Tag Archives: Amy Orsinger Whitehead

Beethoven’s Fifth Recaptures Its Elemental Fire

Review:  Beethoven’s Fifth

By Perry Tannenbaum

Meeting an anticipated demand, Charlotte Symphony is programming their 2018-19 season opener, Beethoven’s Fifth, for three concerts instead of the usual two – and meeting subscribers’ hopes, they’re playing it beautifully. Leading off their season with an all-Beethoven program, music director Christopher Warren-Green and his ensemble weren’t exactly blazing new trails.

Last fall, Symphony also led off all-Beethoven, playing his mighty Ninth, and followed that program with more Beethoven in two of the next three concerts. So if anything, Symphony is tapering off on their Beethoven offerings this year – but not ignoring their audience’s rabid enthusiasm for his music. What’s impressive is that the musicians have maintained their enthusiasm as well.

A surprisingly small contingent, less than 50 players by my count, came out and played the “Overture to The Ruins of Athens,” one of Beethoven’s less familiar orchestral works, before guest soloist Garrick Ohlsson came out to perform the Piano Concerto No. 4. I couldn’t detect much desolation in The Ruins after its slightly gloomy intro. The first oboe statement was like a dewy sunrise, triggering a burst of orchestral merriment that drew a festive rejoinder from the oboe and jollity from the two flutes fluttering over the bassoons.

Such a charming appetizer! Then a big video screen descended from the Belk Theater proscenium, and the Steinway was wheeled to centerstage.

Ohlsson’s last appearance with Symphony was back in the early ‘90s, long before an overhead shot of the keyboard could disclose the size of this man’s hands for all to see as he attacked the keyboard. Those prodigious digits didn’t quite stop moving long enough for a conclusive measurement, but it sure looked like his pinkies were as large as the black keys. With that view, what was perhaps most impressive about Ohlsson in the first two movements was his delicacy and grace.

The opening Allegro moderato shuttled between swift, powerful passages and soft lyrical episodes. Ohlsson played both admirably, effortlessly, trilling with both hands simultaneously and, in the dramatic cadenza, clearly articulating its counterpoint. Warren-Green asserted himself more noticeably in the middle Andante con moto movement, so that it became a dreamy dialogue.

Every note of the concerto sounded fresh and new – until we slid into the familiar final movement with hardly a pause. Everyone onstage lit into it with gusto, the swift finger work at the start of this Rondo presenting no difficulty at all for Ohlsson, who proved that he was holding his full power in reserve for this celebratory climax. Ebb and flow weren’t so much about tempo here as they were about dynamics. Ohlsson and Warren-Green meshed beautifully to sculpt the loud and soft moments in a most satisfying way.

As the program notes on the concerto pointed out, it was especially fitting that Symphony had paired Piano No. 4 with the Fifth Symphony, for they were both premiered on the same December evening in 1808 – at a concert in Vienna, where Beethoven played and conducted. That marathon event also unveiled the Sixth Symphony, the Choral Fantasy, four movements of the Mass in C, and the “Ah! Perfido” aria for soprano. Although Warren-Green didn’t mention this historic landmark, when Beethoven would play for the last time in public due to approaching deafness, you can bet he was aware of it.

Six years ago, when Warren-Green conducted the concerto for the first time at Belk Theater, he paired it with Symphony No. 4, also in an all-Beethoven concert that launched the season. On that occasion, Warren-Green did mention that the very first time Beethoven performed the piece in a private concert at the palace of his patron Prince Joseph Lobkowitz in March 1807, he also conducted his Fourth Symphony.

This time around, Maestro called our attention to the fateful opening of Symphony No. 5, “the most famous four notes in the history of music,” saying that this was also the most familiar instance of Beethoven utilizing the music of the French Revolution, something he did throughout his career. Well, that pungent insight illuminated the entire symphony for me. Partly because of Warren-Green’s remarks, a piece that I had come to regard – and describe – as the most perfect ever written became freshly infused with its revolutionary spirit and elemental fire. Repeated hearings of recorded performance, I realized, had dimmed that fire for me.

Even in the relatively quiescent third movement, mostly notable for its 3/4 time and exquisite pizzicatos, there are brief outbreaks of revolutionary marching spirit, and afterwards, a gentle thrumming of the seething timpani as the whole simmering string section comes majestically to a boil and explodes – with a mighty entrance of trumpets – into the joyous, triumphant finale.

From the outset, Warren-Green spikes the sforzandos with terrific force, but the opening Allegro also features fine spots by principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and the French hornist to mellow the brew. It’s the trumpets that ignite the revolutionary fervor at the beginning of second movement Andante, exactly the kind of march that Warren-Green’s prefatory remarks suggested, but you’ll also hit a heavenly patch from the cellos that struck me as a foretaste of Wagner’s Rhein at this listen. Wonderful hushes of strings here hit me as one of the underappreciated reasons why we adore Beethoven. Some exquisite work lightly showered from flutists Amy Orsinger Whitehead and principal Victor Wang.

Maybe Erinn Frechette as well. From my vantage point up in the Grand Tier, I didn’t notice her until I heard her amid the tutti of the final Allegro, when she picked up her Little David of instruments, the piccolo. There she was, perfectly obscured in my line of sight behind Warren-Green! By contrast, I had noticed the elephantine contrabassoon lying neglected on its stand all evening. Only when the whole orchestra was wailing underneath Frechette in the symphony’s full-throated climax did I realize that Lori Tiberio had picked up her lumbering Goliath and was playing with everyone else. Why Beethoven had bothered with her and her contrabassoon I couldn’t say, for I cannot claim to have heard a single note.

I’m sure it was there. But I’ll stop short of making another claim, for I’d likely be surrendering a chunk of my judicial credibility if I told you that Beethoven not only wrote more stirring movements than the immortal “Da-da-da-DAA,” but that one of them is just a short distance down the road in the same Fifth Symphony. That’s one key reason why you need to experience this orchestra playing this music in live performance at the Belk.

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Charlotte Symphony Spotlights the Balcony in “Romeo and Juliet” Tribute

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By Perry Tannenbaum

May 20, 2016, Charlotte, NC – A distinguished scholar who taught my undergrad Shakespeare course once told us that a precious folio edition of the Bard’s plays was on display at one of England’s most prestigious libraries, available to all to peruse, and that the most well-worn page in the whole book – by far – was the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. “Rightly so,” she added after a brief pause, defusing my presumption that she was about to sneer at popular taste. Charlotte Symphony Orchestra musical director Christopher Warren-Green might very well agree with my professor’s sentiments, for at the latest KnightSounds concert, he programmed that scene twice in succession, underscoring the fact that we still haven’t tired of that balcony 400 years after Shakespeare’s death.

Helping the demonstration at Knight Theater were emissaries from UNC Charlotte’s Theatre Department and Charlotte Ballet. Charlotte-based soprano Melinda Whittington helped to similarly double-underline the appeal of two other prime Juliet moments. So in the space of a mere 70 minutes, 50 less than the “two hours’ traffic of our stage” promised in the tragedy’s prologue, we not only had orchestral and operatic works inspired by Shakespeare’s first great tragedy, we had the lovers themselves speaking the lines of their most memorable scenes.

Tchaikovsky, Gounod, Prokofiev, and Nino Rota all took their cues from the blank verse and rhymed couplets in different ways. Of course, Tchaikovsky’s famed Fantasy-Overture wasn’t written for any specific production of Romeo and Juliet. With three fully developed themes for Friar Lawrence, the Montague-Capulet strife, and the R&J romance, the flavor of the piece is more like a Liszt tone poem than a true overture. About half the size of a Tchaikovsky symphony, the KnightSounds performance quickly offered us opportunities to savor the work of the clarinets, the double basses, the violins, the French horns, the cellos, the flutes, and harpist Andrea Mumm.

At the same time, the performance was streamed outdoors to the plaza at the nearby plaza on the Levine Avenue of Arts, and the screen hovering above the Knight Theater stage gave us the pleasure of seeing what the outdoor audience saw with the added thrill of the live sound. There were more than enough cameras deftly at work to prove that this video production had been nearly as meticulously rehearsed as the music. We didn’t cut to the French horns or the cellos in the early going, and the cameras later settled on the second violins too late and missed English hornist Terry Maskin entirely. Yet overall, direction was quite polished.

Romeo & Juliet 'Plazacast' Closes KnightSounds Sitting toward the front of the orchestra, I found that the cameras consistently revealed who was playing upstage when the musicians in front of them blocked my sightline. My fears of being overwhelmed by the sheer loudness of the orchestra were also allayed: the acoustic shell that graces the Knight stage gathers in the orchestral sound while still allowing it to breathe. This was different from the old school presentation that the CSO brought us of the Fantasy-Overture at Belk Theater in 2011, and while there was little to prefer musically at either performance, I have to say that the camera work lifted the current experience above the one I praised five years ago, enriching what I saw and heard then with occasional close-ups of Warren-Green’s expressions.

I had little hopes for the UNC Charlotte segments of the evening, with Jennifer Huddleston appearing as Juliet and Sammy Hajmahmoud as Romeo. When their stage director, Professor Andrew Hartley, appeared onstage to recite Shakespeare’s prologue, he didn’t exactly fire up my hopes. Nor was I initially impressed with Hajmahmoud when he initially came onstage to launch the party scene where the masked Romeo first meets Juliet. But Huddleston was pure luminosity as Juliet, instantly proving the advantage of casting the role as youthfully as possible. The glow of her performance magically turned Hajmahmoud’s halting awkwardnesses into virtues and he gradually relaxed into Romeo, further igniting their chemistry. Together they grew irresistibly charming, somewhat upstaging their elders when they followed.

13263907_1718667768397005_7712306438347482717_nAfter Huddleston, Whittington seemed woefully mature as Juliette singing the bubbly “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s opera. The costume she wore was comparatively formal and neither the suppleness of her coloratura nor the lightness of her tone matched what we hear from elite sopranos in this showpiece. But she returned later in the concert and absolutely scorched Juliette’s “Potion Aria,” demonstrating the power that opera can add to turbulent moments of indecision. Huddleston and Hajmahmoud do all the potions and suicides as well, but their most glorious moments – and Hartley’s as well – come when they do the balcony scene.

Romeo initiates the scene onstage, but a spotlight cues us to the likelihood that Juliet will appear in the box seat section of the Knight’s balcony. It’s absolutely sublime when she does. Part of the magic is sculptural, after all, for the moonlit Juliet is not only more divine at a height, Romeo is more ardent and worshipful below her with his upward gaze. Hartley played around with the usual blocking and Romeo’s climbing up and down, but somehow he contrived to have Juliet down at the orchestra level and onstage for the latter half of the scene and its exquisite farewells.

The “Balcony Scene Pas de Deux” from Prokofiev’s ballet score had to follow this sublimity, and the presence of two eminent Charlotte Ballet principals, Josh Hall and Alexandra Ball, helped to ease the descent. Hall and Ball were so impressive, in fact, that I fairly well ignored Prokofiev’s music and the excellence of the orchestra. But as majestic as the lifts were – Ball’s hands as she rises have a musicality that most ballerinas can only envy – the sculptural advantages of the theatrical staging we had just seen were surrendered, along with Hajmahmoud’s touching awkwardness and Huddleston’s youth. An impossibly acrobatic final kiss partially compensated for those missing elements

After the stunning sequence of balcony scenes and potion scenes, the concert grew more somber with Rota’s “Romeo and Juliet: A Renaissance Timepiece” and Hartley’s pronouncement of the tragedy’s concluding lines. Until I heard CSO’s performance, I’d assumed that the Rota melody most familiar to me was his “Theme from The Godfather.” As often as I’ve heard that tune over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d heard Rota’s Romeo and Juliet melody even more often. The familiar melody nestles nicely in a composition that has more to offer, with some gorgeous work from Mumm, oboist Hollis Ulaky, and flutists Amy Orsinger Whitehead and Erica Cice.

An evening that I expected to be pleasantly light and superficial turned out to be rich and deeply satisfying. Programs were in the funky style that usually characterizes the KnightSounds series, but they are augmented by the Charlotte Symphony app that can be downloaded to your smartphone. You can get bios of the featured professionals from this app as you ease into your seat – it’s general admission, so early arrival can be recommended. While I couldn’t confirm my suspicion that Charlotte Ballet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux was the choreographer, the app did supply translations of the Gounod arias.