Category Archives: Concert

Zuill Bailey and Natasha Paremski Bring Scintillating Rachmaninoff to Meymandi

Review: Zuill Bailey and Natasha Paremski in Raleigh

By Perry Tannenbaum

2020~Zuill and Natasha-12

 

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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2020~Zuill and Natasha-09

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

2020~Robin Bullock @ St. Alban's-13

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.”

2020~Robin Bullock @ St. Alban's-8

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.

2020~Robin Bullock @ St. Alban's-4

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

 

2020~CSO Grieg-Tchaikovsky-07

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.

2020~CSO Grieg-Tchaikovsky-12

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.

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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.

 

Hope in the Time of COVID Sees Sleeping Beauty Reawakening in December

Review:  The Arts in the Time of COVID

By Perry Tannenbaum

The COVID collapse happened quickly on March 13. “We were hours away from the curtain rising on our all-new Fairy-Tailored Sleeping Beauty when we had to postpone the season,” says Hope Muir, Charlotte Ballet’s artistic director. On the morning before that, Charlotte Symphony’s new director of communications, Deirdre Roddin, met with me to discuss future concert coverage at this publication. But the upcoming Saint-Saëns Organ Concerto concert would soon be postponed, among the first performing arts dominoes to fall to the pandemic in the week that followed – along with an annual Women in Jazz fest at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, the annual Charlotte Jewish Playwriting Contest at the Levine JCC, a chamber music concert at the Bechtler Museum, and Theatre Charlotte’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Tom Gabbard, president and CEO at Blumenthal Performing Arts, last attended a live show on March 11 – in the UK, before he and his wife Vickie returned home and tested positive for COVID-19. The Gabbards quarantined and recovered, but by the day after Ballet’s postponement, Gabbard had announced that all events at all Blumenthal venues were suspended through April 12. Complying with NC Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order suspending all public gatherings of 100 or more people, the Blumenthal directive took all decision making on the Saint-Saëns concert, scheduled for March 20, out of Symphony’s hands. Both of CSO’s primary venues, Belk Theater and Knight Theater, are managed by Blumenthal.

So far, Symphony has had to cancel 49 concerts. “That’s obviously a huge blow to the organization, both artistically and financially,” says Michelle Hamilton, CSO’s interim president and CEO. “The estimated financial impact of these concerts alone is in excess of $1.5 million. This does not include the impact of the pandemic on future concerts and attendance.”

On the revenue side, Opera Carolina wasn’t as seriously damaged as Symphony, losing just one event, an extensively revised version of Douglas Tappin’s I Dream. “The company received support through the Payroll Protection Plan [PPP],” says Opera artistic director, James Meena. “That has allowed us to maintain our staff and redirect funds to our new online series iStream, which has provided employment to our resident company.”

PPP funding has flowed to the most established arts organizations in Charlotte, including Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, Blumenthal Performing Arts, and Charlotte Symphony. “However,” Children’s Theatre artistic director Adam Burke points out, “the PPP was designed to help organizations through what Congress thought was going to be a short-term, 8-week issue.”

Blumenthal drew the largest PPP allotment, $1.7 million, that helped with payroll in May and June. “We avoided furloughs until July 5,” says Gabbard, “when three full-time and 114 part-time team members were furloughed – 105 full-time remain, mostly working from home, with some working in the venues on various maintenance projects. PPP made a big difference.”

What lies ahead for all Charlotte performing arts groups is very murky, subject to weekly health directives from city or state government officials loosening or tightening restrictions. “Opera is dealing with a multitude of challenges,” says Meena, “caused by COVID-19 and now the 43% reduction in ASC [Arts & Science Council] support for the 2020-2021 season. We are evaluating audience concerns for attending performances, and perhaps more dauntingly, health and safety concerns for our performing company.

“Singing is one of the most effective ways to spread the coronavirus. Many church choirs are rehearsing remotely, so imagine a 50-voice opera chorus, principal artists, extras and the more than 30 technicians who normally work on an opera production. Additionally, health and safety concerns for the orchestra musicians (imagine being confined – maybe consigned is a better word – to the orchestra pit where social distancing is all but impossible) are challenges to performing Grand Opera that we have never experienced before.”

All of the companies we’ve mentioned have pivoted to online programming, but all weren’t equally prepared to make the switch. Charlotte Ballet, the first company impacted by the COVID ban on public assembly, was quickest to steer a fresh course. “I had implemented a much more robust structure for archiving and curating digital content over the past three years,” says Muir, “not just performance footage but interviews with artists, designers, collaborators and behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage as well as the documentation of the Choreographic Lab. That commitment, I think, is why we were able to get out of the gate so quickly.”

Raiding their digitized vaults, Ballet was able to present Dispersal online, repackaging the company’s Innovative Works 2019 program with behind-the-scenes footage for a new kind of digital experience on March 27, just two weeks after Sleeping Beauty had been scheduled to premiere. Opera Carolina’s iStream series began in April and is archived on its YouTube channel, while Charlotte Symphony has logged an assortment of live Zoom and pre-recorded material online. For six straight Wednesday evenings, ending on July 29, they streamed a series of Al Fresco chamber music concerts recorded on video in the backyard of principal cellist Alan Black. It’s an avenue that will likely be revisited. Meanwhile, CSO has extensive recorded inventory to call upon, but unlike Charlotte Ballet’s, it is entirely audio, so their outlet of choice has been WDAV 89.9, where past concerts are aired on Friday evenings.

The mass exodus to streaming platforms has been global, creating a glut of available online events that don’t quite measure up to live performances. Charlotte Ballet has responded to this oversaturation by thinking outside the box. “I worked with choreographer Helen Pickett to discuss our options and this resulted in an opportunity for five of our dancers,” says Muir. “Charlotte Ballet joins artists from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Dance Theater of Harlem for part III of a trilogy Helen developed titled Home Studies, which is entirely choreographed and rehearsed via Zoom.”

Other companies are pushing the envelope by reimagining live performance under COVID restrictions. Rehearsing with masks and performing unmasked live at their dance studio, Caroline Calouche & Co. presented two online showings of A Love Show on July 25, charging admission for a ticket link. Theatre Charlotte is trying a more audacious outdoor model, presenting Grand Nights for Singing: The Parking Lot Performances on Friday nights outside their building, limiting audience size to 25, and charging $10 per ticket. Each of two performing singers wields a separate mic, there are no duets, and the audience is expected to provide their own chairs, snacks, and beverages.

“We are most likely not going to be able to perform for an audience in TC until at least December and maybe beyond,” says Ron Law, who was scheduled to retire June 30 but has extended for another season as Theatre Charlotte artistic director – and as President of the Board of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. “We have purchased appropriate video equipment so we can livestream productions. At this time, we are planning on doing performances of What I Did Last Summer by A.R. Gurney that will be livestreamed, with a per household ticket charge, on three dates in September.’

Waiting until June 11 to announce their 2020-21 season, Theatre Charlotte has prudently delayed their musical productions, The Sound of Music and Pippin, until spring 2021 – with understandable contingency plans. For their fall plays, they are tentatively offering their audience the options of live performances or streaming. Children’s Theatre have allowed themselves less wiggle room for 2020-21, eliminating musicals entirely from their slate. Yet their company, with video production a longtime component of their educational offerings, is probably the most adept we have in Charlotte when it comes to hybrid, live-or-streamed presentation skills.

While closing down all public performances at their two ImaginOn theaters, Children’s Theatre was at the tail-end of a 20-week School of Theatre Training programs, which culminates in four fully-produced OnStage presentations, two plays and two musicals. “We decided to move all four productions to a virtual format,” says Burke. “We’ve made other adjustments as well. We started some online educational programming and shifted our June summer camps to virtual experiences. In July we offered students the choice of virtual or in-person camps. We’ve kept close watch on all CDC, state and federal guidelines and have invested in some technologies that help us to maintain safety.”

Like Charlotte Ballet, Children’s has plenty of past performance video on file. They’ve edited these multi-camera shoots and served them up on a series of “Watch Party” webcasts. The new work keeps coming, further underscoring CTC’s technical prowess. “We’ve continued to move forward, as best we can, with the works that are in development including a collaboration with 37 children’s theatres across the country to adapt, as a virtual performance, the book A Kids Book About Racism.” That new piece launched into cyberspace on August 1. Other projects in the pipeline are Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, and a stage adaptation of the award-winning The Night Diary.

On March 12, the day before performing arts in Charlotte abruptly shut down, the town was abuzz in anticipation of Mecklenburg County announcing its first case of COVID-19. A surreal five months later – without any improvement, to be sure – announcements for the 2020-21 season, sensibly stalled in March, are beginning to flow amid a chaotic atmosphere in anticipation of the fall. Once again, Charlotte Ballet is at the vanguard, announcing that the long-delayed premiere of Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy-Tailored Classic will open at Belk Theater on December 10 – replacing the traditional Yuletide presentation of Nutcracker. Makes sense: the trimmed-down Tchaikovsky ballet remains family-friendly with a helpful narrator to keep us abreast of the storyline. Unlike Nutcracker, the Tailored Sleeping Beauty doesn’t consign the Charlotte Symphony to the orchestra pit, and it doesn’t recruit 150 sacrificial lambs for children’s roles, including the ever-lovable Clara.

Iffier but on the schedule is Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, scheduled for April 22-24. Muir is “holding onto a beacon of hope” that CSO will be able to collaborate with Symphony on that auspicious event, booked at Belk Theater. Opera Carolina maestro Meena has seen his own commitments scuttled in Italy, where he had planned to conduct Andrea Chenier, Manon Lescaut and Turandot. He doesn’t expect opera to resume in Italy until December, so he isn’t counting on Opera Carolina collaborating with CSO before 2021. Meanwhile, expect the unexpected as OpCarolina fires up a new chamber music series, reviving their iStream Online concerts the week of September 11, returning every two weeks through November 16.

Keeping his eyes open for online options and live opportunities, Actor’s Theatre artistic director Chip Decker isn’t counting on returning to live performance at Queens University before July 2021. Tom Hollis, theatre program director at Central Piedmont Community College, retired on August 1. But he didn’t go out directing a final season of CPCC Summer Theatre as he had planned, so he’s expecting to reprise the complete 2020 slate in the spring or summer of 2021. Sense and Sensibility, originally set for this past April, may also figure in the mix.

Gabbard, the first to respond to our questionnaire on July 14, said that over 300 performances had already been cancelled at Blumenthal’s multiple facilities and wasn’t expecting national tours – their bread and butter – to resume “until at least late fall, and perhaps early 2021.” Even outdoor stopgaps that Gabbard might stage in Charlotte’s Uptown must remain on the back burner until public gatherings of 100 or more are approved.

On the lookout for best practices and inspiration, Gabbard is looking globally, “including Seoul, Korea, where big musicals like Phantom have played throughout the pandemic. I was asked to join the COVID-19 Theater Think Tank in New York, where we are speaking with academics and thought leaders in a search not only for short-term solutions, but also ways to improve our venues and hygiene practices long-term.”

Bach Akademie Charlotte artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett slowly realized last spring that there was no way to mobilize the musicians, patrons, and audience that would be necessary to make the third annual Charlotte Bach Festival happen last June. Hurriedly, he pulled together a four-day virtual festival that streamed on Facebook, YouTube, and Zoom. Much like Actor’s Theatre and CPCC Summer Theatre, Jarrett is hoping that the June 2020 event will happen in June 2021.

The experience shook him. “The recognition that I hadn’t made music with another human being in a month hit me hard on Easter Sunday morning,” Jarrett recalls, “and I grieved deeply for several weeks. Gradually, the shared recognition of all that we were losing with one another affirmed a shared value for communal music making. Those conversations continue to sustain me.”

Jarrett is busy, busy, busy these days up in Boston, working as artistic director with the Back Bay Chorale on their new Zoom curriculum and as director of music at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel – and expecting to stay healthy. BU has taken the plunge, plowing millions of dollars into testing in an attempt to bring their student body back to campus, aiming to test all faculty weekly and all students twice weekly. Plans for the 2021 Charlotte Bach Festival are on hold, says Jarrett, until a proven vaccine delivers true COVID immunity.

Yet he’s clearly upbeat, even if he’s forced to deliver the 2021 Bach Experience via Zoom. Describing her own company’s trials, Charlotte Ballet’s Muir offers the best explanation for this paradox: “Once we realized this virus was not going anywhere quickly, we had to pivot and focus on new ways to keep the team motivated and creative. And this is where artists thrive! At our core, we are shape-shifters and it’s exhilarating to think of new ways to communicate and engage with one another.”

Symphony Bolsters CHOPIN PIANO CONCERTO With Improved Beethoven

Review: CHOPIN PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 and a guest shot by Gabriela Martinez

By Perry Tannenbaum

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You can’t really say that Christopher Warren-Green was between Beethoven concerts when he stepped to the podium at Knight Theater for a program headlined by CHOPIN PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 and a guest shot by Gabriela Martinez. In his last appearance at the Knight in January – before Charlotte Symphony resident conductor Christopher James Lees pinch-hit with an all-American program later in the month – Warren-Green launched Beethoven’s 250th birthday year with an evening that included the Leonore Overture and the “Emperor” Piano Concerto.

Ludwig Van’s Missa Solemnis, with four guest vocalists and the Charlotte Master Chorale joining CSO at Belk Theater, is next up for Warren-Green in March, but our maestro wasn’t giving Beethoven a complete night off, even though his program already sported a Valentine’s Day subplot. Instead, after a delicious sprig of music from Frederick Delius, Symphony No. 8 sent us on our way home. No, Warren-Green wasn’t exactly between Beethovens, but it might have been better if he had been.

The evening did not begin auspiciously, that’s for sure. Warren-Green, for the first time I can remember, brought a Symphony performance to an abrupt halt soon after beginning a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Disturbed by people who were coughing in the front rows (which I didn’t actually hear), Warren-Green whirled around and, slightly exaggerating his own pique, urged all the coughers to “just let it out!” and be done.

Shortly afterwards, a woman in the front row scurried to nearest exit, apparently more hurried and distressed than she might have been if she had thought Warren-Green were joking. Meanwhile, Symphony’s music director whirled back to his musicians and relaunched as abruptly as he had just aborted. Surprisingly after such curtness, the monastic calm of the Friar Lawrence prelude was played as exquisitely as if the orchestra had observed a minute of meditation before embarking, with beautiful highlights from the trombone and flute. The raucous section, depicting family strife between the Montagues and the Capulets, came thrillingly after a slow simmering keyed by the harp, the violins and the timpani came to a boil.

The repeated swellings heralding the famous rhapsodic R&J love theme were as sensitively rendered as you could ask, and the concluding section was haunting in its funereal solemnity. Alas, the love theme itself, perhaps the most well-worn melody in classical music – think of all the times you’ve heard it! – sounded somewhat hackneyed to me, despite Symphony’s laudable forbearance, not having performed it in their mainstage Classics Series since 2011.

I doubt many CSO members had ever performed the featured Chopin concerto in Charlotte before. The last time it appears on my radar was when Emanuel Ax played it in 1998 – with the visiting Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Known primarily for his piano compositions, Chopin launches into his PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 with surprisingly lush and virile orchestral writing in the Allegro maestoso: brass, flutes and French horns striding into the mix as the long intro climaxes. Although Warren-Green and Symphony were aggressive in their attitude, Martinez took a more leisurely approach, downplaying the inner dialectic between longhair rigor and liquid lyricism in the early piano soloing, settling instead into a groove that underscored the Concerto’s affinity with Chopin’s Nocturnes. Only toward the end of the movement did Martinez build toward cadenza-level intensity.

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While I admired Martinez’s delicate touch in the treble, her firm left hand patrolling the bass, and her overall technique, the full exquisiteness and drama of the middle Romanze movement somehow eluded her in her earthbound phrasing. Far more satisfying was the concluding Rondo, where she captured the dancing vivacity of the music, sometimes recalling the sprightly charms of Chopin’s Waltzes and sometimes evoking the more emphatic stomp of the Polonaises. Just as importantly, Martinez and the CSO seemed to be having a jolly time, which did not preclude her showing off a bit. Indulging in those delights, however, Martinez missed the poignancy and drama you’ll find at the end of Murray Perahia’s recorded version.

The piece by Delius, “The Walk to the Paradise Garden,” was as dreamy and tropical as you would expect, from a British composer who has likely captured the soul of primeval Florida better than any American. Really lovely passages played by principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and principal clarinetist Taylor Marino were an intoxicating intro to Delius’s special allure, but Warren-Green and his orchestra seemed to back away from delivering the full drama of this operatic extract when the music swelled.

Perhaps the maestro and his ensemble had the context of this composition in mind, coming in Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet just before the lovers fulfill a suicide pact. The lovely performance didn’t have any more of a depressing effect on me than the Tchaikovsky overture had, but it seemed to dampen spirits onstage. It’s quite possible that the opening of Beethoven’s Allegro vivace was the most perfunctory playing I have heard from CSO since the last time they programmed Symphony No. 8 in 2009, a distinctively tepid outing led by former music director Christof Perick.

This time, the orchestra gradually hit their stride after circling back to the main theme, though I still wanted a little more kettledrum éclat in the ensemble explosions. In the ensuing Scherzo, a little more stealth in the soft sections and a little more mock ferocity – like Warren-Green’s attitude toward the coughers earlier? – would have helped. Symphony already had the measure of the Menuetto in 2009, the one movement Perick salvaged, and they maintained their mastery here. Launching with a zesty attack, Warren-Green brought forth the folksy energy in rotation with a wan beerhall merriment and an idyllic refuge for the woodwinds.

The F major Symphony is bookended with Allegro vivace movements, and the last is prime Beethoven, quietly churning at the outset with an inevitable outbreak of irrepressible joy. Warren-Green coaxed both the expectancy and the jubilant payload from the orchestra – plus all the surprises, detours, misdirection, and impassioned releases that make Beethoven so worth revisiting and celebrating, 250th birthday or not. The French horns didn’t mess up as they had in 2009, this time around teaming up with the brass in a rousing finish.

Three Rousing Piano Trios Keynote “A Beethoven Celebration” at Davidson College

Review: “A Beethoven Celebration”

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

2020~Beethoven Celebration-1Although Beethoven’s 250th birthday is still 10 months away, orchestras and classical concert series began falling over each other in bringing forth the birthday boy’s music almost as soon as the clock struck midnight on December 31 – a scant two weeks after his 249th. Last weekend, Christopher Warren-Green led the Charlotte Symphony in their third Beethoven orchestral piece since the calendar flipped, the Symphony No. 8, after breaking out the Leonore Overture and the “Emperor” Concerto last month. Then, skipping over the Missa Solemnis and Symphonies Nos. 4 and 6 still remaining on this season’s schedule, Warren-Green confided that next year’s schedule will include three symphonies, three concerti, and an overture, stretching CSO’s Beethoven birthday bash past December 17, until at least spring 2021.

With that in mind, credit the Davidson College Concert Series with showing some restraint in waiting until mid-February to present “A Beethoven Celebration.” Series artistic director Alan Black cryptically promised more Beethoven later this year before claiming the cellist’s chair for a program of piano trios, including the highly-revered “Archduke” Trio No. 7. Joining Black at the Tyler-Tallman Hall in the Sloan Music Center were violinist John Fadial and pianist Phillip Bush.

A program of Beethoven piano trios offers the ripe opportunity for musicians to begin their celebration at the beginning – Op. 1, No. 1 in E-flat – and for Black to point out how much the composer would evolve from the Haydn disciple of 1795, when he wrote his first published work, to the pioneering master he had become 21 years later when he published his Op. 97. Yet in the opening Allegro, Bush showed us he was not necessarily playing along with the idea of sharply contrasting early and middle-period Beethoven. Or he did when the musicians belatedly embarked on the same page. For some reason, Fadial hadn’t absorbed the whole Op. 1, No. 1 concept and thought that the concert would begin with the B-flat Allegretto for Piano Trio, a gaffe that had Black doubled over in his chair with laughter.

Once members of the trio were literally on the same page, Bush was dominant in the Allegro, throwing himself into its Haydn-like playfulness and charm up in the treble yet almost always emphasizing the incipient thrust and rigor of Beethoven’s incipient maturity when he punctuated the placid surface with chords. Worries that Fadial had been chastened into submissive diffidence vanished when he took the lead in launching the Andante cantabile, and Black was equally persuasive repeating the theme as Fadial hovered above for awhile before swooping in to take over. Bush insinuated himself before seizing control, sometimes completely unaccompanied, only slightly foreboding in tone. Everybody played sweetly in this even-handed movement, even in handing the final notes back and forth.

Haydn held sway in the trio’s performance of the Scherzo, for the players didn’t adopt the faster pace that evokes Beethoven in the Beaux Arts Trio recording, nor did they emphasize the abrupt shifts in dynamics that the Barenboim-Zukerman-Du Pre trio applied – at a tempo noticeably slower than the marked Allegro assai. Bush was the only player here who occasionally pointed us toward Beethoven’s future. The mischievous opening bars of the Finale, recurring over and over at the marked Presto tempo, are the essence of jollity we find so abundantly in Haydn and Mozart – so far from the “Joy” Beethoven would ultimately redefine in his “Choral” Symphony. Handing the melody back and forth, Bush and the string players had a merry time with this music, and both Fadial and Black acquitted themselves well when they eventually had their opportunities to hold the reins at this galloping tempo. A few of the digressions that intervened as we approached the midpoint of the movement wafted in hints of the intensities Beethoven would sustain later in his career.

Though they didn’t speak, the smiles exchanged between the string players said it plainly: Now was time for the Allegretto. Once again, Bush resisted the urge to demonstrate a radical difference between Piano Trio No. 8, written in 1811, and the prior composition, emphasizing its prettiness and its waltzing 3/4 meter. Even when the string players drew perfunctory passes through the melody, Bush’s piano accompaniment upstaged them. Far more parity, resourcefulness, and expansive ambition were on display after intermission when the trio returned with the B-flat “Archduke.” Accompanying the lovely theme of the opening Allegro moderato, Fadial and Black were noticeably more assertive here in responding to Bush’s statements of the theme, dealing admirably with scoring that reflected the advances Beethoven had made in his string quartets. The violinist and then the cellist had opportunities to voice the themes on their own, and it was enjoyable to hear Bush fading from lead to accompaniment and then ramping up at the keyboard to partnership with the strings. Pizzicato interplay between Fadial and Black late in this movement was the most modernistic music we had heard thus far, and when we returned to the opening theme at the end, Bush proved that he had been holding its full majesty in reserve.

On the ensuing Scherzo, the trio took a lighter and more jocund attitude, de-emphasizing the tendency of the strings to lurk ominously behind the gamboling piano and suddenly pounce out of ambush. That somewhat passive line did not deter Bush from bearing down where the piano might have been startled by an ambuscade. Nor were we deprived of Beethoven’s devious misdirection, the surprising sparseness near the end of the movement, and his depths. Like the middle Largo movement that gives the “Ghost” Piano Trio No. 5 its name, the slow Andante cantabile is the longest movement of the “Archduke.” The first five or six notes, solemnly repeated over and over, inevitably transport me to Sabbath at my synagogue when the torah scrolls are returned to the ark. Bush played with gorgeous lyricism here, a true adoration of the melody, and the subsequent speed-up of the strings sounded inspired by the eloquence from the keyboard. The trio probed more deeply and achingly as the movement turned back toward reflection.

Without so much as a breath between movements, the trio brought on the jollity of the concluding Allegro moderato. Bush communicated all of its cascading merriment as he cruised along, Haydn and Mozart still in his rearview mirror, but he didn’t hesitate when Beethoven’s misdirection took the music offroad into a region of mystery. We were unmistakably on Beethoven turf thenceforward. Black was the more assertive of the string players during the turbulence that followed Bush’s excursion as the trio fused busily together. The ride was bumpy to the end, slow and fast, soft then loud, with a brief episode that sounded like a rollicking cello sonata. Bush ultimately broke free from the roar of an equally-shared hubbub, taking over the driver’s seat as they sped home. Yes, it felt like a celebration when we arrived.

Zingaresca Duo Pours Gypsy Fire from Seven-String Guitars

Review: “Secret of the Russian Gypsy Guitar” concert at the Belmont Abbey Basilica

By Perry Tannenbaum

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An Italian word meaning “in a Gypsy style,” Zingaresca may not seem to be the ideal name for a Russian Gypsy guitar duo, but once you hear the music of Vadim Kolpakov and Oleg Timofeyev in live performance, the name has a swaggering rightness to it. The duo’s “Secret of the Russian Gypsy Guitar” concert at the Belmont Abbey Basilica replicated the title of their 2017 CD and most of its content, with the added benefits of the Basilica’s warm acoustics and Timofeyev’s spoken introductions. It was quickly apparent that “Roman Gypsy Guitar” has a double meaning, not only describing the music that Zingaresca performs but also the seven-string instruments that Kolpakov and Timofeyev play. While the dimensions of Kolpakov’s instrument are close enough to those of a classical instrument to spark an urge to count the tuning pegs on top of the neck, Timofeyev’s instrument is more novel, sporting a second fretless lute-like neck, greater in length with six additional strings.

Apparently, Gypsy is too colloquial a term for the formal title of individual compositions in an Arts at the Abbey program leaflet – and Timofeyev does hold a doctorate from Duke University, after all – so the folk tunes in the concert lineup were called Romani Traditional. These were supplemented with compositions by Mikhail Vysotsky (1791–1837) and Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007). Arrangements for the two guitars were by Sergei Orekhov and Alexander Kolpakov, though it might be misleading to give the impression that it was all down on paper.

While Timofeyev had a music stand in front of him, donning a pair of reading glasses after he concluded each of his introductory remarks, Vadim was looking exclusively at the strings and fretboard of his guitar, no sheet music in sight when he accompanied or took the lead. Kolpakov was thus more likely to play the introductory cadenzas at the start of pieces, including “I Hear Your Voice Again,” “The Gypsies Were Traveling,” and the concluding “Gypsy Vengerka.” On perhaps the most unusual piece on the program, the traditional “Oriental Gypsy Dance ‘Are You Joking?’” Kolpakov not only embroidered the intro, he upstaged Timofeyev’s solo with a variety of percussive knocks and cracks on the body of his guitar before taking back the instrumental lead with dazzling strums, rapid-fire runs, and a spray of harmonics.

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Timofeyev also delivered impressive solos, seemingly without effort or frantic movement, especially on “Along the Kazanka River” and “A Nightingale,” but he seemed to take equal delight in setting the plodding two-step tempos of the dances, so redolent of the Zorba the Greek movie score and the Russian interlude in Fiddler on the Roof, and accompanying Kolpakov’s flights when he pushed the tempos. After a while, the delight of the slow emphatic openings to some of the pieces partly became the anticipation of the speed-ups to come. “Moscow Polka,” “The Godmother,” “Dance, Dzhandzha,” and the duo’s signature piece, “Zingaresca,” all displayed their special chemistry and characteristic tempo shifts.

Inevitably, the duo mentioned Django Reinhardt (1910-53) in their overview of Gypsy guitar, and the last two pieces on the program, “Moscow Windows” and “The Gypsy Vengerka” certainly took jazzier flights. Neither tune had an arranger listed on the program, a sure tip-off that Kolpakov was feeling free to wail after invoking the Gypsy leader of the Quintette du Hot Club de France. “Moscow Windows” was particularly designed to burn from start to finish, but the final “Gypsy Vengerka” reverted to the Russian Gypsy Guitar template, with Kolpakov establishing the lusty dance tempo this time. Here it wasn’t all about virtuosity, for when Kolpakov and Timofeyev quickened the tempo, they also injected sweet lyricism into their solos.

Barefoot in Carnegie Hall, Conqueror at the Knight

2020~Beethoven's Emperor-11

Review: Charlotte Symphony and Conrad Tao Perform Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto

By Perry Tannenbaum

Celebrations of Ludwig van Beethoven don’t really need to lean on a convenient excuse. Just before celebrations broke out worldwide on January 1, 2020, commemorating the great composer’s 250th birthday, New York City’s WQXR played out 2019 with their traditional New Year’s Eve countdown of their audience’s top 100 favorites, culminating in a marathon tribute to Beethoven. Not only did Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony No. 9 take the top spot yet again at the flagship classical FM station, six works by Beethoven were in WQXR’s top 10, including the top three. Charlotte Symphony certainly wasn’t standing in back of the line of orchestras poised for celebration as the new decade began.

Returning to Knight Theater from a tour of Southeast Asia with the London Chamber Orchestra, maestro Christopher Warren-Green capped the first full week of 2020 with a double-dose of the birthday boy’s compositions, the “Leonore Overture No. 3” and the “Emperor” Concerto No. 5, which finished No. 10 in the latest WQXR popularity poll. In between, we heard the Symphony No. 7 in C by Jean Sibelius, perhaps the first time that the Finnish composer’s final symphony has been performed in Charlotte. Pianist and composer Conrad Tao made his Charlotte debut with the orchestra.

We don’t have too many instances of rewrites among Beethoven’s published works, but his lone opera, Fidelio, and its overture are prominent exceptions. The three Leonore overtures (plus a “Fidelio Overture”!) testify that Beethoven not only fussed over the music for his opera, he also fussed over the title. Leonore, Creatures of Prometheus, and Coriolan are the overtures most favored as fillers on CD collections of the symphonies, and Warren-Green programmed Coriolan in an all-Beethoven concert in 2012. As far back as I can trace, this is the first time Symphony has separated the “Leonore Overture” from Fidelio, but our musicians likely recalled rehearsing it for an opera-in-concert version conducted by Christof Perick in 2004 and when Opera Carolina offered us a fully-staged Fidelio in 2015.

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Musicians were perhaps too amped-up for the celebration as the Overture kicked off the concert. The opening sforzando over a timpani beat and the mysterious fadeaway that follows that burst were beautifully played. Woodwinds blended effectively and the flutes had a wonderful rapport before forebodings of the big tune rippled through the lower strings. But the crisp delivery and sleekly calibrated dynamics we have come to expect from this orchestra were missing on the first pass through the main theme, and there was no room left to dramatically turn up the volume later when the big tune repeated twice more. Thankfully, the ensemble steadied immediately afterwards – for the entire evening – sharpening their focus. Winds and horns remained tightly knit, principal flutist Victor Wang continued to charm, and principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn, deployed deep in the balcony, brought us forlorn pathos before concertmaster Calin Lupanu, playing fervidly, triggered the final galloping reprise and climax.

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Other than interpolating how exhausted he still was after conducting the Leonore, Warren-Green was all about Sibelius when he picked up his mic for the first time in 2020, pointing out that the Finn was battling two illnesses as he wrote the piece over a 10-year stretch: depression and alcoholism. He also drew our attention to the trombone solos with insights gleaned from the original 1924 manuscript. The winds and strings, particularly the violins, drew a sweetness from the music that I hadn’t found on either of the CDs in my collection, and there were definite hints in the darkest passages, where the violins played low in their range, of the illnesses that afflicted the composer – and possible promptings for the way Shostakovich would register WW2 in his symphonies. Only the flow and the full grandeur of my Ashkenazy recording with the London Philharmonia were missing in Warren-Green’s reading. As for principal trombonist John Bartlett, the orchestral wreath surrounding his contributions – along with the embroidery Sibelius weaves with the winds – might cause you to overlook his unquestionable excellence.

No such danger threatened Tao as he emerged in his colorful attire. Only later admitting that he had begun the new year by packing negligently and forgetting his formal attire, Tao attacked his opening cadenzas with swashbuckling panache, and his phrasing proved to be no less audacious and individual than his attire and attack. Clearly, Tao has heard this soaring masterwork in his own way – but without perversely differing with traditional interpretations or seeking to draw undue attention away from the composer. Warren-Green and the orchestra responded vigorously to the young soloist, as much in the forefront of the epic opening Allegro movement as the piano. Of course, Tao impressed us more in the softer passages than the accompaniment here, but Symphony was certainly an equal partner in the magical Adagio that followed. The upper strings, delicately supported by pizzicatos from the lower strings, solemnly and lyrically cleared the way for Tao’s ethereal entrance – with a clarity that I’ve never heard on a recording. A bit of subtlety and nuance eluded Tao here and there in his phrasing, but Warren-Green and his ensemble remained marvelously simpatico in sustaining the sublimity.

For those of us who love this piece, Tao’s way with the ingenious transition between the Adagio and the Rondo finale likely sparked the most controversy and admiration. He certainly took his time, not playing the ending quite as softly as the usual pianissimos I’ve heard, but the sforzando burst to launch the concluding movement still had a satisfying snap and éclat. Symphony was as zestful as ever in its response, and Tao parleyed a playfulness and a muscular power we had not seen from him earlier, conclusively proving he could punish a keyboard.

Two more Beethoven masterworks, his Missa Solemnis and “Pastoral” Symphony, highlight the remainder of the 2019-20 mainstage classics series, the latter to be led by JoAnn Falletta. Symphony certainly had the appeal of their Tao program nicely gauged, scheduling an extra Sunday matinee after the usual pair of performances. Of course, Tao may have been kidding us when he spoke of forgetting his formalwear. In his enthusiastic New York Times review of Tao’s Carnegie Hall debut back in November, critic Anthony Tommasini couldn’t help noting that the pianist was clad in black slacks, a black jacket, a black T-shirt… and barefoot!

Jamie Laval Stages a Colorful, Varied, and Multilingual “Celtic Christmas”

Review:  Jamie Laval’s “Celtic Christmas“

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

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Unless you were already aware that Fiona Ritchie’s widely syndicated radio show The Thistle & Shamrock originated at WFAE on the UNC Charlotte campus in 1981, you might have been surprised to see that Jamie Laval‘s “Celtic Christmas: Music and Stories for the Deep Midwinter“ attracted a capacity crowd at Booth Playhouse on Sunday evening. Yes, long before WFAE became mostly news and talk, Charlotte was the cradle of the most listened-to Celtic music program on earth. As a 2015 concert at the Aunt Stella Center showed – and the Booth sequel confirmed – Charlotte remains a hotbed of Celtic music fandom.

Sporting a kilt and sporran, Laval took fine advantage of the larger stage upstairs at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. While the champion fiddler didn’t bring the same dance artillery along with him as we saw at Aunt Stella, Laval’s production was greatly enhanced with the projections and lighting design by Michelle Fleming. Projections were also useful at the top of the program as Laval, his instrumental ensemble, and vocalist Megan McConnell cruised through the first three selections on the playlist – two of which were medleys – without pausing. Fleming’s ministrations in the light booth, changing the snowy midwinter scenes that projected behind the musicians, provided visual bookmarks at key transition points.

Onstage, Asheville-based Rosalind Buda was the most chameleonic of the instrumentalists, the only holdover in Laval’s ensemble from 2015. Buda switched from pennywhistle to bagpipes during “Da Day Dawn (Shetland Air),” from bassoon to recorder during the “Round About Our Coal Fire / Cornish Wassail” medley, and back to a bassoon continuo during the “Medieval Dance Carols / Patapan” potpourri. That gave us only a sampling of her varied capabilities.

McConnell was also notable for her versatility, traversing a range of languages during the concert in song lyrics that hopscotched from English to Cornish to Breton and to Galician as she exemplified the full spread of Celtic culture. The Galician of “Fum, Fum, Fum” just before intermission was especially eye-opening and arguably McConnell’s zestiest vocal: I was not expecting to hear Spanish at a Celtic concert! When the soprano retreated from her vocalist microphone, there was a percussion station with an assortment of cunning little devices, including a wood block, finger cymbals, glockenspiel, and Quebecois wooden spoons.

Celic Christmas Press Photo

As the evening progressed, it became harder to overlook the versatility of Irish dancer Claire Shirey. When she wasn’t striving to replace the three dancers who had appeared with Laval in 2015, Shirey showed considerable expertise in playing the bodhrán, a Celtic drum. That seemed to be the full extent of Shirey’s range until the concluding “Jacobstowe Wassail / Reels” medley, when she brought a fiddle in from the wings and performed a duet interlude with Laval. When Laval fully took over the fiddling chores, Shirey deposited her violin offstage and returned, merrily adorned in silver spangled shoes that she put percussively to use, clacking away as the tempo accelerated. Nor were those the only fireworks in the finale, for in the wassail, McConnell and Buda hooked up in a lilting vocal duet in 3/4 time.

There was plenty of texture in the instrumental fabric throughout the evening, but the balance wasn’t always satisfying. Chronically undermiked, guitarist Eamon Sefton and cellist Franklin Keel were never really prominent in the tapestry. The same might have been said about Rachel Clemente and her Celtic harp, except that the harpist was showcased in both halves of the evening, playing glimmering preludes when Buda performed her poetry readings of “White Eyes” and “Snowbound.” Clemente was also the sole accompanist when the first of these poems transitioned to “Caleno,” a lovely McConnell-Buda vocal duet. When “Snowbound” dissolved into “Winter, Fire and Snow,” Clemente supplied a lyrical coda before McConnell alternated vocal stanzas with Laval’s instrumentals.

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Amplification was most complex for Buda and her array of instruments. When she picked up the bombard – defined very unhelpfully by the Oxford Dictionary of Music as “a type of shawm” – for the first time on “Joyful Mysteries (Breton Carol and Dances),” Buda made a glorious sound, somewhat akin to Sidney Bechet’s storied jazz recordings, a robust soprano saxophone timbre with an extra Middle Eastern tinge. Later, when she switched from bombard to a smaller sopranino bombard (or shawm) midway through “Kanomp Nedeleg (Breton Carol and Dances),” there was only the slightest diminution in volume, for these ancient reed instruments hardly needed amplification. Nor did the riq, an Arabian tambourine that Buda would brandish in “Patapan” prior to the “Kentucky Wassail/Gloucestershire Wassail” medley – and after intermission, in the “Gower Wassail.” But Buda’s bassoon, banjo, and bagpipes weren’t as prominent as I would have liked. More disturbing, I strained to hear Buda when she read the poems, a problem that hadn’t plagued the 2015 concert.

Leaving his guitar behind on this visit, Laval was less conspicuous in his versatility, confining himself to violin, spoken intros, and some very effective narration in spinning the “Saban the Woodfitter” yarn, where we had our best taste of the bagpipes during Buda’s intro. For those of us who have overdosed on Christmas music, Laval’s opening description of his program reassured us that the emphasis would be on a solstice celebration – even if that message undercut his “Midwinter” subtitle and Fleming’s cavalcade of very snowy projections. Laval was especially charming in discoursing about Brittany, the bombard, and the folkloric significance of wrens for the Celts.

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There was plenty of double-stopping and ricochet bowing from Laval throughout the evening, but his virtuosity peaked when he gave himself the solo spotlight for “Variations on ‘Deck the Halls.’“ There was a double-stopped variation in this bouquet, of course, followed by nods to Appalachian mountain fiddling, a pizzicato chorus, a Scottish bagpipe-like variation, a minor variation, a couple of reel segments, and a climax that shuttled between double-stopped and ricochet-bowed passages. As an artistic director, lest we forget that aspect of his artistry, Laval provided a surprisingly varied assortment of instrumental and vocal combinations. The evening was not so much a Christmas, or a solstice, or a midwinter celebration as it was a Celtic cornucopia.

 

 

 

Dvořák’s New World Picks Up Slack in Symphony Concert

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Dvořák’s New World Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

2019~Dvořák’s New World-5

Sometimes orchestras program pieces to meet popular demand, and at other times, they program works to meet expectations or fulfill a sense of obligation. It’s so easy to yield to inertia! This past weekend’s Charlotte Symphony concerts balanced both types of choices. Dvořák’s New World Symphony is so popular in the Queen City that an extra row of seats was set up at Belk Theater behind the already-packed Grand Tier.

Before subscribers could be appeased with the New World they were waiting for, we had to withstand lackluster performances by the CSO and guest conductor Ilyich Rivas of Robert Schumann’s “Overture to Manfred” and Johannes Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Neither performance convinced me that Symphony musicians were familiar with the music or took much pleasure in playing it. I was unsure myself whether I had ever heard these pieces before at the Belk.

My files confirmed how consistently forgettable the ensemble had been tackling this repertoire. CSO had last played the Schumann at the Belk in 2001, when I declared that the orchestra had fallen far short of the composer’s Byronic ambitions. Each of the two occasions since then, when Symphony had played the Haydn Variations in 2002 and 2010, I had found that the results were similarly moribund. Outcomes were perhaps marginally better last Friday night, though it’s still uncertain whether our musicians are completely sold on either of these works.

Wouldn’t it be better for everybody if Symphony put fresh new or unfamiliar scores on their players’ music stands – instead of repeatedly exhuming stuff like this so unenthusiastically?

While Amy Orsinger Whitehead ably headed the flutes and the brass accented well, violins seemed sloppy and lackadaisical in the Manfred, their exchanges with the brass and winds more precise than those with the lower strings. Rivas probably sparked more energy and cohesion than in the performance of the Variations led by Christof Perick in 2010, which observed pauses between variations.

But there still wasn’t enough zest – or dramatic contrast – to assure us that everyone was relishing their part, and there was little of the exquisite delicacy we have come to expect in softer, slower movements since Christopher Warren-Green took over the musical director’s baton. A limpid calm prevailed in successive reposeful Con moto movements that descended into lifelessness before a Vivace revival, and even the Finale, an Andante that can be grander than grand, grew slightly slack though it was still strong.

2019~Dvořák’s New World-6

Indicative of the éclat they created the last time they performed Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” Warren-Green and the CSO waited only four-and-a-half years to reprise their triumph – and with Rivas on the podium, the orchestra satisfied its subscribers just as fully. The magical mojo of 2015 wasn’t quite replicated, but then again, my expectations could no longer be taken so completely by surprise.

And to be truthful, Symphony didn’t get off to a great start this time, the French horns not as solid as the lordly trombones when we moved from the Adagio section of the opening movement to the sweeping Allegro molto. But the horns didn’t take long to steady and the flutes, Orsinger and Erinn Frechette, were superb; and gosh, the sforzando at the end of the movement had a fierce snap.

Four years ago, Warren-Green took the trouble to wade into the orchestra after its New World performance and embrace English horn principal Terry Maskin for his playing of the “Goin’ Home” theme in Dvořák’s lovely Largo movement. Rivas would not have been faulted if he had done the same. The flutes had a sunshiney glint in their frolics, the soft violins wove mystical enchantment, and the brasses and horns added dignity each time they were cued.

Dvořák’s crowning achievement fittingly premiered in the New World at Carnegie Hall in 1893, and the third movement Molto vivace, inspired by Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, has always seemed the most prophetic to me, spawning the film scores of multitudes of Westerns yet to be shot in our rugged plains, canyons, and badlands. All went well here until the ending became too disjointed for comfort.

Rivas regained – and then retained – his mastery in the awesome Allegro con fuoco, where the Old World can be felt birthing the New World and our fearsome Manifest Destiny marches westward, arrogant and irresistible. (“Get over it!” professed patriots might respond.) The Venezuelan-born conductor beautifully navigated the protean moods, and the orchestra keenly grasped the moment. In the wake of the heraldic brass, the violins burst forth with a vigor that had been missing earlier in the evening, adding new summits of grandeur. When the music grew soft, the woodwinds, especially the flutes, sweetened it; each time the brass and strings rallied, Ariel Zaviezo and his timpani triggered the uprising.