Tag Archives: Byron Johns

Jinjoo Cho and Joshua Gerson Make Impressive Belk Debuts

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Barber’s Violin Concerto

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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March 25, 2022, Charlotte, NC – While Christopher Warren-Green’s tenure as music director at Charlotte Symphony winds down, as he transitions to the roles of conductor laureate and artistic adviser in seasons to come, the appearances of guest conductors at Belk Theater and Knight Theater are gaining an extra aura, an extra sparkle of excitement. For this stately parade of baton-wielders can now be construed as a prolonged set of auditions as audiences, Symphony execs, and orchestra musicians make up their minds on who should follow in maestro Warren-Green’s footsteps. Suddenly, everything going on behind the scenes at Symphony is freshly cloaked in intrigue.

Was the absence of Kwamé Ryan, listed on our own calendar as guest conductor, a last-minute indication that he is fielding offers elsewhere and withdrawing from candidacy? Was his replacement, Joshua Gersen from the New York Phil and the New World Symphony, a hot new prospect for our upcoming vacancy, or was Symphony’s substitution based on Gerson’s availability and preparedness for the planned program? With Jinjoo Cho slated to play Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto as the headline piece, Gerson’s readiness needed to be on par with the musicians’ for that work, since they had presumably mastered their parts sufficiently to greet Cho and Gerson at rehearsals when they arrived.

No notice of the substitution came our way via email, but changes weren’t so last-minute that Symphony’s program booklet couldn’t be changed in time for Cho’s Charlotte debut with Gerson. Digital brochures, thankfully, can be altered more nimbly than printed editions, the pre-pandemic norm. Impressively enough, Gerson was able to conduct the preamble to Cho’s appearance, Errollyn Wallen’s Mighty River, a 2007 British piece that certainly isn’t standard rep. César Franck’s Symphony in D minor, however, had to be jettisoned, replaced after intermission by Robert Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony No. 3. Some of the answers about what was going on behind the scenes were answered – you have to pay attention, folks! – by the announcement of Symphony’s 2022-23 season earlier in the week. Ryan resurfaces as one of the 10 guest conductors who will continue the pageant of candidates, and Franck’s Symphony also resurfaces as part of next season’s classics playlist, but they are no longer linked on the same program.2022~Barber Violin-02

Subscribers who were not attuned to these program and performer shuffles probably didn’t notice any significant glitches. I’d have to say that Symphony’s musicians not only rose to the occasion but were energized by its challenges. If that didn’t happen before they assembled on the Knight Theater stage, then Gerson’s extended and enthusiastic introduction to the music could have provided the spark. As relaxed and genial as he was speaking to the audience, Gerson was as instantly intense when he faced away from us to his musicians.

Born in Belize in 1958, Wallen was commissioned to write a piece celebrating the bicentennial of the repeal of the Slave Trade Act. Since the British Parliament passed that landmark legislation on March 25, 1807, Charlotte Symphony’s first performance of the piece was a celebration in itself, staged exactly 215 years later. Principal French hornist Byron Johns, played no small part in assuring that the debut was a success, playing the affecting “Amazing Grace” melody that frames Wallen’s composition and often infuses it throughout. The title was Wallen’s affirmation of the flow of history toward freedom, driven by the yearning and pursuit of all who respond to their human instincts and nature’s law. Horns and strings wasted no time in percolating their evocations of that flow. Principal timpanist Jacob Lipham furnished the most distinctive landmarks along the way, with principal harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell adding vivid detail, supplemented by Erinn Frechette tweedling her piccolo. Wallen handed off solo honors to the oboe, flute, and other winds before handing it back to Johns, with principals Hollis Ulaky on the oboe and flutist Victor Wang making their colors count the most.2022~Barber Violin-19

We’ve seen both Joshua Bell and Elmar Oliveira playing the Barber concerto here in Charlotte over the past 25 years, so to say that Cho’s performance with Gerson eclipsed them both is no small claim. Head-to-head, Cho generated more electricity than Oliveira, and behind the glamorous violinist, Gerson and the Charlotte Symphony got out of her way more deftly than the Houston Symphony and Christoph Eschenbach were able to manage in 1998. Cho was sublime in the opening Allegro and seemed to summon a special ardor from Gerson and the orchestra in their response – I don’t think we ever did get enough of the catchy main theme.

In the hushed Andante that followed, Cho may have been even more magical, more transported by the score. The concluding Presto in moto perpetuo, rewritten according to Gerson to provide a greater challenge to the soloist, seemed to become a new and spontaneous challenge that Cho and the orchestra hurled back at each other. There actually was a pause for the native Korean to gather herself as the ensemble rushed on. After a visible deep breath, Cho’s fresh onslaught was even more fiery and swift.2022~Barber Violin-24

The power of the Barber drove a fellow critic and his spouse to the back of the hall after intermission, but the Schumann proved worthy of staying for, not at all an anticlimax. The zest and drive of the opening Lebhaft of the “Rhenish” were unlike anything I’d heard in live performances before – certainly better than anything on the complete set of Schumann symphonies by Roy Goodman and the Hanover Band, ballyhooed as the first complete recording on period instruments (and a complete RCA dud). No, you have to listen to the John Eliot Gardiner set on DGG, also on period instruments, to find an equal to the glories unfolded at Knight Theater by our Symphony.

Gerson didn’t quite achieve the lightning bolts you’ll hear from Gardiner in the opening movement, though he sustained a wondrous sense of expectancy in the relatively quieter section between the great pinnacles. The middle movements, culminating in the rich heraldry and solemnity of the penultimate Feirlich fourth movement, achieved parity with Gardiner’s benchmark recording for me. But it was the grand military Lebhaft finale where Gerson and Symphony surpassed what was previously on record, establishing a new highwater mark for the “Rhenish.”

Originally published on 3/27 at CVNC.org

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.

Originally published on 2/27 at CVNC.org

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

Review: CSO Plays Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

Despite Benched Clarinets, Charlotte Symphony Shines in Mozart and Handel

Review: Mozart’s Great G Minor Symphony at Belk Theater

By Perry Tannenbaum

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April 24, 2021, Charlotte, NC – Exactly one year after I last saw the Charlotte Symphony in live performance at Belk Theater, the Orchestra returned to that same stage with music director Christopher Warren-Green at the podium. Much had changed. String players were all masked in the midst of the ongoing pandemic – and socially distanced, reducing their number to 22. Performing with the Symphony strings for the first time in a year, seven wind players were spread out across the upstage, socially distanced from one another, even more distanced from the strings, and slightly elevated above them.

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Apparently, the spread left no room for the two clarinets that Mozart added to his revised version of Symphony No. 40, so originalism was forced to prevail. The most heartbreaking austerity, however, was the continued absence of an audience, myself included. Keeping Mozart under wraps for seven Saturdays, along with Handel’s “Entrance of the Queen of Sheba,” Symphony did not stream their March 6 concert until this past weekend.

That seemed more than ample time to perfect the audio and engineering for prime time, but when I screened the concert on Saturday on my desktop computer, feeding the audio to my estimable home theater setup, my audiophile sensibilities were appalled by the missing clarity, definition, transparency, and stereo imaging that emerged from my loudspeakers. Hoping for an enhanced experience, I switched to the YouTube version and streamed the concert through the same sound system on Chromecast.

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The difference was decisive. All the sounds blossomed and fell into place. It was emotional for me just to see principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and principal English hornist Terry Maskin returning to action on Saturday night after their long absence, playing prominent roles almost from the opening measures as they personified the Queen of Sheba while the strings represented King Solomon and his court. But I needed the YouTube version to discern Maskin layering onto Ulaky with a second oboe and to fully savor the beauty of their duets.

“Entrance of the Queen of Sheba” might seem to demand a solemn, stately tempo to evoke the arrival of a monarch bearing gifts and questions, but Warren-Green took the music from Act 3 of Solomon – a biblical oratorio that should be performed more often in full, like Handel’s Saul, Joshua, and Deborah – at a brisk pace that infused the occasion with merriment and excitement. I’ve heard performances that were even swifter, but the pace that Warren-Green chose allowed the interpolations of the twin winds to sound relatively reposeful. Any worry that the Queen would become unduly effeminate was silenced by the presence of flutist Erinn Frechette, who remained stolidly masked as she sat beside the oboists. The bustle of the strings, answering the oboes, was beautifully blithe and textured, the first violins securely on the left side of the YouTube sound image.

Under normal circumstances, we would have presumably seen the two clarinets onstage that Mozart added with his afterthoughts, but I wonder how many more Charlotte Symphony string players would have been deployed. The balance between the winds and the strings was noticeably tilted toward the upstage winds, particularly in the slow Andante movement that follows the familiar Molto allegro that engraves this masterwork in our memories. Throbbing just a little more prominently in the background, the bassoons and French horns supplied the forlorn music with its pulse. In the Menuetto, where martial urgency battled against leisurely elegance in triple meter, Frechette joined with the oboes for the final bars in delivering the unexpected victory to elegance. Far from distressing me, these new emphases consistently brought delight.

Again, I needed the YouTube stream in the finely judged Molto allegro to fully perceive the separation between the sections and fully appreciate the silkiness of the strings where they needed to glide – and their crispness each time they needed to make a point. Midway through this opening movement, the orchestra masterfully executed the intricate quasi-fugal layering of Mozart’s main theme as various sections juggled it and took turns seizing our attention. Frechette and Ulaky were the most eloquent voices in the beguiling dialogue between strings and winds in the Andante, where Warren-Green built the lurking turbulence to the brink of an outcry, granting it the power of insistence before the delicacy and transparency of the strings reclaimed dominance.

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In his personable introductory remarks, resident conductor Christopher James Lees earmarked the Menuetto rather than the outer movements as the spot where Mozart anticipated the glories of Beethoven, still a teenager when the “Great G Minor Symphony” was written in 1788 – but it didn’t sound as if Warren-Green and his ensemble had gotten the memo. Maybe more strings would have helped Lees’ words to ring more true, for the battle waged in this movement for rhythmic supremacy remained effective without bursting Mozart’s parlor.

The concluding Allegro assai was where restraint was most emphatically tossed aside, clearing the path for turbulence to occasionally prevail. While principals from the violin and cello sections weren’t in their customary chairs, musicians who moved up in rank to replace them and their absent peers breezed through the busiest passages of this symphony with the same poise as they had shown in less finger-busting episodes. Tempos charged ahead with thrilling momentum. Here the flute was more consonant with the strings, allowing the oboes and bassoons playing against the grain to stand out prominently.

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Camera work from four different locations was as capable as the sound engineering, especially perceptive when the French horns, principal Byron Johns and Andrew Fierova, drew the spotlight. This 45-minute concert continues streaming through May 1, a tantalizing foretaste of that delicious moment when a real audience will reward Symphony with the real applause it so richly deserves. Mark your calendar for May 14 if you wish to be in the room where it happens, when Branford Marsalis will join the orchestra to play Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera.

CSO Takes Flight With Stravinsky “Firebird”

Review: Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Mahler 1

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cherokee Anguish Upstages “Sleeping Beauty” in Symphony Concert

Review:  Sleeping Beauty

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’ve had a copious amount of Russian music from Charlotte Symphony this year. Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade headlined the first two classics concerts of 2019, and Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty suite is continuing the trend. Even after Symphony emerged from their annual retreat in the Belk Theater pit with Charlotte Ballet’s production of Nutcracker, subscribers do not seem to tire of this steady Russian diet.

The presumption may be that we’ll see better attendance if the featured piece is Russian rather than American, old-style rather than new. Sleeping Beauty wasn’t as long as Michael Daugherty’s Trail of Tears concerto or as new as Aaron Copland’s more familiar Billy the Kid suite, which kicked off the evening. Nor was it played with the same verve at Knight Theater under the baton of guest conductor Joseph Young, who actually has educational, vocational and family ties in the Carolinas.

Principal flutist Victor Wang stepped downstage to play the solos in Daugherty’s concerto, deftly flutter-tonguing, overblowing, and producing multiphonics and glissandos – upstaging the marquee ballet suite that followed after intermission. In the context of the forced Cherokee migration carried out by the U.S. Army in 1838-39, pursuant to Indian Removal Act of 1830, the chord-like multiphonics and glissandos sounded like laments or nostalgic reflections, the overblowing sounded somber and contemplative like a Japanese shakuhachi flute, and the flutter-tonguing had a range of emotional connotations, submission one moment and terror at other times.

There was so much more to admire in Wang’s playing beyond the special effects, particularly in the lyrical middle movement “incantation” that followed the longer, more turbulent “where the wind blew free” section. You might wonder why the concluding “sun dance,” starting off so lightly, becomes as turbulent as the opening movement. Daugherty gives us a moving explanation in his program notes, reminding us that the religious dance ceremony of the Plains Indians was banned for a full century by the U.S. government.

While Wang had a clear path, consistently giving voice to the soul and anguish of Native Americans, Young had a more jagged course steering the orchestra. The delicate early percussion at the start of the outer movements – xylophone, harp, and piano – was obviously consonant with the flute, but the drums sent different signals. In the opening “wind blew free” movement, the snares cued the Trail of Tears march, taking on the role of the Army tormentors, but in the closing “dance,” the timpani were unmistakably tom-toms. Strings could also be mellow or suddenly abrasive as Young navigated this fascinating, bumpy trail.

Notwithstanding the timings provided in Symphony’s program booklet, the Sleeping Beauty suite was actually the shortest piece on the program. But there’s nothing at all sleepy about the opening episode of its opening movement. It should sound like we’ve been improbably dropped into the raucous section of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture where the composer simulates the strife between the Montagues and the Capulets. Instead of medieval Verona or ancient fairyland, the orchestra sounded more like contemporary Vegas – or a carryover of Daugherty’s prairie.

When the music becalmed the brass bloomed, and the Tchaikovsky ballet style became recognizable, but rarely with the charm that Symphony radiates every December in Nutcracker. The grandeur of the Pas d’action didn’t quite wake up, and though I love the eerie foreboding sound of the Puss and Boots sketch, this performance didn’t deliver the predatory snap that should make it memorable. The shimmering magic of the “Panorama” section was mostly moribund until principal harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell gracefully soloed to close it out.

Symphony recovered its swagger to close the evening with the familiar Sleeping Beauty waltz, but this wasn’t the sort of piece that Peter Ilyich intended to climax an evening of ballet, let alone an evening of orchestral music. A lead-off spot would have been more appropriate. As it turned out, Copland’s Billy the Kid suite vied with Trail of Tears as the best performance on this night.

Amy Orsinger Whitehead ably took over the flute chair while Wang waited in the wings, leading a volley of wind solos sounding Copland’s recurring “Open Prairie” theme, followed by principal clarinet Taylor Marino, principal oboe Hollis Ulaky, and French hornist Byron Johns. Pounding the timpani, acting principal Ariel Zaviezo Arriagada signaled the onset of the “Gun Battle,” but this dark episode didn’t eclipse the sunny impression made by Erinn Frechette, merrily playing the piccolo solo when we reached Copland’s “Frontier Town.”

With players of this caliber – and the zest that Young brought to this repertoire – I daresay that even Symphony’s stodgy subscribers would have been better pleased by an All-American evening. Whether they would have attended is a different question.