Tag Archives: Alan Black

No Joke: Al Fresco Continues in a Modern Vein With “Romance of the Viola”

Review: Al Fresco concert under COVID

By Perry Tannenbaum

On the day of the latest Al Fresco concert, Charlotte Symphony had good news and bad news. Getting ready to set a YouTube reminder for my Chromecast hookup to the 7:30 webcast, I was encouraged to discover – on the Al Fresco webpage – that the Wednesday night series had been extended through at least July 29. Unfortunately, that good news may have been an outgrowth of the bad news announced earlier in the day: Symphony had canceled their Three-Week Summer Festival, slated to begin on August 7. All of the Festival events – a finely judged assortment that included Beethoven’s “Pastoral,” The Best of James Bond, Peter and the Wolf, On Tap at the Triple C brewery, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a free community concert – had been scheduled at indoor venues, running afoul of public assembly restrictions mandated in Raleigh and still in effect. It was merciful that Al Fresco concerts are pre-recorded, for host Alan Black and his “Romance of the Viola” guest musicians would have certainly been downcast if they were giving a live performance in the wake of this daunting setback.

As the latest program began in Black’s bosky backyard, with the CSO principal cellist in conversation with violist Kirsten Swanson, the series’ subtitle, “changing venues for changing times,” more than ever seemed to evoke an escape from Charlotte’s barren cultural climate under COVID siege, a welcome oasis in the musical wasteland. Adding to the freshness, Swanson and Black were discussing a pair of composers few Symphony subscribers had come across, Kjell Marcussen (1952-   ) and Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979).

Black admitted discovering Marcussen a mere three weeks earlier while combing the internet – and, presumably, streaming services – in search of music written for the unique viola-cello instrumental combo. As a cursory YouTube search will confirm, the Norwegian composer does favor viola among orchestral instruments. Black could easily have found Marcussen’s “Berceuse” there, for it’s the first video that comes up in a Google search for the composer, but the composition also pops up readily on Spotify in a 2017 album, Dedications, recorded by the same Duo Oktava musicians, violist Povilas Syrrist-Gelgota and cellist Toril Syrrist-Gelgota. In solo compositions, Marcussen gravitates toward his own preferred instrument, the guitar, so it’s not at all surprising that guitarist Anders Clemens Øien shares the spotlight on the CD.

After watching Swanson and Black perform the “Berceuse,” I must say that I found the Oktava video stuffy and pretentious by comparison, and I’m only finding a new way to praise Bob Rydel’s audio engineering when I say that the sound at this Al Fresco concert was richer and more detailed than either the YouTube video or the CD (available on Apple Music as well as Spotify). Black gets a rich dark tone when he moves to the forefront in the exposition of this morose lullaby, but he’s more varied in his dynamics – and the pace is quicker, cutting more than 25 seconds off the Oktava’s fastest performance. The real difference maker, though, is Swanson when she takes the lead in the concluding half of the work with her lighter tone, making for a far more poignant experience than the Norwegian duo can muster. To be fair, I should say that I’ve been captivated – and perhaps swayed – by the open-air informality of the Al Fresco format, which certainly accentuated the élan of Black’s approach.

I have no record of hearing or reviewing Clarke’s music before March 2019 at the Savannah Music Festival, where chamber music host Daniel Hope reprised the composer’s Dumka, a piece the famed violinist had played on a Naxos recording of Clarke’s music. That estimable album, recorded in 2007, showcased Clarke’s most famous work, her Viola Sonata – played by violist Philip Dukes. As you may know, Dukes would have succeeded Hope as the chamber music director at Savannah Music Festival this year if the 17-day event hadn’t been canceled. Black and Swanson discussed Viola Sonata in the context of Clarke’s stature among her contemporaries. Clarke herself was a world-class violist (and violinist), and she submitted her chef d’oeuvre to a 1919 competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge at the Berkshire Festival. Ernest Bloch and Paul Hindemith were also among the 72 entries, Swanson noted. Depending on which account you read, Clarke either tied Bloch for the Coolidge Prize until Coolidge bumped her down to second place, or she took the runner-up spot outright.

The piece that Swanson and Black would play, “Lullaby,” was more modest in its aspirations than the brooding, turbulent, three-movement Sonata – its epic first movement is marked Impetuoso! – but this more abbreviated work probably dates from the same period, in 1918. Black was quick to point out the piece’s accidental relevance to today, written during the Spanish Flu pandemic, and though Swanson remarked on how such periods of confinement often prove fertile for creativity, this “Lullaby” had an unmistakably mournful sound, not unlike Samuel Barber’s more funereal “Adagio,” with a similar peak before taking a breath for the last third of the piece. As beautiful as the playing is, from Black in particular, this duo’s interpretation lacks the contours you’ll find on the excellent Centaur recording of this work, where both cellist Moisés Molina and violist Kenneth Martinson assert themselves more forcefully and emotionally.

With Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960) taking us back to the brink of the modernity with his 1902 Serenade in C Major for string trio, Al Fresco completed its second consecutive concert of music written entirely since the dawn of the 20th century. Both Swanson and Black lauded the solos Dohnányi had written for viola at the outset of the Romanza second movement and toward the end of the theme-and-variations fourth movement. Submitting his regrets for sitting out the trio, Black was replaced onstage by cellist Marlene Ballena and associate concertmaster Joseph Meyer.

I found this performance more likable, in the early movements and in the Rondo Finale, than on my 2003 Naxos CD with members of the Spectrum Concerts Berlin, where the players sounded too slick and harmonious after hearing the fresher, livelier Charlotte trio. The Symphony musicians skipped over the middle Scherzo movement and didn’t find nearly as much emotion in the Tema con variazioni because their pacing and dynamics were more monochromatic. Yet in the passages extolled by our host and Swanson in their conversation, the violist lived up to the hype. Even so, it can be said that Swanson’s softly accompanied solo in the Romanza, about 75 seconds in length, became a launchpad when Meyer entered with his violin, picked up the pace, turned up the volume, and soared. Between Swanson’s best bits in the Tema con Variazioni, Ballena had her finest moments. Rydel’s engineering also merits special praise here, for the entire trio is subtly encased in a warm concert hall ambiance.

With the cancellation of Charlotte Symphony’s Three-Week Summer Festival, extension of this Al Fresco series was obviously a logical move. But it should be remarked that, with the cancellation of six upcoming programs, and with no orchestral programming on the near horizon, more of Symphony musicians’ energies can be devoted to future Al Fresco concerts. In their sound and musicianship, they can’t get much better, but in their scope, we can certainly anticipate bigger things to come. If there’s anything to carry away from Al Fresco – and carry over to CSO programming when it returns to our familiar concert halls – it’s the notion that repertoire isn’t merely a balancing act between what the public craves and what Symphony’s maestro longs to present. As we’ve already seen, Symphony’s musicians also have some entertaining and rewarding ideas.

Symphony’s Al Fresco Doubles Its Originality With “All-Lamb Jam”

Review: Al Fresco “All-Lamb Jam” Webcast

By Perry Tannenbaum

Charlotte Symphony’s new Al Fresco series had already reached an admirable level of originality in its first four installments. Although they had launched many inventive series in the past, chamber music had been off-limits programming before the current pandemic, and we can only attribute the birth of an online-only series to the necessities of our current plight. But thanks to two multi-talented Symphony musicians, principal cellist Alan Black and French hornist Bob Rydel, weekly Al Fresco webcasts have not only been judiciously programmed and masterfully played, they have risen to admirable distinction with Black’s insightful interviews and Rydel’s remarkable audio engineering in an outdoor setting and his immaculate video editing.

The original touches enhancing all this artistry and virtuosity have been in Black’s emphasis on the musicians’ point-of-view in interviewing his guests and in the creative editing of each episode. Unlike a concert in real time, a prerecorded concert can dispense with scenery changes as we shift from one set of players to another – or from interview mode to performance. Beyond that, Black and Rydel have occasionally flipped the chronology of interviews and performances in their episodes. That innovation allows Black to discuss performances we’re about to see with his fellow musicians – as in the previous “Viennese Serenades” concert, where Black and two Symphony violinist discussed what it was like to play a swift Haydn divertimento while wearing masks.

The latest Al Fresco concert, “All-Lamb Jam,” added new layers of originality, an entire program of new compositions by Symphony cellist Jeremy Lamb and interviews with the composer that took us through how his music came to be written. After a brief welcome to us and an intro to Lamb, now a member of Symphony’s cello corps for three-and-a-half years, Black plunged right into the unique titles of the three-part Lamb Jam Set. As it turns out, they had a lot to do with the musicians that Lamb wrote the piece for, cellist Sarah Markle and bassist Taddes Korris, with whom he bonded shortly after joining Charlotte Symphony.

A prime motive for writing all the pieces on the program turned out to be the scarcity of music previously written for two cellos and a bass. Both Markle and Korris, Lamb soon found out, were vegans, so “The Hempeh Tempeh Jam” was an outgrowth of Lamb’s learning curve as he struggled to remember the difference between the two soy products. The entire Lamb Jam was itself an outgrowth, the composer revealed, of a melody that hit him during work on A Ride on Oumuamua, the more ambitious piece that would conclude the concert.

As for Lamb’s anecdotes about the other titles in the Lamb Jam, “A Stroll Down Alpha Mill Lane” and “Keepin’ It Schwifty,” those would have to wait until I replayed the episode later. Weather at my viewing location, across the state line in York County, scrambled the audio and visual signals that followed in this conversation between Black and Lamb. Fortunately, I was able to recover the YouTube channel in time for the music to begin. “Hempeh Tempeh” sported the back-and-forth feeling that might have been evoked by its title, for the harmonized melody line of the two cellos drew shuffling answers from Korris’s bowed double bass. In the next chorus, Lamb and Markle played higher and longer, and the Korris answer bridged the end of this chorus and the beginning of the next, where the cellos were now answering him. Lamb was clearly the lead afterwards as the music grew bluesier in the closing chorus. It was only after I replayed the episode that I heard Lamb’s confirmation that his template for “Hempeh Tempeh” and the ensuing “Alpha Mill Lane” was a 12-bar blues. As you could expect, “A Stroll Down Alpha Mill Lane,” named after the street where Markle and Korris reside, ambled along at a medium-speed loping gait, and you might find it (at the Al Fresco webpage) even jazzier than the opening piece in the Jam, with a nifty Korris glissando launching the final chorus.

The “Schwifty” title derives from the cartoon world of Rick and Morty, a realm where my erudition is limited to an animated 87-second clip on YouTube. It’s easily the most free and provocative movement in Lamb’s suite – and the one that most decisively deserves to be called a jam. It began with a Korris pizzicato intro, taken up by Markle as Lamb carried the melody. Two of the sections had the feel of an accelerating locomotive, with Markle emphatically seizing the lead at cruising speed the first time around as Lamb sawed a propulsive ostinato. Korris also had some telling licks during the fray, which was driving and bluesy in the medium-tempo sections. The rocking sway of the most memorable passages were even more reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s “Any Way You Want Me” than parts of “Alpha Mill Lane” had been.

Named for the first interstellar stellar object to have ever been observed passing through our solar system, A Ride on Oumuamua ambitiously chronicles the birth of the object (estimated in 2017 at perhaps more than a half-mile in length), its epic journey through space, its arrival in our solar system, its flybys the sun and the Earth, and its voyage beyond. In his second conversation with Black, Lamb credited a Glass-like riff that he heard Korris playing for inspiring his Oumuamua, but in his opening section, “In the beginning, the motion of the stars,” Korris contributes richly yet sparingly, his long, widely spaced notes simulating the primordial darkness in which the cellos’ arpeggios play out. With the opening notes of the ensuing section, “Oumuamua is hurled away; the journey begins,” Lamb has already broken free from Glass’s minimalism. Other notable sections follow before Oumuamua reaches our solar system. Korris has a fine melodic lead in “…icy worlds appear,” where the cellists both get chances to sing, and in “…a lonely voyage; calling out,” there was a forlorn cadenza for Lamb that seemed to float in deep space.

Because the titles flash only briefly onscreen, in thin white letters spread across an orange brushstroke design, you might miss some of the 14 section titles on your first viewing. That’s the only significant production flaw I’ve found so far in the Al Fresco concerts, requiring me to “rewind” numerous times as I documented the titles that flashed on and off the bottom of the screen. Oumuamua went on to make Lamb’s strongest case for composing music for this unique instrumental combination – and a strong argument for applying Glass’s hypnotic arpeggios to space travel. In the course of “…Earth appears,” “…Earth fades into the distance,” and his concluding “…infinite vistas: time loses meaning,” Lamb reminded me more than once of the sensation of interstellar travel that Star Trek delivered on TV, his fadeaways particularly evocative. Yet Lamb didn’t conclude with a fadeout. Instead, he seemed to circle back to the cello arpeggios that had signaled Oumuamua’s birth, stopping abruptly when the reprise had barely begun. The more I thought about it, the more appropriate it seemed.

New Al Fresco Series Delivers Fine Sound, Gorgeous Music, and a More Personal View of Symphony’s Musicians

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Al Fresco Concerts

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’ve learned so much about our nation’s leadership in the past few months – and perhaps even more about ourselves. Much of what we’ve seen has been disheartening and infuriating. Aside from the horrifying death and economic devastation, sweeping the globe and becoming so intense here in North Carolina, I’m most heartbroken by the spectacle of what has happened to arts and education. Vitally important to our quality-of-life and our future, both arts and education have been forced to retreat into self-imposed isolation while politicians and citizens have so catastrophically bungled our response to COVID-19. Virtuality has often been our refuge, a poor substitute for so many plans we made. One by one in May, my mom’s 100th birthday, Spoleto Festival USA, and a class reunion dropped off my event planner, so like many of you, I’ve had revelatory experiences in recent months coping with the quirks of ZOOM meetings and discovering new frontiers in streaming. Neither of these comes close to matching the benefits of live meetings and performances, but they do offer consolation.

Occasionally, the necessities of confinement and social distancing have mothered some worthwhile inventions. Celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday in April, the Chickspeare theatre company began with a fairly common 24-hour new play format, issuing a prompt to a select group of playwrights and expecting original 10-minute plays by each of them to be written, cast, rehearsed, and presented 24 hours later. Instead of the community projects I’d seen in past incarnations of this format, the new works were household creations – written, acted, and recorded by small groups of people, usually pairs, who were quarantining together. The results showed that these writers, actors .and stage directors were also quite adept at filming and wielding video editing software. Chickspeare had broken into an entirely new medium.

Charlotte Symphony’s new Al Fresco series of chamber music concerts has been similarly revelatory. The webcasts began steaming weekly on Wednesday nights on June 10, in a more relaxed environment than Belk or Knight Theater, where Symphony’s classics series is presented, and on a more intimate scale. Not surprisingly, the Al Fresco series is the brainchild of principal cellist Alan Black, a longtime catalyst for chamber music programming in the Charlotte area, beginning with a monthly series at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church back in the ‘90s and continuing with more acoustically pleasing seasons of Sunday afternoon concerts at Tyler-Tallman Hall on the Davidson College campus. The new series, subtitled “changing venues for changing times,” is performed outdoors in the backyard of Black’s bosky Davidson home.

Fortunately, while choosing his programming and recruiting personnel, Black brought French hornist Bob Rydel into the process for a set of wind quintets by Josef Haydn and Robert Muczynski. As Black tells us during the “Winds in the Woods” program, first streamed on June 24, his original concept called for recording the concerts with an iPhone or two, tools we have seen so very often behind the scenes at ZOOM meetings and guerilla theatre productions. Operating the Acoustic Mobility remote recording service, Rydel has been able to bring his engineering expertise to the task with state-of-the-art microphones, digital recording, and editing equipment. Video production has been a tack-sharp as the audio, boasting HD quality, with at least three cameras superbly integrated in the editing mix.

Before tuning in to “Viennese Serenades,” I had caught up on the previous Al Fresco concerts at their convenient webpage [https://www.charlottesymphony.org/csoalfresco/], playing the first three concerts through my home theatre system on the YouTube channel with a Chromecast streamer. This “Viennese” concert was already posted when I looked in on the site on Tuesday, so I was able to set a reminder at YouTube that worked perfectly, counting down the minutes to showtime. At exactly 7:30, a two-minute timer flashed colorfully onto my TV monitor, with jazzier old-style movie graphics counting down the final 10 seconds. In a rather elegant touch, you hear wind chimes when the opening title flashes on the screen.

The atmosphere is relaxed and informal, with Black invariably dressed in jeans, already sitting as our show begins. One or two other musicians are also seated on the small stage, which is still sufficiently large to devoutly maintain social distancing. They will talk before they play. In an earlier show, Black explained how he has chosen to deal with masks: if one of the musicians wishes to don a mask, all must. Only wind instrument players draw an exemption, so on a previous “Music in the Time of Mozart” webcast, flutist Victor Wang played the lead in Mozart’s Flute Quartet without a mask while the string players were all masked. Interestingly, Wang had a special appliance attached to his instrument, a Wind Defender. The device was originally designed to help flute players to perform outdoors, but in his conversation with Black, Wang said he was finding that it was useful during the COVID-19 crisis in minimizing the spread of airborne droplets as he blew across the instrument.

Black’s conversations with his guests frequently veer toward the players’ experiences in performing the music rather than sticking with the customary descriptions of the music and how it came to be written. More intriguing, Black doesn’t stick to the convention of talking about the music before it’s performed. We might see an interview that was recorded after a performance shown to us before the music begins – or Black and Rydel might edit the webcast so that an interview segment airs between movements.

Altering the focus and chronology was particularly insightful when, prior to airing Haydn’s Divertimento No. 12, Black interviewed his “Viennese Serenades” guests, violinists Jenny Topilow and Lenora Leggatt, and asked them point-blank what it had been like playing their music with masks on. Leggatt was almost exclusively concerned with the heat that wearing a mask dictated and its cumulative oppressiveness, but both Topilow and Black cited multiple challenges and annoyances that illuminated physical aspects of playing stringed instruments and the added communication needs of chamber music performance that go beyond playing in an orchestra.

After revealing that the neck of her violin collided unpleasantly with the part of her mask covering her chin and jaw, Topilow went on to describe how visibility, breathing, communication, and cuing were affected. Black confided that he hoped that a portion of his performance, when the fingers of his left hand got stuck momentarily in his mask, would be edited out of the final cut. Visibility and breathing were linked problems for Black, who customarily wears glasses when he plays the cello. Because his glasses repeatedly fog up in performance, Black finds that he needs to time his breathing as he plays! He also finds that he needs to listen more intently when seeing is so spotty. For her part, Topilow finds it startling to realize how much she normally uses her face for communicating in a chamber music setting, yet she vows to continue wearing a mask when Charlotte Symphony resumes live performances. Next month? Hope so.

The individuality of the musicians’ conversations carries over to their musicmaking. Uniform dress codes have been discarded for this series, so the players can be showy and comfortable at the same time. Topilow and Leggatt were the first guests so far to opt for standing as they played their violins in Stamitz’s Trio in G, and while I can remember Topilow rocking a splotch of blue hair at the Belk, I’m sure that I’ve never previously glimpsed her tattoo. Facing each other from opposite corners across the front of the cozy stage, the two violinists blended exquisitely in the opening Allegro moderato while Black, seated upstage between them, added a rich undercurrent as the tempo never quickened far beyond andante.

The mellow sound of the ensuing Andante made the best case for earlier remarks emphasizing how much both Stamitz and Haydn reflected their era. Although we could see fronds and leaves swaying throughout this concert – and multiple clips holding Topilow’s score in place – the sound maintained a studio-quality presence without a hint of wind even in the quietest moments. In the concluding Rondo-Allegretto, I found the most persuasive proof that both violinists revel in playing fast. Topilow remained the lead voice, but Leggatt kept pace beautifully with the harmony. I wasn’t completely pleased with the way Stamitz abruptly transitioned to the slow section of this movement, where Black shifted to a suddenly somber pizzicato, but the slowdown at the end of this section and the accelerating return to jollity were very satisfying.

What I wrote about Black’s series of St. Peter’s concerts in the ‘90s, that they show off the virtuosity of Charlotte Symphony’s musicians more fully, remains true today. But now that this new series is actually a part of Symphony’s programming, I can further observe that it offers the opportunity to venture beyond the composers who figure most prominently in the orchestra’s rotation of classics. Beside the likes of Stamitz, Muczynski, and Ignaz Pleyel, whose music has already been featured in Al Fresco, we can add Haydn to the roster of the neglected, for only two of his symphonies – and none of his concertos – have been presented in the classics series since 2015, and none are on tap in the already-announced 2020-21 lineup. And how many of us have heard of Haydn’s Divertimentos – or knew that they were chamber music? My 11-CD set of Mozart Divertimenti on Phillips certainly didn’t prepare me for anything as small as the string trio configuration of Haydn’s No. 12, the second to be featured in this series.

It’s a beautiful piece from the start, a soulful Adagio that was more serious and tender than the Stamitz, with a yearning undertow from Topilow’s lyrical lead. Hardly a leaf was stirring as she wove her spell, yet Haydn brightened the tone and quickened the pace to andante in a more genial midsection of this movement. Topilow was most fully in the spotlight when she leapt into the ensuing Allegro, sawing away with plenty of verve. The weather wasn’t quite as tranquil where I was watching, but it only stressed the transmission here once. What looked and sounded like a split-second edit disappeared when I subsequently replayed the movement – twice to be sure. The final movement, Tempo di Menuet, seemed to be a misstep at its somewhat plodding start. Once the 3/4 rhythm was established, however, Haydn loosened the reins, and Topilow had ample opportunity to show off her dexterity and Papa’s joie de vivre.

The concerts, the conversations, and Black’s hosting style are all winners for Symphony’s new Al Fresco. I’m hoping for more sinewy music, like a Beethoven string quartet, if the series reprises after the traditionally lighthearted summer season, and I’d love to see programs at least as long as the 75-minute noonday concerts that are traditional at Spoleto Festival USA. But what’s so nice about the Al Fresco format and its webpage is that you can replay multiple concerts one after another. More than enough for an evening out – or in – is now very handsomely at our disposal.

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.

CSO Takes Flight With Stravinsky “Firebird”

Review: Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite

By Perry Tannenbaum

2019~Symphony Firebird-11

If you think The Donald is in cahoots with the Russians, take a look at the Charlotte Symphony. They began their 2019-20 Classics season with an all-Tchaikovsky program late last month and continued with another all-Russian bill last weekend featuring music by Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Glazunov, and Anatoly Liadov before climaxing with the Igor Stravinsky Firebird. Are the musicians of Charlotte Symphony and their conductors, first music director Christopher Warren-Green and now resident conductor Christopher James Lees, leading us into the arms of Vladimir Putin?

Or just maybe… they’re following their audience’s inclinations in melting into the bosom of Mother Russia!

Principal flutist Victor Wang started off the evening with his introductory remarks, citing a previous experience with Lees, when he led Symphony in the pivotal “Infernal Dance” from The Firebird, as emblematic of the special enthusiasm that he brings to the podium. But Lees would first need to conquer Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain in the fearsome arrangement by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Under Warren-Green’s baton, CSO had failed in its two previous assaults on the Mountain – in 2009, when the British conductor was auditioning for his Charlotte post, and in 2016.

Strangely, it’s the most familiar part of the tone poem – the macabre, witches’ sabbath part – that eluded Warren-Green on both occasions. All the chaotic, nocturnal terror of the piece was drained from the 2009 performance, though the tolling of the bells and the onset of morning at the end of the piece were gorgeous. The more recent performance three years ago attempted to restore the original snap and crackle of the piece, pushing the tempo from the violins, turning up the volume from the brass, and unleashing more sforzando crispness from the percussion. A bit over-the-top, I thought, and not convincing – until the bells sounded, more glorious than ever because of the heightened contrast.

The 2019 version glowed even more fabulously with the dawn as Wang, principal clarinetist Taylor Marino, and principal harpist Andrea Mumm worked their magic. The calm resolution was nearly as impressive as the diablerie that preceded it – so overall, I was still disappointed with our nighttime sojourn. Lees certainly brought all the percussive razor sharpness you could want on the Bald Mountain, and the brass were excellent, with full-bodied trombones rocking the house. Violins were note-perfect quailing before the onset of the brass and astringent in reacting.

2019~Symphony Firebird-06

Trouble was, Lees eased off the pedal in pushing tempo. Nothing about the witches’ sabbath was ever maniacal or threatening to lurch out of control, and the interplay between the violins and the brass, particularly when the strings were asked to suddenly pounce, was lacking in visceral excitement. Listen to how electric it can be on the Naxos recording by Theodor Kuchar and the Ukraine National Symphony.

While you’re there, you can also listen to Mussorgsky’s original orchestration. You’ll likely reach the same conclusion I have: it was Rimsky-Korsakov who was being “modest” if he termed the work we know today an orchestration or even an arrangement. Only six of the familiar notes from the fearsome brass theme were written by Mussorgsky. The next nine add-ons were Rimsky’s invention – and all of the concluding dawn episode was his as well. Joint attribution is very much warranted for Bald Mountain, and Ken Meltzer needs to go back to the drawing board with his program notes.

Once Lees and the CSO had exorcised the Halloween – or St. John’s Night – demons haunting them on Bald Mountain with Rimsky-Korsakov’s original music, they continued to warrant Wang’s praise. Glazunov’s Stenka Razin was delightfully contoured, though the Cossack rebel’s bellicose episodes could have been more turbulent and his dalliance with a Persian princess would have benefited from another splash of Rimsky, namely Scheherezade. The recurring theme, an old Russian folksong known as the “Song of the Volga Boatmen” on recordings by Glenn Miller and Paul Robeson, was handsomely passed back and forth from the brass to the French horns, and Mumm and Marino were again a beguiling combo on harp and clarinet.

Lees continued to be at a loss about creating maximum drama in Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake (listen to Vassily Sinaisky’s account on Chandos with the Slovak Phil to hear what I mean). But there was no lack of atmosphere here as tremolos from the strings vividly simulated Liadov’s lake. Nor was there a dearth of enchantment as the woodwinds made telling contributions and Mumm again excelled, even on the smallest strings of her harp.

2019~Symphony Firebird-02

With the 1919 Suite from The Firebird, the most-frequently heard of the three suites that Stravinsky distilled from his 1910 ballet score, Symphony achieved lift-off, playing with their most admirably controlled fury. Lees not only captured the bacchanalian abandon of the “Infernal Dance of King Kastchei” as Wang had predicted, he and the orchestra brought orgiastic celebration to the Finale, where Prince Igor weds his chosen Princess after freeing her from Kastchei’s captivity, using the Firebird’s magical feather.

Amid the collective sparkle and might of The Firebird, there were individual exploits to magnify the triumph. Principal oboist Hollis Ulaky had lovely spots in the opening “Introduction and Dance of the Firebird” and later in the tender “Berceuse,” where principal bassoonist Olivia Oh spread additional nocturnal wonder. Principal cellist Alan Black and concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu were both eloquent in the “Dance of the Princesses,” but none of the principals made a more memorable impression than Byron Johns, launching the Finale with his beautiful work on the French horn. The forlorn splendor of it gave the fireworks that followed added impact and an onrush of drama.

Christopher Warren-Green Expands Symphony’s “Titan” Concert to Rousing Effect

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Mahler 1

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Charlotte Symphony’s season announcements and brochures were issued last July, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 “The Titan” stood alone on the program for their concert coinciding with semifinals of the ACC basketball tournament at the nearby Spectrum Center. Whether there were second thoughts on the length of that program or worries about automobile traffic inconveniencing concertgoers, two additional works – and an intermission – were added to the evening. Mahler’s Symphonic Movement: Blumine seemed a natural add-on, since it was part of an earlier draft of the symphony, which premiered in 1889 as a five-movement piece titled “Symphonic Poem in Two Parts.”

Adding a piece by Strauss wouldn’t appear much less apt – if it were Richard Strauss, not quite four years younger than Mahler and very much his contemporary. But Johann Strauss, Jr., the renowned “Waltz King”? Picking up a microphone as soon as he appeared onstage at Belk Theater, music director Christopher Warren-Green immediately cleared things up. Far from a grotesque contrast, parts of Strauss II’s Emperor Waltzes were actually echoed in the second movement of “The Titan.” And since Blumine was the second movement in the original “Symphonic Poem” before Mahler excised it, the whole grouping had an elegant logic to it.

Implicit in Warren-Green’s intro were dual assignments – with dual effects. We were subtly being asked to catalogue the musical and melodic content of the Emperor Waltzes and retain our findings until after intermission. Then we were to identify an undisclosed fragment of what we had heard when it was echoed in “The Titan.” Listeners were thus encouraged to take Strauss’s work a little more seriously in searching for enduring substance and to realize that Mahler’s music, with its fun-loving Viennese influences, wasn’t as ponderous and forbidding as they might have believed. Whether such attitude adjustments actually factored into the audience’s enthusiasm for the performances, they certainly sounded like fruitful approaches for the musicians to take as they played.

Unburdened of the worry that they were tossing off light fare, the orchestra played the Emperor Waltzes with infectious zest. Principal percussionist Brice Burton’s snare drum caught my attention first, before the woodwinds announced the idiomatic Strauss sound. Principal cellist Alan Black and principal timpanist Ariel Zaviezo kindled our anticipation as the most familiar of the melodies drew near. Weighted toward the trombones, the brass episode was impressive, and as the piece climaxed, four percussionists were on their feet, as cymbals and a bass drum joined the fray.

Logical choice or not, Blumine was a fairly odd piece to send us off to intermission with, for it conformed to the relative quietude we expect of second movements in large orchestral works. Surprisingly, this andante sounded nothing like the sort of derivative apprentice work you might expect a major composer to discard upon mature reflection. As performed by Warren-Green and his players, Blumine had some of the ethereal flavor we might associate with Mahler’s middle symphonies, especially at the end of the piece, where the playing of the strings, lightly tinged with Andrea Mumm Trammell’s harp, was quite exquisite. Yet it was principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn who made the deepest imprint on the performance, playing his serenading episodes with a mellow and magnificent softness. Principals Victor Wang on flute and Taylor Marino on clarinet had gleaming moments of their own, but principal Hollis Ulaky drew the best solo wind passages and played them flawlessly on her oboe.

None of the recordings of “The Titan” that I looked up reach the length of a full hour except for that of Seiji Ozawa with the Boston Symphony, who just ekes past the 60-minute mark after restoring Blumine as his second movement. So I heartily endorse Warren-Green’s decision to fortify and vary the originally-announced program with judiciously selected appetizers, but you just needed to look at the Belk Theater stage to see that “The Titan” was the evening’s main dish. At the outset of the “Langsam” (Slow) portion of the opening movement, a phalanx of eight French hornists was seated in front of the battery of percussion, which included two sets of timpani drums.

More brass lurked offstage. After softly churning strings, reminiscent of Wagner’s famed evocation of the Rhine River, played under mournful woodwinds – with just a glint of piccolo – a trio of distant trumpets was heard, triggering a response from the horns. Then as the trumpeters entered from offstage, the cellos steered us toward echoes of Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” bringing us the springtime awakening of nature promised in Mahler’s 1893 program notes. When the winds reached their bright, full-throated twittering, the season burst into blossom. But with solo spots from Wang’s flute, Marino’s clarinet, a soft tattoo on the bass drum, and more fine section work from the French horns, there was ample space for reflection afterwards.

Echoes of Strauss II were readily apparent in the “Kräftig bewegt” (Forceful animated) movement that followed, not subtle at all once we had been alerted to them; and in the trio section that followed, the waltzing spirit of the orchestra became more contagious. After timpani and percussion had engaged, there was a nice simple spotlight for Byron Johns and his French horn. The other middle movement, “Feirlich und gemessen” (Solemn and measured), lost its power to intimidate as soon as the listener realized that the fugal figure was a slowed-down, macabre mutation of the familiar “Frère Jacques” nursery song. Initiating the round, principal Kurt Riecken had the rare opportunity to offer us a sampling of his solo handiwork on the double bass, with oboe and clarinet taking us to higher frequencies. Cellos and violas initiated another round before the clarinets lightened the gloom with a klezmer-like interlude.

Aside from the cresting of the opening movement, there was nothing titanic about “The Titan” until we reached the “Stürmisch bewegt” (Stormy animated) finale. Here is where the double-duty barrage of timpani was detonated, though there also was some finesse from the lyrical violins in the early stages. With the entrance of the trombones, the horns, the woodwinds, and the trumpets, the strings throbbed with more urgency. Increasing the final drama, Mahler circled back to the calm, the distant heraldry, and even some of the vernal twittering of the opening movement, and Warren-Green obviously reveled in quietly setting up his final explosion. The entire phalanx of eight French horns stood up, punctuating the majesty and the showmanship of the climax. Programming Mahler yielded some vacant patches down in the orchestra seats – and a totally empty upper balcony – but the Belk Theater audience responded to “The Titan” with a lusty standing ovation that was as enthusiastic as any I’ve seen there. Ultimately, they bought into the whole “Mahler Lite” concept as completely as the musicians.

 

Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony Upstaged by Epic Paganini Concerto

Review:  Italian Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

Last week’s Symphony concert at Knight Theater, Italian Symphony, was a bit of a double entendre. Yes, the featured work on the program was Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, also known as the “Italian,” but all the other pieces on the bill had something Italian about them, even if the composers hailed from cooler climes. Other than Mendelssohn, we heard from Parisian maestro Hector Berlioz, whose musical marinara, gleaned from his poorly-received Benvenuto Cellini opera, was discreetly called “Roman Carnival Overture.”

In between these two non-Italians, we heard from Luciano Berio and the virtuosic Niccolò Paganini. Our guest conductor, Milan native Roberto Abbado, sustained the Italian connection. Only our guest soloist, Muscovite violinist Sergej Krylov, broke the Italian mold – unless we also consider the Charlotte Symphony musicians.

The last time Symphony played the “Roman Carnival Overture” in 2012, we were also at Knight Theater, but maestro Christopher Warren-Green had to battle the embryonic acoustics of the stage, which swallowed much of sonic details before they reached the audience. With the handsome wood-grained shell that now encloses the orchestra, strings sounded mellower and more immediate, the thrumming percussion that prodded the tempo had a far more audible and visceral effect, and the whole piece was livelier, with trombones asserting themselves in the final build.

Abbado seized upon the intro to Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 – its precipitous pauses, hairpin tempo changes, sudden thunderous outcries, and outbreaks of joyous melody – and brought out its kinship with Rossini’s overtures. The pause before Krylov’s bravura entrance was so emphatic that the intro might rightly be looked upon as an overture. As for Krylov, while he isn’t Italian, his pedigree for the Paganini concerto can hardly be bettered, for he studied under the renowned Salvatore Accardo, arguably the greatest living exponent of the entire Paganini violin repertoire. Accardo’s six-CD collection; including six concertos, the famed Caprices, and more; is calling out loudly to everybody at Knight Theater who sampled the goodies.

Of course, seeing this music performed live surpasses what you can merely hear. The speed, the exquisite harmonics, the double bowing, and the ricochet bowing heighten the drama when you watch them executed with such energy, deftness, and excitement. In the heat of the opening Allegro maestoso movement, you could see concertmaster Calin Lupanu and principal cellist Alan Black craning their necks to see around Abbado and fully savor what Krylov was doing. Not only was it epic enough to draw their smiles, most of the audience jumped up and gave the violinist a rousing ovation – forcing him, somewhat sheepishly, to remind us that there were two more movements to come.

The middle Adagio movement really required the audience to quiet down if it were to be heard, an oasis of tranquility before another onset of dazzle and fireworks. Anyone who had overlooked the purity of Krylov’s tone, particularly on the low notes and midrange of his instrument, could savor it here. Where the movement builds in volume and passion, both the soloist and the orchestra were up to the drama. The final Rondo: Allegro was shorter than the epic opening, but with some bodacious pizzicato work sprinkled amidst more frequent ricochet episodes, Krylov was no less spectacular, sparring a little with acting principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn along the way.

For those of us who love Luigi Boccherini’s guitar quintets, it bordered on criminal that credit to Luigi as the original creator of “La ritirata di Madrid” was deferred to the program notes on Berio in Symphony’s program booklet instead of in the main concert listing. All the guitar quintets are delightful, but the named pieces, the “Fandango” and “La ritirata,” are the stunners. Both take their names from their fourth and final movements, where Boccherini stretches the limits of his ensemble – string quartet plus guitar – by adding percussion effects. In the “Fandango,” he sneaks in a pair of castanets while the guitarist forcefully strums, but in the “Ritirata,” the strumming of the guitar simulates the fanfare of a full marching band, supplying all the percussion as the platoon moves through town and retires quietly to its barracks.

With principal Andrea Mumm Trammell sweetly plucking her harp, Berio’s orchestration of the arrival could be even quieter and stealthier. Nor did Berio deprive us of the services of traditional percussion – plus trumpets – where Boccherini had brought his quintet to a full roar. It was quite obvious that Abbado and Symphony relished their opportunity to bring orchestral power to this chamber music classic, and the fadeaway finish was absolutely adorable.

If Krylov’s pedigree was optimal for the Paganini, then no less can be said for Abbado’s with the Mendelssohn. Many regard the recordings by Claudio Abbado, Roberto’s uncle, as the most definitive traversal of Mendelssohn’s five symphonies. The nephew stamped his authority on the “Italian” in the opening measures of the most familiar movement, the vibrant Allegro vivace. Unlike the metronomic statement of the long melody line that we heard from Warren-Green and the ensemble in 2013, Abbado had a freer feel for the opening movement, the violins setting an exuberant pace and the winds injecting softer replies.

While the middle movements were mellow and satisfyingly cohesive, contrasting effectively with the bracing beginning, Abbado seemed to allow the lull to have a lingering effect on the Saltarello: Presto finale. The two flutists, Amy Orsinger Whitehead and principal Victor Wang, led a spirited charge into the breech, but when the strings answered back, it was merely with their former exuberance and not with a new ferocity or fire. Instead of Mozart bumping into Beethoven, it was more like Mozart flowing into Mozart, insufficiently bolstered by the timpani and brass. The flutes’ charge should have ignited more magic.

Amid a Record Cold Wave, Nosky Brings the Heat of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”

Review:  Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

By Perry Tannenbaum

With only string players on assignment, Charlotte Symphony was a noticeably smaller orchestra at Belk Theater last Saturday night. But with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the program and redheaded Aisslinn Nosky both playing the violin solos and guest conducting, the house was as unusually full as the stage was empty. People don’t merely adore Antonio Vivaldi’s signature set of concertos. If WDAV, Charlotte’s notably successful classical FM station, has it right, they also dig all things baroque.

Aside from an excursion into Felix Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia for Strings No. 1 – written when the prodigy was a boy of 12 – that’s what Nosky brought to the podium. Nosky is one of the pre-eminent authenticists on the continent, having served as concertmaster for both Tafelmusik in Toronto and the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston. Historical practices and authentic historical instruments are her customary métier.

So is rocking a punk hairdo, flaming pink or fuchsia on some nights, and anchoring I Furiosi, an avant-garde quartet. With fellow emissaries from H+H, Nosky has gigged at Le Poisson Rouge, one of the hippest clubs in Greenwich Village. An aura of unpredictability shimmers around her.

Of course, Nosky adapted to Symphony by playing a modern violin, but tantalizing stylistic questions needed to be answered on how she would approach the music and Charlotte’s classical audience. Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1 provided answers at the top of the program.

Nosky’s tone on the modern violin was laser thin and strong, most attractive just before her highest notes and infectiously cheerful with Symphony’s strings. The brisk pace that Nosky called for added to the sunniness of the opening movement, yet there was no superficiality to the lightness. When we moved to the middle Andante movement, Nosky entered with an exquisite pianissimo that was barely audible at first, swelling to full bloom while still allowing the cellos to dominate with their spare accompaniment. Spikey hairdo or not, Nosky subtly sculpted the closing Allegro, achieving a fine balance between her violin and the ensemble, building almost imperceptibly to the climax with gradual acceleration and crescendo.

As her concert-black outfit had signaled, Nosky wasn’t out to create outré sensations. The warmth of her chat with the audience, introducing Georg Philipp Telemann’s Don Quixote Suite, was an extension of principal cellist Alan Black’s earlier intro to the whole baroque program. Nosky reminded us that pianists and violinists, many doubling as famed composers, had led orchestras through most of classical music history, and she dished on the friendly rivalry between Bach and Telemann.

Notwithstanding the spikey punk do, you could bring this redhead home to meet your Republican dad.

I’ve found a CD, played and conducted by Jan Stanienda, that programs The Four Seasons and Don Quixote together, and the pairing makes sense. Both pieces are very imagistic, so the Telemann served as a fine foreshadowing for the Vivaldi. It would have been helpful, especially in the absence of any detailing from Nosky in her intro, to have seen the descriptive titles of the eight segments of the suite on the page with the program listings.

Flip ahead to the program notes, however, and the titles printed there would have better prepared you to fully savor the woeful waking of the Don, his adoration of Princess Dulcinea, Rosinante, Sancho, and the renowned windmills. What came through best without these prompts were the horsey flavors of the suite, the stately cantering of the overture, the quarter horse sprint of the windmill sketch, the sudden crowdpleasing interjections evoking Sancho’s donkey (effects Haydn would perfect), and the farewell gallop of the finale, ending not with a Rossini-like bang but with a surprising, slightly affecting fadeout.

Spearheaded by Nosky, the Symphony strings made an excellent case for the outer movements of Mendelssohn’s C Major Sinfonia, the second Allegro particularly impressive for its precocity. By comparison, the middle Andante in A minor struck me as moribund. Or I should say that it hardly struck me at all.

Nosky jokingly told us that, in view of the record cold weather outside the concert hall, she had considered only playing Vivaldi’s “Summer” concerto to warm us up. Then she promised there would be additional heat in the other Seasons – even in “Winter” – and there was. Written within the framework of four Italian sonnets, conveniently translated in our programs, the musical imagery of Four Seasons is probably best followed by playing a CD with the text in front of you, so Vivaldi’s backtracking refrains and mood-shifting don’t make you lose your place.

Not an absurd expectation at all: Symphony’s pre-New Year’s email blast to subscribers not only offered concertgoers a link to the translated poems, it also provided a Spotify playlist to The Four Seasons and the rest of last week’s Classics concert. Another handy subscription for Symphony supporters. Lack of such prep accounted for the major glitch of the night, when the audience applauded prematurely, forcing Nosky to confide that “Winter” was yet to come.

At the beginning of Four Seasons, “Spring” crests with a thunderstorm in the second half of its opening Allegro, and the onset demonstrated that there was sufficient artillery onstage at Belk Theater for the fireworks and hailstones to come. Nosky was at her most soulful in the middle Largo as the goatherd lay down to sleep in the meadow, and the sweetness lingered into the concluding pastoral dance with a nice attention to the strings’ harmonies.

Forebodings of the ultimate storm in the “Summer” concerto spread dramatic contrasts throughout the first two movements, both of which have fast sections, but it wasn’t until the concluding Presto that Vivaldi and Nosky reached their fullest fury. Here the flaming redhead was clearly torching the Red Priest, finally breaking into her bacchante mode, sustaining the lightning with a sizzling cadenza.

She is too authentic to linger in sensationalism, and there was plenty of artistry to display in the remaining concertos. Soloing in “Autumn,” it seemed to me that Nosky was caricaturing one of Vivaldi’s drunken peasants with a witty twist of her glissandos, and she made sure to emphasize the fadeout at the end of this season, reminding us of the kinship between Vivaldi’s sketchings and Telemann’s.

“Winter” was not only the most shivery season, it was also the darkest, bleakest, and loneliest as Nosky gave us a wan cadenza backed only by Black on cello. North winds howl in the final Allegro, allowing Nosky and Symphony to whip up one last tumult. Maybe the sun didn’t quite shine through this icy gloom, but the joy and warmth of the music did, just as the Red Priest prescribed.

An Upset People’s Choice Winner Caps the Delights of the 2016 Young Chamber Musicians Competition

By Perry Tannenbaum

Co-sponsored by Davidson College’s music department and their radio station, Classical Public Radio 89.9 WDAV, the 2016 Young Chamber Musicians Competition was judged in two separate divisions: juniors aged 14-18 and seniors 19-25. Now in its third year, the competition has grown in audience interest, in the number of youth ensembles vying for the prizes, and in the prize money they’re playing for: $2500/1500 in the junior division for the top two groups, and $4000/2000 for the seniors. The event was not only moved from Tyler-Tallman Hall to the Duke Performance Hall but it was also broadcast live on WDAV for the first time.

Finalists were selected from video submissions, assured not only of second place prize money in each division, but also flown into Davidson with complimentary hotel accommodations. In the junior division, the Noctis Quartet from New York City faced off against a Los Angeles outfit, the Chimera Quartet, hailing from the Coburn School. Their elders came from university programs that the juniors might be aspiring to: the Von Quartet from Jacobs School of Music at the University of Indiana and the Onyx Quartet from the Cleveland Institute of Music, which is affiliated with Case Western Reserve University.

The judging panel included Charlotte Symphony’s principal cellist, Alan Black; Wake Forest University’s composer-in-residence, Dan Locklair; and the Western Piedmont Symphony’s music director, John Gordon Ross. I doubt that the judging panel’s august expertise was truly necessary in determining the winners in each of the two divisions, but the question of which ensemble was the best overall turned out to be unexpectedly challenging, calling upon some true discernment. It was fortunate that a new prize had been added to the competition – a $2000 People’s Choice Award.

Votes were cast via cellphone texts by members of the live audience and by WDAV’s listeners. Each of the four finalists had a distinctive code listeners could text to a phone number that was shown online and in the hall – one vote per cell phone. The line did not open until all the competitors had performed, and listeners had three minutes to submit their choices while they listened to a recorded performance by a past winner. While it was possible to game this voting system, it was nothing like the vote-early-and-vote-often travesties promoted by American Idol or Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game.

Each of the auditions submitted to the competition had to be comprised of complete movements from two separate chamber works selected from two different periods of classical music history – Early or Baroque (pre-1770), Classical (1770-1810), Romantic (1811-1900), Modern (1900-50), or Contemporary (1950-present).

noctis-quartet

Opening the finals, Noctis was unique among the quartets in performing their two movements in reverse chronological order, beginning with the famed “Death and the Maiden” second movement of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 (1826) and continuing with the final movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9, the last of the three Op. 59 “Rasumovsky” quartets (1806). Although the “Death and the Maiden” tempo seemed a notch too slow at first, I was very impressed by the sound in the hall, where I’d never heard a classical concert before. I’d seen numerous stage musicals in the hall, by the Theatre Department and the town’s Community Players, with musicians placed either upstage or in the orchestra pit, so it was a bit revelatory to hear how warm, clear, and full-bodied a string quartet sounded from center stage not too far forward from the proscenium.

Helping the hall to shine, first violinist Kevin Zhu coaxed very sweet sounds from his instrument from the start, playing with praiseworthy élan particularly in the low and midrange. If the sluggish tempo at the outset seemed somewhat misjudged, the sudden acceleration and increase in volume were that much more startling when they came, and if Zhu seemed less assured in his first ascents into the treble, he clearly improved when the music sped into triplets, though there was lingering thinness even in his most assured playing. Behind Zhu, cellist Chase Park, second violinist Andrew Kim, and violist Jacob van der Sloot were unexceptional in the Schubert, but van der Sloot leapt into Beethoven’s Allegro Molto fearlessly at an uncompromised tempo, followed by Kim and Park on the same fugal path – all three of them more characterful than before. The effect was thrilling even before Zhu layered onto the fugue, absolutely on fire from his first notes. No doubt about it, the strategy of flipping the chronology of their pieces allowed the Noctis Quartet to leave with a very positive impression.

chimera-quartet-photo-Tomber-Su

The other junior finalists, the Chimera Quartet, had nearly as much of a prodigy factor going for them as their rivals. Their first violinist Geneva Lewis, like Zhu, had logged two appearances on Christopher O’Riley’s From the Top, the NPR program showcasing young classical musicians – but Lewis hadn’t been showcased there until the ripe old age of 16 while Zhu had scored his first nationwide airtime when he was 12. From the start of Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 77/2 in F, Lewis was the more completely polished performer, and she enjoyed more impressive backing from cellist Tomsen Su amid the shifting tempos and dynamics of the opening Allegro Moderato. The ensemble’s program was also better calculated to show its range, shifting from Haydn’s F Major to the spirited Allegro vivace from Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1 in A minor. Su once again excelled and, though violist Emma Wernig was unexceptional in the brief moment when she took the lead, Cameron Alan-Lee showed some solid potential when he took the spotlight. Yet it was Lewis who raised her level most impressively in Bartók’s second movement, immersing herself in the tempo and mood changes, wowing the audience and inspiring her collaborators.

von-quartet

After the Chimera Quartet lifted my expectations for the senior division, the Von Quartet let me down, beginning their pairing with the opening Allegro assai appassionato from Mendelssohn’s E minor String Quartet No. 4. In the wake of Lewis’s polished work – and Zhu’s rich tone – Von’s first violin, Jisun Lee, sounded surprisingly pinched and tinny, not as impressive as she sounds on the ensemble’s YouTube video. Lee steadied noticeably when the movement calmed for a second time, just past the midpoint, but Joanne Yesol Choi’s sound remained richer and surer as she played the cello. While the Icelandic second violinist, Gudbjartur Hakonarson, evidently had input into the Von’s Icelandic name, he didn’t have enough say in the music-making for me to pass a meaningful judgment. On the other hand, Ursula Steele demonstrated the fire that Ginastera calls for when the ensemble came to the Furioso fifth movement of his String Quartet No. 2, and Choi continued to assert herself effectively. The churning astringency of the movement was also friendlier to the washboard aspect of Lee’s thin tone.

onyx-quartet

The Onyx Quartet had little difficulty eclipsing their senior rivals, but they committed a strategic misstep in competing for the People’s Choice Award. Starting out with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, they didn’t put their best foot forward in parrying the exploits of first violinists Zhu and Lewis. Taking the first violin chair for the Allegro con brio opening movement, Michael Siess was underpowered and unexceptional. However, cellist Noah Krauss was a steady force in accompaniment, and Genevive Smelser was unquestionably the best second violinist I had heard all afternoon – so much so that I wondered whether better results might have been achieved if she and Siess had switched places. Sure enough, when Onyx moved along to Debussy’s G minor String Quartet, Smelser took over the first violin chair for the opening Animé et très decidé movement. Although the music didn’t match the excitement of the Noctis “Rasumovsky” or the Chimera assault on the Bartók, the performance was easily their equal. Not only was the first violin richer and more forceful, the ensemble harmonies were exquisite as Krauss warmed to Smelser’s leadership, adding more gusto.

While the judges’ decisions, awarding the top prizes to Chimera and Onyx, were predictable enough, I wondered whether they would have had the temerity to pick the junior winners as the best overall. Audience members and broadcast listeners who voted on their cell phones had sufficient discernment to choose Chimera as the People’s Choice winners – an upset victory as surprising to the audience as it was to members of the quartet. There was one more delicious surprise for the audience that wasn’t detailed in our program booklets: the senior winners earned the opportunity to perform an encore. As Smelser resumed the first violin chair, we got another taste of their Debussy from Onyx, this time the Andantino third movement. Not only did Siess surpass himself here on second violin while Krauss contributed some really fine work on the cello, violist Spencer Ingersoll emerged from obscurity with some noteworthy input. All four members of this quartet can return to Cleveland with their heads held high.

© 2016 CVNC