Category Archives: Concert

NC Symphony, Audience, and Life-Affirming Beethoven Return to Meymandi

Review: “Meymandi Concert Hall was relatively teeming with musicians”.

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Gradually, the classical music scene is coming back to life across the state, with fuller ensembles performing in our concert halls and audiences finding more access to seats. Back in December, streaming was our only avenue to Meymandi Concert Hall when cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Natasha Paremski performed an all-Rachmaninoff program to an empty house. Even then, the incremental return to normal was foreshadowed in the second half of the program. Having followed pandemic propriety in collaborating with North Carolina Symphony associate concertmaster Karen Strittmatter Galvin on the Trio élégiaque, the duo shed their masks for Sergei’s Cello Sonata.

Flash forward to last Saturday night’s NCS concert, and the Meymandi was relatively teeming with musicians. Two percussionists and 23 string players were now on the Woolner Stage, along with 13 brass and wind players splayed across the upstage in two rows, separated by plexiglass panels – all gathered to perform Joan Tower’s Chamber Dance and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. Looking over guest conductor Brett Mitchell’s shoulders, we could see socially-distanced audience members as close as the third or fourth row, masked as dutifully as the maestro, the string players, and the percussionists.2021~NCSymphony Beethoven-11

Unchanged were the evocative footage introducing the pre-recorded webcast, ushering us into the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, settling us its eerily empty lobby, and leading us up the stairway to Meymandi, where oboist Joseph Peters greeted us as before. Peters’ hosting reached a higher level here, both in his introduction to the Tower piece and in his onstage sit-down with Mitchell between pieces. So did the camera work at Meymandi, offering us more vantage points, closer views of the musicians, and far more polished editing. Recorded sound was also outstanding, on par with last month’s Mozart-Handel concert by the Charlotte Symphony.

Peters ably described the treacherous terrain of Chamber Dance, written for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2006, pointing out its unusual scales and harmonies, its rhythmic intensity, and complexity – particularly in sections where rhythm and meter changed in every bar. Our host’s credibility was quickly underscored when the performance began, for the oboist drew the first solo. After volleying with principal clarinetist Samuel Almaguer, principal flutist Anne Whaley Laney drew a solo that was arguably lovelier than the oboe’s. You’ll need to have the volume up if you wish to hear the beginning of Galvin’s violin solo, the loveliest of all, with Almaguer layering on. Yet it was also refreshing to see the timpani, tambourine, and two trumpets back in action after their COVID lockdowns. There were other interesting chamber-sized matchups besides violin and clarinet as the cameras zeroed in on a wind quartet and afterwards split-screened pairings of principal bassoonist Aaron Apaza with principal cellist Bonnie Thron and Peters with violist 2021~NCSymphony Beethoven-39.

Belying Peters’ description, which had me bracing for a work that was rhythmically jagged and musically discordant, Chamber Dance turned out to be energetic and invigorating, with a natural flow between its solo, chamber, and orchestral episodes – though Dick Clark and I would refrain from calling it a dance. What I found most refreshing when Peters and Mitchell sat down at the break was the non-passive attitude Peters took as an interviewer and the pushback from Mitchell. Rather than agreeing with the description of Tower’s piece as a hybrid between chamber music and symphonic dance, Mitchell favored the idea that Chamber Dance was more like a concerto for orchestra.

The two also split on where the influence of Haydn was strongest in Beethoven’s Fourth, Peters hearing it in the pulse of Adagio second movement and Mitchell pointing to the mischief and misdirection in the Allegro ma non troppo finale, where Beethoven brings the music to a hushed halt before the furious gallop to the finish. Mitchell was also provocative in describing what the impact of this Symphony must have had at its Vienna premieres in 1807 and 1808, two to three years after the mighty Eroica. The ghostly, creepy, stealthy opening, circling back to solemnity, does seem to signal an even graver, more monumental work than its predecessor – until Beethoven’s infectious giddyaps merrily assure us that we’re off to the races.2021~NCSymphony Beethoven-05

The double basses deepened the spell of Beethoven’s intro in his Adagio–Allegro vivace opening movement, and a couple of timpani tattoos triggered Mitchell’s well-judged ignition of the conquering merriment. Laney offered a lithe repeat of the main theme on flute, and we had nice contrasts in those delightful moments when the restless strings quieted and chomped at the bit until Beethoven applied the whip. There was plenty in the ensuing Adagio besides its Haydnesque lilt at the start. The timps alerted us once again that there was more in the larder. A fade-dissolve to the clarinet spotlighted Almaguer’s admirable contributions to come as he dominated the solos. Beethoven’s own restlessness wasn’t ignored, and we could discern in his faintly militaristic moments what Mitchell had meant when he had prompted us on the rigor in this movement.

2021~NCSymphony Beethoven-37Shuttling between the blaring ensemble and Apaza’s gurgling bassoon, the penultimate Allegro vivace had as much mischief as merriment to delight us, with quiet passages that had light fluty colorings and oboe shadings. Of course, Apaza had his most special moment when he keyed the recap of the final Allegro ma non troppo movement. That should tell you that Beethoven has taken us far from this Symphony’s brooding beginnings, that it was written when the composer could still joyously hear, see, smell, taste, and touch our material world in the full flush of his success and celebrity. Sunlight suffused this grand finale, with none of the gloom of the cathedral or the grave in sight. The stop-and-go was more dramatic here than it was in the opening, yet there was no sadness sat all mixed into the affirmation that Beethoven offered or in the way the North Carolina Symphony played. Looking forward to the end of a plague instead of back to its havoc and carnage, Symphony struck the right notes and a responsive chord.

Branford Marsalis Helps Bring Charlotte Symphony and Subscribers Back Together at Last

Review:  Branford Marsalis Plays Ibert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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More than 15 months had elapsed since my wife Sue and I had sat together at Belk Theater and enjoyed a Charlotte Symphony concert – exactly 15 months since we had seen Gabriella Martinez with the orchestra on Valentine’s Day at Knight Theater. Needless to say, much had changed since our last night out in Uptown Charlotte. Until we turned off the I-287 innerbelt onto College Street, we had no idea what a solemn concrete canyon the Center City has become – because the explosion of new buildings, high-rises, penthouses, and parking garages has hit us while foot traffic on a Friday night remains nearly extinct. Fortunately, we had allowed for extra travel time as we made our way to the landmark “Branford Marsalis Plays Ibert” concert, for the capricious Saturday night traffic was as heavy as usual, doubling our surprise when we left I-77. There wasn’t a Hornets basketball game scheduled that night, so we were among the first to enter the BankAmerica parking garage, with hundreds of spaces to choose from.

Thwarted by travel restrictions that kept him on the other side of the Atlantic, Christopher Warren-Green was unable to preside over our auspicious reunion, so resident conductor Christopher James Lees was called into action, acquitting himself quite brilliantly. Attendance for the concert was capped at 500, about 24% of capacity, and our tickets had been channeled to the Apple Wallet app on my iPhone, which the usher firing his QR scanner gun was able to wield better than I. We were so eager to enter the hall and see the CSO again that I forgot to get an exit parking stub in the lobby, but there was no crowd lined up for them after the concert when I did remember. Masking was still in effect for everyone except wind players, so it was helpful to find staff at their customary posts in the lobby – at the ticket booths and at the entry to the grand tier – so we could recognize and happily greet one another.

Marsalis, the Grammy Award-winning saxophonist, would be playing Erwin Schulhoff’s Hot-Sonate in addition to Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera, so there was plenty to bone up on in our seats before the lights went down. Sadly, there were no program booklets to assist our preparations, only the sort of glossy 5”x8” cards subscribers will remember from the pre-pandemic KnightSounds series. An informational email from the ticket office had popped into my inbox that afternoon, which contained a link to a PDF version of a 24-page program booklet. If you’re among the lucky 500 attending the sold-out concerts, you’re covered.

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Filled out by Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances and Gershwin’s Lullaby for string orchestra, the program was an adventurous delight from start to finish – about an hour in length, as promised in that handy email, without an intermission. Bartók was particularly shortchanged by the abbreviated program handouts, for the names and tempos of his six Folk Dances couldn’t fit on the same card with all the movements Marsalis would be playing. Even if the Bartók movements had been listed they would hardly be indicative of what we would see and hear. Until the penultimate “Poargă românească (Romanian Polka): Allegro,” the dances weren’t at all festive. The “Brâul (Sash Dance): Allegro” was rather poignant, despite its nimble pace, and the “Pê-loc (Stamping Dance): Andante” was actually bleak. Even the gorgeous “Buciumeana (Hornpipe Dance): Moderato” had a forlorn fiddler-on-the-roof sadness to it. Otherwise, what was surprising was the extent that all these arrangements by Arthur Willner were miniature violin concertos, here featuring concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, who was especially impressive high up in the treble of the “Stamping Dance.”

A nice array of winds and brass – including principals Victor Wang on flute, French hornist Byron Johns, and trumpeter Alex Wilborn – joined the strings onstage as Marsalis made his first appearance. Beginning with “quarter note = 66,” the movement markings in Schulhoff’s concerto for alto saxophone were deceptively fussy and clinical, for the heat of the Hot-Sonate came from jazz, just emerging from its raucous childhood when this suite was composed in 1930. Originally written for sax and piano, the arrangement by Harry Kinross White is most beguiling in its bluesy third movement, where the horns added an astringent accompaniment. Quaintly described by the composer “lamentuoso ma molto grottesco (plaintive, but very grotesque),” this “quarter note = 80” movement delivered the deepest jazz flavor, and I could easily imagine Johnny Hodges, on leave from Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, playing its premiere. Unfortunately, Schulhoff’s idea of the grotesque was no more edgy than his grasp of the alto saxophone’s capabilities. Despite the undeniable appeal of the music, Marsalis wasn’t really tested by the demands of Hot-Sonate.

Gershwin’s Lullaby, not jazzy at all, was a perfect palate cleanser between the two Marsalis stints. The strings wafted a tropical lightness that had a “Catch a Falling Star” lilt and laziness. Little showcases were set aside for the string section leaders, most notably Lupanu and cellist Alan Black, and the piece ended deliciously in bubbly geniality, with rounds of delicate pizzicatos. Absent during the Gershwin, horns and winds reasserted themselves forcefully in the Concertino da camera, originally scored by Ibert for 12 instruments, including the soloist, with only five string players. Marsalis was noticeably more tasked now, from the opening Allegro con moto movement onwards: more speed, more range, more complexity, and more technique were required from him, while the vibrant accompaniment offered more distractions. There’s actually some percussion from the strings amid this opening movement, but I was so focused on Marsalis and his unmasked accompanists that I didn’t notice which string players were tapping their bows.

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An achingly lovely, oboe-like lament by Marsalis began the Larghetto section, with the strings gradually creeping in ever-so-stealthily behind him. Extra strings, 22 in all, were a definite asset here as the music swelled. Wang’s flute and Wilborn’s trumpet had the most impact behind Marsalis as we cheerfully swung into the concluding Animato. Though often labeled as separate movements on CDs (including Branford’s recording with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2000), this concluding Larghetto-Animato was in itself like a three-movement concerto, for Marsalis drew a second cadenza between orchestral bursts that was far more demanding than anything he had played so far, nearly requiring circular breathing to execute its cascading, fleet-fingered runs. The audience was keenly attuned to the saxophonist’s virtuosity, for they gave him a lusty standing ovation when he was done, a judicious upgrade from the warm applause showered on the Schulhoff.

A wonderful evening, all in all, and a giant step back to normality.

Chang and Yang Offer a Rousing Ladies’ Night Before Mother’s Day

Review: Celebration of Amy Beach and Florence Price

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Surely there couldn’t be a more natural concept than having two women instrumentalists sharing a concert stage and playing works by two female composers on Mother’s Day weekend. Or we can certainly hope that view will continue to prevail when we are past COVID-19, now that #MeToo has swept the nation, now that Black Lives Matter is opening the way to reconsidering African-American composers, and now that Trumpism is on the wane. Right now, I think we must admit, this oh-so-natural concept, brought to life on the UNC Department of Music’s YouTube channel by pianist Clara Yang and violinist Sunmi Chang, still felt rather refreshing and innovative. The duo showcased two pieces by Amy Beach, one of them excerpted from her epic Violin Sonata, plus a welcome reclamation from Florence Price, the African-American composer’s Fantasie No. 1 in G Minor.

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The 30-minute stream was impeccably recorded at two locations with an imaginative video mix layered on in post-production. Just to disabuse us of the notion that all this wizardry was happening live – and maybe to add some glam – the ladies changed costumes between each of the pieces. Nor was there much of a letup before the evening’s encore, William Bolcom’s “Graceful Ghost Rag.” It was rather charming, in fact, to see Chang going casual and sporting a tee shirt, ponytail, and jeans to underscore the bluesy informality of this segment, while the video mixers had some fun of their own, tossing in some funky effects, including a foray into artsy black-and-white.

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Compared with traditional chamber music programs staged in concert halls – or even those convened in the parlors of wealthy patrons – this offering had the claustrophobic TikTok feel we have grown familiar with during the pandemic. No view of Yang included all of her piano, and as the more mobile Chang moved from an austere bare wall for the Sonata to a furnished room for the Romance, her visible stage was barely as wide as her mantelpiece, slightly expanded after Chang introduced us to Price. Viewers will be able to see the earbuds sprouting from the ladies’ ears as they performed, but whether they were in any proximity with each other for their “remote collaborations” remains cloaked in mystery. Both of the Beach pieces began with piano intros, so synchronization was relatively easy to achieve. Price’s Fantasie, however, required instant alignment between the musicians, visually cued, which may be why there was a wee tablet (or a very large cellphone) perched next to Yang’s score on her piano.

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Introducing Beach and her works, Yang readily admitted that the logistics of these collaborations had been challenging, but there was no strain evident as she played the lyrical intro to the Allegro moderato opening movement. Although the distributor of these UNC webcasts is YouTube and not Sony, the sonic quality when Chang layered on in the treble was on a par with any of the half dozen studio recordings you can readily hunt down on Spotify, possibly eclipsed only by the Chandos recording with Tasmin Little teaming with pianist John Lenehan. The challenges facing UNC’s duo inhibited the kind of fluid synergy captured by Chandos, but Yang triggered plenty turbulence and drama from Chang, and the video editing underscores the dialogue between the two musicians in the refrain that partitions Beach’s structure.

Actually, there was marvelous ebb and flow as the repeated refrains dominated by Yang gave way to more and more turbulence each time the focus switched back to Chang’s violin. Perhaps the more obvious choice for sampling the grandeur of Beach’s Violin Sonata would have been the concluding Allegro con fuoco with its rousing final rush, but the opening movement is lengthier, and the women ably advocated the ethereal virtue of the Allegro moderato’s serene final bars. I’d gladly listen to this duo in a performance of the full Sonata, especially if it were boosted by the electricity of a live concert with all of us in the same hall.

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While the changes in attire and location for Chang chimed well with the more luxuriant lyricism of Beach’s Romance, this piece also plunged into turbulence in response to Yang’s eloquence at the keyboard. Beautiful ebb-and-flow was evident once again in the duo’s sculpting of this piece, both Chang and Yang tethering their crescendos and decrescendos to the intensity or tenderness of the moment, ending with a more soaring sublimity than we had heard in the Sonata. Apparently, multiple takes went into this segment of the video. How else can we explain a fade-dissolve from pianist Yang to… pianist Yang? Yet the audio seemed to flow seamlessly, a feat not quite replicated at the outset of Price’s Fantasie, after Chang gave us an impressive spoken intro and an even more impressive cadenza.

Was that merely an awkward fade after the duo veered into an outburst of folksy merriment – or was that an edit? While the web reliably confirms Price’s 1933 crowd-pleaser and the cover page of the sheet music, there is no confirmation that this piece has ever had a studio recording. All three of the YouTube listings have been logged in since last March, the majority by masked musicians, so when Chang told us in her intro that the piece was new to the duo, she was speaking for the rest of us. Total number of views has yet to reach four thousand, and only Dawn Posey’s recording with pianist Jack Kurutz (618 views) is truly a worthy rival to the new Chang-Yang offering in sound quality and artistry. As Chang rightly observed, Fantasy No. 1 in G Minor is a beautiful mix of classical tradition and African-American folk heritage, and we can see that the criminal neglect of this composer is only now beginning to be rectified. There’s obviously a long way to go as the piddling YouTube roster of videos attests, for a black violinist or pianist has yet to check in with this piece.

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That would also be a natural concept. In the meanwhile, kudos to the ladies for their inclusiveness in holding a place open for Bolcom’s piece in signing off, a courtesy that I’ve never seen extended by male performers to a female composer. “Graceful Ghost” appears in numerous forms, including for solo piano, four-hands piano, and string quartet. Chang’s genial performance, wresting dominance from the piano, hasn’t been equaled yet by any that I’ve auditioned on Spotify. There are 35, so I’m not done. I’d resist the lure of Gil Shaham’s star quality if you’re interested in samples of this work, for he perversely ignores Bolcom’s injunction against letting the moderate tempo drag, giving us a singularly lugubrious and listless “Ghost.” Chang’s bouncy take was far more preferable, a very enjoyable way to end a concert that left me wishing for much, much more.

Despite Benched Clarinets, Charlotte Symphony Shines in Mozart and Handel

Review: Mozart’s Great G Minor Symphony at Belk Theater

By Perry Tannenbaum

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April 24, 2021, Charlotte, NC – Exactly one year after I last saw the Charlotte Symphony in live performance at Belk Theater, the Orchestra returned to that same stage with music director Christopher Warren-Green at the podium. Much had changed. String players were all masked in the midst of the ongoing pandemic – and socially distanced, reducing their number to 22. Performing with the Symphony strings for the first time in a year, seven wind players were spread out across the upstage, socially distanced from one another, even more distanced from the strings, and slightly elevated above them.

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Apparently, the spread left no room for the two clarinets that Mozart added to his revised version of Symphony No. 40, so originalism was forced to prevail. The most heartbreaking austerity, however, was the continued absence of an audience, myself included. Keeping Mozart under wraps for seven Saturdays, along with Handel’s “Entrance of the Queen of Sheba,” Symphony did not stream their March 6 concert until this past weekend.

That seemed more than ample time to perfect the audio and engineering for prime time, but when I screened the concert on Saturday on my desktop computer, feeding the audio to my estimable home theater setup, my audiophile sensibilities were appalled by the missing clarity, definition, transparency, and stereo imaging that emerged from my loudspeakers. Hoping for an enhanced experience, I switched to the YouTube version and streamed the concert through the same sound system on Chromecast.

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The difference was decisive. All the sounds blossomed and fell into place. It was emotional for me just to see principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and principal English hornist Terry Maskin returning to action on Saturday night after their long absence, playing prominent roles almost from the opening measures as they personified the Queen of Sheba while the strings represented King Solomon and his court. But I needed the YouTube version to discern Maskin layering onto Ulaky with a second oboe and to fully savor the beauty of their duets.

“Entrance of the Queen of Sheba” might seem to demand a solemn, stately tempo to evoke the arrival of a monarch bearing gifts and questions, but Warren-Green took the music from Act 3 of Solomon – a biblical oratorio that should be performed more often in full, like Handel’s Saul, Joshua, and Deborah – at a brisk pace that infused the occasion with merriment and excitement. I’ve heard performances that were even swifter, but the pace that Warren-Green chose allowed the interpolations of the twin winds to sound relatively reposeful. Any worry that the Queen would become unduly effeminate was silenced by the presence of flutist Erinn Frechette, who remained stolidly masked as she sat beside the oboists. The bustle of the strings, answering the oboes, was beautifully blithe and textured, the first violins securely on the left side of the YouTube sound image.

Under normal circumstances, we would have presumably seen the two clarinets onstage that Mozart added with his afterthoughts, but I wonder how many more Charlotte Symphony string players would have been deployed. The balance between the winds and the strings was noticeably tilted toward the upstage winds, particularly in the slow Andante movement that follows the familiar Molto allegro that engraves this masterwork in our memories. Throbbing just a little more prominently in the background, the bassoons and French horns supplied the forlorn music with its pulse. In the Menuetto, where martial urgency battled against leisurely elegance in triple meter, Frechette joined with the oboes for the final bars in delivering the unexpected victory to elegance. Far from distressing me, these new emphases consistently brought delight.

Again, I needed the YouTube stream in the finely judged Molto allegro to fully perceive the separation between the sections and fully appreciate the silkiness of the strings where they needed to glide – and their crispness each time they needed to make a point. Midway through this opening movement, the orchestra masterfully executed the intricate quasi-fugal layering of Mozart’s main theme as various sections juggled it and took turns seizing our attention. Frechette and Ulaky were the most eloquent voices in the beguiling dialogue between strings and winds in the Andante, where Warren-Green built the lurking turbulence to the brink of an outcry, granting it the power of insistence before the delicacy and transparency of the strings reclaimed dominance.

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In his personable introductory remarks, resident conductor Christopher James Lees earmarked the Menuetto rather than the outer movements as the spot where Mozart anticipated the glories of Beethoven, still a teenager when the “Great G Minor Symphony” was written in 1788 – but it didn’t sound as if Warren-Green and his ensemble had gotten the memo. Maybe more strings would have helped Lees’ words to ring more true, for the battle waged in this movement for rhythmic supremacy remained effective without bursting Mozart’s parlor.

The concluding Allegro assai was where restraint was most emphatically tossed aside, clearing the path for turbulence to occasionally prevail. While principals from the violin and cello sections weren’t in their customary chairs, musicians who moved up in rank to replace them and their absent peers breezed through the busiest passages of this symphony with the same poise as they had shown in less finger-busting episodes. Tempos charged ahead with thrilling momentum. Here the flute was more consonant with the strings, allowing the oboes and bassoons playing against the grain to stand out prominently.

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Camera work from four different locations was as capable as the sound engineering, especially perceptive when the French horns, principal Byron Johns and Andrew Fierova, drew the spotlight. This 45-minute concert continues streaming through May 1, a tantalizing foretaste of that delicious moment when a real audience will reward Symphony with the real applause it so richly deserves. Mark your calendar for May 14 if you wish to be in the room where it happens, when Branford Marsalis will join the orchestra to play Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera.

Ehnes and Weiss Deliver a Full-Length, High-Energy Concert – and a Memorable World Premiere

Review: Duke Performances’ The Show Must Go Online series

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Broadway has been closed down for nearly a year, opera remains in hibernation, while symphony and chamber concerts have slimmed down and gone virtual. Local theatre works, when they aren’t masked or outdoors, have diminished to Zoom or Skype proportions, modest in length and ambition. The preeminent pre-pandemic buzzwords, premiere and debut, when they’re used at all, are now applied by publicists to hurriedly-produced series of webcasts rather to performers or works.

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How refreshing, then, to come upon the latest installment in Duke Performances’ The Show Must Go Online series, which sported the Duke debut of two-time Grammy Award-winning violinist James Ehnes and the world premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Sonatine for Violin and Piano. After acknowledging in his opening remarks that Duke Performances was “trying to celebrate its 75th anniversary,” Chamber Arts Society of Durham director George Copen proclaimed that the Kernis piece would formally premiere “this very hour.” That’s about as precise as you can be on a webcast that remains continuously accessible to ticket holders for three days.

Fleshed out with additional sonatas by Schubert, Prokofiev, and Saint-Saëns, the video stretched out for over 90 minutes, almost epic for a webcast. There was no intermission, of course, and the estimable Orion Weiss, no stranger to Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium, was at the keyboard. Weiss remained in the background during Ehnes’s intros, but as soon as the duo launched into Schubert’s Sonata in G Minor, it was clear that he was a full partner in the musical collaboration. There were extended passages in the opening Allegro giusto when Ehnes was quietly sawing away while Weiss merrily carried the main load. Conversely, when Ehnes had the lead, Weiss was churning away behind him, probably more challenged in his backup chores. A syncopated three-note phrase that the men played together at the outset was the only turbulence on the otherwise placid flow of the movement, recurring intermittently along the way and reprised emphatically to crisply close out.

An early work written at the age of 19 but only published after Schubert’s death, when the composer had left us far mightier works, this sonata and two others written even earlier were called Sonatinas when they were originally published – and Jascha Heifetz hasn’t been alone in retaining that title in recordings. But Schubert comes through in the Andante as the imaginative melodicist we associate with his maturity, and it was pleasurable watching Ehnes and Weiss as they took turns embracing the enchanting lyricism. The ensuing Menuetto: Allegro vivace proved to be the shortest and swiftest movement. Yet this little movement, despite its sonatina scale, developed a pair of themes and delivered some of the most rugged moments overall. Three thumping chords introduced the final Allegro moderato, like an invitation to dance, and the celebration slowed down for romantic episodes a couple of times, swept aside by the prevailing party spirit.

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Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D was originally written for flute and piano in 1943, but violinist David Oistrakh was so enamored with the piece that he had the composer adapt it for violin, with extra trimmings (double bowing and harmonics), by the following year when he premiered it. Having already recorded the piece twice with different pianists, Ehnes probably didn’t need to say that he preferred the violin version, but the declaration certainly raised my expectations, since I’ve loved the piece ever since the vinyl recording by Jean-Pierre Rampal with Alfred Holeček became one of that great flutist’s first albums to grace my collection. In recent years, I’ve acquired two Oistrakh recordings of the piece as well. Ehnes didn’t fall short of any of those recordings, so I can only envy those who might hear this piece for the first time in his performance. On violin, the opening Moderato is more tender with more pent-up passion in the agitated passages; on flute, the music is more soaring, soulful, and serene.

Thrilling, exuberant, and frantic as it was, Ehnes’s bravura on the ensuing Presto did not bear out the violinist’s claim that Oistrakh had called for a brisker tempo than you would hear on flute. Some of the recordings I’ve tracked down on Spotify present this Scherzo as an Allegretto, to be sure, but the label on Rampal’s vinyl has said Presto for upwards of a half century. It wasn’t just a madcap romp in Ehnes’s hands, for there are tender moments amid the frenzy with wicked interjections, and Weiss was also very impressive here, responding assertively right up to the movement’s abrupt conclusion. Ehnes showcased the extra tenderness of this violin version most emphatically in the lovely Andante, dramatically tamping down the pulse of the piece and finding sensuous allure in the sinuous melody. The concluding Allegro con brio was brimful of triumphal zest, bursting with energy and virtuosity. Even the contemplative second theme built to a proud passion.

The diminutive suffix for Kernis’s Sonatine, Ehnes revealed, came from the composer’s mischievous determination to rhyme his title with his daughter’s name, Delphine. As the kaleidoscopic markings of the opening movement prove – including Oracle, Larkspur, and Delphinium – the composer was keenly aware of the geographic, mythic, and botanical associations with that name. Additional markings in that movement, Cetacea and Dolphinic Syncopation, hint at the probability that the girl has acquired an aquatic nickname at home or in the schoolyard. Although there is a Delicato embedded among the tempo markings, “Oracle” is anything but delicate – or feminine – at the outset, moving from fury to foreboding with enough energy to fray the horsehair on Ehnes’s bow. An ominous, somewhat uncomfortable lullaby followed a complete stop. Eventually, we circled back to tempestuous drama, capped with a vicious pizzicato.

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The middle movement, “Shaded Blue,” was intimate, personal, and once again allusive. Taking his cue from Delphine’s tendency to dye her hair blue, Kernis gave this slow movement a sad opening, lightly textured with the blues. Some of the slower, quieter passages were downright eerie and despondent, building to anguished shrieks before descending to another depression that distilled into a long, sustained harmonic note – almost as memorable an ending as the pizzicato had been. Once again, the concluding movement’s title had personal and musical connotations. “Catch That Train!” recalls the composer’s anxiety the first time he and his wife allowed Delphine and her twin brother to ride the New York subway by themselves – using the kind of train rhythms common to bluegrass and boogie-woogie. Of course, it was Weiss at the keyboard who was most propulsive in taking the musical train from a standstill to full steam. But if Weiss was the rhythm of the rails, then Ehnes was surely the train whistle, with wailing double bowing and fadeaway glissandos. Ehnes also drew a hefty share of the rhythm, fiddling furiously at times in bluegrass mode and even strumming for a while and producing a hollow banjo sound. No, Kernis’s “Train” wasn’t the most New York in spirit, but it was definitely rousing and entertaining.

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For their closer, Ehnes and Weiss presented the most often recorded piece on their program, Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, ruefully nicknamed “The Hippogriff Sonata” by the composer when a mere human violinist couldn’t cope with its technical challenges at the 1885 premiere. A special alertness is necessary to review the piece, for two of the three divisions between movements occur without a pause. Ehnes and Heifetz are among the heavyweights who have tackled the “Hippogriff” in the recording studio, a roster that also includes Sarah Chang, Gil Shaham, Pinchas Zukerman, and Salvatore Accardo. Listening to the Ehnes recording with Wendy Chen in the wake of this explosive performance, I found that Weiss was an edgier partner, drawing more snap and ferocity from Ehnes, making for more excitement in the majestic Allegro agitato. After that opening, Weiss subordinated himself more than Chen did in the Adagio, mixing more of an accompanist’s role into his reading, where Chen maintained more autonomy.

Chen’s approach yielded sweeter, happier results in the pivotal Allegretto moderato, whereas Weiss was more impish, moody, and modern. Rounding into the beehive buzz of the Allegro molto finale, Weiss offered more puckish punctuation amid Ehnes’s awesome cascade, working into a more feverish mode when the violin began floating above in more of a legato. There was more intricacy to the interplay in the middle of this movement as Weiss and Ehnes handed over dominance to each other. Then the ending built and built and built, each flurry from Ehnes delivered with more fire and fury than the last, Weiss prodding him on with more intensity, quicker pace, to a final explosion.

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To be sure, the audio engineering by Christopher Scully-Thurston captured the sound of this concert with studio-level clarity; and filming by John Laww and Saleem Rehsamwala, edited by Rehsamwala, was beautifully conceived, varied but never gimmicky. What was perhaps most memorable and encouraging, however, was that Kernis proved he belonged in this company of titans as much as Ehnes and Weiss. Another Grammy nomination likely awaits the Kernis-Ehnes team when a recording is released.

On Your Toes for a Lively Mix of Mozart, Meyer, and Wirén

Review: Burgeoning optimism could be found in Symphony’s most recent Mozart + Wirén concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Unless a fourth wave of COVID-19 takes us by surprise and the 2020-21 season has to be “reimagined” yet again, Charlotte Symphony seems to be moving slowly, cautiously back towards full-sized concerts with their entire orchestra. Later this month, principal harpist Andrea Mumm will be reunited with the string players, taking a lead role in Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane, and next month, we can look forward to Mozart’s beloved Symphony No. 40, presumably with a full complement of woodwinds. As I sit down to write, Haydn’s Symphony No. 64 has been announced for May, bringing us oboes and horns. Meanwhile a fresh series of five outdoor concerts has been scheduled this spring at the NoDa Brewing Company, all on Tuesdays, with a discreet 7:00pm starting time, improving our chances of keeping warm.

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Another harbinger of spring and burgeoning optimism could be found in Symphony’s most recent Mozart + Wirén concert. Back in February at the Holst + Elgar concert, only Holst’s St. Paul Suite was lively and sunny enough to get musical director Christopher Warren-Green jumping up and down on the podium. Check out the webcast of the Mozart + Wirén program, still replaying online, and you’ll find that both of these composers had the same effect, Mozart with his Divertimento for Strings in D major and Swedish composer Dag Wirén with his Serenade for Strings. In between these two, Warren-Green offered the Charlotte premiere of Jessica Meyer’s Slow Burn, a piece originally devised two years ago to accompany a burlesque dancer in Saratoga. Jumping was probably not the proper response.

Mozart wrote no fewer than five Divertmenti in D Major, so it’s necessary to add that this was the earliest, K. 136, written at the age of 16 – or that it’s the one Divertimento that Yehudi Menuhin recorded in his Mozart collection for Virgin Classics, leading the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne. The youthful energy of the piece burst immediately upon us in the opening Allegro, with churning propulsion from the lower strings and lithe buoyancy from the violins and violas. Dynamics undulated with the floating grace of a glider as the steady churning continued below in rhythmic waves. The sound of the Knight Theater space added the faintest echo, and the airiness of the sound recording was close to the standard set for this piece by the Seiji Ozawa recording of 1994.

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Coming after this sunny effervescence, the middle Andante was so sweet and nostalgic, reminding me of one of the first Mozart pieces I was able to master on the piano more than 60 years ago. Lovely as it is, it was the only one of the three movements that could be imagined as royal background music, which is how a divertimento is normally regarded – and what resident conductor Christopher James Lees warned us against expecting in his introductory remarks. Attcked by the strings with at least as much zest as the Allegro, the closing Presto commanded attention, six staccato notes followed by the kind of explosive ignition we associate with Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which Symphony performed just a month ago. Along with the exciting flux of dynamics, there were also zigs and zags of tempo navigated by Warren-Green, layers of repetition from the three main string sections overlapping one another. The ensemble surpassed themselves with their legerity and clarity in long, swift sweeps of melody.

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Slow or not, Meyer’s dancer evidently preferred to ply her trade in a steady 4/4 time as the piece began, with suggestive gestures from principal violist Benjamin Geller, principal second violin Oliver Kot, and concertmaster Calin Lupanu. Action halted before these solo voices – and after slaps on the double basses that sounded like whip cracks. Resuming the Burn, the music slid into swooning glissandos that allowed the dancer to surrender as much as her audience. Urgency and fury crept in as the tempo accelerated with frequent slaps on the basses, alternating with jazzy pizzicatos. The next halt gave way to a longer statement from Geller on viola that triggered a more frantic acceleration from the orchestra than before, this final gallop prodded by a constant cracking on the necks and sides of the two basses. What a dancer would do at this climax was enticing to imagine. Certainly it would be more like a flamenco flowering than a bump and grind.

Wirén had never crossed my radar before this Charlotte Symphony debut. He merits only a brief paragraph in my two music cyclopedias and only three entries in my last copy of the Penguin Guide, which did declare Wirén’s Serenade of 1937 to have been his greatest international hit. Apple Music is a better place than Spotify to hunt for it, but Symphony’s account was as exemplary as its previous two performances. Lees peeped in for another intro, describing the piece as a blend Mozart lightness and 1930s Paris, where Wirén studied composition. With long sweeping melodic phrases from the violins conveying Mozartian lightness, the opening Preludium had the urban bustle of Gershwin’s Paris – or the Londons evoked by Eric Coates and Noël Coward – and Symphony was not at all tentative about zooming into the cityscape. The cellos and double basses actually injected a heavy, foreboding undertow at times, as if a spot of rain were on the way or the specter of a traffic jam.

The rustic quality presaged by Lees in his intro was further delayed by the Andante espressivo, which began softly with pizzicatos spanning the Knight stage followed by an outbreak of melancholy from the second violins. First violins only intensified the poignancy when they layered on with their bowing, taking us further into solemnity and coloring it faintly with regret. A second round of pizzicatos from the lower strings led into deeper keening from the violas, intensified by another onset of the violins. Cellos blended with violins before a concluding pizzicato hush. The ensuing Scherzo was where Wirén finally fulfilled Lees’ rustic description, though I’d have to guess that the composer had Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony closer to heart than anything Mozart wrote, and a few notes struck up by the second violins had a kinship with “Willow Weep for Me,” written five years earlier by Ann Ronell and dedicated to Gershwin. Amid the hairpin turns of this impetuous movement, interspersed with the laughter of the violins, the cellos took over briefly with their sobriety.

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With violas, cellos, and basses beating their bows on their strings, the beat of the final grand march began, reminding me most vividly of Coates’s British pomp. But here we swerved dramatically, slowing down for our first genuine B section of the evening before circling back to the forceful main theme. This Marcía is the movement that is most excerpted from this most popular Wirén work, and there’s nothing subtle about its appeal. Little strums from the basses thicken its pulse and there are moments when the beat is so strong that you could suspect a drum or two lurking somewhere offstage. Its giddy spirit had Warren-Green on his toes, waving his arms with the sweep of it all, and ultimately jumping. For joy, no doubt.

All-English Symphony Program Moves from Wintry Dreariness to Triumphant Jollity

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Holst + Elgar

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Assailed by the ongoing pandemic, the postponement of vaccinations, and a midwinter cold snap, we must be contented when we receive short rations of Edward Elgar without pomp or percussion and William Walton’s Henry V without winds or brass. In fact, since Charlotte Symphony music director Christopher Warren-Green often shuttles back and forth across the Atlantic to lead our Queen City orchestra and the London Chamber Orchestra, we’re rather fortunate just to have him on the podium at Knight Theater conducting an all-English program. Traveling by air between the UK and the US has become uncertain in recent months, due to the mutating coronavirus, and restrictions pushed Symphony’s Holst + Elgar offering from January 23 into February. Electricity can also be capricious when the Arctic is riled: Texas is merely the most notorious state plagued by power outages this month, not the only one.

We’ve heard more than a couple of Serenades since Symphony returned, string players only, reconfiguring its 2020-21 season and fine tuning on-the-fly. Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor was certainly not the peppiest or the most sweeping of the breed, but Warren-Green, stressing the harmonic blend of the piece instead of its rhythmic flow, gave us a drearier reading than I would have hoped for, particularly in the first two movements, a tranquil and dreamy Allegro piacevole followed by a sleepier Larghetto. Only in the concluding Allegretto did Warren-Green abandon extreme delicacy and pick up his baton. Only now did the orchestra’s energy compare with the more light-hearted Sir Roger Norrington recording of the piece. Here there was more melodic dialogue between the upper and lower strings, more satisfying swells in the sway of the dynamics.

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Although Walton’s Two Pieces for Strings from Henry V have been paired on commercial recordings, they are hardly a representative foretaste of the full musical score written for the 1945 film starring – and directed by – Laurence Olivier. Elsewhere in the score, in places such as the “Charge and Battle” and the “Agincourt Song” collected in more extensive suites, Warren-Green could parade Symphony’s winds, brass, and percussion. Mightily. “Death of Falstaff” and “Touch Her Soft Lips and Part” are soft, brief, and fragile flowers compared to those sturdy oaks, yet they were more affecting than the Elgar pieces. The Passacaglia for Sir John was quiet and grave, almost but not quite a dirge, and the “Soft Lips” was tenderly suffused with pure and chaste ardor, tinged with the sorrow of soldiers’ farewells. Count me as enthusiastically supportive if Warren-Green opts to program a fuller representation of this Henry V score when he can bring the full Symphony to the task.

If we longed for music that quietly reflected our mood during these cold, gray, homebound winter days and nights, then these Elgar and Walton works more than fulfilled their mission, but if it was uplift that we sought, then Gustav Holst’s St Paul’s Suite in C Major was a perfect tonic. Warren-Green’s anecdote about meeting Olivier and Walton after a performance of the Henry pieces was by far the most appealing of his intros. Warren-Green had been onstage as the concertmaster that night, and the actor and the composer had vied ridiculously with each other at the post-performance reception to be more modest about his contribution to that celebrated film. Yet the insight into Holst, when Warren-Green visited the St. Paul’s Girls School in London, was also fascinating. Holst taught at the school, eventually becoming its music director, and a soundproof room was built specially for him at the school where he composed his most famous work, The Planets, as well as this more modest suite.

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To be honest, St. Paul’s sounds more like it was written in the middle of the girls’ playground on a bright sunny spring morning with the children running and squealing in all directions around the composer, especially in the effervescent outer movements. Amid the lively opening Vivace, ebulliently labeled as a Jig, it was inspiring to see Warren-Green jumping up and down on the podium again, excitedly gesticulating after maintaining his British dignity for these many months. The liveliness spread across the Knight stage, and I strongly suspect that the masked faces of the Symphony musicians were smiling. Even the middle movements had a youthful élan. The second movement was a quiet Ostinato at a Presto pace, with concertmaster Calin Lupanu floating a melody over the subdued churning of the upper strings and pizzicatos from the cellos. Lupanu’s soloing resumed in the Intermezzo, where we slowed to Andante con moto and principal violist Benjamin Geller took a couple of turns in the solo spotlight. Here again, a Vivace interlude abruptly shed its orchestral sunlight before we reverted to a slower tempo, ending with a sedate string quartet led by Lupanu.

Jollity reigned when we arrived at Holst’s Finale, an Allegro that riffs on an English folk tune, “The Dargason,” sounding even merrier than the opening Jig, and certainly more familiar. Holst further enhanced the merriment and complexity of his composition by giving the cellos the undercover assignment of introducing the ancient melody of “Greensleeves” under the main theme. No problem if you missed “Greensleeves” while it was part of the cellos’ stealth operation, because it became gloriously dominant when it was reprised. The infectious “Dargason” was not to be suppressed for long, interweaving so well with “Greensleeves,” and Lupanu had one more tasty little cadenza before the full string orchestra pounced on the final fortissimo chords.

Zuill Bailey and Natasha Paremski Bring Scintillating Rachmaninoff to Meymandi

Review: Zuill Bailey and Natasha Paremski in Raleigh

By Perry Tannenbaum

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As audience members, performing artists and critics, we talk or write about how much we miss the communal ritual – and electric excitement – of gathering for live concert and theatrical events. So it was gratifying to see North Carolina Symphony, in its latest virtual concert, making an effort to replicate the experience of walking into Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall and anticipating the outpouring of music from skilled virtuosos. Before Symphony oboist Joseph Peters greeted us as our host, nighttime views of the Duke Energy Center, the ticket booth, the Meymandi lobby, and stairways leading to the Hall flashed on the screen over the muffled sounds of an small group of musicians tuning up. Seeing those images and hearing those sounds made me feel afresh how much I missed the real live occasions that COVID has taken from us.

In calling upon cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Natasha Paremski for a second time this season as guest artists, after headlining a streamed “Trout Quintet” in October, NCS was more emphatically underscoring the link between their current Streaming Series and their past history. Bailey and Paremski have guested with NCS and musical director Grant Llewelyn before, most notably in their chart-topping 2014 CD that paired Benjamin Britten’s Cello Symphony and his Cello Sonata, recorded live at Meymandi. Back in the days when Simone Dinnerstein was his chamber music partner, I saw the previous Bailey duo up in New York at Le Poisson Rouge, a unique nightclub setting, in an all-Beethoven program, celebrating the 2009 release of their Telarc set of the complete Beethoven works for cello and piano. This time, teaming up with Paremski and NCS assistant concertmaster Karen Strittmatter Galvin, Bailey brought an all-Rachmaninoff program to the Woolner Stage.

2020~Zuill and Natasha-03A full-length concert of Rachmaninoff chamber works with this trio would have been a handsome representation of all the Russian’s significant chamber-sized compositions, for he pretty much abandoned the salon – for larger orchestral works – after publishing his Cello Sonata in 1901. Vocalise, a song written in 1912, has been adapted for cello and piano (with many extant recordings to choose from), so that could have been comfortably wedged into this program. Trio élégiaque, written in memory of Tchaikovsky after his sudden death in 1893, was a more understandable omission. That mighty three-movement trio in D Minor, up to 40 minutes in length, was shelved for another night. We contented ourselves with the earlier Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G Minor, inspired by Tchaikovsky and his Piano Trio in A Minor, which solemnized the death of Nikolay Rubinstein in 1881.

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Though both “élégiaque” trios were written before Rachmaninoff turned 21, neither can be classified as derivative or apprentice work. The famous Rachmaninoff pianism was readily apparent as soon as Paremski entered, layering onto a primordial quaver on the cello, begun by Bailey on the open strings. Four notes embedded in the four-chord piano opening built into a melody in Paremski’s hands, coalescing as Bailey zeroed in on the theme, making it instantly memorable. Galvin echoed the theme in Bailey’s wake, not the most enviable task, and then she supplanted the cellist as the main ostinato when Paremski reasserted herself at the keyboard. It was only when she followed Paremski, ascending forcefully into the treble for the first time, that Galvin proved she belonged in this elite company.

All three players converged on the first climax of this trio. Each of these swells was followed by a becalmed episode from Paremski, right after she had reminded subscribers with her lush knuckle-breaking exploits that she had played the mighty Rachmaninoff Third Concerto with NCS at Meymandi back in February. Bailey countered after these becalmed episodes with a savagery of attack that left a breathtaking impression as he initiated the thrust-and-parry of the trio that culminated in the next swell of convergence. It was in the build-up to the third and final tutti, launched passionately by Bailey and answered by Paremski with a frenzied cascade of treble, that a new peak of amorous heat was achieved. Listening to numerous recordings, I wasn’t able to find anything comparable to either this mutual abandon or this power held in reserve. Where this paid off most handsomely was in the aftermath, where the stately quiet of Paremski’s playing, so much more vividly contrasted to the previous fireworks than any other performance I auditioned, suddenly reminded me that Rachmaninoff had truly aimed for an elegy with his dirge-like ending.

When Galvin sat down with Peters for an intermission chat, she offered some insight into what we he had just witnessed. Apparently, that video was not the trio’s only take. After the first, she revealed, the group decided – without any feedback from the empty hall – that they could do better. So on the second take, they had made their entrances from offstage as if an audience were there awaiting them: “It was though a switch flipped, and we were in performance mode. Even though the chairs were empty, because we have that muscle memory of walking onstage and being ready to perform, all of a sudden it was as if we could feel the audience with us, and we were very much in the headspace of this is a performance for an audience. They may not be physically present, but we can feel them on the other side of the camera.”

Our own memories of live concerts deprived us of another touch the trio had applied in establishing an elegiac atmosphere – coming on with mostly black attire, including black masks. That’s pretty much customary attire for all Symphony concerts. We could only appreciate that solemnity in retrospect as Bailey and Paremski returned for the Rach Cello Sonata. Paremski had changed into a maroon-colored dress while Bailey had discarded his black jacket, previously worn over a black shirt and tie, in favor of a royal blue blazer. They made their entrances masked as before, but both players unmasked as soon as they were seated, allowing us to fully savor their expressiveness.

On the strength of this performance, I would have to conclude that this epic Cello Sonata, longer than any that Chopin or Beethoven wrote, is criminally under-recorded. Aside from Rostropovich in 1960 and Paul Tortelier in 1968, I cannot find a single performance by any of the cello giants until Lynn Harrell teamed with Vladimir Ashkenazy in 1986. Du Pré, Piatigorsky, Fournier, and Casals all passed on the piece, as far as I can tell. Obviously, the barometer of critical esteem has shifted since then, for the beauties of the work have drawn such advocates as Alisa Weilerstein, Gautier Capuçon, Janos Starker, and Yo-Yo Ma. The opening Lento switched quickly to the more prevalent Allegro moderato section of the opening movement, the longest of the piece, and there was an agitated, expectant calm-before-the-storm that gave added electricity to the exciting climax, culminating in a ferociously abrupt ending.

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So help me, the piano vamp that opens the ensuing Allegro scherzando movement has become among Rachmaninoff’s most recognizable melodies for me, yet the melody that Bailey introduced afterwards was unutterably lovely, and the mellower one that followed was almost its equal. Before you knew it, Bailey and Paremski were up in the stratosphere, circling each other in preparation for a thrilling descent into the main theme, grown more restless and turbulent than before. Influenced by Russian Orthodox hymns, the Andante was the only forgettable music of the evening, anticipating later Rachmaninoff melody that we know without ever quite capturing the magic. Bailey was especially effective in advocating for the sublimity of the piece while Paremski was true to the composer’s idiomatic lyricism.

The NCS program booklet, made available online for download, probably offered the most plausible reason for the neglect this piece had suffered for the first 60 years after it was completed: it has been described as “a piano sonata with cello accompaniment.” You only needed to listen to the final, achingly lovely Allegro mosso movement to see how ridiculous such a dismissal was. Paremski began this powerful valedictory, but it was Bailey who introduced the first jubilant theme and then its ruminative successor – with a glittery accompaniment caressing it from the keyboard. Paremski certainly had a role, pounding the keys and delivering a fine monologue that Bailey answered in kind. But when the two combined on the peak of the movement – and the entire Sonata – it was the chords from the piano that gave the stately music its anthemic stamp. Tempo quickened furiously in the gallop that overtook the final brooding lull, leaving us with a jubilant finish.

Bullock Brings Folk and Baroque to St. Alban’s

Review: Robin Bullock Plays Guitar and Mandolin

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Watching Robin Bullock with his guitars and mandolin at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson wasn’t exactly a first – we had reviewed a previous appearance. Nor can we feign surprise that Bullock’s program included selections from Turlough O’Carolan, J.S. Bach, and Stephen Foster. Bach and O’Carolan were fixtures in Bullock’s 2017 Music @ St. Alban’s concert – and that concert concluded with “Oh, Shenandoah,” which the guitarist called “the American folksong.” What made this concert so different, three years later, were the changes necessitated by COVID-19: the reduced size of the audience and the move to online streaming. Yet the similarities with the 2017 concert and Bullock’s relaxed personality were comforting, reminders that all is not lost and people can work, create, and recreate in the teeth of a resurgent pandemic.

Bullock has recorded an entire album of work by the blind 18th century Irish bard, so it was puzzling that he started off his 2020 concert with “Lord Inchiquin,” one of the two O’Carolan pieces he performed in 2017. Played on a Martin steel string guitar, the piece delivered more bite than might have been extracted from a harp, the instrument O’Carolan usually composed for, and it was heartening to hear applause ringing out from the small audience at St. Alban’s. Subsequent outbursts of applause sounded suspiciously identical, but critics tend toward cynicism. More and more, the pretense of live performance is being discarded in streaming presentations, so a fade-dissolve can now replace the tedium of watching a performer switch from one instrument to another, tuning up, and whatnot. We could rejoin the performance after instrument switches without any awkwardness, and Bullock was sufficiently at ease to deliver his intros while tuning. In fact, the last two songs were done in a single continuous take.

Double intros were necessary for both of Bullock’s next two selections. As a preamble to Foster’s “Oh, Susannah,” Bullock told us how folksinger Tom Paxton had advised him to compile an album of American guitar classics – now available at the guitarist’s website and titled, predictably enough, An American Guitar Album. “Susannah,” Bullock then informed us, was Foster’s first hit, published when the lad was 22. Lamentably, Bullock felt no compulsion to play the verses of this classic as Foster had written them, leaving me to wonder where he had misplaced Susannah’s buckwheat cake, the hill she came down, and the weather. Obviously, he was more enamored with the chorus, where he clung closer to the melody, but Bullock wasn’t exactly kind to the lyric. Each time he played the refrain, he added a syllable to “cry” and “Alabama.”

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Switching to mandolin in the blink of an edit, Bullock ventured beyond his CD compilation with the next O’Carolan piece he played, “Carolan’s Concerto,” enhancing the adventure by coupling the harp piece with a movement adapted from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3, Bouree I and II. Bullock’s finger-picking here, fleet and sure, was more sparsely sprinkled with strums and grace notes, yielding a more discernable melody – and a more harp-like sound – than his previous foray on guitar into the Irishman’s work. The seamless transition into the C Major Cello Suite, easily detected by anyone familiar with the great recordings by Pablo Casals or Yo-Yo Ma, further shored up my confidence that he was not straying far from the original compositions.

If the mandolin didn’t sound quite right for the Cello Suite, Bullock was more discerning in his choices of instruments for the movements excerpted from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 1. Again, this was a piece that does not appear on any of the 21 downloads at Bullock’s online store. The are actually four pairs of movements in this B minor Partita, rooted in French dances, namely the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Bouree. Bullock chose the Sarabande and its complementary Double movement. The rich sound crisp articulation of the Martin guitar was key to Bullock’s most satisfying Bach performance on the languid Sarabande, and his Gibson mandolin meshed beautifully with the speedier Double. Obviously, Bullock wasn’t taking his inspiration from the 2017 account of the Double movement by Christian Tetzlaff, who hardly varies the tempos at all. More likely, Bullock took his cue from recordings by Midori or Gidon Kremer, who also hit the accelerator on the Double.

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Favoring one of his custom-made guitars, notable for their wolf paw print insignias on the marker spots along their necks, Bullock now turned to “Westlin Winds,” a tune associated with its Robert Burns lyric. The melody lurked closer to the surface than “Oh, Susannah,” though you couldn’t emerge from the concert knowing either melody unless you had heard it before. Yet the arrangement was quite lovely, soaring up to the treble for some unexpectedly ethereal interpolations after its folksy beginning, probably more woodsy than windy but vividly capturing the autumnal scent of Burns’s lyric.

Having primed us earlier with Foster’s first classic, Bullock left us with “Beautiful Dreamer,” said to be his valedictory song. In his intro, the guitarist spoke of the serenity and acceptance he found in both the melody and the lyric, hinting that it could be construed as a voice from beyond calling to the songwriter, who died at the age of 37, even younger than Burns. While the textual analysis that Bullock offered hits a road hazard when it runs into “queen of my song,” his oral reading of the lyric and his instrumental adoration of the melody were luminous and sublime. There was little ornament here, and the variant chords that Bullock imposed on the melody after his opening chorus added poignancy and a country music flavor – clarifying for me why the slightly cowboy-tinged recording I found on Spotify by Marty Robbins far outshone the more elaborate arrangement sung by Bing Crosby. Especially moving was the beginning of the final chorus, where the guitarist slowed down and hushed to a whisper, as if he might not be able to continue. We’ve had a painful amount of this kind of serenity over the past eight months, and perhaps in that moment, Bullock felt an inrush of solemnity amid the serene.

 

Charlotte Symphony Returns, Stoutly Resisting Escapism

Review:  CSO Livestreams Grieg and Tchaikovsky

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Over the past seven months of an unabated pandemic, I’ve become more and more immersed in reporting on and then reviewing performing arts companies and their responses to COVID-19 as it continues to swallow up the norms of our cultural life. Lately, I’ve become fascinated by what artists think we wish to see and what they wish to say. The balance seems to have tilted toward diverting and amusing us while easing the burden on our fragile attention spans. All of us wish to escape this moment, I’m sure, but ceding the drama in our lives to COVID news bulletins and political campaign rhetoric has seemed like a wan, impoverished response.

Sadly, the toolkits of artists who wish to address the moment – not to mention their monetary resources – have been drained by the necessities of social distancing and shrunken live audience limits. Larger organizations like Charlotte Symphony have had to pivot multiple times as the course of events spun out of control. Indoor concerts had to be cancelled late in the spring, and then outdoor summer events, both previously planned and hastily improvised, also fell by the wayside.

Hence a pivot to virtuality with a new CSO On Demand livestreaming series. It was doubly satisfying to see Christopher Warren-Green and a sizable contingent of his musicians onstage again at the Knight Theater, even if I was watching on a smart TV, for they hadn’t returned merely to serve up some musical pabulum. Edvard Grieg’s From Holberg’s Time and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings both have extended contemplative and elegiac episodes, echoing and commiserating with how we often feel in these mournful times instead of prodding us into forgetting.

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Even before they played, you couldn’t think Symphony was back to normal if you were watching. Winds, brass, and percussion were missing in action, so the stage wasn’t teeming with musicians and instruments. Nearly 40 percent of CSO’s string players were absent from this skeleton crew, spread out and socially-distanced on the Knight stage. Yes, I had expected Warren-Green and his orchestra to be masked, but the sight of them still took me aback, and I didn’t anticipate how different the ensemble would look when no two players shared the same music stand.

Whether it was hygiene, democratic deliberations, or aesthetics, the normal formalities of concert dress codes were relaxed, further emphasizing – or memorializing – that we were not back to normal. All were masked. Women were liberated to wear colored blouses or sweaters. Men wore jackets, but white shirts were not mandatory, and none wore neckties. Even with the purple-and-blue background lighting, the overall look didn’t suggest a triumphant celebration. All of these alterations seemed to color the music, making the opening Praeludium of the Holberg Suite sound braver and less festive. Similarly, I found the ensuing Sarabande more affecting, solemn, and poignant than I will if I revisit this concert at Symphony’s website in 2022.

The scent of springtime was unmistakable from the start of the middle movement Gavotte with hints of jollity in its brisk Allegretto. Nothing short of piercing heartbreak came across in the longest movement of the suite, the Air marked Andante religioso, all the more keenly felt when the music faded to a whisper before the last swell of feeling. Thankfully, concertmaster Calin Lupanu brought us back from this precipice with some truly zestful fiddling in the folksy Rigaudon finale, all of the other strings sustaining the merry Allegro con brio tempo behind him with pizzicatos, until his solo reached its jazzy release.

I don’t have any record of hearing Charlotte Symphony playing the Holberg before, but I own two recordings of the suite, one of which I reviewed in 2009, with Yuri Bashmet leading the Moscow Soloists. One of the things I particularly enjoyed on that CD was how the sound of the 17-member ensemble shuttled between the textured graininess of chamber music and the homogenized sheen of orchestral performance. That same delicious variety was audible in the Knight Theater webcast, particularly when I listened via Bluetooth on my Boston Acoustic loudspeakers via my Yamaha Receiver. Some of that texture Symphony’s 22 players was blurred when I listened through the same audio system via Chromecast, which also produced less delightful definition in the pizzicatos.

That same enhancement via Bluetooth was evident when I replayed the Tchaikovsky Serenade, which also appears on the previously mentioned Bashmet recording. So does Mozart’s famous Serenade No. 13, “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” – and with good reason. Tchaikovsky’s piece was written as an homage to Mozart’s Serenades, quickly finished while he was at work on the 1812 Overture and esteemed by the composer as having more heart and artistic merit than his flashier warhorse. Warren-Green didn’t seem to be aiming for Mozart as his trim orchestra launched into the initial Pezzo in forma di sonatina, which moves from an Andante non troppo tempo to Allegro moderato and back again. The massive sound Warren-Green elicited from his ensemble at the slower tempo evoked Bach more vividly than Mozart, and at the quicker Allegro juncture, the music was like the involuted canons Bach or Beethoven might whip up – or a dizzying 3/4 dance that might adorn one of Tchaikovsky’s own ballets.

2020~CSO Grieg-Tchaikovsky-06

With more of a ballroom ambiance as Warren-Green slowed and accelerated his tempos, the dancing flavor carried over to the Valse, where the cellos heightened the sense of intimacy with their warmth and tenderness. Beginning with a weepy whisper, the penultimate Élégie was the most tragic music of the evening, filled to bursting with bittersweet nostalgia. With pizzicatos handed off from section to section – four violas, four cellos, and two double basses to Warren-Green’s right, and 12 violins to his left – optimum audio reproduction paid especially huge dividends here. The orchestra has notably mastered playing softly under Warren-Green’s tenure, and the ending of the Larghetto was absolutely sublime.

The Tema russo conclusion began at a hushed Andante, hardly distinguishable from the Élégie that had preceded. With the onset of the Allegro con spirito section, we felt the joy and exuberance we had been craving during the middle movement of this Serenade – and realized how much we craved them. Before an even more rousing reprise of this celebration, the cellos ignited a romantic theme – and turbulent episode that built to a climax. A stately melody seemingly materialized out of nowhere, encapsulating all bravery, anguish, and grief that had weighed upon us through the evening before a final celebratory romp. Grimly, we were reminded how much more genuine joy feels after we’ve endured suffering and catharsis. Welcome back, Symphony, I’ve missed such authenticity.