Hovhaness, it’s likely because of the sterling advocacy by Gerard Schwarz, director of the annual Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro. Schwarz hasn’t recorded all of this American’s 70+ symphonies, but he has certainly led stirring versions of the mighty orchestral titles we associate with Hovhaness, including “And God Created Great Whales” and “Mount St. Helens.” So it might be surprising to discover that there’s a whole Telarc album in the Hovhaness discography of various compositions for harp with a 73-minute playing time.

As promised by Bartlett, the music had a definite Eastern flavor, but the surprise – especially if you weren’t aware of the composer’s deep affection for the harp – came after the opening Largo ended with a lovely diminuendo from both players. Bartlett didn’t merely set the tone for the ensuing Allegro, she soloed extensively – at a dramatically louder volume than anything she had played before. The sound filled the Basilica with ravishing beauty. Another transcendent solo from Bartlett started off the “Adagio, Like a Solemn Dance” section, but Steinbeck was not to be outdone, taking us into the open air we’re accustomed to from Hovhaness with a floating melody that transitioned to birdlike cadenzas later in the same “Dance” and in the “Allegro” that followed, executing swift runs and wide intervals with aplomb. Loveliness and loneliness were intertwined.

A dark and somber ostinato from Bartlett set up the Allegretto after a rather sylvan Grave movement, but although this was listed as the final movement in the Arts at the Abbey program, I believe that the duo played the concluding Andante molto espressivo as well. Wherever she finished, Steinbeck seemed to have reached a special plateau of intimacy with the hall, playing with the echoes that the Basilica blandished on her flute instead of battling them.

The concert concluded with “Three Fragments” by Lutoslaski, pretty much obviating the need for encores after Hovhaness’s lush and lyrical tribute to Spenser. Both Steinbeck and Bartlett seemed to be visibly relaxed, though that didn’t mean they were slowing down. The opening “Magie” snippet was swift and slightly anxious, and the closing “Presto” was fleet, agile, and merry. In between, Steinbeck and her distinctive modern flute, crafted with black wood, were able to infuse sweetness and lyricism into the “Ulysse en Itaque” section, and Bartlett was able to wrap her partner’s melody in delicate embroidery. For those among the large crowd who had been drawn to the Abbey Basilica by an intuition telling them that flute and harp would make an exquisite combination, Pan Harmonia had rewarded their instincts.

Charlotte Symphony Concertmaster Spearheads a Devastating “Scheherazade”

Review:  Scheherazade

By Perry Tannenbaum

Among over 100 versions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade that you can find on Spotify, the name of the violinist who plays the title role, in rare instances, will appear on the album cover. Given the enduring popularity of this Arabian Nights suite and the challenges it presents for our narrator, you can probably assume that the part of Scheherazade would be a prime arrow for an aspiring concertmaster to have in his or her quiver. Charlotte Symphony’s ace violinist, Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, proved once again that he had it. Unlike his previous triumph at Belk Theater as the spellbinding Arabian in 2009, Lupanu didn’t upstage conductor Christopher Warren-Green, who was then auditioning for the music directorship he now holds. No, this triumph could be credited to the entire orchestra, a redemption that was lifted even higher with a sense of renewal as Symphony’s new principal clarinetist Taylor Marino and their new principal bassoonist Olivia Oh made auspicious Belk Theater debuts. The program was also more propitiously supplemented, with the prelude to Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel launching the evening and Richard Strauss’s youthful Don Juan bringing us to intermission.

If you were expecting that lineup to be altogether spirited, lyrical, and upbeat, Humperdinck’s “Prelude” would have been a surprise. After Warren-Green dedicated the evening to the late Wolfgang Roth, Symphony’s former principal second violin, the soft and soothing choir of French horns set an appropriate tone and the sheen of the violins added soulfulness to the dedication. In the uptempo section that followed, Warren-Green banished all Wagnerian influences, so the piece became summery and bucolic. When the music crested and became rather grand for a children’s fairytale, the mood we arrived at was jubilation rather than conquest.

Maybe the Warren-Green dedication, assuring us that Herr Roth was listening, was the reason that everybody in the orchestra brought their A-game. Not only did Symphony eclipse their previous Scheherazade of 2009, they bettered their Don Juan performance of 2005 under the able baton Christof Perick. Lupanu gave us foretastes of things to come, sparkling in his early exchange with the glockenspiel and getting in on more of the storytelling late in Strauss’s tone poem with principal harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell, another harbinger of sweets to come. But it was the horn section and principal Frank Portone who atoned most mightily for the blemishes of yesteryear, announcing the Don’s heroic theme and keying a thrilling climax before the timpani and brass piled on. Warren-Green not only measured up to Perick’s Strauss expertise, he provided a useful explication, in his introductory remarks, of the full stop at the climax of the piece and drew our attention to the beautiful love song that principal oboist Hollis Ulaky would play. She did not disappoint.

All across Scheherazade, Lupanu and Trammell renewed their gorgeous partnership, stitching the narrative together, but it was Lupanu who reveled in the most virtuosic opportunities. In the opening “Sea and Sinbad” movement, Lupanu played so softly that Trammell’s harp actually sounded louder at times. He was commanding in one of the passages I most look forward to, the speed-up that cues the full orchestra’s build to the full epic, oceanic majesty of Rimsky’s symphony. Oh emerged impressively at the forefront for the bassoon’s graceful statement of the “Kalendar Prince” theme, and Marino was scintillating in the lyrical “Young Prince and the Young Prince” movement, first in the magical run after the gorgeous theme and later in the accelerated waltz section, dancing with the two flutes. Yet Lupanu reasserted his dominion with a narration that included some ricochet bowing before the orchestral repeat of the waltz and a delicate fadeout.

Lupanu’s double-bowed intro to the eventful finale – “Carnival,” “Sea,” shipwreck, “Bronze Warrior” – moodily contrasted with the busy tumult to come, beautifully dispelled by flutists Amy Orsinger Whitehead and principal Victor Wang as we arrived at the boisterousness of Baghdad. It had seemed that Warren-Green and Symphony couldn’t surpass the power and majesty of the opening movement, but they had not peaked too soon. There was a phantasmagorical speed and madness to the festival that broke dramatically into the “Sea” section with muscular brass and towering grandeur. Not an easy episode to follow, but Lupanu saved his most devastating eloquence for his final cadenza, sustaining a cluster of long high harmonics over the harp.