Tag Archives: Alan Black

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.

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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.

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