Category Archives: Concert

A Bach Big Bang Hits the QC

Preview:  Charlotte Bach Festival

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Bach celebrations aren’t totally alien to the Queen City. Charlotte Symphony played with the idea for a few years at Knight Theater with Bachtoberfest, pairing Bach and beer, preferably bock. BachFests have bloomed annually – if only for a day – at St. Alban’s Episcopal in nearby Davidson; and last March, the North Carolina Bach Festival landed modestly for one evening at the Steinway Piano Gallery on the outskirts of town.

None of these foretold the Bach Big Bang that begins this Saturday. The first annual Charlotte Bach Festival splashes down with eight concerts in nine days – predominantly in the QC but in churches ranging from Gastonia to Winston-Salem. Unlike the Bachtoberfest brew, which might mix in some Mozart and Wagner, Charlotte Bach kicks off with an all-Johann Sebastian lineup.

And unlike the chamber offerings at St. Alban’s and Steinway, Charlotte Bach is mostly big Bach: multiple cantatas, a trumpeting Orchestral Suite, a motet, and the mighty B Minor Mass. Ambitions are not at all small at Bach Akademie Charlotte, the non-profit producing company that sprouted up last October – at St. Alban’s with two cantatas and a motet – with no word about the Big Bang to come.

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Plans are not only firmly in place to stage Charlotte Bach annually but also to possibly grow the festival to a third weekend. That would put a fully-bloomed QC festival in the same elite class as the Oregon Bach Festival, the Big Kahuna among Bach fests in America.

Seeds for this astonishing phenomenon were first planted late in 2013, when Charlotte Symphony presented Bach’s St. Matthew Passion under the direction of Scott Allen Jarrett. Singing tenor with the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte at these sacred concerts, Mike Trammell had an epiphany: this was what he wanted to do in life.

“Bach always makes you look beyond the page,” says Trammell, “and I was captivated by the context of the piece – the history, the texts chosen, and its structure of arias, recits, and chorales. I finally found some classical music that I could connect with beyond the way it sounded to my ear.”

But to live by singing Bach in Charlotte – the land of Speedweeks, tailgate parties, and b-ball?? Of course, not. So he went off and sang Bach in Stuttgart and then Weimar with Helmuth Rilling, the revered conductor and choirmaster who founded Oregon Bach in 1971.

Eventually, Trammell got to thinking, why not Charlotte? With other like-minded locals, he founded the Bach Akademie Charlotte, and then he reached out to Jarrett to become its first artistic director.

“You have to hear Scott speak on Bach,” says Trammell, “and you have to hear what he does with the music for me to tell you why he’s the best. He’s recognized by his peers as a leading Bach scholar in the country. He knows our city, he knows our people – he speaks our language and the language of Bach.”

Trammell flew up to Boston to make his Bach Akademie pitch to Jarrett. Getting Jarrett to sign on was the key to bringing what Trammell calls a “rockstar” staff aboard, including Adam Romey, the Festival’s managing director. Romey’s mom is Rilling’s longtime assistant, and his grandfather helped Helmut in founding Oregon Bach.20170810_Bard_TONE_SM_418_Touch_UP

No doubt Jarrett helped in selling Romey on Charlotte. A native of Virginia who went to college at Furman University, Jarrett was already at home in the region when he served as assistant conductor at Charlotte Symphony from 2004 to 2015 and music director for the Oratorio Singers.

“So it was a real happy 11 years working for the Oratorio and the Symphony, coming weekly to Charlotte for more than a decade,” says Jarrett. “I find the spirit behind people wanting to do this music is really thrilling, and I think it’s brilliant for [the Bach festival] to be in Charlotte. Charlotte is a perfect place for it!”

It’s doubtful that anything less than a Bach festival aspiring to national prominence could have lured Jarrett back.

Down in Miami, Jarrett was the first guest conductor to lead the Seraphic Fire ensemble, contributing to their Grammy-nominated recording of Brahms’ Requiem in 2012. Up in Boston, he is resident conductor of the Handel + Haydn Society, and music director of the Back Bay Chorale. At Boston University, he is director of music at Marsh Chapel, where weekly Sunday services are broadcast live. He has also piloted a Bach cantata series at the University for the past 12 years.©Michael J.Lutch _May 10, 2017_150.jpg

 

More importantly, Jarrett brings more precious DNA to our budding festival from the Oregon Bach Festival, where he has been a fixture since 2010. Last year, he kicked off the season conducting the Matthew Passion, making him the only person besides Rilling ever entrusted with that masterwork. This season at Oregon, he presides over another Rilling preserve, the Discovery Series, a unique set of lecture-demonstration concerts that take listeners inside the craftsmanship and the theology of the music.

Here in Charlotte, it will be called The Bach Experience – as it has been on Jarrett’s home turf at Boston U. The two themed concerts, “Summer in Leipzig,” will be offered at Myers Park United Methodist Church next Tuesday and Thursday at 12:30pm. Jarrett has chosen Cantata 75, “Die Elenden sollen essen” (“The Hungry Shall Eat”), and Cantata 76, “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” (“The Heavens Are Telling the Glory of God”), to take us back to 1723 and Bach’s first two weeks of work as cantor of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.

Jarrett, the Akademie | Charlotte Cantata Choir, the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, singers from the Akademie’s Emerging Artist program, and special guests will all be upfront performing – and demonstrating. Besides the quality of the singers and musicians, who hail from as far away as California and Canada, Jarrett is enthused about the caliber of the QC’s audience.

“One of the things that always inspired me about Charlotte is that people here go to Sunday school, they are interested in learning,” Jarrett declares. “It’s not like they go to a concert to get their card punched. They want to know why the music matters. They want to know what the music has to say. And basically, they are curious people, and this is the perfect music for them!”

Festivities are bookended by two blockbuster concerts, leading off with the Festival Opening Celebration on Saturday evening at Christ Church Charlotte on Providence Road. Ordinarily, you don’t expect the trumpeting of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1 to be upstaged. This time, the brassy suite might be less dominant than usual, flanked by the “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (“Sing to the Lord a New Song”) motet, which Jarrett describes as the “Brandenburg Concerto for voices,” and the Cantata 147, which includes the beloved “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” – twice.

“That cantata is very dear to me,” Jarrett confides. “It’s one of the first cantatas I ever heard and learned, and Bach has a wonderful concertante opening movement with voices and trumpet, a real brilliant feature for voices and players.”

The closing concert in Charlotte on the following Saturday, June 16 at Myers Park Presbyterian, is simply called The Masterwork – because Jarrett can find no words to overpraise the monumental B Minor Mass. Both the opening and closing concerts get Sunday afternoon encores that will expand the Charlotte Bach Festival’s reach. The Opening Celebration travels to First United Methodist in Gastonia this coming Sunday, and The Masterwork journeys to Centenary United Methodist in Winston-Salem on June 17.

image-2At the other end of the Bach spectrum, the Leipzig cantor is the unchallenged master of solo works written for violin, cello, and organ. The Visiting Artist Recital Series at the Charlotte festival checks that Bach box as well. Highlighting the series, Bálint Karosi reigns at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on Friday, June 16, when he will give the new Fisk organ a workout – with pieces inspired by Bach’s name, written by Schumann, Liszt, and others.

Two kings collide as Karosi, a Hungaraton recording artist and winner of the 2008 International J.S. Bach Competition, displays his skills on the king of instruments.

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But don’t skip Guy Fishman, principal cellist of the Handel + Haydn Society, who comes to Christ Church Charlotte next Monday evening to play selected Bach Cello Suites. There won’t be many quiet moments when the Bach Big Bang hits Charlotte, but this will be among the most beautiful.

“He is an Israeli-American musician,” Jarrett points out, “and just one of the most extraordinary cellists that I’ve ever met, and I’m so grateful to be able to work with him often.”

For tickets and full details, go to bachcharlotte.com.

 

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

Review: FESTIVAL OPENING CELEBRATION

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

African Children’s Choir Brings Youthful Exuberance, Wonder, and Hope to Mint Hill

Review:  African Children’s Choir

By Perry Tannenbaum

Unless you’ve seen them before, visited their website, or read their publicity releases, you might assume that the African Children’s Choir, singing at the Arlington Baptist Church in Mint Hill, was a group of inner city Charlotte kids spreading their wings to the edge of Mecklenburg County and into the suburbs. I was quickly disabused of that notion when I walked into the assembly hall, which doubles as a cozy basketball arena. There were three tables at the rear of the hall, on the near side of the sound and video equipment, peddling merchandise and brochures, including one that was selling a generous selection of the dozen CDs that the Choir has recorded over the past 25 years.

It all began in 1984, according to the website – and one of the film breaks in the Children’s Choir concert – during a visit to Uganda by human rights activist Ray Barnett, who was inspired to form the Choir “by the singing of one small boy.” By the end of that year, the first Choir, made up of boys and girls aged 7-10, was touring North America. Many of the choristers had lost one or both parents amid Uganda’s bloody civil war, and the entire 1st Choir had been born during the pernicious reign of Idi Amin. An overarching concern of Music for Life, the group that runs African Children’s Choir, is the education and welfare of the children – and impacting the future of the continent – so Music for Life has established children’s homes across the seven countries they serve.

Mint Hill was the fourth stop – and the fifth concert – on the 48th Choir’s current 34-city, 40-concert tour, their last stop in North Carolina until the penultimate concert in Fayetteville on April 5. With just a couple of exceptions, the performances will be given in churches, so the format I witnessed is presumably typical. It began with lead pastor Rick Whittier offering an invocation and introducing choir director Alice Nambooze, who shifted focus from prayerful thanksgiving to firing up the audience so that we’d greet the 18-member Choir enthusiastically. Enthusiasm was certainly warranted, for the children were clad in unmistakably African costumes, free-flowing prints filled with bright yellow, red, and green accents. Opening with “Rejoice,” the title song of their newest CD, the African Children’s Choir matched the liveliness of their costumes with the joy of their singing.

The ebullient ensemble more than counterbalanced what you don’t ordinarily encounter at adult choir concerts – appeals, collections, testimonials, and infomercials – with a multitude of energetic ingredients we should count on from grownups. All of these kids danced, banged on tin cans, rhythmically clapped hands, and twice changed costumes, a radical departure from the staid and colorless decorum that adult choirs with their dignified directors impose on us. Some of the kids beat on the drums, Africa’s iconic instrument, some of them introduced the songs, some performed solo vocals, some interjected chants or recitations, and others hawked merch during the most charming commercial break. All of them – this was also adorable – introduced themselves. Nor was the music religiously live and a capella. Prerecorded soundtracks for most of the selections helped keep the kids on the same beat.

Seated in front of the stage, Nambooze directed the children with a minimum of fuss, returning to the spotlight on just a few occasions, most notably to sing a lead vocal after launching a wake-up tableau and to preside over the more extended break halfway through the concert, when donations were asked. The head teacher who travels with the group, Timothy Kawuma, identified himself as “Uncle Timothy” and turned out to be the most bodacious drummer we would see. Kawuma and Nambooze also offered personal testimonies, linking themselves with the beginnings of the Children’s Choir – when both were members of Choir 19 – and ending by proudly announcing the college business degrees they had earned, she in administration and he in statistics. Future of Africa.

The present in Mint Hill leaned heavily on tunes from the new CD and familiar old favorites, each of them delightfully Africanized. Very appropriately, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” was punctuated with handclaps – patty-cake style to add an extra childish tang leading into intermission. “Amazing Grace” was deceptively conventional through its opening stanza, but it grew suddenly catchy and I daresay groovy when the arrangement became a gleeful call-and-response. For their encore, the kids sang “This Little Light of Mine” with such celebratory gusto that I have to wonder how much longer it will be missing from their discography.

Songs from the newest album came with a little more zest in live performance, without any loss in choral richness. The glee-club energy of “Rejoice” showed harmonious maturity in its latter stages, but with only drums for accompaniment, the shorter “Njuba” took me more convincingly to Africa with rich harmonies resembling those of the famed Ladysmith Black Mambazo group – and with purely African lyrics. The other two newborns were more anthemic, mixing English and African into their lyric tapestries. “Our God” bounced along more jauntily, with more youthful exuberance, over a simpler soundtrack featuring guitar, keyboards, and percussion. “Cornerstone” started with an African refrain from the full chorus, breaking into English with a boy’s solo vocal after a solemn instrumental vamp. The whole choir repeated the boy’s stanza, presumably translated into African, before we reached the powerful “Christ alone, cornerstone” refrain. The arrangement kept building and, in the final repetitions of the refrain, the choir split in half, as the English “Cornerstone” chants overlapped the original African one. In a way, it capsulized what Barnett had set out to achieve 33 years ago.

With all the bright costuming, African percussion, and synthetic prerecorded sounds, Children’s Choir still carved out a precious moment when the mood became sacred in a purely Western way. I couldn’t find the African Children’s Choir version of Psalm 139, but it’s a very satisfying setting, discreetly stripped of the more bellicose – and unchildlike – verses between 1-18 and 23-24. There are so many lines and songs that sound strange or awkward coming from children. Others sound to us like something we already know, vividly refreshed. But the wonder and youthful hope of these lines, lifted and not let down by the melody and the widely smiling singers, reminded us of what is most unique and cherishable in the hearts of children.