Category Archives: Concert

Rhiannon Giddens Returns to Charlotte and Leaves Plenty of Music in the Air

Review: Rhiannon Giddens with Charlotte Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

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November 5, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Since the long-anticipated world premiere of her new opera, Omar, at Spoleto Festival USA back in May, composer-singer-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens has hopscotched the worlds of folk, jazz, and classical music. Her Spoleto apotheosis down in Charleston was embellished with a sit-down interview event and an outdoor concert with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, her collaborator on They’re Calling Me Home, the 2022 Grammy-Award-winner for Best Folk Album. Among Giddens’ many gigs since then, she has headlined at the San Francisco Jazz Festival and Carnegie Hall before entering downstage at Belk Theater for a rendezvous with the Charlotte Symphony and resident conductor Christopher James Lees. As you might presume of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, Giddens is not easily pigeonholed.

2022~Rhiannon Giddens-23Yet the Greensboro native co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops, her first Grammy Award exploit, and now has an opera firmly rooted in the Carolinas to her credit, so an audience studded with black ties and tuxes had no difficulty embracing the polyglot Giddens as their own – even as she navigated a songlist that included Parisian and Celtic selections. They may not have realized that Giddens had played Charlotte before, as far back as 2008 when I caught her with the Chocolate Drops at Northwest School of the Arts. Turrisi and bassist Jason Sypher, who shared the Cistern Yards stage with Giddens at the College of Charleston in May, accompanied her once again, though Lees and Symphony lightened their load. Nor was it obvious that Turrisi would be playing piano until late in the concert when he insinuated himself upstage.

As soon as my QR code scanner brought up the evening’s program, I could see that the Symphony offerings would be more eclectic, accessible, and daring than the set Giddens performed at Spoleto. Even before Giddens led her trio onstage, Lees and the orchestra demonstrated that they would not be content to trot out the stale and familiar, following up on John Williams’ brassy Liberty Fanfare with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Overture to Hiawatha, referencing a half dozen episodes from the composer’s trilogy of Longfellow-inspired cantatas. In the wake of the fervid Fanfare, a little more finesse could have been applied to the opening of the African Britisher’s evocation of the primeval American classic, letting the harp sound more clearly, but Lees was certainly simpatico with the shifting moods and tempos afterward. Violins were gossamer-light in “The Wooing” section, the waltzing section that followed had admirable propulsion, and the cello corps warmed the tenderest episode, before the big build in the “Reunion” finale.

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The truly treasurable experiences began when Giddens strode onstage and picked up her banjo; for her first song, “Spanish Mary,” was co-written with Bob Dylan, with a fine orchestral arrangement for Lees and Symphony to luxuriate in. Shedding the banjo, Giddens followed up with “Julie’s Aria” from Omar, co-written with Michael Abels, reminding us of her own capabilities as an operatic soprano. Yet within minutes, Giddens was delivering a smoking-hot version of “Water Boy,” the pile-driving prison song immortalized in recorded versions by Paul Robeson, Odetta, and Harry Belafonte.

No doubt, Giddens has listened repeatedly to all three of these cultural touchstones, for the simple hammering arrangement was borrowed from Odetta and Belafonte while the lyrical clarity hearkened back to Robeson. The Odetta recordings of “Water Boy” are unparalleled, particularly when it caps a medley begun with “I’ve Been Driving on Bald Mountain,” shot through with explosive grunts and gasps from the hammer-wielding prisoner. But Giddens has found her own path toward heightening the intensity at the end, and the orchestra beats delivered by Symphony added jolts of electricity throughout the piece that simple guitar strums couldn’t match. Better still, Giddens’ preamble, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” was certainly a coupling with “Water Boy” that civil rights champion Odetta would have appreciated, repeatedly delivering a “you can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood but not my soul” mantra.

2022~Rhiannon Giddens-19“Mouth Music” was all we needed to hear if we needed assurance that Giddens could make a credible showing at a jazz festival, and there would be more to follow. Lees ceded the stage to the guest trio, lightening the vibe, and Giddens picked up a viola and yielded some of the spotlight to her bandmates, especially Turrisi when he sizzled on his accordion during one of the fiddle tunes. The merriment faded when Lees returned to the podium, replaced by the romance of “Autumn Leaves” en français until Giddens favored us with the English lyric as well. If you hadn’t glimpsed the program, just the tropical sway of the violins was enough to announce our return to the Carolinas and “Summertime” from the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, sweetly sung. Plenty of space was afforded to both Giddens and Symphony in the arrangement of “La Vie en Rose,” and the singer did not seem to be straining to sound like Edith Piaf, which was more than OK with me.

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Homing in on the end of the evening, Giddens and Symphony tacked toward the spiritual. With Turrisi at the keyboard, Giddens embarked on this final journey with “He Will See You Through,” followed by “Wayfaring Stranger,” opting to travel through this world “alone” rather than “below” or “of woe” as others have sung. These songs of faith certainly cleared the way for the affirmation and joy of Giddens’ final two selections, an irresistible pairing of “That Lonesome Road” and “Up Above My Head,” a perennial YouTube favorite that can’t be found on her albums. The last of these was memorably inspired. We all heard so much “music in the air” that we could leave more than satisfied, even without the planned encore.

New Charlotte Symphony Season Brings New Sounds and Welcome Echoes

Review: CSO Plays Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Strauss’s Aus Italien

2022~Elgar Cello-05By Perry Tannenbaum

October 7, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Charlotte Symphony’s conductor laureate, Christopher Warren-Green, had been gone nearly a full week, but the echo of his presence remained at the kickoff of the 2022-23 season at Knight Theater. Once again, the Orchestra fired off the “Star-Spangled Banner” to inaugurate the new season, and once again, the ensemble achieved lift-off with Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto – just like they did in 2012 at Belk Theater in Warren-Green’s first concert as musical director. Now Andrew Grams wielded the baton, his first guest shot with Symphony since 2016, and the soloist making her Charlotte debut was Israeli cellist Inbal Segev rather than Alisa Weilerstein.

Both artists have recorded the Elgar, Bloch’s Kol Nidre, and the complete Bach Cello Suites, so they may be described as kindred spirits. Perhaps Segev gets the nod over Weilerstein in being more simpatico with Grams, who began his program with PIVOT by British composer Anna Clyne. Not only did Segev commission a new Clyne concerto, DANCE, but she also premiered it on the same 2020 album where she plays the Elgar. Grams returned after intermission with Richard Strauss’s rarely-heard Aus Italien, arguably a more outlaw piece than the composer’s Don Juan.

Always forthcoming and charming when he addresses an audience, Grams likened the transitions of PIVOT to pressing the “previous channel” button on a TV remote control. True enough, shifts back and forth from the slow to the fast sections of the piece were often abrupt, incongruous jumps, sometimes startlingly so. But compared to the premiere performance, recorded at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2021, Grams seemed a bit heavy-handed in making his point. Instead of reveling in the contrasts, I found myself longing for the return of the calmer, quieter interludes – a sad waltz, a lazy Irish reel, and an Eastern European lament flavored with paprika – because Grams was more inclined to make the dominant loud sections raucous rather than catchy, though I was certainly delighted by the double-bass section providing whip-crack percussion, snapping their strings. I found myself rehabbing my appreciation for Clyne by listening to Segev’s recording of DANCE the following morning.2022~Elgar Cello-26

In person, Segev’s playing on the Elgar moved me far more than her excellent recording. Clearly, she was as comfortable with the orchestra as Grams and his musicians were with her. Hardly showy at all, her relaxed and dignified manner welcomed the audience and musicians to immerse themselves in the music along with her. Technical obstacles and difficulties never fazed Segev, so instead of capping strenuous journeys, we seemed to arrive more suddenly and dramatically at peak moments, where the cellist and Grams simultaneously turned up the voltage. The outer movements, the opening Adagio and an epic closing Allegro with no less than five sections, were teeming with rich contours and vivid contrasts. The more homogeneous middle movements, a Lento followed an Adagio, were object lessons in how an accomplished artist keeps our interest between musical tempests.

Although the Knight wasn’t filled to overflowing, a robust crowd was wildly appreciative of Inbal’s grace and verve. Nor was her encore, the Courante from Bach’s Suite No. 3, chosen to reconcile us to her departure. The standing ovation for this sparkly gem was every bit as enthusiastic as the reception for the Elgar. Deservedly.2022~Elgar Cello-22

Somewhere in Germany or possibly Austria, Christof Perick, Charlotte Symphony’s most ardent champion of Strauss, must have been smiling when Grams deftly navigated the many delights of Aus Italien. This youthful symphonic poem, premiered in 1887 while Strauss was in his early 20s, committed the folly of stealing “Funiculì, Funiculà” for the cornerstone of his final movement when composer Luigi Denza could readily sue him for the theft. But the inventiveness of the young genius is unalloyed in the previous three movements. Opening Strauss’s travelogue, “In the Country” isn’t bucolic in the manner of Copeland or Beethoven. Its serenity, filled with gravity and sadness, builds to yearning drama and then to majestic triumph. Surprisingly, for a movement titled “Amid the Ruins of Rome,” the music becomes livelier and turbulent, more like Strauss’s later heroic tone poems – for as he wanders amid the remnants of the past, he conjures up the glories.

Most impressive and precocious for me was the penultimate “At the Shore of Sorrento” movement, written more than a quarter of a century before Claude Debussy’s La Mer and no less accurate in sketching seagulls with the woodwinds and rippling waters with a harp. Grams had the Charlotte Symphony as immersed in Aus Italien as they had been in the Elgar, and the ebullience of the Orchestra in the closing “Neopolitan Folk Life” was irresistible, no matter how cheesy you might find Strauss’s “Funiculì” thievery. Hearing this still familiar tune played on bassoon and then as a march was just plain fun.

Delayed More Than Two Years, Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony” Gets a Powerhouse CSO Performance

Review: Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony” No. 3 with the Charlotte Symphony and Paul Jacobs

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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October 1, 2022, Charlotte, NC – When Christopher Warren-Green took over as music director of the Charlotte Symphony in September 2010, nobody could foresee that his transition to conductor laureate a dozen years later at the Orchestra would coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Charlotte chapter of the American Guild of Organists – and the 55th anniversary of the mighty M.P. Möller pipe organ at the First United Methodist Church on Tryon Street. As this confluence became manifest, so did an auspicious event to celebrate it, a partnering of the Symphony with the Church in a concert showing off the magnificence of the Möller pipes in action. These dual anniversaries provided Warren-Green with his first opportunity to return to Charlotte and perform in his new role, and the glitter of a prestigious occasion was enhanced with Grammy Award-winning organist Paul Jacobs at the console.

The choice of repertoire for this special event was especially enticing, including Camille Saëns’ thunderous “Organ Symphony” No. 3, George Frideric Handel’s most familiar Organ Concerto, and a prodigious Bach encore from Jacobs that decisively upstaged Felix Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony No. 5. With the remnants of Hurricane Ian keeping many subscribers away from the opening night performance on Friday night, the Saturday sequel filled the hall – down below and up in the stately balcony – to the bursting point.

For all of us who have felt a pang of frustration each time we gazed upon the vestigial organ pipes at Belk Theater, keenest when the Saint-Saëns Symphony was presented there with a piddling electronic substitute, this concert provided rich consolations. There were also redemptive aspects to this special program, for both Symphony subscribers and the Orchestra’s musicians, since the last time that the “Organ Symphony” was programmed at Belk Theater on March 20, 2020, it was one of the first musical cancellations of the COVID pandemic. All of those rehearsals were not in vain after all.

My own enthusiasm for organ recordings goes back to the vinyl days of Daniel Chorzempa’s performances of the complete concertos and Peter Hurford’s renowned compilation of Bach’s organ works, later reissued as a 17-CD doorstop. Recordings of the “Organ Symphony,” on the other hand, were always earmarked in audiophile reviews as demo treasures that could prove the mettle of cream-of-the-crop loudspeakers far beyond my budget. With the advent of the Charlotte Bach Festival four years ago, we’ve been able to hear live performances of the Bach solos by topnotch organists, a rare enough blessing. But I’d never hoped to hear a live rendition of a Handel Organ Concerto, even on a piddling portable at the Belk.2022~Saint-Saëns-06

If your concept of classical organ has been shaped by Bach, who inspired countless grandiose organ compositions by notables of every generation since – and the ginormous instruments around the world built to play them – then the sunny, playful sound of Handel’s concerti could take you aback. Of course, the nickname of Concerto No. 13, “The Cuckoo & the Nightingale,” would have provided a broad hint if you picked up a program entering the sanctuary. Although marked Larghetto, there was nothing solemn about the opening movement, which began with Jacobs parroting the orchestral intro. The true merriment of the piece became evident in the ensuing Allegro, where cuckoo-clock sounds proliferated. As Jacobs took greater command, he played a little duet with himself, those plodding cuckoo sounds facing off with some nightingale filigree in the treble.

The middle movement was marked Organo ad libitum in our programs, in contrast with the Chorzempa version, where the “ad libs” were split into two tracks explicitly adapted from two movements of a Handel violin sonata. In the penultimate movement, another Larghetto, Jacobs finally gave us a hushed foretaste of the grander churchly sounds he would offer up in his Bach encore. Nearly as virtuosic as his crowdpleasing cuckoo-nightingale counterpoint, the closing Allegro was the most jocund and celebratory movement of this concerto – and arguably the best incentive for seeking out the other 15 on recordings. Adding to the pleasure, the silky Symphony violins were as cheery as the organ, and Jacobs crowned this confection by soloing with his feet on the Möller’s pedals.2022~Saint-Saëns-14

There’s little shame in not identifying a Bach organ work when it’s played – unless it’s the famed Toccata and Fugue in D minor with its instantly recognizable opening and Gothic drama. Not knowing the precise title, key, and BWV catalog number certainly didn’t deter the First United audience from showering worshipful admiration on Jacobs’ dazzling performance. For the record, it was Bach’s A Minor Fugue BWV 543. The roar from the crowd in their protracted standing ovation was nearly as stunning as the performance. You couldn’t question this massive communal judgment when Jacobs had given life to the idea of “pulling out all the stops,” but we could wonder whether anything afterwards would measure up.

Reduced in number for the Church’s oratory platform and hampered by an acoustic environment less friendly to visiting orchestras than to the house organ, Charlotte Symphony gave Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” the old college try for their former maestro. There was an unmistakable contrast in the opening movement between the sublimity of the Andante introduction and the turbulence that follows in the dominant Allegro con fuoco section. Mendelssohn’s middle movements retained their engaging contrast as well, though the sanctuary’s sonics stole a bit of their sparkle. It helped that the Allegro vivace presented the work’s most familiar melody and that Symphony played the penultimate Andante so tenderly. Most impactful, however, was how Warren-Green shaped the closing Chorale with its joyous sunny components, the woodland purity of the Andante con moto and the conquering march of the Allegro vivace. Brassy, stately, and triumphant, the “Reformation” ended grandly with the stamp of Rose Lipham’s timpani.2022~Saint-Saëns-07

While Symphony’s performance of the Mendelssohn did not match the éclat of Jacobs’ exploits with the Bach, the verve of their assault on the Chorale boded well for the Saint-Saëns masterwork when Warren-Green and the organist returned after intermission. A few more musicians fortified the strings onstage during the break, but the full thunder of the “Organ Symphony” isn’t unleashed until the Maestoso section midway through the second (and final) movement, a sudden onslaught that must have snapped more than a few heads back. At last, this was the prime reason why it was worth hearing this massive work live with the might of a true church organ, an unforgettable experience. But that sforzando can be simulated in your living room easily enough if you wish to startle yourself without the more unique experience of feeling a whole sanctuary, with a congregation of over a thousand, trembling to its foundations. What most loudspeakers cannot deliver at home came earlier in the piece, when the opening movement Allegro moderato gave way to an almost serene Poco adagio.

Here Jacobs and the Möller organ produced a more primal subterranean sound, eerie and uncanny in its force, an octave or more below what most loudspeakers can audibly reproduce with anything approaching this power. Sitting in the second row, I felt like a monster whale or a legendary Leviathan was about to surface from directly below me. Warren-Green and his orchestra were in top form in the first halves of Saint-Saëns’ two movements, particularly appealing in the ominous Allegro moderato that opens the second movement, surely the most familiar melody in this score. Most thrilling was when the orchestra vied in sheer volume with the pipe organ and Symphony’s new conductor laureate sleekly accelerated the tempo into the rousing Allegro finish. Coming at the end of an evening suffused with music from the “king of instruments,” these moments had all the grandeur of a coronation.

Spoleto Roars Back, Honoring Africa, Arabic, and Alice (Coltrane)

Review: Jazz @ Spoleto Festival USA

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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It’s difficult to imagine what the stage and the audience would have looked like at Gaillard Center if Rhiannon Giddens’ new opera, Omar, had premiered as scheduled at Spoleto Festival USA in May 2020. #BlackLivesMatter and the COVID-19 pandemic have affected the trajectory of our lives since then, also deflecting the course of the Festival. Leadership of the Festival has changed, with Mena Mark Hanna replacing retired general director Nigel Redden, while Giddens added a half hour to her new work and ditched her stage director over artistic differences.

So when we saw more masks and dashikis in the audience than we had ever seen at Gaillard before – and more Arabic script on the scenery and costumes of Omar than I could remember in all my previous 29 years at Spoleto – it really felt like the Festival had taken a hairpin turn under Hanna’s leadership. But if you look at the past three Festivals dispassionately, including the canceled 2020 edition, you must also realize that the past two years have also been, to a large extent, a timed-release rollout of the Festival that didn’t happen two years ago.2022~Spoleto-202

At the abbreviated Festival last year, held mostly outdoors, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, The Cookers, and the Two Wings retrospective on The Music of Black America in Migration produced by Jason and Alicia Moran were all rainchecks from the previous year. Similarly, this year’s concerts by Linda May Han Oh and Fabian Almazan, Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, and The War and Treaty were all holdovers from 2020, as were the appearance of Machine de Cirque and the staging of Dael Orlandersmith’s Until the Flood.

If the back-to-back appearances Youssou N’Dour and Nduduzo Makhathini during the Memorial Day weekend at The Cistern seemed like a spirited invocation of Mother Africa in response to #BlackLivesMatter, it should be remembered that Abdullah Ibrahim and Eyaka were also signed up for Spoleto 2020 months ahead of their scheduled June 2 concert, which would have happened a mere eight days after George Floyd’s murder.

Since Redden had cited #BlackLivesMatter as a key reason why he had decided to resign after Spoleto 2021, it really did feel like opening weekend in 2022 – with the opening of Omar followed by back-to-back-to-back concerts by Giddens, N’Dour, and Makhathini – was both an endorsement of that movement and a delayed, but still powerful, denunciation of the 2017 Muslim Ban. Giddens’ Omar dramatized The Autobiography of Omar ibn Said, the only known account by an African slave written in Arabic, placing special emphasis on Omar’s Islamic faith, his spirituality, and the Christian proselytizing he was subjected to by even his most benign master.

Another layer of Black spirituality graced the Festival during its second weekend when Ravi Coltrane paid tribute to his mother, Alice Coltrane, and her pathfinding Universal Consciousness album of 1971. That universality embraced India, Egypt, continental Africa, and the Holy Land according to the original Turina Aparna (Alice Coltrane) liner notes, and the all-star quintet assembled by the son included harp sensation Brandee Younger and keyboardist David Virelles as the chief conjurers of the mother.2022~Spoleto-139

What a wondrous concert that was at Cistern Yard, concentrating on the seminal works the elder Coltrane composed and released in the 1970s, including the title pieces from Universal Consciousness and Journey in Satchidanada (1971) served up with prime cuts from Ptah, The El Daoud (1970) and Eternity (1976). Perhaps the summit of that experience was when Ravi extended his mom Alice’s ethereal “Journey in Satchidanada” with a reverent excursion into John Coltrane’s “Alabama” from 1963, saluting his dad.

Younger was a constant delight, especially sublime when she was spotlighted in Alice’s “Turia & Ramakrishna,” while Virelles at the piano reminded us that the Coltrane matriarch’s sound at the acoustic keyboard was not that distant from McCoy Tyner’s, the pianist in her husband’s famed quartet. While there was no organ onstage to fully replicate the range of instruments that Alice played on Universal Consciousness, Virelles did double with an electric piano, occasionally playing both keyboards simultaneously.

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Raindrops kept falling intermittently during the concert, becoming an issue near the end, when Ravi allowed the audience to coax him into playing an encore, “Los Caballos.” Stagehands did not appear panicked about the sound system, but it looked like Virelles turned off his electric to be extra careful. Meanwhile, Coltrane switched from tenor to soprano sax for the closer and gave the other members of his rhythm section, bassist Rashaan Carter and the ebullient Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, extra space for some fine soloing. Carter cooled us off after Ravi and Virelles brought their fire, and then Watts turned back the heat.

It was Younger, of course, who made the concert experience so unique, the sprinkling of her runs and glisses more refreshing than the raindrops.

There was no downpour the following night when we showed up early at Cistern Yard, but this time Spoleto officials decided to be more cautious with percussionist/composer Tyshawn Sorey, the second big star at the Festival – and, following Giddens, the second MacArthur Genius. Two days after his jazz gig, Sorey was slated to conduct a symphony orchestra at Sottile Theater in a program completely devoted to his classical compositions, so the abundance of caution was warranted, and the backup site, TD Arena, proved to be perfectly calibrated sound-wise.Screenshot 2022-06-27 at 19-27-22 The Spoleto Festival USA Roars Back

Sorey’s jazz trio, featuring bassist Matt Brewer and the estimable Aaron Diehl on piano, linked the pieces on their program together more frequently than Coltrane had done the night before. For those of us who didn’t pick up Sorey’s new Mesmerism release after the concert, already sold-out in its first limited vinyl edition, we can only guess whether the performance differed significantly from the recording in its length and nearly seamless format. Diehl marked the borderline between Horace Silver’s “Enchantment” and Bill Evans’ “Detour Ahead” clearly enough, but the hand-offs between Diehl and Brewer, who took an epic-length solo, piled detour upon detour, so it was difficult to determine when – or if – we had crossed over to “Autumn Leaves.”

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Diehl barely grazed the familiar Joseph Kosma melody, so it was helpful that, after Sorey paused – “Are you still with us?” – he let us know where we were amid the titles he had announced at the start. The boundary between Paul Motian’s “From Time to Time” and Muhal Richard Abrams’ “Two Over One” was far more easily discerned, yet the onset of Duke Ellington’s “REM Blues” was like coming out of an impressionistic tunnel into sunshine, Diehl reveling in his mastery of a totally different idiom and Sorey at last unleashing his full artillery.

Linda May Han Oh had actually recorded with Sorey on a Vijay Iyer session for ECM just before Spoleto’s 2020 slate was announced, so the separate appearances of bassist and the percussionist over the same weekend could be seen as serendipitous. Or merely premature, for they will be touring with Iyer in Europe – and playing Newport – during July. It sounded like parenthood happened for Oh and her pianist husband Fabian Almazan sometime between the date their debut was supposed to take place and when it actually did. Oh described herself and Almazan as new parents – just not brand new.

While their household might have been changing, the venue where they would perform – six sets over five days – definitely changed, moving them from the Simons Center, on the College of Charleston campus, to Festival Hall. A welcome shift for most festivalgoers, since the setup now included cocktail tables, changing the vibe from clinical to cabaret.

Bracing myself for the “postmodern sonic disruption” touted in Spoleto’s 2020 season brochure, in its pull quote from The Boston Globe, I happily found – attending two of the six sets – that NPR’s description in the 2022 preview, citing Oh’s “gift of liquid dynamism” was far more apt. Though Almazan had installed some electronics on Spoleto’s house piano that could alter the sound, it would be a gross exaggeration to declare that they were employed more than 5% of the time – or that the disruptions he created were more virulent than the sounds of a growling ogre the first time we heard him playing on “Una Foto.”

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Almazan proved to be rather charming and self-deprecating as he introduced another of his originals, “Pet Steps Sitters Theme Song,” freely admitting that it was rejected within his own family for advertising purposes, “and for good reason.” That good reason turned out to be the ample chops he lavished upon his melody in embroidering it, not as dark or thundering as McCoy Tyner but definitely devoid of saccharine.

Playing electric bass as well upright, Oh would have surprised those on hand who were only familiar with her through tracks that are readily searchable on Spotify. YouTube followers are more likely to have experienced Oh’s liquid on her Fender Jazz Bass and her original songs. Oh’s notably vibrato-less vocals certainly covered a broad topical spectrum, ranging from anchovy innards in “Ikan Billis” to “Jus ad Bellum,” dedicated to people who find themselves caught up in the Ukraine conflict.

Almazan’s compositions were mostly instrumental, which Oh usually played on acoustic bass, “Sol Del Mar” and “The Vicarious Life” impressing me as much as the composer’s abortive foray into advertising. He also challenged Oh with an original song of his own, “Everglades,” which resulted in a pleasing overall balance of Oh vocals and instrumentals.

Programmed midway during the Memorial Day weekend celebration of Africa and Islam, Youssou N’Dour was closer in spirit to the true jazz of pianist-composer Nduduzo Makhathini, who followed him the next night, than he was to Rhiannon Giddens singing and playing banjo, with the spare accompaniment of Jason Sypher on bass and her husband Francesco Turrisi on accordion and piano. Nearly 40 years into his career, N’Dour’s voice is still sensational and strikingly expressive. The interplay between his incantatory chants and the mbalax rhythms of his percussion-heavy 12-man band often paralleled the sound of Latin jazz vocalists volleying back and forth with their orchestras – minus the brass.

Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

With Lonnie Plaxico filling in as his bassist on short notice, Makhathini and his quartet seemed buoyed and refreshed rather than tentative or nervous, bringing noticeably more energy to their performances at Cistern Yard than you’ll hear on his recent studio recording, In the Spirit of Ntu, which isn’t exactly tame. The percolating Bitches Brew aspects of that new release, along with the coolness of Robin Fassie-Kock’s flugelhorn and trumpet, were dispelled by this more compact combo, with alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw vying for dominance with the leader’s powerful keyboard style, a meshing of Ibrahim and Tyner.

No less than three tunes came from Spirit of Ntu, including “Emlilweni,” “Amathongo,” and “Unonkanyamba.” Going back a couple of years, Makhathini unearthed “Umyalez’oPhuthumayo,” a jagged gem from Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworld, and gave it a fresh polishing so that it no longer sounded influenced by Ornette Coleman, though Francisco Mela’s pounding and thrashing on drums retained plenty of bite.

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Tenderest of the selections was “For You,” reaching back to Makhathini’s 2015 album, Listening to the Ground, and offering Plaxico his best opportunity to shine. Among the three vocals in the set, “Amathongo” was probably the leader’s most impressive, his quicksilver soloing on piano as delightful as his incantatory singing while Shaw switched briefly to soprano sax. As for the most prodigious face-off between Shaw on alto and Makhathini, that was “Ithemba” from the 2017 Ikhambi album, a groovy powerhouse noticeably influenced by the John Coltrane Quartet.

In. the wake of last year’s abbreviated jazz lineup, headlined by Preservation Hall and The Cookers, this year’s not only felt vaster but also younger, more audacious. Spoleto was resoundingly back in 2022, appealing to a newly energized audience, with Sorey, Ravi, and Makhathini especially demonstrating they have more to give us in years to come.

Photos by Perry Tannenbaum and Leigh Webber

Charlotte Bach Festival Ends in Splendor, With Roaring Trumpets and a Double Dose of Oratorios

Review: Bach’s Easter and Ascension Oratorios

By Perry Tannenbaum

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June 18, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Founded in 2017 with the North Carolina Baroque Festival, Bach Akademie Charlotte presented a precocious and ambitious first edition of the Charlotte Bach Festival in June 2018. Unmistakably modeled after the renowned Oregon Bach Festival, where Akademie artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett has frequently performed, Charlotte Bach figured to flourish in a soil that is rich in churches and choirs. The second Festival in 2019, bookended by Orchestral Suite No. 2 and the St. Matthew Passion, was even more bodacious than the first, which had opened with the Orchestral Suite No. 1 and closed with the Mass in B Minor. These two acts would be tough to follow at a third Festival, but until COVID struck in 2020, nobody knew how tough. Barely three weeks after I had seen the Festival schedule for June 2020, the pandemic cancellations began, eventually including Charlotte Bach III. By the time Charlotte Bach 2022 opened at Myers Park Presbyterian Church on June 11, the Festival had been in hibernation longer than it had been live, soldiering on online with abbreviated lineups in a virtual format.

During the hiatus, there was some notable reorganizing and rebranding within Charlotte Bach, but instead of suffering any attrition, the overall lineup for 2022 was actually more robust than the one announced for 2020 – with numerous additions, one very logical substitution, and no sacrifices. Instead of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 on opening night, Aisslinn Nosky played Bach Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, BWV 1041 – the same piece she had played and conducted in her Charlotte Symphony debut in January 2018.

The performance highlighted Nosky’s installation as the concertmaster of Bach Akademie Charlotte Orchestra. After announcing Nosky’s new role at the Festival (she had been a guest artist at the 2019 fest), Jarrett announced that Guy Fishman (a guest artist at the inaugural 2018 Festival) had signed on as principal cellist with the BA|Charlotte Orchestra. Not to be overshadowed, Fishman reappeared in a midweek “Bach in a New Light” concert, playing a Domenico Gabrielli morsel and Bach’s first two Cello Suites, accompanied by laser light projections from Salty Robot Productions.

Duplicating its opening and closing concerts, respectively, in Asheville and Winston-Salem, Charlotte Bach also widened its reach within the Queen City, proving that the McColl Center could be an edgy and funky enough site for the Fishman light show and that the spectacularly renovated Sandra Levine Theater, on the Queens University campus, was acoustically attuned to the splendors of Bach’s Easter and Ascension Oratorios. Maybe there was some doubt whether the Easter and Ascension pairing at the Levine sufficiently upstaged the Violin Concerto and Dixit Dominus combo at Myers Park Presbyterian to definitively rise to the loftiness of the Festival’s finale placement and Masterwork billing. Whatever the reason, Handel’s Zadok the Priest was added to the already ample triple-trumpet heft of the Bach oratorios. Thank you!

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Even before the BA|Charlotte Festival Choir stood for the first time, the trumpet triumvirate – Steven Marquardt, Perry Sutton, and Josh Cohen – held forth brilliantly in the Easter Oratorio Sinfonia, gracefully counterbalanced by oboists Geoffrey Burgess and Margaret Owens. Tension and anticipation before the choral outbreak of resurrection jubilation were further sustained as Burgess lingered as the sole solo voice, playing a lovely intervening Adagio. Joined by timpanist Jonathan Hess, the trumpet trio then returned at full throttle, heralding the Chorus and its hearty “Kommt, ellet und laufet” (Come, hasten and run) invitation. Tenor Steven Soph and bass Jason Steigerwalt, so imposing as the Evangelist and Jesus (Steigerwalt singing the baritone role) in the Festival’s three midweek lecture-concerts devoted to Bach’s St. John Passion, then sang a duet, clarifying that it is the resurrection that has gladdened their hearts.

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Appropriately enough, newly rising talent took over most of the arias and recitative that followed, demonstrating the prestige of gaining a spot with the Festival Choir as Vocal Fellows. Bass Chris Talbot as John, in the first Recitative section that followed the huge chorale, and soprano Addy Sterrett as Mary Jacobi, subsequently drew their own solos. But tenor David Morales also reappeared as Peter in the Recitative following Sterrett’s lovely “Selle deine Spezereien” (O Soul, your spices) Aria, by far the longest Aria of the night, and alto Eliana Mei-Xing Barwinski also returned as Mary Magdalene.

Yet it was charming to see Festival Choir regulars also in the spotlight, Soph backed by Owens and Burgess (both switching to recorders) and alto Sylvia Leith accompanied by Owens on oboe d’amore. Marquardt, Sutton, and Cohen returned to the stage with their elongated plunger-less trumpets to join the Festival Choir once again, which had found something fresh to celebrate in their finale after much grieving, yearning, and sighing from the vocal and instrumental soloists during their absence: Jesus had conquered Hell and the Devil, and Heaven’s gates were opening for the Lion of Judah.

Alternately known as Coronation Anthem No. 1, Zadok the Priest also creates tension and anticipation with a churning crescendo of strings that could remind you of Philip Glass minimalism if you didn’t see the thunder and lightning of chorus and brass standing onstage, readying for action. In an instant, understatement flipped to overstatement when the storm broke loose at the Levine, for neither Zadok nor the prophet Nathan is exactly an Old Testament headliner of the magnitude of Solomon, held at bay until the end of the opening line.

2022~Charlotte Bach Fest-132Handel certainly packs plenty of into the brassy choral payload, less than five minutes long, that pounces upon us after the relatively quiet preamble that gurgles along for more than 25% of the composition. Bach might have dispatched a solo vocalist to narrate the prose of Zadok and Nathan anointing Solomon as King of Israel, saving the exclamations – “God save the King!” “Amen!” “Alleluia!” and “May the King live for ever!” – for the Choir. No such middle ground applied to this Handel masterwork, and Jarrett, the brass, and the Festival Choir all reveled in firing away at us in unrelenting fortissimo. Collectively, they were thrilling.

Shorter than the Easter Oratorio, Bach’s Ascension Oratorio was sensibly paired with Zadok after intermission, showcasing the Festival Choir more intensively. The more compacted – and more symmetrical – scheme has its choral segments evenly spaced at the beginning, middle, and end of the oratorio, rather than merely as two massive bookends, while discarding the two instrumental preambles that ushered in the Easter story. Instead of the same vocalists we had seen before, four more permanent members of the Festival Choir handled the two Arias and six Recitatives evenly distributed around the midpoint chorale. More satisfying than this architectural symmetry, of course, was the sustained excellence of the singing, underscoring the awesome depth and quality of the ensemble.

2022~Charlotte Bach Fest-115Three of the four featured Ascension vocalists have been with Bach Akademie since the beginning, except for tenor Gene Stenger, the Evangelist, who signed up in 2019. The Evangelist role gave Stenger the lion’s share of the scriptural verses in this Oratorio’s libretto, stitched together from Luke, Mark, and Acts, with bass Edmund Milly, no less dignified, standing in for the Two Men in White Apparel who promise the Apostles that Jesus will return from Heaven “in like manner” as they have just seen him go. Besides that key passage, Milly drew a more poignant Recitative earlier in the narrative, “Ach, Jesu, ist dein Abschied schon so nah?” (Ah, Jesus, is Thy parting now so near?)

Bach’s plum Arias here both went to women, alto Kim Leeds poignantly following Milly’s recit with “Ach, bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben” (Ah stay, my dearest life) and following him again in Part 2, after the angelic promise, with another lovely plaint, the “Ach ja! So komme bald zurück” (Ah yes! So come back soon again) recitative. Stegner’s final recitative, concluding the narrative with a brief mashup of Acts 1:12 and Luke 24:52, sufficed to flip the mood from gloom to joy, giving soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh the opportunity to rejoice greatly in the final Aria of the evening, vying with Sterrett and Soph and Leeds for the mightiest vocal conquest of the night, surpassing them only in charisma.

Enhancing the dramatic contrast between sorrow and celebration, Haigh could draw upon the ample instrumental support of three wind players playing contrapuntally behind her – oboist Burgess, and two flutists, Colin St-Martin and Rodrigo Tarrazza – the first musicians to rise up during the entire Ascension. Switching places with co-principal Marquardt, Cohen played lead trumpet in the latter oratorio. All three brass players returned from the wings for the final Chorus, an earthshaking fantasia set to a stanza from a Gottfried Wilhelm Sacer hymn, summoning the Christian savior to reappear.

He may not have quite reigned for ever and ever yet, but Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) seemed to have retained much of his power 272 years after his death, thanks in part to better playing and singing at the Charlotte Bach Festival than any performance this imperishable genius may have actually heard in his lifetime. Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) has also had a pretty fine run, as the two baroque greats, born less than a month apart, close in on their 340th birthdays. It was good to have the elder Handel take his place in the Charlotte Bach programming for 2022, helping the to enhance our delight this year and to sharpen our eagerness for Festivals to come.

Originally published on 6/21 at CVNC.org

Black Lives Really Do Matter in Spoleto’s Stirring Counter-Crusade

Review: Opera, Chamber, and Orchestral Music @ Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Recognition of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement and the We See You White American Theatre manifesto (issued by a coalition of BIPOC artists in 2020) were certainly on Nigel Redden’s mind when he decided that the 2021 Spoleto Festival USA would be his last as general director. White and long-tenured at the Charleston arts fest, Redden saw himself personifying what needed to be changed, not merely in American theatre but across the nation’s arts.

Yet that wasn’t to say that Spoleto was backward in infusing diversity into its programming or in embracing contemporary, cutting-edge work in its presentations of music, theatre, and dance – which made Redden’s swan song, at a Festival that constricted and hamstrung by Covid-19, all the more poignant. But all Redden’s work was not truly done, even after he officially stepped down last October, for there was one grand project of his that had yet to be completed. Spoleto’s commission of Omar, the much-anticipated new opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels would at last be unveiled after being shelved for two years.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Based on the slim autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, the only known narrative by an American slave written in Arabic, Giddens’ new work was appropriately co-commissioned by the University of North Carolina, for Omar’s servitude began in Charleston before he escaped to a more benign slaveholder up in Fayetteville, NC. Rather than letting this world premiere stand as an isolated testament to Redden’s legacy – or a belated rebuke targeting the infamous Muslim ban of 2017 – incoming general director Mena Mark Hanna has emphatically made Omar the tone-setting centerpiece of his first Spoleto.

Predictably enough, Giddens and Abels sat for a public interview with Martha Teichner on the afternoon following the premiere, just a few hours before she and her husband, Francesco Turrissi, appeared in an outdoor concert at Cistern Yard. Five days after the world premiere at Sottile Theatre, the principal singers from Omar and the choir resurfaced at Charleston Gaillard Center for a “Lift Every Voice” concert, further affirming Black Lives. But that theme, as well as Ibn Said’s African origins and Islamic faith, suffused the Festival’s programming more deeply than that.2022~Spoleto-142

In the jazz sector, for example, two African artists were featured with their ensembles at the Cistern on successive night after Giddens’ concert, Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour and his orchestra followed by South African pianist Nduduzo Makhatini and his quartet. More importantly, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, three years after participating in a Geri Allen tribute, paid homage to his distinguished mom, harpist/organist/composer Alice Coltrane and her 1971 Universal Consciousness album, a spiritual landmark that defined Indocentric jazz, laced with flavorings of Africa, India, Egypt, and the Holy Land.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Unholy Wars was another Spoleto commission, with tenor Karim Sulayman as its lead creator, furthering the pro-Muslim thrust of the Festival’s opera lineup. Taking up Claudio Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, the 1624 opera that extracted its tragic love story from Torquato Tasso’s epic Jerusalem Delivered, Sulayman boldly flipped the First Crusade narrative. Sulayman, a first-generation American born in Chicago to Lebanese immigrants, conceived a counter-Crusade, attempting to render vocal compositions by Monteverdi, Handel, and others through the perspective of those defamed and marginalized by the prevailing white Western narrative.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Portraying the narrator, Sulayman chiefly championed the warrior woman Clorinda – who needed to be white-skinned and convert to Christianity for 17th century Europe to see her as worthy of Tancredi, the valiant Christian knight who mistakenly slayed his beloved in combat. Soprano Raha Mirzadegan as Clorinda outshone bass baritone John Taylor Ward’s portrayal of Tancredi, while dancer Coral Dolphin, devising her moves with choreographer Ebony Williams, upstaged them both. We could conclude, in stage director Kevin Newberry’s scheme of things, that Dolphin’s dancing silently represented the Black beauty that Clorinda was never allowed to be.

Known for directing such cutting-edge operas as Doubt, Fellow Travelers, and The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Newberry had no qualms about creating huge disconnects between his actors’ actions and the Italian they sang. Costume designer David C. Woolard was similarly liberated in attiring them, evoking Lawrence of Arabia more readily than Richard the Lion-Hearted. Water, sand, heavy rope, and four simple chairs supplanted onstage scenery at Dock Stage Theater, but Michael Commendatore’s steady stream of animated projection designs, coupled with the production’s supertitles, more than compensated for the sparseness onstage, keeping us awash in sensory overload. If you tried to keep pace with the supertitles on high, sometimes barely legible, you could easily be distracted from the action below.

Consulting your program booklet to determine what was being sung by which composer would only have compounded your confusion. Best to listen, look, and enjoy. For if this sensory-rich spectacle – laden with mysterious sand and water ceremony – strayed far from fulfilling Sulayman’s intentions, the music, the voices, and the dance yielded constant pleasure, wonder, and delight.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

More touted and deliciously marketable, Giddens’ Omar proved to be more treasurable and on-task, providing tenor Jamez McCorkle with a career-making opportunity in the title role. Directing this stunning world premiere, director Kaneza Schall is laser-focused on the most pivotal event in Said’s life in America when, imprisoned in Fayetteville, he is released from jail and purchased by a benign master because of he has – miraculously, in the eyes of local yokels – written in Arabic script on the walls of his cell.

Written and printed language, from the floor upwards to the Sottile’s fly loft, is everywhere in Schall’s concept: dominant in Amy Rubin’s set, Joshua Higgason’s video, even permeating the costumes by April Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown. If you ever believed the libelous presumption that Africans were all brought to America bereft of any literacy, maintained in their pristine backwardness by their benevolent masters, Schall’s vision of Omar was here to brashly disabuse you.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

And if you were under the impression that Africans came ashore in Charleston without any coherent Abrahamic religion, their poor souls yearning to be redeemed by the beneficence of Christianity, Giddens labored lovingly to enlighten you, the beauty and spirituality of her score enhanced by Abels’ deft orchestrations. As a librettist, Giddens could have benefited from some discreet assistance – and the challenge of scoring somebody else’s text. Melodious and religious as it is, Omar could stand to be a more dramatic opera, and as a librettist, Giddens could have usefully been more detailed.

Stressing Said’s spirituality, Giddens neglects his intellect, never referencing the range of his studies or the full spectrum of his manuscripts. Nor is there a full fleshing-out of why Said was imprisoned in Fayetteville or how it could be that Major General James Owen could take him home without returning the fugitive slave to his previous master, described in The Autobiography as “a small, weak, and wicked man, called Johnson, a complete infidel, who had no fear of God at all.”Screenshot 2022-06-27 at 16-55-14 Spoleto Opera Honors An Extraordinary Slave Whose Life Mattered Classical Voice North America

The embellishments that Giddens gives us are all gorgeous. Owen’s daughter, Eliza, has a beautiful aria sung by Rebecca Jo Loeb, entreating her dignified dad to see the providence in Omar’s coming to their city. Further mentoring our hero, soprano Laquita Mitchell was Julie, a fellow slave in Fayetteville who will vividly remember her previous meeting with Omar at a Charleston slave auction. More majestically, mezzo-soprano Cheryse McLeod Lewis is a recurring presence as Omar’s mother, Fatima. Long after she is slain by the marauders who enslave Omar, she comes back to her son in a dream, warning him that Johnson is fast approaching to murder him. Mitchell and Lewis subsequently team up to urge Omar to write his story, a summit meeting with McCorkle that is the clear musical – and emotional – high point of the evening.

Plum roles also go to baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, who gets to sing both of Omar’s masters, the cruel and godless Johnson before intermission and the benign, bible-toting Owen afterwards. The question of whether Said sincerely converts from Islam to Christianity is pointedly left open. Notwithstanding his utter triumph, we probably have not seen the full magnificence that McCorkle can bring to Omar, for he was hobbled in the opening performances, wearing a therapeutic boot over his left ankle that I, for one, didn’t notice until he resurfaced as the highlight of the “Lift Every Voice” concert, bringing down the house with a powerful “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Scanning the remainder of Spoleto’s classical offerings, I’m tempted to linger in the operatic realm, for Yuval Sharon’s upside-down reimagining of La bohème at Gaillard Center, despite its time-saving cuts to Act 2, completely overcame my misgivings about seeing Puccini’s four acts staged in reverse order. Yet there were more flooring innovations, debuts, and premieres elsewhere.52126095047_f231ab5e32_o

Program III of the chamber music series epitomized how the lunchtime concerts have evolved at Dock Street Theater under violinist and host Geoff Nuttall’s stewardship. Baritone saxophonist Steven Banks brought a composition of his, “As I Am,” for his debut, a winsome duet with pianist Pedja Muzijevic. Renowned composer Osvaldo Golijov, a longtime collaborator with Nuttall’s St. Lawrence Quartet, was on hand to introduce his Ever Yours octet, which neatly followed a performance of the work that inspired him, Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet, op. 76 no. 2.

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Upstaging all of these guys was the smashing debut of recorder virtuoso Tabea Debus, playing three different instruments – often two simultaneously – on German composer Moritz Eggert’s Auer Atem for three recorders and one player. Equally outré and modernistic, More or Less for pre-recorded and live violin was a new composition by Mark Applebaum, customized for Livia Sohn (Nuttall’s spouse) while she was recuperating from a hand injury that only allowed her to play with two fingers on her left hand. If it weren’t bizarre enough to see Sohn on the Dock Street stage facing a mounted bookshelf speaker, the prankish Applebaum was on hand to drape the speaker in a loud yellow wig after the performance was done.

On the orchestral front, two works at different concerts wowed me. Capping a program at Gaillard which had featured works by György Ligeti and Edmund Thornton Jenkins, John Kennedy conducted Aiōn, an extraordinary three-movement work by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Hatching a soundworld that could be massively placid, deafeningly chaotic, weirdly unearthly, or awesome with oceanic majesty, Aiōn decisively quashed my urge to slip away to The Cistern for Coltrane and his luminous harpist, Brandee Younger. We were forced to arrive a full 30 minutes after that religious rite began.2022~Spoleto-260

My final event before saying goodbye to Spoleto 2022 treated me to sights I’d never seen before. On an all-Tyshawn Sorey program, Sorey ascended to the podium at Sottile Theatre and took us all to a pioneering borderland between composition and improvisation that he titled Autoschiadisms. Instead of a baton, Sorey brandished a sharpie beating time, sheets of typing paper with written prompts, or simply his bare hands making signals. Sometimes Sorey simply allowed the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra (splendid as usual) to run on autopilot while he huddled over his score, writing new prompts with his sharpie on blank pages before holding them high.2022~Spoleto-273

And the music was as wonderful as it was exciting, clearly an advance upon the other compositions on the bill, For Roscoe Mitchell and For Marcos Balter, conducted respectively by Kennedy and Kellen Gray. In the surreal aftermath of his triumphant premiere, Sorey had reason to linger onstage during a good chunk of the intermission. Musicians from the Orchestra swarmed him, waiting patiently for Sorey to autograph the sheets of paper that the composer had just used to lead them. The ink was barely dry where the MacArthur Genius of 2017 was obliged to write some more.

Warren-Green Bids Farewell With a Rousing Beethoven “Ode to Joy”

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Beethoven’s Ninth

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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May 20, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Even back in the early ‘90s, when Charlotte Symphony struggled to sustain respectable mediocrity, the valedictory concert led by Leo Driehuys in 1993 proved that the orchestra could always rise to the occasion when called upon to perform Beethoven’s thrilling Ninth Symphony. Having heard the same ensemble bludgeon Beethoven’s “Eroica” to blandness just months earlier, it was hard for me to believe that the inspiration came solely from the composer. I struggled with the answer to this anomaly until I interviewed Driehuys’s successor, Peter McCoppin, shortly before his final season at the end of the millennium.

Not referencing Beethoven at all, but explaining why he enjoyed his years in Charlotte so thoroughly, McCoppin observed that the Queen City is incredibly fertile ground for choristers and choruses. You just had to count the churches around town to see his point. Not only had the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte brought extra spark to Beethoven’s “Choral Symphony,” they had also arguably sparked the Charlotte Symphony musicians they were partnering with.

The Oratorios have undergone numerous metamorphoses during the past three decades, at discreet intervals absorbed into Symphony, renamed the Charlotte Symphony Chorus, and eventually set free to seek their own gigs, rebranded once again as the Charlotte Master Chorale. Yet each time it was necessary to muster the instrumental and vocal artillery needed for Beethoven’s masterwork – indeed, classical music’s masterwork – the Chorale has admirably answered the call.

In a recent interview prefacing his valedictory concert as Symphony’s music director after 12 fruitful seasons, Christopher Warren-Green revealed that the chorus had been “one of the big incentives for me to come to Charlotte because of the great repertoire that was written for orchestra and chorus.” Little wonder, then, that Maestro Warren-Green has chosen to conclude his tenure by including the Master Chorale in his final “Ode to Joy” concert – or that he has already announced that, when he returns this coming December as Symphony’s music adviser and conductor laureate, the choir will be in the mix once more as he conducts Handel’s Messiah at Knight Theater.

There always seem to be extra layers of drama and excitement when the “Choral Symphony” returns to Belk Theater, never more than when Christof Perick made his 2001 debut as music director just 10 days after 9/11. Fast forward to the fourth Ninth that Symphony has programmed since then, and there was still a palpable sense of a special occasion in the hall. Symphony president and CEO David Fisk saluted Warren-Green before he made his grand entrance, greeted with a lusty standing ovation. Maestro then pooh-poohed all of Fisk’s accolades, paid tribute to four newly retired Symphony musicians, and – prior to a nifty and brief exit – exhorted the audience to keep supporting the CSO “or I’ll never forgive you.”

That was the last laugh of the evening as Warren-Green returned to the podium, signaled the Chorale to be seated, and presided over the Symphony as Beethoven brought them to a boil, quicker than a microwave oven, in his opening Allegro ma non troppo. Warren-Green’s Ninth would by a turbulent one, far more timely than timeless, discarding many chances for liquid lyricism in favor of alert and spirited rigor – almost militant but never quite lapsing into rigidity with the onset of its rousing quicker tempos. The incisiveness of Jacob Lipham’s timpani came upon us quickly, never allowing us to rest for long, while the affecting woodwinds and the lively strings offered eloquent counterweights.

When we reached the Molto vivace second movement, with its industrious bustle and perpetual overlapping, Warren-Green enabled us to hear early foreshadowings of the teeming humanity we’ll find in the epic fourth movement, struggling toward togetherness and brotherhood. Excitement in the overlaps between various sections of the orchestra was increased dramatically by spasmodic boosts in dynamics and the sharp whacks of the timpani. Also pushing against the flow of the violins and the warmth of the cellos were the percolating winds and the moaning French horns.

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Between the second and third movements, the last true pause in this symphony, the guest soloists entered and took their seats at center stage: bass baritone Jordan Bisch, tenor Sean Panikkar, soprano Alicia Russell Tagert, and (substituting for Briana Hunter) mezzo-soprano Sarah Larson. The two little girls seated in front of my mom and me perked up expectantly at this point, only to be let down by the relatively tranquil Adagio molto e cantabile. The little girls weren’t as restless or fidgety during this lovely movement as you might expect little boys to be, but their attentiveness waned noticeably – despite the sweetness of the first violins, the affecting violas and second violins, and the mellifluous woodwinds and horns. Their adorable decorum was threatened most by the beautiful confluence between clarinet, horn, and flute as the penultimate movement faded into the concluding Presto.

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Having this glorious score in front of you, with its magnificent build-up to the signature fireworks waiting to explode, must be so gratifying and fulfilling as a musical conductor stands on the podium, heading into the homestretch of his 12-year tenure. Surely, the musicians and choristers sensed the excitement and shared an eagerness to deliver. The first violins were certainly ardent and rich over the churning violas and second violins as the build-up began, yet as the gradual gravitation toward the brotherhood theme was beginning, I noticed that Warren-Green was doing something different and new. Instead of seating his cellos and double basses to our right, they were now spread in a long row, starting in front of the podium and reaching to the left edge of the stage in nearly a straight line.

So there was a little more than the usual edge as the journey to the brotherhood theme launched, continuing with dogged inevitability after the woodwinds mischievously flashed back to the agitations of the second movement. Violas layered onto the cellos and basses, adding to the smoldering sensation, and the violins accelerated the familiar strains until the brass made them soar. The little girls in front of us were completely re-engaged ahead of the next magnificent build. Bisch sounded stronger and more robust in his opening declaration, “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! (Oh friends, not these sounds!),” culminating in the announcement of his Joy agenda (“Freude!”), than he did reprising the brotherhood refrain as he plunged into Friedrich Schiller’s “An die Freude (Ode to Joy).” More than a couple of bass baritones who have recorded these passages have fared the same. Perhaps that was Beethoven’s design, for ample reinforcements will emphatically arrive on the scene, first the soloists and then the phalanxes of choristers who were elevated over everyone upstage, ably representing Schiller’s millions.

At least a couple of regatherings follow, as all of us who love the Ninth well know. There’s a grand, brassy military march while the vocalists inhale for awhile and hold their fire, and then there are those sublime audible inhalations as Schiller’s lyrics, helpfully translated in supertitles above the Belk stage, took us “above the canopy of stars” in an ethereally protracted chord. When the Master Chorale reached peak tempo in the concluding Allegro assai vivace, like a herd of horses urged by Warren-Green to full gallop, one of the little girls turned to the other with an OMG expression on her face that her mom would have treasured until her dying day if she had seen it. At this moment, the greatest pleasure in watching kids experience this magnificent storm of sound for the first time is being able to say to yourself. “You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!”

Originally published on 5/22 at CVNC.org

US Premiere Keynotes Symphony Concert, with Multiple Thrills and Triumphs to Follow

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Sibelius Symphony No. 2

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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April 22, 2022, Charlotte, NC – There had been no foretelling that five weeks ago, the Belk Theater stage would be splashed with the colors of Ukraine’s flag for a Charlotte Symphony concert. Nor could guest conductor Karen Kamensek, making her Charlotte debut, have predicted that the music she was bringing to Knight Theater would be so pertinent to this moment: a symphony by a Finnish composer written in response to Russian oppression in 1902, and two pieces written by Russian-born composers, one of them publicly condemned by the Stalinist regime in 1948. Sadly, these works by Jean Sibelius, Victoria Borisova-Ollas, and Dmitri Shostakovich have new life and fresh significance today as the world trembles, anticipating the full consequences of the horrific Russian aggression unleashed by its unhinged leader.2022~Sibelius 2-06

Written by Vladivostok native Borisova-Ollis, a longtime Swedish citizen, in 2008 for the 850th anniversary of Munich, Germany, Angelus had its long-overdue United States premiere. Nor was the Chicago-born Kamensek unworthy of the honor, having conducted the 2022 Grammy-Award winning recording of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten with the Metropolitan Opera. Although the upstage at Knight Theater wasn’t lit up with Ukraine’s colors, there certainly was an auspicious tableau – and a sense of occasion – as a phalanx of percussionists were spread across the rear of the orchestra, bells and drums and cymbals further brightened by the sounds of piano, celesta, and a pair of harps. The composer’s account of how she fulfilled the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra’s commission, reprinted in the digital program, lays heavy stress on the stroll she took through the city and the recordings she made of its church bells, so that aspect of the piece, underscored by Kamensek’s spoken intro was eagerly anticipated – a pacific, spiritual answer to Putin’s insane “de-Nazification” rallying cries.2022~Sibelius 2-25

What was surprising for me, especially in light of Borisova-Ollis’s description of the opening of her Angelus as “a hint of a Celtic chant,” was hearing principal violist Benjamin Geller playing a melody, over soft tremolos from the string section, that unmistakably resembled a traditional Passover song, one that I had heard in synagogue as recently as that morning. The predicted bells would eventually arrive in three or four waves, but not before we heard from the trumpet, the horns, the timpani, and the clarinet. Extending beyond 20 minutes, not at all a bonbon typically programmed at the beginning of concerts, the piece was studded with unusual instrumental effects – like a brief organ-tuba duet – and swirling, cresting climaxes. Even as she built to the first tolling of the tubular bells, Kamensek’s interpretation was more bustling and boisterous than Skari Oramo’s relatively quiescent recording for BIS with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. Since Kamensek lists one Borisova-Ollis’s operas, Dracula, among her credits, expect to hear more from this composer-conductor pairing in the future.

Shostakovich completed his first Violin Concerto just one month after his denunciation, but he and violinist David Oistrakh, for whom the work was dedicated, had to wait over two years after Stalin’s death – more than seven years in all – to respectively hear and perform the premiere. Although I own two of the Oistrakh recordings you can access on Spotify, I can only trace two prior occasions when I heard this epic piece performed live, once by the Charlotte Symphony in 2001, when young Caitlin Tully was hampered by the acoustics of the First United Methodist Church, and once at the Verbier Festival in 2006, when violinist Vadim Rapin conductor Yuri Temirkanov fired off all its burners with a student orchestra that was on a par with the Spoleto Festival’s.2022~Sibelius 2-11

Charlotte Symphony subscribers greeted concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu with an ovation that probably would have startled Repin himself, and the violinist seemed buoyed by the occasion. While Lupanu didn’t quite replicate the sublimity of the opening Nocturne in the 1956 recording by the Leningrad Philharmonic with Oistrakh and maestro Yevgeny Mravinsky, he came breathtakingly close, enough to earn another ovation between movements, and the slashing energy and brightness he brought to the ensuing Scherzo – coupled with the brio Kamensek drew from Symphony in this catchiest movement – earned an even more-deserved ovation afterwards.

Kamensek and the CSO met the grand challenge of the Passacaglia, infusing it with martial gravity, and Lupanu played with more eloquence and fire than I’ve ever heard from him, carrying forward a thrilling momentum into the Andante – Cadenza portion of that movement and, without an interval for the audience to express its enthusiasm, into the final Burlesque, the shortest section of the work. Cheated of the chance to explode after the Cadenza by the onset of timpani for the Burlesque, the audience redoubled its fervor at the rousing conclusion. Fortunately, Lupanu had an encore at-the-ready, a lovely Sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 2, the first encore performed at a CSO concert since before the pandemic.

Of course, if you were among the legions who can’t get enough Sibelius, the Symphony No. 2 after intermission, while significantly statelier and more reposeful than the concerto, was anything but an anticlimax. However neatly the oppressed narrative might fit current anti-Russian sentiments, Kamensek seemed to take the quieter episodes of the opening Allegro as subdued rather than oppressed, with an incipient optimism ready to burst forth with ebullience or blossom into grandeur. The opening of the ensuing Andante, ma rubato can sound morose and grim on recordings, but at the Knight, where the pizzicatos of the basses and cellos could sound lighter and livelier, buoyancy lurked within the quietude, so transitions to anger and reflection sounded more natural. Once again, the two final movements were linked without an interval, punctuated by another brief timpani tattoo, but this time followed with trumpet heraldry and a grand orchestral flowering. Repeated lulls and swellings reaffirmed the triumph, beautifully calibrated and fervently delivered.

Originally published on 4/24 at CVNC.org

Jinjoo Cho and Joshua Gerson Make Impressive Belk Debuts

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Barber’s Violin Concerto

 By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Barber Violin-20

March 25, 2022, Charlotte, NC – While Christopher Warren-Green’s tenure as music director at Charlotte Symphony winds down, as he transitions to the roles of conductor laureate and artistic adviser in seasons to come, the appearances of guest conductors at Belk Theater and Knight Theater are gaining an extra aura, an extra sparkle of excitement. For this stately parade of baton-wielders can now be construed as a prolonged set of auditions as audiences, Symphony execs, and orchestra musicians make up their minds on who should follow in maestro Warren-Green’s footsteps. Suddenly, everything going on behind the scenes at Symphony is freshly cloaked in intrigue.

Was the absence of Kwamé Ryan, listed on our own calendar as guest conductor, a last-minute indication that he is fielding offers elsewhere and withdrawing from candidacy? Was his replacement, Joshua Gersen from the New York Phil and the New World Symphony, a hot new prospect for our upcoming vacancy, or was Symphony’s substitution based on Gerson’s availability and preparedness for the planned program? With Jinjoo Cho slated to play Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto as the headline piece, Gerson’s readiness needed to be on par with the musicians’ for that work, since they had presumably mastered their parts sufficiently to greet Cho and Gerson at rehearsals when they arrived.

No notice of the substitution came our way via email, but changes weren’t so last-minute that Symphony’s program booklet couldn’t be changed in time for Cho’s Charlotte debut with Gerson. Digital brochures, thankfully, can be altered more nimbly than printed editions, the pre-pandemic norm. Impressively enough, Gerson was able to conduct the preamble to Cho’s appearance, Errollyn Wallen’s Mighty River, a 2007 British piece that certainly isn’t standard rep. César Franck’s Symphony in D minor, however, had to be jettisoned, replaced after intermission by Robert Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony No. 3. Some of the answers about what was going on behind the scenes were answered – you have to pay attention, folks! – by the announcement of Symphony’s 2022-23 season earlier in the week. Ryan resurfaces as one of the 10 guest conductors who will continue the pageant of candidates, and Franck’s Symphony also resurfaces as part of next season’s classics playlist, but they are no longer linked on the same program.2022~Barber Violin-02

Subscribers who were not attuned to these program and performer shuffles probably didn’t notice any significant glitches. I’d have to say that Symphony’s musicians not only rose to the occasion but were energized by its challenges. If that didn’t happen before they assembled on the Knight Theater stage, then Gerson’s extended and enthusiastic introduction to the music could have provided the spark. As relaxed and genial as he was speaking to the audience, Gerson was as instantly intense when he faced away from us to his musicians.

Born in Belize in 1958, Wallen was commissioned to write a piece celebrating the bicentennial of the repeal of the Slave Trade Act. Since the British Parliament passed that landmark legislation on March 25, 1807, Charlotte Symphony’s first performance of the piece was a celebration in itself, staged exactly 215 years later. Principal French hornist Byron Johns, played no small part in assuring that the debut was a success, playing the affecting “Amazing Grace” melody that frames Wallen’s composition and often infuses it throughout. The title was Wallen’s affirmation of the flow of history toward freedom, driven by the yearning and pursuit of all who respond to their human instincts and nature’s law. Horns and strings wasted no time in percolating their evocations of that flow. Principal timpanist Jacob Lipham furnished the most distinctive landmarks along the way, with principal harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell adding vivid detail, supplemented by Erinn Frechette tweedling her piccolo. Wallen handed off solo honors to the oboe, flute, and other winds before handing it back to Johns, with principals Hollis Ulaky on the oboe and flutist Victor Wang making their colors count the most.2022~Barber Violin-19

We’ve seen both Joshua Bell and Elmar Oliveira playing the Barber concerto here in Charlotte over the past 25 years, so to say that Cho’s performance with Gerson eclipsed them both is no small claim. Head-to-head, Cho generated more electricity than Oliveira, and behind the glamorous violinist, Gerson and the Charlotte Symphony got out of her way more deftly than the Houston Symphony and Christoph Eschenbach were able to manage in 1998. Cho was sublime in the opening Allegro and seemed to summon a special ardor from Gerson and the orchestra in their response – I don’t think we ever did get enough of the catchy main theme.

In the hushed Andante that followed, Cho may have been even more magical, more transported by the score. The concluding Presto in moto perpetuo, rewritten according to Gerson to provide a greater challenge to the soloist, seemed to become a new and spontaneous challenge that Cho and the orchestra hurled back at each other. There actually was a pause for the native Korean to gather herself as the ensemble rushed on. After a visible deep breath, Cho’s fresh onslaught was even more fiery and swift.2022~Barber Violin-24

The power of the Barber drove a fellow critic and his spouse to the back of the hall after intermission, but the Schumann proved worthy of staying for, not at all an anticlimax. The zest and drive of the opening Lebhaft of the “Rhenish” were unlike anything I’d heard in live performances before – certainly better than anything on the complete set of Schumann symphonies by Roy Goodman and the Hanover Band, ballyhooed as the first complete recording on period instruments (and a complete RCA dud). No, you have to listen to the John Eliot Gardiner set on DGG, also on period instruments, to find an equal to the glories unfolded at Knight Theater by our Symphony.

Gerson didn’t quite achieve the lightning bolts you’ll hear from Gardiner in the opening movement, though he sustained a wondrous sense of expectancy in the relatively quieter section between the great pinnacles. The middle movements, culminating in the rich heraldry and solemnity of the penultimate Feirlich fourth movement, achieved parity with Gardiner’s benchmark recording for me. But it was the grand military Lebhaft finale where Gerson and Symphony surpassed what was previously on record, establishing a new highwater mark for the “Rhenish.”

Originally published on 3/27 at CVNC.org

Ukraine’s Colors Shine Through Charlotte Symphony Celebration

Review: Dona Nobis Pacem at Belk Theater

 By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Dona Nobis Pacem-31

March 12, 2022, Charlotte, NC – When 57 musicians gathered at the Carolina Theatre on Tryon Street to present the inaugural Charlotte Symphony concert on March 20, 1932, none of them could have possibly predicted how the orchestra’s 90th anniversary would be celebrated in 2022. Three of the five pieces that Christopher Warren-Green conducted, nearing the end of his distinguished tenure as Symphony’s music director, hadn’t been written yet, and one of the composers hadn’t been born. Even last May, when CSO’s 2021-22 season was announced, Warren-Green himself couldn’t have predicted how grimly appropriate Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem would be for the occasion. As originally conceived, the program was an olive branch from England to America, three British composers conducted by one of the Crown’s finest, two of the pieces paying homage to Walt Whitman, our greatest poet.

A small dent in the all-English lineup turned up when Symphony’s Australian second trombone, Thomas Burge, finished enough of his to-be-continued “Charlotte Symphony Fanfare” for it to serve as a preamble to the orchestra’s celebration. What truly turned the tone of the anniversary festivities upside-down was Vladimir Putin’s horrific invasion of Ukraine, lending Dona Nobis Pacem – “Grant us peace” – unforeseen pertinence and meaning. With St. Patrick’s Day weekend revelers teeming along the sidewalks and spilling over onto Tryon and Fifth Streets, there was a dramatic contrast for concertgoers who became pedestrians shortly after hearing Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and the Dona Nobis at Belk Theater on Saturday night. The most festive of the night’s festivities were outside the hall.

Burge’s new composition will no doubt impress more when it takes its intended place at the launch of a future Symphony’s classics season and the composer’s showy post-pandemic staging can be realized: three brass choirs spread out across the Belk balcony. For the 90th, the brass battalion was confined behind the masked string sections, but the peep we had into the work-in-progress was sunny and glorious. Gustav Holst’s Walt Whitman Overture, a youthful piece completed in 1899 when the composer would turn 25, was arguably the most sustained celebration of the evening, though it might be somewhat deflating to learn that Holst had been dead for over 48 years when the piece was first performed in 1982. The transparent violins at the beginning, hovering over churning basses and cellos before flutes and brass peeped in, struck me more like Schubert than any American or British music. When the brass first broke through, however, there may have been a glint of Sousa, and the final swell of the piece was in a grand Victorian vein.

The Four Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), premiered in 1957, were clearly the most winsome offering of the evening, shuttling between slow and fast tempos – not only between dances but sometimes within them. Inspired by Louis Armstrong more strongly than by Whitman, Arnold’s music displayed a more American élan, geniality, and broad humor than the other Brits’. If your head wasn’t spinning from the abrupt acceleration that Warren-Green called forth in the opening “Strathspey Pesante,” which ended with a pedestrian “shave and a haircut” phrase, then the slowdown in the ensuing Vivace (Reel), initiated by Joshua Hood galumphing on his bassoon, would certainly have caught your ear. And if that weren’t sufficient mischief, Warren-Green’s hambone slacking and slouching at the podium added a visual cue. Perish the thought that Maestro Warren-Green’s predecessor, Christof Perick, would ever have tainted himself with such levity.

After these pranks, which reminded me of the Western merriment in Copland’s folksier pieces, the work of principal harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell, principal flutist Victor Wang, and oboist Erica Cice was sublime in the penultimate “Hebridean Song,” shining through the shimmer of the strings. The concluding “Highland Fling” had as much Scottish flavor as the “Pesante,” rushing at us unabated with sudden shifts in volume, the tweedling of the high woodwinds answered by onrushes of orchestra colored with fiery alarms from the trombones.

If the customary programming conventions for galas were being observed, I’d strongly question the wisdom of delaying the comparatively solemn and serene Tallis Fantasia until after Arnold’s suite, which would have sent us off to intermission in a lighter mood. But Symphony president David Fisk had already solemnized the occasion by dedicating the concert “to Ukraine and the courage, strength, and resilience of its people,” a theme that would subsequently be echoed in the digital program and by Warren-Green, when he prefaced his performance of the Dona Nobis. By coincidence surely, Vaughan-Williams composed his 1910 Fantasia very similarly to Burge’s spanking new “Fanfare,” dividing his aggregation of strings into three parts, two string orchestras with a string quartet within the larger orchestra. Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu had the last and most eloquent solo among those doled out to the four principal string players, but kudos should also go to principal violist Benjamin Geller, whose solo launched the memorable quartet episode.

What will stand out for me, however, was the extraordinary alchemy of this performance. Whether it has always been baked into Vaughan-Williams’ orchestration, maybe something special that Warren-Green was able to elicit from his musicians, or whether it was the unprecedented high placement of the small string orchestra on the platform where the Charlotte Master Chorale would soon sing, flush against the upstage vestigial pipes at the Belk… I could have sworn that there was a softly playing organ in the orchestral mix. Needless to say: amazing.2022~Dona Nobis Pacem-27

Those organ pipes were more verifiably involved in the culminating performance of the Dona Nobis Pacem, after more than 40 Master choristers filed in, followed by our two guest soloists: soprano Christina Pier and, in his Charlotte debut, bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch. It was then that Warren-Green dedicated this piece to the valiant, freedom-loving people of Ukraine. Between the moment that the maestro turned away from us and Symphony began to play, those silvery pipes, illuminated until then entirely in blue light, suddenly became halved into stripes of gleaming blue and yellow gold, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. A proud moment for us all.

Whether prescribed by COVID protocols, Warren-Green’s decree, or the unmasked singers’ personal preferences, Pier and Okulitch sat further apart than the vocal soloists we usually encounter at Symphony concerts. With Pier mostly singing the “Agnus Dei” refrain that contains the Latin title, and Okulitch confining himself in the middle movements in Walt Whitman’s English – and Old Testament translations in the Finale – the separation between the singers wasn’t awkward at all.

2022~Dona Nobis Pacem-24

Pier tended to sing with the orchestra and the choir, but there was an extended stretch where Okulitch, standing to Warren-Green’s right, was accompanied solely by Lupanu, seated to his left. So the tableau enhanced the intimacy of their duet. What was really unfortunate and compromising for us were the vast stretches of incomprehensible text from the chorus that Vaughan-Williams had scored so splendidly. If there had been supertitles above the stage or printed programs in our hands, the experience would have been even more powerful. Those of us who were able to download the digital program were adequately equipped, but the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center has had repeated problems with transmitting these copious, colorful, and informative materials.

In future performances where we’re expecting to follow along at the Belk, I will try to download the digital materials before I leave home. Clearest of all was the chorus’s mighty “Beat! Beat! Drums!” refrain from one of Whitman’s most metrical Civil War compositions. Even when we might be lost in the less familiar words of other war poems by the Good Gray Poet (“Reconciliation” and “Dirge for Two Veterans”), the music, the voices, and the colors of the fighting Ukrainians’ flag landed on us forcefully. It was thrilling.

Originally published on 3/14 at CVNC.org