Tag Archives: Alan Black

New Faces, New Rep, and High Decibels Shake and Rattle the Belk

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Kabalevsky’s Cello Concerto No. 1

By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Kabalevsky Cello-04February 25, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Theatre and music critics can be lulled into complacency – mixed with boredom – when called upon to review Shakespeare’s As You Like It or Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker beyond the seventh time. So it’s gladdening and stimulating to see how recent social, political, and public upheavals have affected local programming in the Queen City. Though it constantly calculates years ahead, Charlotte Symphony has not been the slowest to react and evolve. Not at all: in the past four weeks, I’ve been compelled to remember the names of new guest soloists and conductors – and to read up on composers whose works I was hearing at Knight Theater and Belk Theater for the first time. When American composer John Corigliano is the best-known composer at a Symphony program in the Belk, you know we’ve wandered off the beaten path.

Apple Music and Spotify are both aware of Chilean-Italian guest conductor Paolo Bortolameolli and Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz, but neither of their giant streaming catalogues contains the first piece that Bortolameolli performed with Symphony, Ortiz’s Téenek – Invenciones de Territorio. Obviously, our guest would need to have an inside track on this composition. As associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he did, for the LA Phil commissioned the piece and it was premiered under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel in 2017. The piece, divided into three sections, had glimmering textures and lively rhythms from south of the border, with celesta, tubular bells, and harp coming in the wake of the piece’s biggest climax and some mellow work from principal oboist Hollis Ulaky along the way.

I was still struggling with the spelling of Russian composer Dmitri Kabalevsky’s last name in my driveway as I was tallying my mileage and parking in my expense app after the concert – and berating myself for forgetting his first. The deluge of new data I needed to process was happily compounded by an auspicious debut of Christine Lamprea, who soloed on the marquee piece, Kabalevsky’s Cello Concerto No. 1. Lamprea established another appealing trend, the second consecutive female soloist to clutter the Belk stage with a music stand and a musical score. That’s a byproduct of presenting a piece that the guest artist hasn’t played over and over around the country and the globe. Among the half dozen recordings that I tracked down, the best-known soloist to have played Kabalevsky’s Op. 49 is Yo-Yo Ma (Raphael Wallfisch, however, has recorded Concerto No.2, Op. 77), whose performance vies with Daniil Shafran’s, conducted by Kabalevky himself, as the definitive account.2022~Kabalevsky Cello-05

In a very personable intro to the evening’s program, Bortolameolli hinted that we might find an undercurrent of cynicism and sarcasm akin to Shostakovich beneath the sunny surface of Kabalevsky’s 1948 work – maybe a bit of a stretch, since the composer was widely recognized as an establishment figure from the days of Stalin onwards, serving behind the scenes and on-the-air with Soviet Radio, eventually becoming a leading Soviet musical ambassador in his travels abroad. Perhaps there was some empathy for Ukraine impinging on Bortolameolli’s objectivity? In keeping with Communist suspicions of radical modernist innovations, Kabalevsky hardly delivered any portentous jolts in his G minor concerto, nor did Lamprea, playing quite eloquently, seem to be on a quest for anything subversive in her interpretation. Over a marching beat of pizzicatos, her playing in the opening Allegro was rich and ardent, finishing the movement with a light and beguiling pizzicato cadenza.2022~Kabalevsky Cello-06

Nor did I detect any sardonic undercurrents in the ensuing Largo, molto espressivo, Kabalevsky’s tribute to the Soviet casualties of the World Wars. While there was more heart on Ma’s sleeve in the lyrical moments of this movement – and more daring hushed quietude on his CD in his lamenting cadenza – Lamprea was altogether earnest in her grieving, very affecting. Principal hornist Byron Johns certainly heightened the solemnity and sublimity of this movement backing up Lamprea. In the concluding Allegretto, the Colombian-American cellist convinced me that Kabalevky (1904-87) had written his Concerto after hearing Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations rather than before. The theme and variations, based on a Russian folk melody, have no less melodic appeal, even if they aren’t as technically demanding, and Lamprea brought out the kinship of the variations more clearly than any other version I’ve heard.

You’ll be very entertained by Bortolameolli’s pocket sized intro to Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, timely again because it was written in 1988 in response to the AIDS epidemic and the toll it took on artists and friends he knew. But for a fuller analysis and exploration, you don’t want to miss the composer’s own introduction in the digital program booklet. No need for me to add more than this single word to that comprehensive, episodic description: LOUD!! In order to nearly replicate the 92dB reading I saw on my Apple Watch at the peak of the opening movement, Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance, I had to turn my home stereo volume knob close to the 12 o’clock position, playing the landmark Chicago Symphony/Daniel Barenboim CD. At that point, my Apple Watch registered 90dB. At the same time, I activated the Sound Meter app on my iPhone for a more credible reading and recorded a max of 111.1dB.

Yes, it was louder at Belk Theater in Row J than that. “Behind the orchestra,” we read in Corigliano’s notes, “five trumpets are placed with the first trumpet in the center; fanning outwards around the orchestra are six French horns (three on each side), four trombones (two on each side), and, finally, one tuba on each end of the semicircle of brass.” No doubt my wife Sue and I were more comfy with the Remembrance episodes of this movement than the spasmodic blares of the Rage that the composer marked as “Ferocious.” In the more nostalgic moments, we heard an offstage piano playing Leopold Godowsky’s transcription of Isaac Albeniz’s Tango, with more piano – and pleasantly intensified orchestra – closing out the movement.

2022~Kabalevsky Cello-16We weren’t exactly danced around the hall in the ensuing Tarentella, for as Bortolameolli pointed out, the root word of this Italian dance is actually tarantula, and the dance was believed to cure victims of that spider’s bite from a rare form of dementia. So the composer had a schizophrenic and hallucinatory soundscape in mind, relentlessly accelerating into insanity. Most consoling and welcome, then, was the penultimate Chaconne movement, “Giulio’s Song,” written in memory of a friend who was an amateur cellist and inspired by tape recordings of improvisations Giulio and the composer played together. Principal cellist Alan Black was unforgettably showcased here, playing five lovely notes before a pause, then seven notes before another, before finally released into the song. Enhancing the loveliness, cellist Jeremy Lamb eventually joined in a soulful duet. Corigliano’s concluding Epilogue was a capsulized recap of the previous movements of his Symphony, hearkening back to its opening and shining a spotlight once again on Black, who played the last sustained note, tapering off into silence.

It was an A, like the grade I would give for the entire concert. Kudos as well to the audience, who greeted all this new rep, especially the Corigliano, with enthusiasm and gusto.

Clara, Kensho, and Clyne – New Names All – Ride in for Daring Charlotte Symphony Concert

Review: Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”

By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Tchaikovsky Pathétique-19 

February 11, 2022, Charlotte, NC – It was an evening for new faces at Belk Theater – and plenty of unfamiliar music – as Charlotte Symphony welcomed Sara Davis Buechner as guest soloist for Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and Kensho Watanabe appeared for the first time at the podium. Drawing the largest Symphony audience we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic, Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular “Pathétique” Symphony No.6 was not merely the only familiar piece on the program, it was also the only music by a male composer. Even in the absence of music director Christopher Warren-Green, the audience seemed to delight in the balance of adventurous and beloved fare.2022~Tchaikovsky Pathétique-03

Watanabe helped put our minds at ease about Anna Clyne’s “Within Her Arms,” telling us that it was written as a memorial to the composer’s mother. A certain solemnity of the tableau we saw onstage – 15 string players, all standing except the three cellists – also led me to expect harmonies that were respectful and consoling rather than raucous. At the start, the tone actually seemed thin, wan, and weepy, rich with treble. When the lower strings began to assert themselves, the tone veered toward grief and hurt. Repeated six-note phrases briefly put me in mind of Samuel Barber’s funereal Adagio, but Clyne put more variety into her 2009 composition, breaking it into multiple sections.

None of them were at all sunny, but the piece eventually swelled to more passionate, anguished heights and collective grieving. Although concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu’s voice was the most frequently heard in this community, Clyne doled out poignant asides to other soloists, and her ensemble passages were a controlled combination of harmony, dissonance, and individual lines. In the absence of any tracks on Spotify or Apple, the only performances I could compare this one with were a couple of live videos on YouTube, and Watanabe clearly made more of the dynamic contrasts than I found in either of those.

Schumann’s concerto, written at the age of 14, over six years before her marriage to Robert Schumann, was temporarily known as the Clara Wieck Piano Concerto. It premiered in 1835 with the prodigy herself at the keyboard and Felix Mendelssohn wielding the baton. Buechner wasted little time in demonstrating how sensational Schumann needed to be in performance to play her own concerto. The musical voice of the composer seemed to be heavily influenced by Chopin in the opening Allegro maestoso, more when Buechner played than in the orchestral prelude.2022~Tchaikovsky Pathétique-04

That impression carried over into the ensuing Romanze, played without pause, where a nocturnal solo turned into an ardent cello sonata, Chopin’s preferred chamber music format. Principal cellist Alan Black played with admirably rich tone and expression, and only a couple of foreboding rumbles from principal timpanist Jacob Lipham were necessary to transition us to Schumann’s Allegro finale, probably the most individual of her three movements. Certainly it was the sunniest music of the evening so far, and gave Buechner her best opportunities to show us her power and finesse. A responsive exhilaration thundered back from the orchestra as Watanabe cued the heavy artillery.2022~Tchaikovsky Pathétique-26

Daniele Gatti and Charles Dutoit lead the list of notables who have presided over Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” in live Charlotte performances over the past 25 years, so there were plenty stellar quality comparisons that local music lovers could make between Watanabe and what they had heard live or on CD. With this touchstone of the classical repertoire, we could see that this American conductor was a stickler for detail, reveling in the sweep of phrases and subtle – or sudden – changes in dynamics. When Watanabe and Charlotte Symphony reached the sudden sforzando in Adagio-Allegro opening movement, they nearly punched my heart out as thoroughly as Dutoit had done when he led the Royal Philharmonic into Belk Theater in 2006. Aside from the meticulous detailing, pacing, and dynamics from Watanabe, the woodwind principals excelled, beginning with bassoonist Joshua Hood and culminating with Taylor Marino’s wondrous recap of the familiar “Summer Night” melody. The whole cello section gleamed, easing us into the luxurious Allegro con grazia second movement, gliding along in 5/4 tempo.

I had to worry that the wonderful Adagio-Allegro, so resplendently rendered, might draw a premature ovation from Symphony subscribers, but they managed to restrain themselves until the rousing penultimate Allegro molto vivace, which always garners a wild ovation. We could almost hear the march melody, which eventually becomes so overpowering and triumphant, bubbling up in little hints from near the beginning of the movement, so detailed was this performance – and Marino became more festive in his playing, adding some grain to his tone. Of course, the enduring shock and innovation of the “Pathétique” is its dark and somber final movement, a tenebrous descent that begins with three cellos and a tuba calling out; resolving lower, deeper, and softer with the cellos and basses; all treble a distant memory. Remarkable that Charlotte Symphony would program “Pathétique” and the similarly lugubrious Mahler Ninth less than a month apart, but they have now done well by both.

“Deadly Sins” Upstage Jazzy Ravel in Fun-Filled CSO Concert

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Ravel’s Piano Concerto

By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Ravel Piano Concerto-07

You could arguably call it a facelift. After Charlotte Symphony’s powerful performance of Mahler’s somber, morbid, mercurial, epic, and sometimes phantasmagorical Ninth Symphony, almost everything seemed changed two weeks later. A new conductor was onstage, Australia-born maestra Jessica Cottis, making her Queen City debut. All six guest artists were making their debuts in Symphony’s Classics Series, and even the site of their musicmaking was different, moving southward from Belk Theater at the Blumenthal PAC to Knight Theater at Levine Avenue of the Arts. Most transformative was the music, a kaleidoscopic multinational program connected by a distinct American thread.

The headliner on the program was Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto, last performed by Symphony in 2013 when the wondrous Pascal Rogé made his Belk Theater debut at the keyboard. Jesse Montgomery’s folksy, bluegrass-flavored Strum preceded the main event, when Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear seated himself at the Steinway. Cottis had plenty more excitement in store for us after intermission, plunging into Igor Stravinsky’s Circus Polka, for a Young Elephant – actually written at choreographer George Balanchine’s request in 1942 for Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey’s massive troupe of not-yet-controversial young elephants. Uncannily, another Balanchine commission rounded out the program, Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins (1932) with lyrics by Bertold Brecht – obviously written for people rather than pachyderms.2022~Ravel Piano Concerto-36

Nearly a year ago, Montgomery’s Starburst aptly keynoted a program that showcased Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (“A Little Night Music”). Longer and decidedly sunnier, Strum set the tone for CSO’s American evening as perfectly as the title readied us for a work written exclusively for strings. Reading Montgomery’s program notes, chronicling the various incarnations of the piece, we get the sense of experiencing its evolution as it unfolds, for it bounces around among three principal string players before beginning its breathtaking ascent to full power and beauty. Laying out the first pizzicatos, violist Benjamin Geller was soon joined by cellist Alan Black, strumming and then bowing. But it was concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu’s treacherous entrance that truly ignited the fray, triggering Montgomery’s ricochet effects and banjo-like strumming.

Honestly, the performance by CSO became a more massive, lovelier, and less ferocious thing than the studio version by the Catalyst Quartet on Montgomery’s 2015 Strum CD. With a full string orchestra came more majesty when the main melodies were revealed – and extra bite when the piece ended with a collective pizzicato. Nor are “folksy” and “bluegrass” any less flattering in describing Montgomery’s music here than they are in describing many of Aaron Copland’s signature works.2022~Ravel Piano Concerto-01

From the first time I saw him in 2017, playing all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in a single day at Savannah Music Festival, Goodyear stamped himself in my mind as a prodigious talent. Prior to those three three-hour immersions, Goodyear’s distillation of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, on his 2015 solo CD, had clued me in. The soloist starts at a disadvantage in the Ravel Piano Concerto, having to follow the famed whipcrack that launches the opening Allegramente. Not to worry, Goodyear showed his mastery of the bluesy and jazzy licks of the movement soon afterwards, and harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell had a lovely interlude.

Inspired by Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, Ravel’s middle movement drew absolutely mesmerizing lyricism from Goodyear, with English hornist Terry Maskin as stellar behind him as he was for Rogé. Yet everyone on the Knight stage seemed most inspired by the concluding Presto. Goodyear unleashed dazzling intensity and bravura, never easing up on the tempo, and the ensemble didn’t merely keep up: they seemed to be prodding their guest to play faster. Turbulence from the winds, brass, and percussion made the climax even more exhilarating.

Apparently, music for dancing elephant isn’t classified as ballet, since it doesn’t appear on The Robert Craft Edition of The Ballets on the notoriously completist Naxos label. Yet Stravinsky never disavowed his Balanchine bagatelle, conducting “Circus Polka” among his voluminous recordings of his own works, where it clocked in at a modest 3:27 on Columbia. Why this rambunctious crowdpleaser isn’t played more often as a concert appetizer is beyond me. While Cottis and the Symphony may have been a tad helter-skelter where Ravel called for more élan, they were marvelously attuned to Igor’s riotous absurdities, his brassy bombast, and the celebratory glee of his wild, galumphing jamboree. It seemed to start in mid-parade before the dainty spots hilariously evoked the pachyderm pixies.2022~Ravel Piano Concerto-31

The zaniness had hardly begun. Bass-baritone Reginald Powell, dressed in a flowery kitchen apron in order to portray the mother of our tempted/temptress heroine, led a barbershop quartet across the stage, sitting down at the end of their march behind a bank of microphones. Strange accessories for a classical concert. So Seven Deadly Sins was classical with a three-penny Kurt Weill twist. Nor was this an opera, though a cabaret table and some props were set in place before our chanteuse, soprano Lindsay Kesselman as Anna I + II, made her/their noire-ish entrance in a spymaster trench coat.2022~Ravel Piano Concerto-37

More than a hint of decadent vaudeville came with her, since each of the nine sections of Weill’s confection was heralded by an old-timey placard placed onto an easel. Prologue, Epilogue, Greed, and the gang were all embroidered with an apt skull-and-crossbones motif. Sad to say, much of this flavorful creativity was outweighed by Charlotte Symphony’s failure to provide supertitle projections once Anna I + II began vocalizing with her/their Family. A few audience members down with us in the orchestra section had the temerity to fire up their cellphones, where they had previously downloaded Symphony’s digital program, so they could follow along.

Not the best experience when you’re trying to keep up with columns of German and English on your iPhone while there is also action onstage to follow. The magnitude of this blunder would only be compounded if you returned home, flipped through the digital program, and discovered that the translation was written by life partners W.H. Auden & Chester Kallman, esteemed poets and librettists in their own rights – they worked on Stravinsky operas! Not only does their Deadly Sins translation rhyme, the syllable counts of every line meticulously match Brecht’s text. Learning that all five vocalists had North Carolina roots – and afterwards listening on Spotify to a recording with the Auden-Kallman lyrics – only deepened my incredulity.

Everyone at Knight Theater, singers and audience alike, could have been so comfortable, and all Brecht’s wit, irony, and satire could have been so clear!

Stepping up to one of mics, Cottis was helpful in her introductory remarks in laying out Brecht’s storyline, which is basically Anna’s odyssey across seven American cities on a mission to sustain her family back home in Louisiana, encountering one of the deadlies in each locale. Ideally, the Balanchine concept is fulfilled when Anna I is the soprano and Anna II is a sublime dancer. Part of the comedy that got lost when Kesselman was both Annas was in the lopsidedness of the dialogue between them. Anna II has very little to say.2022~Ravel Piano Concerto-28

The staging helped this decadent Weill bauble to upstage Ravel’s merriment – or at least prevented it from being an anticlimax. Kesselman soon peeled off her trench coat, revealing an evening dress as the Family’s Sloth along the Mississippi River transitioned to Pride as Anna II took a job in Memphis as a cabaret dancer. Anna added a flaming red boa encountering Wrath in LA, and an uncredited lighting designer made a similarly lurid choice illuminating the Knight’s acoustic shell. Purple became apropos for Gluttony in Philly, a lighter pinkish red presided over Lust in Boston, and a dark golden hue settled in over Baltimore when she battled Greed. So I had to think that nobody wanted to offend New York during the Great Depression.

Need we say that when Anna’s journeying ended with Envy in San Fran, where Kesselman made her final grand entrance as a rich celeb, totally soused and brandishing a nearly empty bottle of vodka, that the stage was flooded in a deep dark green? Didn’t think so.

A wonderful ending to a melodious, fun-filled, and dance-filled evening. Even without dancers. Facelift and uplift.

Symphony Arrives at Sublimity, Amping Up Mahler to Heavy-Metal Decibels Along the Way

Review: CSO Plays Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~CSO Mahler's Ninth-17

January 14, 2022, Charlotte, NC – When the new Compact Disc digital recordings were first heralded and released in the early 1980s, the mythic story began circulating from Sony and Philips that the dimensions and capacity of the new CD format were determined by its ability to present all of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on a single disc. Subsequent refinements to the technology increased the capacity of those discs from 74 minutes of music to 80, leaving Ludwig far out of the equation. The 80-minute capacity we see on today’s prerecorded discs and the recordable CD-Rs we might dub them onto is more suitable for containing Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – but only if conductor and orchestra are in a hurry. Only the very quickest of the many recordings of Mahler’s last completed orchestral work clock in at 79 or 80 minutes. Completing his Mahler Journey with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in his final season as music director, Christopher Warren-Green let it be known that his Ninth would be a more expansive 90-minute experience. There was no intermission at Belk Theater, and program booklets remain a strictly online affair.

Vaccination cards were scrutinized at both the outdoor entrances to the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center and at the indoor entrance from Founders Hall. My mom and I felt very comfortable with the social distancing downstairs in the orchestra section, but no such amenity was granted to subscribers who entered the hall from the lobby – in fact, I’ve never seen the Grand Tier more fully occupied, a gratifying affirmation of the Queen City’s Mahler enthusiasm. The balcony above looked similarly packed. Masking, of course, was compulsory, but ticketholders should chiefly be forewarned that vigilance was strictly enforced at the entrance to the orchestra section. Folks that were late for the first notes of the Mahler performance, between 7:35 and 7:40pm, were obliged to wait in front of TV monitors in the lobby until the conclusion of the opening Andante comodo movement at approximately 8:05.

Each of the outer movements, both preoccupied with mortality and dying, is as lengthy as the two inner movements combined. Only the second movement can be described as lighthearted, and all four are teeming with mood swings. Without adding audible gaps between episodes, recordings conducted by Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic are divided into 33 and 30 tracks respectively. Those seemed to be very conservative numbers when Warren-Green and Charlotte Symphony immersed themselves in the score, reveling in its seemingly countless contrasts. Emerging with the opening melody from a backdrop of cellos, basses, horns, and harp, the second violins emphatically signaled that all sections of the vast ensemble would have their chances to shine.

2022~CSO Mahler's Ninth-04

This was by far the most extensive instrumentation we had seen at either Belk Theater or Knight Theater since the beginning of the pandemic. From orchestra level, it was difficult to precisely count all the unmasked flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, French horn, and trumpet players arrayed behind the masked string sections. But the percussionists were plain enough when they stood up, either singly or as an ominous group, and there was additional space set aside, upstage and on the stage left wing, for the three trombones, two harps, and the tuba. Curving around stage right to the upstage was an armada that included timpani, a mighty bass drum, cymbals, a gong, snare drums, and tubular bells.

So the prospect of high-volume music was apparent before all the Symphony musicians were fully congregated. Yet when these expected Mahler explosions actually occurred, Mom and I were both taken aback by how loud they were. The difference between sitting at the rear of the grand tier late last spring and sitting in Row O below was compounded by the additional troops and artillery onstage. Earplugs weren’t quite necessary for these fortissimos, but rock-concert decibels weren’t far in the distance. Mom may have nodded off for a few seconds during Gershwin’s Lullaby last year or when Branford Marsalis luxuriated in the luscious Larghetto middle movement of Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera. Not this year. Onsets of trumpets, trombones, or percussion could be so sudden that, even if she didn’t revere Mahler, Mom wouldn’t dare close her eyes.

There were plenty of less aggressive surprises scattered across the lordly length of this symphony. In the epic Andante, the harpists reached out to pluck a bass line, and the mournful funereal dirge had the backbone of a military march, punctuated by the wan tubular bells. If you’re new to Mahler, the waltzing liveliness of the “Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers” (in the tempo of leisurely country dances) might catch you pleasantly off-guard – and what plan did the composer have for a triangle and cymbals playing in unison? The third movement Rondo-Burlesk was brimful of contrasts and contradictions as Warren-Green kept us on the lookout for the next twist. A busy, contrapuntal opening suggested a fugue with frolicsome and comical touches, but midway through this Burlesk, each of the orchestra’s sections seemed to have something soulful to say – not at all the path you would expect leading to a screaming conclusion.

2022~CSO Mahler's Ninth-15

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening came at the climax of the Adagio finale when a furious pounding of the big bass drum, topping off a majestic crescendo, suddenly gave way to – in the hushed blink of an eye – nearly total silence. This abrupt whisper of weepy violins, proved that Mahler’s precipitous subsidings can be almost as dramatic as his volcanic peaks. Most of Symphony’s principals distinguished themselves over the course of this epic evening, including oboist Hollis Ulaky, clarinetist Taylor Marino, cellist Alan Black, and concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, but the final movement underscored the special praise earned by French horn principal Byron Johns and principal flutist Victor Wang. Even Johns’ one little wobble on the horn came at an ideally aching moment, and Wang was merely perfection in the sublime epilogue.

Originally published on 1/15 at CVNC.org

Thorgy Brings Plenty of Christmas Cheer – and Drag Artistry – to the Queen City

Review: Charlotte Symphony Premieres A Very Thorgy Christmas

By Perry Tannenbaum

2021~Thorgy Xmas-37

The first thing to know about Thorgy Thor, a distinguished alum from the eighth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, is that she is outrageous. If political correctness is your passion, then the next thing to know is that I’ve chosen her pronouns after consulting the program for the world premiere of A Very Thorgy Christmas, performed with the Charlotte Symphony and resident conductor Christopher James Lees. The Wikipedia entry for Thor, née Shane Galligan, is a tossed salad of pronouns that doesn’t conclusively settle the question.

Headlining a Christmas show with a full symphony orchestra, Thorgy proved to have multiple talents. Not only did she serve as a guest violin soloist on three Christmas songs, she performed a standup monologue, screened a self-produced takeoff on an NPR podcast, presided like a gameshow host over a farcical giftwrap contest between four Symphony musicians, sang an autobiographical rewrite of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” and interviewed Lees a la late-night TV.2021~Thorgy Xmas-18

If Thorgy’s debut with Symphony in January 2020 had even half the variety and surprises of her Christmas extravaganza, it’s easy to understand why she was invited back so quickly – to basically do whatever she wished. The only restriction she acknowledged was an imposed limit of one f-bomb, and she certainly detonated that one with maximum impact. Lees and the ensemble began conventionally enough at Knight Theater for a very full house, launching into a merry rendition of “Joy to the World.” But the arrangement of this familiar carol soon became a mashup of several other carols and then an outright Christmas barrage – “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night” at the same time? – before I began to wonder what few Christmas carols might be left over after this extravagant overture.

Unlike Jack Benny or Henny Youngman, the only other violinist comedians I can reference, Thorgy took herself seriously as she came on to play “O Holy Night.” Her tone was actually quite beautiful when she played, even though the arrangement and tempo didn’t demand impressive dexterity. “Carol of the Bells,” played just before intermission, required fleeter fingering, but even with this more energetic fare, Thorgy was flawless, unstressed, and only wisecracked once or twice over her performance. More of her freewheeling flamboyance came out when she put away the lumber and spoke out. This Very Thorgy Christmas was clearly a 2021 edition if Thor has any intentions of reprising her show as a Yuletide tradition. Not only was the new show silly, as Thorgy herself off-handedly remarked, it was also ephemeral.

Thorgy’s monologue was largely about her upcoming prospects and what she had done during the pandemic. Her pandemic shenanigans were plentiful enough, in fact, to supply prime fodder for her next two comical exploits prior to intermission. In the first, she went through the lowlights of her stint as a cameo celeb, that seemingly wholesome profession of producing customized video greetings for clients’ loved ones. As the smut piled on, we quickly realized that Thorgy didn’t attract a Hallmark Cards clientele. In the NPR video she showed us afterwards, Thorgy and a fellow drag queen, rather sedately dressed for this studio format, interviewed a comparatively blue-collar guy named Chef Schwetty. Judging by the varied colors of the samples he brought with him, I’d say Schwetty was a pastry chef. Without adding flavors or adjectives, Schwetty described his specialty as balls. Needless to say, the two gay interviewers feasted on the possibilities.

2021~Thorgy Xmas-36.jpgMore signals came after intermission that a 2022 edition of Thorgy Christmas would undergo drastic changes, for it was obvious that Thor revels in surprises. Dispensing with the customary concert preludes served up by her symphonic hosts, Thorgy burst onto the stage and kicked things off with a brash “Jingle Bells” spot. Of course, she had changed her outfit during intermission – from an ensemble highlighted by garish red-and-green-striped slacks to a fiery, glittery, fuchsia spectacular. She almost visually jingled in this one-piece caprice, and she discarded her dazzling Dolly Parton white wig in favor of a towering brunette bouffant. Thorgy is rather tall already.

Genial, easygoing, and relaxed, Lees complemented his guest artist handsomely. After the opening overture pillaged a huge chunk of Christmas inventory, Lees allowed the orchestra to stray briefly from holiday fare with an excursion to Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King.” When he returned to the podium, after the screening of Thorgy’s cameos, he and his cohort basically coasted along with a couple of snatches from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, rep that they play repeatedly for Charlotte Ballet every December. After Thorgy made her splash to open the second half, Lees engaged with the Knight Theater audience to help him out with the whipcracks in Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” A woman in a lower box seat happened to have a black fan that made a whippier sound than our claps when she opened it, adding to the fun (especially when she was late).

Although the Knight audience was heavily infused with RuPaul devotees, the “12 Days of Christmas” parody was too crammed with obscure references to Thorgy’s misadventures on Drag Race and its All-Stars spinoff – and often too unintelligible – to garner universal laughter. And of course, the repetitions built into the familiar song didn’t help, a lesson for Thorgy to learn for her 2022 edition. After this partial misfire, Thorgy came up with her most hilarious bit of the night, the giftwrap contest with four surprisingly smart-alecky Symphony musicians. With a connoisseur’s unerring judgment, Thorgy chose four gifts for wrapping that offered maximum opportunity for failure and embarrassment: a cluster of inflated balloons, an open umbrella (closing it was strictly forbidden), a toilet plunger, and a broom and dustpan combo.

Like those frenetic cookoffs you may have watched on TV, the four wrappers had to cope with a tight time limit, so Lees and the orchestra timed the competition by performing… something. The action was too engrossing for me to take heed, but the ending and Thorgy’s flamboyant flourish were emphatic enough to signal the sudden frantic finish. The cluster of balloons proved to be disappointingly wrappable and humdrum, but the unopened umbrella was such a colossal fail that I found myself howling with laughter.2021~Thorgy Xmas-29

On the other hand, the wrapping for the plunger, cunningly separated into two pieces, was an absolute triumph. But flutist Jill O’Neill ultimately won the night – via a plurality of audience applause – with her amazing wrapping for the broom and dustpan. Audaciously rolling the merchandise on the floor helped O’Neill execute her design, and I suspect that adopting a witch persona as soon as she first held the broom helped to sway the judges. I was actually impressed by the rapport that Thorgy developed with each of the four contestants as they displayed their handiwork.2021~Thorgy Xmas-31

We gracefully glided homeward after this high-energy highlight, as Thorgy sat down for her cozy interview with Lees, occasionally prompting principal cellist Alan Black to imbibe from a tumbler of alcoholic beverage during the course of the conversation. Things became unexpectedly revelatory when, after a very personal question, Lees suddenly asked his interrogator if they could continue their conversation backstage later on. Some marital history soon followed. Those hilarious moments prevented the sitdown with Thorgy from becoming overly anticlimactic after the madcap giftwrap – and it segued nicely into Thorgy’s closing performance on violin, a beautiful and heartfelt “Silent Night.”

Originally published on 12/25 at CVNC.org

Lupanu and Friends Feed off Audience Energy in Return to Live Performance

Review: Connor Chamber Series at Tate Hall

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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While orchestral performances have sadly languished during the COVID pandemic, recently reviving in Charlotte and elsewhere in prudent baby steps, chamber music has flourished in online productions. Back on Memorial Day weekend, while the youth choir and orchestra remained sidelined for a second consecutive season at Spoleto Festival USA, chamber music restarted at Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, running a full slate of programming and replaying edited versions on YouTube. Not surprisingly, it has been principals of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, cellist Alan Black and concertmaster Calin Lupanu, who have most dramatically stepped forward to fill the void, each of them spearheading a series of chamber music concerts while the larger ensemble remained mute or muted. More encouraging, then, for those of us who love the intimacy and verve of chamber music, is that neither of these initiatives is in retreat now that audiences are vaccinated.

Thanks to the Connor Chamber Series, Lupanu could be seen at Tate Hall on the Central Piedmont Community campus while Symphony is returning to full strength, its mainstage classics series slated to launch at Knight Theater on October 15. Lupanu hosted the concert of works by Brahms and Anton Arensky, starting off together with Phillip Bush at the piano playing the Brahms Scherzo movement from the F-A-E Sonata, which was originally premiered by pianist Clara Schumann and violinist Joseph Joachim, for whom the piece was written in 1853. After this lively opening, Lupanu yielded the violin part for the Arensky Piano Trio No. 1, replaced by fellow Symphony musicians Monica Boboc and cellist Marlene Ballena. Lupanu returned after intermission – inserted to give Bush a rest, he jested – for the finale, the Brahms Piano Trio No. 1, written just a year after his Scherzo.

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The Tate immediately proved hospitable to Lupanu’s violin in the Brahms Scherzo, which also drew movements by Robert Schumann and his pupil, Albert Dietrich. On the other hand, the treble breathed more freely from the Steinway than the bass end of its keyboard, perhaps because of its nearness to the upstage wall. The music, Lupanu’s placement downstage, and the excitement of playing chamber music for a live audience after 18 months of performing for mics and cameras (if at all) were all good reasons for the violinist to excel more than usual. Coming out and masking up, seeing the masked musicians onstage taking up their share of the pandemic risk and responsibility, the audience was also primed to be exceptionally receptive. Lupanu may have seen the enthusiasm in the audience’s eyes as he looked out on us, but he couldn’t help feeling the free, propulsive spirit of Bush behind him, very much inside the music, spurring him on to be better and better.

Arensky’s trio has been on my radar ever since pianist Yefim Bronfman headlined a Sony recording of the piece over 25 years ago (paired with an even more electrifying Tchaikovsky trio), so it was not surprising to see Bush assert more leadership. Yet both of the string players acquitted themselves admirably in each of the D minor’s four movements. A beautiful violin melody from Boboc at the top of the opening Allegro moderato was echoed in more abbreviated form by Ballena’s cello, yet it was likely that hearing Ballena’s cello so much more clearly in live performance put me in mind of Dvorak’s chamber pieces. Boboc captured the lightness of the ensuing Scherzo, but it was Ballena who became the prime advocate when that movement slowed to its more luxuriant Meno mosso tempo.

 

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Bush’s sound, at times downright impressionistic, was the most distinctive element in the elegiac Adagio. Yet Boboc was also disarming, playing low enough on her violin to be mistaken for a cello if you weren’t watching. Not to be outdone, Ballena played even lower when we arrived at her spot. It was in the Allegro finale that Arensky finally matched the turbulence we had heard from Brahms. Bush assaulted the Steinway with a barrage of three-chord phrases while the strings stirred up the heat. Then he turned down the volume and the tempo in a poignant passage of four-note phases. Now it was the strings’ turn to dominate, Boboc and Ballena vying in eloquence as they demonstrated how lyrical and affecting those same phrases could be that Bush had played so feverishly.

Looking at the attentiveness of Bush and Ballena throughout the Brahms B Major trio, we could assume that Lupanu held the reins, yet there was admirable parity between the parts. Ballena’s cello sang out introducing the theme of the opening Allegro brio, and she had a transporting spot in the penultimate Adagio. Bush was pre-eminent in setting the tone, restless amid the shifting tempos of the opening movement, dreamy in his intro to the Adagio before the strings interceded with their sacramental harmonies, but most mischievous in the even-numbered movements. The second-movement Scherzo suddenly pivoted from a beguiling waltz tempo to a manic chromatic outburst that presaged Shostakovich, up in the treble where the Steinway fared best, and the grandeur he imparted to the Allegro con brio finale was star-spangled American. For Lupanu to dominate amid these exploits from his partners, projecting the joy of the Scherzo and the triumph of the Finale, was quite impressive.

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

Review:  Branford Marsalis Plays Ibert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preview:  Performing Arts Return to Charlotte

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.”

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.