Category Archives: Concert

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.

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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.

Bach Akademie Charlotte’s Epiphany Concert Includes Schütz and Amon Appetizers in a Cantata Feast

Review: Bach Akademie Charlotte’s Epiphany Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Word has spread quickly about Bach Akademie Charlotte, their professional choir, and their polyphonic excellence. After their biggest splash last spring, the first annual Charlotte Bach Festival with its Oregon Bach aspirations, Akademie reconnected with their audience in the fall with “Priceless Treasure: Bach and the Motet Tradition” at Christ Church Charlotte. They rekindled the flame in a midwinter program, “Epiphany Cantatas,” last Saturday night at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in front of a robust turnout. It wasn’t all Bach or all cantatas, with motets by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) and Blasius Amon (ca. 1560-1590) sprinkled in between, and while it’s always so apt to hear Bach’s sacred cantatas in a church, these were sung and played nearly four Sundays after this year’s Feast of Epiphany.

Programmed and conducted by artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett, rest assured that the concert was aptly themed on the Epiphany celebration. While the BA Cantata Choir was reduced in size to 12, about half the maximum number that performed the B Minor Mass last June, there was nothing off-season about its membership, including choristers and soloists who flew in from as far north as New York and as far west as California. The 18-member North Carolina Baroque Orchestra also sported ace guests who had traveled from afar.

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The opening piece of the evening, “Fallt mit Danken, Fallt mit Leben” (“prostrate yourselves with thanks and praise”), was easily the most extended work of the evening – but not exactly a cantata. Actually, it was the fourth part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and, celebrating the circumcision of Jesus, performed on New Year’s Day. Do the math, recall the Jewish custom, and you’ll know why. There’s a pretty little orchestral prelude before the chorus enters that gave hornists Chris Caudill and Rachel Niketopoulus a chance to shine, and once the Cantata Choir broke in, there were appealing spaces provided for oboists Geoffrey Burgess and Sung Lee. Burgess surpassed himself later on with his charming obbligato in the “Flösst, mein Feiland, Flösst dein Namen” (“does your name, my savior, instill”) aria where Molly Quinn floated her echoes, soprano to soprano, from upstage to Arwen Myers’s lead vocal up front.

As the Evangelist, tenor Bryon Grohman underscored the deeper significance of the circumcision, reminding us in “Und da Acht Tage” recitative that Jesus was given his name during that eighth-day ritual. Most impressive of the solo vocalists, starting with the length of his contribution, was bass baritone Jason Steigerwalt, who drew two recitatives during this piece. The first of these, “Immanuel, o Süsses Wort!” (“Emmanuel, oh sweet word!”), not only showed off Steigerwelt’s gorgeous lower range to better advantage, it pleasantly surprised us when three sopranos stood up to accompany him midway through.

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Instrumentally, some of the accompaniment for the soloists was spare, and while organist Nick Haigh played ably, a sweeter more robust instrument would have especially elevated the thinner recitatives. The Choir bolstered Steigerwalt’s second recitative, “Wohlan, dein Name Soll Allein” (“well then, your name alone”), effectively following the echo aria. Two violinists, Martha Perry and Janelle Davis, joined tenor Gene Stenger in his genial “Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben” (“I will live only to honor you”) aria, with additional backup from Haigh, Simon Martyn-Ellis’s theorbo, and Susan Yelanjian’s violone. The two horns returned with the orchestra and Choir for the closing Chorale, raising the devotional level to exuberance and joy while repeatedly reminding us – with six mentions of the name Jesus – of the meaning of the day.

Schutz’s Das ist je gewisslich wahr, based on the testimonial recorded in the opening chapter of 1 Timothy, immediately impressed with the awesome layered entrance of the Choir in verse 15 (New RSV): “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.” Radically contrasting the slow opening bars of this motet with the speed-up that followed, Jarrett and his Cantata Choir dramatized the swiftness of Christ’s coming more emphatically than I’ve heard on any recording, with a light sense of liberation emanating from the women’s voices.

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Briefly showcased as the Evangelist in BWV 248.IV, Grohman made more indelible impressions in the tenor recitative and aria of Bach’s BWV 124 Cantata for January 7, Meinem Jesum, lass ich nicht (“I will not let go of my Jesus”). With Burgess excelling again in a lovely obbligato, Grohman was especially smooth in the aria, “Und wenn der herte Todesschlag” (“and when the cruel stroke of death”), notwithstanding its wide intervals. Burgess also sweetened the opening chorus, but they were all soon to be upstaged by the soprano-alto duet sung by Margaret Carpenter Haigh and countertenor Jay Carter, “Entziehe dich eilends, mein Herze, die Welt” (“withdraw swiftly, my heart, from the world”).

Jarrett boldly speculated that Amon’s three-minute motet, “Magi videntes stellam” (“the Magi, seeing the star”), was likely the composer’s Charlotte debut. Finding that the piece represents one-third of Amon’s output available on Spotify, I won’t dispute that assertion. “Rorat Coeli de super,” mixing solo and choral vocals, would be my choice as the best of the three Amon titles I’ve heard, but the Cantata Choir advocated beautifully for this moment of biblical revelation, and it was certainly a fitting bridge to Bach’s Epiphany Cantata, BWV 65, with its mentions of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

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No surprise, then, that Jarrett drew our attention to the gloss on the iconic gifts that Stenger would sing in his tenor recitative, equating gold with faith, frankincense with prayer, and myrrh with patience. Jarrett also welcomed back the horn players in his introductory remarks, pointing out the extra tubing that Caudill and Niketopoulus would be adding to their valveless instruments, allowing them to play lower than before. Burgess and Lee were also asked to stand and display their curved oboes da caccia, the third different kind of oboe they would play during the evening, having slipped a pair of oboe d’amores past us earlier.

First performed on Epiphany Sunday in 1724 and one of Bach’s earliest Leipzig compositions, Sie warden aus Saba alle kommen is framed by the chorus as the fulfillment of Isiah’s prophecy in 60:6, “all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” Steigerwelt returned to give the baritone’s recitative explicating the fulfillment of the prophecy. Then he sang a very lovely aria, “Gold aus Ophir ist zu schlecht” (“gold from Ophir is too base”), exhorting Christians to offer their hearts instead of mere gold as their gifts to the newborn. With its own orchestral intro, the climactic tenor aria, “Nimm mich dir zu eigen hin” (‘take me to you as your own”), offered Stenger the chance to match Steigerwalt’s exploits, and he responded with his heartiest, most heartfelt singing of the evening.

The orchestral postlude to Stenger’s aria, peppered with pulsing horns and exchanges between a pair of recorders, was actually livelier than the closing chorale, which brought the concert to a calm, anthemic close. Altogether, this Epiphany concert was a memorable enough feast to leave us looking forward to the 2019 Charlotte Bach Festival, already scheduled for June 7-16, culminating with performances of the St. Matthew Passion on the final two nights.

Seasonal Cheer Prevails Over Weather Woes at Belmont Abbey’s Holiday Concert

Review:  Belmont Abbey’s Holiday Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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The Abbey Basilica, a signature building on the Belmont Abbey College campus, is an admirable place for a community gathering during the Yuletide season, so it was a little disappointing that dire forecasts of foul winter weather kept so many locals away from this year’s Arts at the Abbey Holiday Concert. Rain wasn’t expected to turn to snow and sleet for another five hours, so I had no qualms about hitting the highway for the 25-mile trip – after making sure the show would go on. Beginning with Abbey organist, chorus leader and voice class instructor 2018~Belmont Abbey Holiday_0001

Karen Hite Jacob’s inaudible welcome over an underpowered PA system, the concert didn’t launch with the celebratory spirit I had expected. After witnessing the debut of the 86-member Charlotte Master Chorale the previous evening, I presumed that the Abbey Chorus would be smaller but at least the size of Chanticleer, a 12-man outfit when I last reviewed them a decade ago.

Abbey Chorus had nine members, not all of them students. Also on hand were a quintet from the Voice Class and three young instrumentalists. Grouped on the steps leading up towards the altar, the Abbey Chorus began in a manner was studious and a bit nervous. It would be unfair to say they were informally dressed, but they were neither gaily attired in holiday fashion nor uniformly dressed as you might find when Chanticleer or the Charlotte Symphony Chorus perform in town or when Westminster Choir annually visits Spoleto Festival USA. When they began singing “Bright the Holly Berries” and then “Angel’s Lullaby,” it was evident that the rudiments of performing weren’t a part of their curriculum. Year after year, when the Westminster Choir travels to Charleston from their classes at Rider University, it’s obvious that every member of that ensemble has been schooled in the importance of smiling, relaxing, and enjoying yourself if you’re expecting to deliver joy to your audience.

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Justifications for the Abbey Chorus’s nervousness began to fade when they reached “Bring a Torch,” where the singers, three women and six men, began to harmonize more smoothly and veer toward confidence. “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” was even better, and I detected a smile on one of the ladies’ faces. Interspersed with appearances by the Voice Class and the instrumentalists, the Chorus sang two more sets before joining with the Voice Class – and the audience – for a parting bouquet of songs. Each new Chorus set was better than the last. The unfamiliar songs, John Rutter’s “Donkey Song” and his setting for Shakespeare’s “Blow, Thou Winter Wind” (As You Like It) outshone Loonis McGlohon’s arrangement of the traditional “Silent Night” by Franz Xaver Gruber. While the song brought little cheer to the singers’ faces, I’m sure the act of singing to a donkey carrying Mary, watching over the newborn Jesus, and sleeping in his manger stall before encouraging him to skip for joy as he went on his way brought many a smile throughout the hall.

I thought the Abbey Chorus were at their best when they were most challenged in their final set, particularly in Antonio Lotti’s setting of “Regina Coeli,” where the ensemble’s harmonizing rose to the stratospheric level the composer invokes. With “While Shepherds Watched,” it was good to see that Nahum Tate had survived the ancient drubbing he took from Alexander Pope in The Dunciad with this fine setting by Lowell Mason. “All Is Calm. All Is Bright” was the most fascinating selection of the evening, redeeming the earlier inclusion of “Silent Night” with a new musical setting of the same Joseph Mohr lyric by John Michael Trotta.

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Of the three movements that Margaret Mauney played on viola from Bach’s Suite 1 in G, I most enjoyed the lilt of her playing on the Courante. Paired with harpist Ashleigh Jones on “Greensleeves” and this time playing her violin, Mauney was more relaxed with comparable results. Jones ranked for me as the revelation of the evening, for the sound of her beautiful harp filled the hall more fully than I would have imagined as she opened with Marilyn Marzuki’s arrangement of “As Lately We Watched.” Even when I was accustomed to the opulent sound, the effect was still beatific when Jones concluded her soloing with Marzuki’s arrangement of Adolphe Adam’s “O Holy Night.” Part of the wonder of the sound emanating from Jones’s harp was that it immediately followed – and measured up to – Caleb Kualii’s performance at the Abbey’s baby grand. Kualii was no slouch, either, playing Charles Grobe’s “Adeste Fidelis With Variations.” At least one of the movements was in 3/4 time, and Kualii didn’t shrink from the infectious sway of it.

Jacob remained busy at three different keyboards during the evening, starting out at a cunning little portable when she led and accompanied the Abbey Chorus, moving over to the piano for Voice Class’s selections, and concluding at the house organ, where she startled me a little, suddenly bringing the mighty pipes at the rear of the hall to life. There was a quaint family feeling as the five members of the Vocal Class, two men and three women, huddled up behind Jacob at the keyboard for their segment and sang “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild” followed by “Winter Wonderland.” From this wee sampler, I preferred the students’ style in the sacred piece to their seasonal effort.

With hymnals nestled conveniently in the backs of the benches in front of us, it was easy for the audience to stand and join the combined Abbey Chorus and Vocal Class in a community singing of “Angels from the Realms” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The sudden blast from the organ loft added to this special moment. If you knew the tunes or could readily sight read, there was no difficulty at all in keeping up with the performers through multiple stanzas, and a celebratory vibe finally swept the hall. Between these lovely hymns, there was a satisfying union of the Chorus and Vocal Class on “Alleluia, Gelobet sei Gott.” Aside from Francis Browne’s translation of Erdmann Neumeister’s original lyric, Jacob’s handy program notes pointed out that this song, taken from Bach’s Cantata 142 for Christmas Day is now widely considered to be by Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig.

Newly-Minted Charlotte Master Chorale Couples with NC Baroque for Wonderful “Messiah”

Review: Handel’s Messiah

By Perry Tannenbaum

Backed by the Charlotte Symphony Chorus, formerly the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte, performances of Handel’s Messiah by the Symphony have been a fairly consistent holiday staple over the years. Since 2002, the only gaps on my calendar have occurred in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2016. Until this year, when Symphony passed on performing the Handel masterwork, Symphony Chorus would also sit out. But with the new Charlotte Bach Festival spreading its wings here, in Gastonia, and in Winston-Salem over a full week in June, piloted by former Oratorio Singers music director Scott Allen Jarrett, there’s a new Baroque fervor in the air – and evidently new connections for the Charlotte Symphony Chorus and current Symphony director of choruses Kenney Potter to explore. As a result, Symphony Chorus, newly rebranded for the holidays as the Charlotte Master Chorale (with a PO box in Matthews, so stay tuned), is giving three Messiah performances under Potter’s direction. Joining them for two of the performances at First United Methodist Church – and the third in Gastonia – is the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, which certainly enhanced its stature at the June festival.

The concerts mark the return of the Chorale to First United, performing Messiah there for the first time since they were still the Oratorio Singers in 2004, but it obviously represents a departure as well, for the 24-member NC Baroque performs on authentic period instruments, including two valveless trumpets and a double-necked theorbo, and its musicians adhere to Baroque performance practices. Though originally presented in a concert hall, I couldn’t help feeling that the church, the authentic instruments, and the reduced orchestra brought us closer to the Messiah that Handel originally imagined – and what amazed Dubliners actually heard in 1742. Compared to Belk Theater, which flings the sound of the Chorus at us, First United seemed to cuddle, warm, and slightly mute Master Chorale’s sound before it wafted over the musicians’ heads. From beginning to end, they were ideal, exactly what you would hope for in a city known for its churches.

Perhaps the best example of the Baroque Orchestra’s mettle was in its effortlessly fleet introduction to Master Chorale’s “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” and in the gritty churning of the strings that underpinned the climaxes at “Wonderful! Counselor!” The ensemble’s jubilation was thrilling and infectious, but they also showed their affinity for sacred music when they dug into the intro and accompaniment for “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” Individually, I would single out the work of first trumpeter Doug Wilson in the triumphant “The Trumpet Shall Sound.”

Of course, the biggest variables at annual iterations of Messiah are the solo vocalists. How would Potter fare on recruitment? Here we had the best news of all, for all four of the guest performers were eager, strong, confident, and at ease. Soprano Awet Andemichael and countertenor Timothy Parsons were seated on the audience left side of the stage, with tenor David Vanderwal and bass baritone Jesse Blumberg at our right. Evaluating their performances is largely a matter of cataloguing what each of them sang and lauding the pure tone, genuine feeling, and impeccable breath control they brought to each piece, with the possible exception of Vanderwal, who only had one extended chance to shine and hit his home run on “Thou Shalt Break Them” late in the evening, making his mark with the rigor of his attack on the verbs, break and dash.

Andemichael was the most facially expressive and theatrical of the soloists, showcasing her soothing declamatory capabilities in the “I bring you good tidings” recitative and the suppleness of her coloratura in “Rejoice, Greatly.” Listening to Parsons on “Thou That Tellest Good Tidings,” I admired his ability to reach the low note of “Judah” without scooping, as many contraltos do, but I worried whether he would be able to attack the “He Was Despised and Rejected” air with the necessary forcefulness. Not only did he render “He gave His back to the smiters” with true grit, he also managed to negotiate “spitting” without sounding pompous or silly.

Here it should probably be mentioned that the vocalists were refreshingly uncommitted to authenticity, adding the extra syllable at the end of past-tense verbs only when the melody compelled it. Blumberg especially gratified me when he didn’t add the extra syllable to “The People That Walked in Darkness” every time he repeated the verb. A relaxed, America manner is not amiss here. From the moment we began to hear Blumberg’s well-rounded low notes, I knew that he could rank among the best basses I’ve heard live in Messiah since I first became enamored of it in the late ‘60s up in New York at Queens College. While I might have liked to hear the conspiratorial decrescendos some more theatrical singers employ to add a little twinkle to “all nations” – after a mighty “shake the heavens” – the range, authority, and sheer beauty of Blumberg’s singing were nonpareil. Coupled with Wilson’s virtuosity, Blumberg’s was the best “Trumpet Shall Sound” I’ve heard anytime, anywhere.

 

Pairing Whitacre’s “Deep Field” Tone Poem With New “Deep Field” Film, Symphony Presents a Semi-World Premiere

Review:  The Planets and Deep Field 

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

Charlotte Symphony hasfared well with Gustav Holst’s The Planets in the past, programming itno fewer than five times over the last 13 seasons in the orchestra’s Classics, KnightSounds, and LolliPops series. But it didn’t become a hot ticket until Christopher Warren-Green took over the reins as Symphony’s musical director. Back in the fall of 2010, Warren-Green inaugurated the KnightSounds Series with a “Planets!” extravaganza that included NASA animations projected over the musicians at Knight Theater as they played and narrative from a local TV meteorologist between movements. A mini planetarium was set up at the Bechtler Museum next door before the concert, and telescopes stationed outdoors, focused on Jupiter and other wonders in the sky, awaited concertgoers’ gazes afterwards. Every available seat was sold for that performance, so it was hardly a surprise that the next time Symphony offered Holst’s signature work in 2013, it led off the season.

At Belk Theater, Warren-Green could field the large orchestra prescribed in the composer’s subtitle, and the fortified corps benefited from enhanced acoustics – since the maiden concert at Knight Theater predated the installation there of a sorely needed acoustic shell. If the Knight Theater performance was distinguished by superior showmanship, the Belk Theater sequence excelled in authenticity and sonic brilliance. For the 2018 encore, the showmanship has returned! Most of it was lavished upon the first piece in the program, Eric Whitacre’s Deep Field.The Nevada native’s work premiered in 2015 but it was presented for the first time with a new film, Deep Field: The Impossible Magnitude of Our Universe,and a dedicated Deep Field smartphone app, to be activated by audience members when maestro Warren-Green gave his cue. Contributors to the film include scientists and visualizers from the Space Telescope Science Institute and Virtual Choir 5, which includes more than 8,000 voices, aged 4-87, from 120 countries around the globe. Source material for the film – and inspiration for the music – was the landmark “deep field” image produced by NASA’s  Hubble Telescope in 1995, when it was trained on a seemingly blank and minuscule area of space for an epic 10 days and 342 time-exposures, revealing more than 1,500 galaxies that had never been seen before.

Extra lagniappe was added to the showmanship when trombonist Thomas Burge, who moonlighted for eight years as a WDAV weekend host until this past summer, came out to deliver the evening’s introductory remarks dressed up in a NASA spacesuit. Many if not most of the audience members with smartphones hadn’t acted on emails sent by Symphony earlier in the week urging them to download the Deep Field app, so that and logging in to the Blumenthal Performing Arts’ wi-fi network further ballooned the prefatory segment of the program. Adding to the fun, Warren-Green not only showed us what his silent cue would look like but also pantomimed what his reaction would be if we messed up.

Facing away from us until he gave us his cue, Warren-Green was the only musician onstage with a view of the screen. Synchronizing the ensemble with the film seemed to be a very complex task for him, looking down at his score and directing his players while sneaking peeks at the film. The film adds a whole new layer onto Whitacre’s composition. It was amazing how precise the synchronization appeared to be. Imprecision seemed permissible at the start, when Whitacre’s score merely proved how apt the use of a soft minimalist style was for simulating a journey through space. The power of the Deep Field film asserted itself as soon as it began, transforming Whitacre’s music into an unobtrusive film score. Yet the film ultimately proved to be a potent accompaniment for the film, for the entrance of the French horns was pivotal as the brass section and the first violins joined in the orchestral swell while the density of stars increased onscreen and colorful galaxies blossomed.

Whitacre had a bigger musical build to follow with snare drums and timpani, and the onset of our smartphones was yet to come, with the Charlotte Symphony Chorus standing by-behind the instrumentalists. Techies among our readers will be glad to hear that the Deep Field app was designed to play even when your smartphone is set on mute, thus preventing the interference of other alerts and the sounds you’ve chosen to signal email and message arrivals. No rude surprises there, and the differing reaction times to Warren-Green’s cue only enhanced the floating, white-noise, Star Trek flavor of the app’s sound. The video also had a surprise or two at this juncture, superimposing photos of people onto the galactic panorama. At first, the gallery of portraits evoked a choir for me, but perhaps because the filmmakers wished to avoid a sharp contrast with the black void of space, the black-and-white photos ultimately reminded me of the anteroom of the Holocaust Museum in DC, surely not the intended effect. More colorful, less ghostly images would help.

Three performances of Deep Field and The Planets are scheduled, an obvious indication that Symphony is aware of how hot this ticket is. Looking around the hall on Friday night, I didn’t see any patches of unsold seats, a testament to Charlotte’s undimmed affection for Holst’s astrological explorations. If you’re worried that repetition has dulled Warren-Green’s zest for the planetary suite, that concern was dispelled in the opening movement, “Mars, the Bringer of War,” where the musical director was as animated as I’ve seen him this season, prodding the orchestra to a full roar. It was interesting to see how Holst leaned as heavily on the celesta to depict outer space as Whitacre would lean on minimalism, using its distinctive timbre to sprinkle serenity on the “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” movement and to augment the Tinkerbell playfulness of the ensuing “Mercury, the Winged Messenger.”

“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” seemed to be the most British of the movements with Warren-Green wielding the baton, a countryman of the composer, and his account of “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” had as much gravitas as ever. The lugubrious opening built to an anguish tinged with timpani and tubular bells before twin harps emerged over a haze of double basses. “Uranus, the Magician” retained the Sorcerer’s Apprentice flavoring that I’d noted in previous Symphony renditions and, with the Symphony Chorus softly chiming in from offstage, “Neptune, the Mystic” had a heavenliness that can only be experienced in live performance.

While I might have pointed to the thinness cruelly exposed in the opening of Deep Field, I was at a loss to point out any flaws in Symphony’s presentation until a concertgoer sitting nearby piped up. He thought a larger screen in a darkened hall would have made Deep Field a more immersive experience. I’ve been informed that Symphony actually uses three different screens at Belk Theater, and the one deployed for Deep Field was larger than the one it uses when it presents an overhead view of guest pianists’ hands traversing the keyboard. But it wasn’t the largest screen in the arsenal, the one that hovers over Movie in Concert performances, such as the just-concluded Home Alone showings, where Symphony plays the film scores live and in-sync with the films. Maybe the midsize screen wasn’t the best choice for the Whitacre semi-premiere.

 

Like Panoramic Pease, “Music of the Night” Was Fun While It Lasted

Review:  The Music of the Night: An Andrew Lloyd Webber Revue

By Perry Tannenbaum

If you’ve never heard of Andrew Lloyd Webber – or you’re aching to become reacquainted – don’t blame Blumenthal Performing Arts, Charlotte Symphony, or CPCC. Three times in last nine years, Blumenthal’s Broadway Lights series has brought us touring versions of Phantom of the Opera with visits from Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and School of Rock sprinkled in-between. CP brought us one of the first local productions of Phantom anywhere in 2015 and has kept enthusiasms stoked for Lord Lloyd with productions of Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar over the past decade and Evita earlier this year.

Denial and deprivation have become harder to sustain in recent months. Broadway Lights brought Love Never Dies, Webber’s sequel to Phantom, to Belk Theater in early September, and both Charlotte Symphony and CP piled on with Andrew Lloyd sequels in late October. Symphony’s “Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and More” opened last Thursday and encored the following evening, but the melodies of CP’s The Music of the Night: An Andrew Lloyd Webber Revue linger on after opening on the same night.

The current revue marks a farewell to panoramic Pease Auditorium, which is slated to be demolished along with the school’s library in early 2019. As you might expect, the fondness of the farewell comes from numerous actors and artists who have kept the theatre tradition thriving at Pease, regathering at ground zero where the CP program started in 1972.

At the helm, directing and choreographing, is Ron Chisholm, whose local pedigree goes back to 1990. Susan Roberts Knowlson, Patrick Ratchford, Lisa Smith Bradley, and Kevin Harris qualify as distinguished veterans handpicked for this 13-member cast, while Ryan Deal and Lucia Stetson have the creds to be labelled the new establishment. Watch out for a few of the others, though. There were stars on the ascendant in my telescope.

With a running time of less than 73 minutes, nobody onstage gets a truly full workout except the musicians led by the versatile Lucia Stetson, who has acted, directed, and conducted both musicals and operas over the years at CP. Why such a miserly songlist with so many singers onstage and so many songs to choose from? With a decent bouquet of your fave CP singers on hand to deliver, it would have nice to claim that you’d be hearing all your fave Andrew Lloyd Webber songs.

There are 20 songs, or there would have been if one hadn’t been skipped last Saturday. Most generously represented are Evita and Phantom of the Opera – not surprising when you consider that Lucia Stetson and Ryan Deal, who starred in the title roles at CP, are on hand to handle their reprises. This they do with panache, for Chisholm knows where to place his chips when he ponders his staging. Stetson is festively dressed by costume designer Ramsey Lyric for the brash “Buenos Aires” and backed with enough vocalists to evoke a carnivale – and she really is dressed to the nines when she does Evita’s anthemic “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”

As the ghoulish, predatory Phantom, Deal can only fully come into his own when paired with his prey – the more beautiful, the better. Deal breathes heavily enough to be truly sinister in singing “Music of the Night,” but he’s most commanding when he torments Knowlson in the title song. Squat as Pease is, scenic designer James Duke does provide twin staircases flanking his final Pease set. The one at stage left is definitely an asset when Deal makes his dominant melodramatic exit. “Sing!” he bellows as Knowlson sustains high notes we haven’t heard from her in years. I’m guessing that’s the rest of the ensemble forming an offstage chorus for this duet, intensifying its power.

Taking up the Raoul role, Ratchford struck up the more consoling duet with Knowlson, “All I Ask of You.” All that chemistry was still there, no doubt kindling widespread nostalgia among those in the audience who remember the multiple times Knowlson and Ratchford shared top billing at CP in the past. With the entire ensemble singing “Masquerade” and Knowlson soloing on “Wishing You Were Here,” you will gather that Chisholm & Company’s Music of the Night is wringing maximum mileage from Phantom.

Even before the selections already cited, Brittany Currie Harrington and Traven Harrington were a more age-appropriate Christine and Raoul in “Think of Me.” Traven’s voice is the mellower at his low end, but Brittany was sensational at her uppermost in an unforeseen cadenza at the end of their duet. Each of the Harringtons logged an additional solo before the revue was done, Brittany reprising the title song from Love Never Dies and Traven taking us way back to the title song of Starlight Express.

Do you remember There’s A Light at the End of the Tunnel from that same rollerskating musical? Me neither, but Kevin Harris – perhaps signaling that he’ll be back for Showboat next summer? – reminds us how righteously rousing it is in bringing us to intermission, with backup support that matches the liveliness of “Buenos Aires.” Of the remaining cast members, I most fancied Ron T. Diaz and Emily Witte, both of whom I wished were better showcased.

Witte was saddled with the lackluster “Another Suitcase” from Evita before being obliged to timeshare “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar with Sarah Henkel and Karen Christensen. Diaz continues the Superstar momentum into the final bows, getting a better split on that title song, with J. Michael Beech sharing the spotlight and everybody in celebratory form backing up.

Lisa Smith Bradley bore the burden of beginning the evening with “Memory” from Cats, a song that I loathe from a show I despise. As we moved onward – and inevitably upward – I could be thankful that this irritation had been immediately disposed of. But I remain peeved at the evening’s brevity and the songs from other shows that remained AWOL. If we could dip into Joseph for Ratchford’s Elvis-like “Song of the King” and Harris’s “Close Every Door to Me,” surely there could be space for more than the peeps we had into Song & Dance and Whistle Down the Wind.

Maybe it’s okay to skip past The Woman in White, Aspects of Love, and Tell Me on a Sunday, but surely we must sample the Tony Award-winning Sunset Boulevard and Sir Andrew’s triumphant comeback, School of Rock, which wowed this town back in January. A couple of songs from each of those hits would expand the running time past the 90-minute threshold – and sound more like a respectable survey of this composer’s work.

Thomas Pandolfi Recital Ranges from Chopin to Gershwin With Sprinklings of Broadway

Review:  Arts at the Abbey concert featuring pianist Thomas Pandolfi

By Perry Tannenbaum

Driving out to Belmont Abbey College for an Arts at the Abbey concert featuring pianist Thomas Pandolfi, I seemed to have a previous memory of the name from my CD collection. Later that evening, I found Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli among my CDs, nestled between music of Paganini and Panufnik. The recording of his violin sonatas by Andrew Manze, which I heartily recommend, was released nearly 20 years ago when Manze could do no better than narrow the composer’s birthday to somewhere between 1620 and 1634 in Umbria. A search of Spotify unearthed three subsequent albums after Manze’s 1999 excavation – plus a new disc by the pianist that includes three of the pieces I had just heard at the Abbey Basilica. At Amazon, Thomas is better-represented than Giovanni, with a selection of CDs dating back to 2006. Scanning the extensive biography in the Arts at the Abbey program, I didn’t find a family connection between the American pianist and the Italian composer, but an artistic connection emerged while Thomas played: these are both musicians who deserve to be better known.

 

Pandolfi has technique to spare and the strength to punish a piano. His program showed a predisposition toward the tried-and-true, Manuel Ponce the only composer he needed to introduce. Leonard Bernstein, frequently performed during his centennial year, was the first of the familiar names to get a hearing with “Rhapsody of Themes from West Side Story,” Pandolfi’s arrangement of Lenny’s most famous score. Very much like Bernstein’s orchestral overture, but with a different mix of melodies, Pandolfi’s arrangement gave him a chance to show his prowess with splashy, spicy tunes as well as tender lyrical ballads. Playing loose with the sequence of the show, Pandolfi seized upon “Tonight” for his first subject and used the familiar theme from the “Prologue” and “Jet Song” to transition to the festive “I Feel Pretty,” which became a rather grand march before a minor-key meditation flowed into “One Hand, One Heart.” A second slow-fast-sequence intensified the rhapsodic mood of the piece with florid treatments of “Maria” and “Somewhere” bookended around a sprightly “America.” With Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue looming at the end of the program, this was a truly auspicious beginning.

A trio of fine Chopin showpieces followed, building gradually in intensity after the placid Nocturne No. 2 in E-Flat. Playing a little too quickly to plumb the full depths and beauties of this piece, with dynamics that didn’t make the most of its dramatic contrasts, Pandolfi was impeccable in his technique, teasing out the Nocturne’s waltz rhythm – and his trilling little codetta as we turned toward home was simply exquisite. After calling our attention to the “Always Chasing Rainbows” midsection of the Fantasy-Impromptu, Pandolfi produced his best playing so far, admirably navigating the turgid A-theme so that clarity was balanced with power. Transitions in and out of the midsection delivered sharp, dramatic contrasts.

The marvelous Opus 53 Polonaise, “The Heroic” in A-Flat, is a litmus test for piano technique and artistry. I remember arriving at the University of South Carolina as a teaching assistant in the early ‘70s and discovering the extensive LP collection at the local library that enabled me to compare how the masters attacked and interpreted this masterwork: Rubinstein, Horowitz, Entremont, Vasary, Brailowsky, and others. There are worse ways to absorb the nuances of musical interpretation and develop personal taste. It’s also pretty special to be able to hear this piece played live by someone with the attack force that can shake and roll a grand piano the way Pandolfi can. The opening sforzando snapped our heads back, and the first sounding of the heroic melody was as sharp, crisp, and uplifting as you could wish. All the intervening passages were also beautifully judged and mastered (the second quick-step interlude is a formidable beast), and the closing summation was truly rousing and thunderous. There was a satisfying rigor to the earthbound final chords, which can often sound awkwardly separated from the explosion that precedes. My only problem with the performance came when Pandolfi repeated the heroic refrain on its second and third hearings. While I appreciated his urge to vary what we had previously heard, I felt that he strayed too far, softening and muddying a couple of measures that had previously been crystal clear and bright. Nothing nearly as perverse as Lang Lang’s recent recording, mind you, but a bit outré.

After that thunder – and the enthusiastic applause that greeted it – Pandolfi reset and started a fresh trilogy in the same intensifying mold as the Chopin set. Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” came off with more lyricism and delicacy than the Nocturne, indicating that the pianist was calmer now – or maybe slightly wearied from his Polonaise exertions. The sound he could coax from the piano was as impressive as the feeling. Ponce’s Intermezzo #1 was the only letdown in the concert, rushed too much at the start and not sufficiently varied in dynamics afterwards to get a full sense of the piece’s architecture, though wisps of its “Windmills of Your Mind” flavor came through.

Not to worry, Pandolfi had a grand finale in his pocket and, he hinted, a special encore if we liked his Gershwin enough. The piano transcription of Rhapsody in Blue is daunting from the beginning, when the soloist is called upon to replicate the famous opening glissando that fits the clarinet so divinely. Pandolfi accepted the challenge with gusto, producing a sound from the keyboard that was respectably close to the reed instrument, and he attacked orchestral passages with a zeal that was exhilarating. All the dynamic contrasts that were wanting in the Ponce were here in superabundance, so that the succession of late-night, blues-tinged quietudes flowed meaningfully into the city lights outbursts. Of course, all the passages originally written for piano had a special glitter, but Pandolfi was also up to grand onset of the familiar rhapsody melody and the rocking celebration that follows. All of Pandolfi’s considerable showmanship came in handy as we reached this classic upswell, yet the final moments of this epic performance were a model of restraint, control, and dignity. Of course, the audience loved it.

So we were granted the privilege of an encore, a resourceful mashup by Pandolfi of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. On the new CD, Pandolfi’s “Phantom Phantasy” is actually the first track, but the 2018 release is titled After the Applause, so if I’m interpreting correctly, everything on its songlist qualifies as an encore. About half as long as the mammoth Rhapsody in Blue, the Lloyd Webber fantasia was noticeably longer than typical encores and quite a feast, more cleverly and artfully arranged than the Bernstein rhapsody – florid, romantic, rhapsodic, and melodramatic. A lot of fun, really, as Pandolfi unpredictably interwove the Phantom melodies, and a refreshing way to end a satisfying recital.

Symphony’s Opening Night Gala Celebrates With Primal Beauty and Fire

Review: Charlotte Symphony Opening Night Gala with Violinist Joshua Bell

By Perry Tannenbaum

Although violinist Joshua Bell hadn’t played with the Charlotte Symphony since the 1994-95 season, he has maintained a presence across the Carolinas, appearing at Spoleto Festival USA, the Brevard Music Festival, and Asheville’s Bravo Concerts during the intervening years. Quite the favorite with promoters at Charlotte Concerts, Bell has also been welcomed to the Queen City on multiple occasions during the new millennium, a couple of times as the featured soloist and music director of London’s most revered small orchestra, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

So it’s gratifying to report that, in his first appearance on the Belk Theater stage in 11 years, the Tom Cruise of violinists isn’t merely the same-old same-old Bell with more mileage on his chassis. Symphony’s Opening Night Gala lived up to its headliner and its hype, for I’ve never seen Bell play quite this well before. Nor was the Bell performance alone in being special as Symphony launched its 2018-19 classics slate, for music director Christopher Warren-Green not only soothed subscribers’ Shostakovich anxieties with a brassy overture, he slayed their fears of new music with a world premiere by Nkeiru Okoye celebrating Charlotte’s 250th anniversary.

Bell remained the highlight. The higher he has ascended in the firmament over the course of his career, the louder the grumblings have become charging Bell with complacency and superficiality. I’ve seen why the carping has persisted when Bell played for us before, for his readings tended to be fleet and his technique squeaky clean, earmarks of his Top Gun aura. The zest and fire he brought to the Brahms Violin Concerto were unprecedented here, surpassing even the Beethoven sonata he played with Jeremy Denk at the Belk in 2007.

The years with Denk and St. Martin have brought another dimension to Bell’s playing, a keener sense of his dialogue with the orchestra – and the audience. Bell and Warren-Green are both musical Londoners, so perhaps the camaraderie began there for this occasion, because there was absolutely nothing deferential about Symphony’s playing in the introductory passages of the opening Allegro con troppo movement. That forceful approach prodded Bell into a response that was as fierce as it was precise, nothing careful or sleek in his double bowing – or in the dramatic attacks that followed his grace notes.

Simpatico between Bell and Symphony was even keener when we moved to the middle Adagio movement, where the lyrical interplay intensified organically as the orchestral accompaniment switched emphasis from woodwinds to strings. The sheer beauty and inevitability of the first two movements drew enthusiastic applause, outbursts that may not have pleased Bell. Instead of admonishing the crowd, as Isaac Stern famously did in his Charlotte appearance, Bell silenced them as a conductor might. With an exaggerated nod that fully involved the top half of his body, Bell gave everyone in the house the downbeat for the final Allegro giacoso movement and plunged right in. Worked like a charm. The little pause before tackling his final cadenza also proved that Bell, at 50, is his own man.

Commissioned by Symphony, Okoye’s Charlotte Mecklenburg disarmed worriers as soon as it began. The luminous opening echoed Aaron Copland serenity rather than John Cage chaos, an unexpectedly heartland take on our metropolis, hinting that Okoye was taking a longer view and hearkening back to the primeval landscape before Europeans arrived on the continent. Episodes following this pristine preamble coalesced into a cavalcade of human signatures, a reel keeping us in Appalachia, snare drums bringing us to a Main Street parade. Eventually, Okoye’s new work took the urban tack we had anticipated, with an emphasis on diversity. We heard a bluesy decelerating train, a cop’s whistle, a tropical marimba and slithering Latin sounds mixing with the orchestral Americana.

The 250th anniversary celebration will continue later this fall at Symphony, with Warren-Green taking us to his native side of the Atlantic for an evening of English music, mostly written for British royals, mostly by Handel. You could hardly wish for a better foretaste of the celebration and the season to come than this regal, richly satisfying gala.