Tag Archives: Benjamin Geller

On Your Toes for a Lively Mix of Mozart, Meyer, and Wirén

Review: Burgeoning optimism could be found in Symphony’s most recent Mozart + Wirén concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Unless a fourth wave of COVID-19 takes us by surprise and the 2020-21 season has to be “reimagined” yet again, Charlotte Symphony seems to be moving slowly, cautiously back towards full-sized concerts with their entire orchestra. Later this month, principal harpist Andrea Mumm will be reunited with the string players, taking a lead role in Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane, and next month, we can look forward to Mozart’s beloved Symphony No. 40, presumably with a full complement of woodwinds. As I sit down to write, Haydn’s Symphony No. 64 has been announced for May, bringing us oboes and horns. Meanwhile a fresh series of five outdoor concerts has been scheduled this spring at the NoDa Brewing Company, all on Tuesdays, with a discreet 7:00pm starting time, improving our chances of keeping warm.

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Another harbinger of spring and burgeoning optimism could be found in Symphony’s most recent Mozart + Wirén concert. Back in February at the Holst + Elgar concert, only Holst’s St. Paul Suite was lively and sunny enough to get musical director Christopher Warren-Green jumping up and down on the podium. Check out the webcast of the Mozart + Wirén program, still replaying online, and you’ll find that both of these composers had the same effect, Mozart with his Divertimento for Strings in D major and Swedish composer Dag Wirén with his Serenade for Strings. In between these two, Warren-Green offered the Charlotte premiere of Jessica Meyer’s Slow Burn, a piece originally devised two years ago to accompany a burlesque dancer in Saratoga. Jumping was probably not the proper response.

Mozart wrote no fewer than five Divertmenti in D Major, so it’s necessary to add that this was the earliest, K. 136, written at the age of 16 – or that it’s the one Divertimento that Yehudi Menuhin recorded in his Mozart collection for Virgin Classics, leading the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne. The youthful energy of the piece burst immediately upon us in the opening Allegro, with churning propulsion from the lower strings and lithe buoyancy from the violins and violas. Dynamics undulated with the floating grace of a glider as the steady churning continued below in rhythmic waves. The sound of the Knight Theater space added the faintest echo, and the airiness of the sound recording was close to the standard set for this piece by the Seiji Ozawa recording of 1994.

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Coming after this sunny effervescence, the middle Andante was so sweet and nostalgic, reminding me of one of the first Mozart pieces I was able to master on the piano more than 60 years ago. Lovely as it is, it was the only one of the three movements that could be imagined as royal background music, which is how a divertimento is normally regarded – and what resident conductor Christopher James Lees warned us against expecting in his introductory remarks. Attcked by the strings with at least as much zest as the Allegro, the closing Presto commanded attention, six staccato notes followed by the kind of explosive ignition we associate with Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which Symphony performed just a month ago. Along with the exciting flux of dynamics, there were also zigs and zags of tempo navigated by Warren-Green, layers of repetition from the three main string sections overlapping one another. The ensemble surpassed themselves with their legerity and clarity in long, swift sweeps of melody.

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Slow or not, Meyer’s dancer evidently preferred to ply her trade in a steady 4/4 time as the piece began, with suggestive gestures from principal violist Benjamin Geller, principal second violin Oliver Kot, and concertmaster Calin Lupanu. Action halted before these solo voices – and after slaps on the double basses that sounded like whip cracks. Resuming the Burn, the music slid into swooning glissandos that allowed the dancer to surrender as much as her audience. Urgency and fury crept in as the tempo accelerated with frequent slaps on the basses, alternating with jazzy pizzicatos. The next halt gave way to a longer statement from Geller on viola that triggered a more frantic acceleration from the orchestra than before, this final gallop prodded by a constant cracking on the necks and sides of the two basses. What a dancer would do at this climax was enticing to imagine. Certainly it would be more like a flamenco flowering than a bump and grind.

Wirén had never crossed my radar before this Charlotte Symphony debut. He merits only a brief paragraph in my two music cyclopedias and only three entries in my last copy of the Penguin Guide, which did declare Wirén’s Serenade of 1937 to have been his greatest international hit. Apple Music is a better place than Spotify to hunt for it, but Symphony’s account was as exemplary as its previous two performances. Lees peeped in for another intro, describing the piece as a blend Mozart lightness and 1930s Paris, where Wirén studied composition. With long sweeping melodic phrases from the violins conveying Mozartian lightness, the opening Preludium had the urban bustle of Gershwin’s Paris – or the Londons evoked by Eric Coates and Noël Coward – and Symphony was not at all tentative about zooming into the cityscape. The cellos and double basses actually injected a heavy, foreboding undertow at times, as if a spot of rain were on the way or the specter of a traffic jam.

The rustic quality presaged by Lees in his intro was further delayed by the Andante espressivo, which began softly with pizzicatos spanning the Knight stage followed by an outbreak of melancholy from the second violins. First violins only intensified the poignancy when they layered on with their bowing, taking us further into solemnity and coloring it faintly with regret. A second round of pizzicatos from the lower strings led into deeper keening from the violas, intensified by another onset of the violins. Cellos blended with violins before a concluding pizzicato hush. The ensuing Scherzo was where Wirén finally fulfilled Lees’ rustic description, though I’d have to guess that the composer had Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony closer to heart than anything Mozart wrote, and a few notes struck up by the second violins had a kinship with “Willow Weep for Me,” written five years earlier by Ann Ronell and dedicated to Gershwin. Amid the hairpin turns of this impetuous movement, interspersed with the laughter of the violins, the cellos took over briefly with their sobriety.

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With violas, cellos, and basses beating their bows on their strings, the beat of the final grand march began, reminding me most vividly of Coates’s British pomp. But here we swerved dramatically, slowing down for our first genuine B section of the evening before circling back to the forceful main theme. This Marcía is the movement that is most excerpted from this most popular Wirén work, and there’s nothing subtle about its appeal. Little strums from the basses thicken its pulse and there are moments when the beat is so strong that you could suspect a drum or two lurking somewhere offstage. Its giddy spirit had Warren-Green on his toes, waving his arms with the sweep of it all, and ultimately jumping. For joy, no doubt.

All-English Symphony Program Moves from Wintry Dreariness to Triumphant Jollity

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Holst + Elgar

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Assailed by the ongoing pandemic, the postponement of vaccinations, and a midwinter cold snap, we must be contented when we receive short rations of Edward Elgar without pomp or percussion and William Walton’s Henry V without winds or brass. In fact, since Charlotte Symphony music director Christopher Warren-Green often shuttles back and forth across the Atlantic to lead our Queen City orchestra and the London Chamber Orchestra, we’re rather fortunate just to have him on the podium at Knight Theater conducting an all-English program. Traveling by air between the UK and the US has become uncertain in recent months, due to the mutating coronavirus, and restrictions pushed Symphony’s Holst + Elgar offering from January 23 into February. Electricity can also be capricious when the Arctic is riled: Texas is merely the most notorious state plagued by power outages this month, not the only one.

We’ve heard more than a couple of Serenades since Symphony returned, string players only, reconfiguring its 2020-21 season and fine tuning on-the-fly. Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor was certainly not the peppiest or the most sweeping of the breed, but Warren-Green, stressing the harmonic blend of the piece instead of its rhythmic flow, gave us a drearier reading than I would have hoped for, particularly in the first two movements, a tranquil and dreamy Allegro piacevole followed by a sleepier Larghetto. Only in the concluding Allegretto did Warren-Green abandon extreme delicacy and pick up his baton. Only now did the orchestra’s energy compare with the more light-hearted Sir Roger Norrington recording of the piece. Here there was more melodic dialogue between the upper and lower strings, more satisfying swells in the sway of the dynamics.

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Although Walton’s Two Pieces for Strings from Henry V have been paired on commercial recordings, they are hardly a representative foretaste of the full musical score written for the 1945 film starring – and directed by – Laurence Olivier. Elsewhere in the score, in places such as the “Charge and Battle” and the “Agincourt Song” collected in more extensive suites, Warren-Green could parade Symphony’s winds, brass, and percussion. Mightily. “Death of Falstaff” and “Touch Her Soft Lips and Part” are soft, brief, and fragile flowers compared to those sturdy oaks, yet they were more affecting than the Elgar pieces. The Passacaglia for Sir John was quiet and grave, almost but not quite a dirge, and the “Soft Lips” was tenderly suffused with pure and chaste ardor, tinged with the sorrow of soldiers’ farewells. Count me as enthusiastically supportive if Warren-Green opts to program a fuller representation of this Henry V score when he can bring the full Symphony to the task.

If we longed for music that quietly reflected our mood during these cold, gray, homebound winter days and nights, then these Elgar and Walton works more than fulfilled their mission, but if it was uplift that we sought, then Gustav Holst’s St Paul’s Suite in C Major was a perfect tonic. Warren-Green’s anecdote about meeting Olivier and Walton after a performance of the Henry pieces was by far the most appealing of his intros. Warren-Green had been onstage as the concertmaster that night, and the actor and the composer had vied ridiculously with each other at the post-performance reception to be more modest about his contribution to that celebrated film. Yet the insight into Holst, when Warren-Green visited the St. Paul’s Girls School in London, was also fascinating. Holst taught at the school, eventually becoming its music director, and a soundproof room was built specially for him at the school where he composed his most famous work, The Planets, as well as this more modest suite.

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To be honest, St. Paul’s sounds more like it was written in the middle of the girls’ playground on a bright sunny spring morning with the children running and squealing in all directions around the composer, especially in the effervescent outer movements. Amid the lively opening Vivace, ebulliently labeled as a Jig, it was inspiring to see Warren-Green jumping up and down on the podium again, excitedly gesticulating after maintaining his British dignity for these many months. The liveliness spread across the Knight stage, and I strongly suspect that the masked faces of the Symphony musicians were smiling. Even the middle movements had a youthful élan. The second movement was a quiet Ostinato at a Presto pace, with concertmaster Calin Lupanu floating a melody over the subdued churning of the upper strings and pizzicatos from the cellos. Lupanu’s soloing resumed in the Intermezzo, where we slowed to Andante con moto and principal violist Benjamin Geller took a couple of turns in the solo spotlight. Here again, a Vivace interlude abruptly shed its orchestral sunlight before we reverted to a slower tempo, ending with a sedate string quartet led by Lupanu.

Jollity reigned when we arrived at Holst’s Finale, an Allegro that riffs on an English folk tune, “The Dargason,” sounding even merrier than the opening Jig, and certainly more familiar. Holst further enhanced the merriment and complexity of his composition by giving the cellos the undercover assignment of introducing the ancient melody of “Greensleeves” under the main theme. No problem if you missed “Greensleeves” while it was part of the cellos’ stealth operation, because it became gloriously dominant when it was reprised. The infectious “Dargason” was not to be suppressed for long, interweaving so well with “Greensleeves,” and Lupanu had one more tasty little cadenza before the full string orchestra pounced on the final fortissimo chords.