Category Archives: Concert

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.

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.