Tag Archives: Charlotte Symphony Chorus

Newly-Minted Charlotte Master Chorale Couples with NC Baroque for Wonderful “Messiah”

Review: Handel’s Messiah

By Perry Tannenbaum

Backed by the Charlotte Symphony Chorus, formerly the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte, performances of Handel’s Messiah by the Symphony have been a fairly consistent holiday staple over the years. Since 2002, the only gaps on my calendar have occurred in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2016. Until this year, when Symphony passed on performing the Handel masterwork, Symphony Chorus would also sit out. But with the new Charlotte Bach Festival spreading its wings here, in Gastonia, and in Winston-Salem over a full week in June, piloted by former Oratorio Singers music director Scott Allen Jarrett, there’s a new Baroque fervor in the air – and evidently new connections for the Charlotte Symphony Chorus and current Symphony director of choruses Kenney Potter to explore. As a result, Symphony Chorus, newly rebranded for the holidays as the Charlotte Master Chorale (with a PO box in Matthews, so stay tuned), is giving three Messiah performances under Potter’s direction. Joining them for two of the performances at First United Methodist Church – and the third in Gastonia – is the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, which certainly enhanced its stature at the June festival.

The concerts mark the return of the Chorale to First United, performing Messiah there for the first time since they were still the Oratorio Singers in 2004, but it obviously represents a departure as well, for the 24-member NC Baroque performs on authentic period instruments, including two valveless trumpets and a double-necked theorbo, and its musicians adhere to Baroque performance practices. Though originally presented in a concert hall, I couldn’t help feeling that the church, the authentic instruments, and the reduced orchestra brought us closer to the Messiah that Handel originally imagined – and what amazed Dubliners actually heard in 1742. Compared to Belk Theater, which flings the sound of the Chorus at us, First United seemed to cuddle, warm, and slightly mute Master Chorale’s sound before it wafted over the musicians’ heads. From beginning to end, they were ideal, exactly what you would hope for in a city known for its churches.

Perhaps the best example of the Baroque Orchestra’s mettle was in its effortlessly fleet introduction to Master Chorale’s “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” and in the gritty churning of the strings that underpinned the climaxes at “Wonderful! Counselor!” The ensemble’s jubilation was thrilling and infectious, but they also showed their affinity for sacred music when they dug into the intro and accompaniment for “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” Individually, I would single out the work of first trumpeter Doug Wilson in the triumphant “The Trumpet Shall Sound.”

Of course, the biggest variables at annual iterations of Messiah are the solo vocalists. How would Potter fare on recruitment? Here we had the best news of all, for all four of the guest performers were eager, strong, confident, and at ease. Soprano Awet Andemichael and countertenor Timothy Parsons were seated on the audience left side of the stage, with tenor David Vanderwal and bass baritone Jesse Blumberg at our right. Evaluating their performances is largely a matter of cataloguing what each of them sang and lauding the pure tone, genuine feeling, and impeccable breath control they brought to each piece, with the possible exception of Vanderwal, who only had one extended chance to shine and hit his home run on “Thou Shalt Break Them” late in the evening, making his mark with the rigor of his attack on the verbs, break and dash.

Andemichael was the most facially expressive and theatrical of the soloists, showcasing her soothing declamatory capabilities in the “I bring you good tidings” recitative and the suppleness of her coloratura in “Rejoice, Greatly.” Listening to Parsons on “Thou That Tellest Good Tidings,” I admired his ability to reach the low note of “Judah” without scooping, as many contraltos do, but I worried whether he would be able to attack the “He Was Despised and Rejected” air with the necessary forcefulness. Not only did he render “He gave His back to the smiters” with true grit, he also managed to negotiate “spitting” without sounding pompous or silly.

Here it should probably be mentioned that the vocalists were refreshingly uncommitted to authenticity, adding the extra syllable at the end of past-tense verbs only when the melody compelled it. Blumberg especially gratified me when he didn’t add the extra syllable to “The People That Walked in Darkness” every time he repeated the verb. A relaxed, America manner is not amiss here. From the moment we began to hear Blumberg’s well-rounded low notes, I knew that he could rank among the best basses I’ve heard live in Messiah since I first became enamored of it in the late ‘60s up in New York at Queens College. While I might have liked to hear the conspiratorial decrescendos some more theatrical singers employ to add a little twinkle to “all nations” – after a mighty “shake the heavens” – the range, authority, and sheer beauty of Blumberg’s singing were nonpareil. Coupled with Wilson’s virtuosity, Blumberg’s was the best “Trumpet Shall Sound” I’ve heard anytime, anywhere.

 

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Pairing Whitacre’s “Deep Field” Tone Poem With New “Deep Field” Film, Symphony Presents a Semi-World Premiere

Review:  The Planets and Deep Field 

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

Charlotte Symphony hasfared well with Gustav Holst’s The Planets in the past, programming itno fewer than five times over the last 13 seasons in the orchestra’s Classics, KnightSounds, and LolliPops series. But it didn’t become a hot ticket until Christopher Warren-Green took over the reins as Symphony’s musical director. Back in the fall of 2010, Warren-Green inaugurated the KnightSounds Series with a “Planets!” extravaganza that included NASA animations projected over the musicians at Knight Theater as they played and narrative from a local TV meteorologist between movements. A mini planetarium was set up at the Bechtler Museum next door before the concert, and telescopes stationed outdoors, focused on Jupiter and other wonders in the sky, awaited concertgoers’ gazes afterwards. Every available seat was sold for that performance, so it was hardly a surprise that the next time Symphony offered Holst’s signature work in 2013, it led off the season.

At Belk Theater, Warren-Green could field the large orchestra prescribed in the composer’s subtitle, and the fortified corps benefited from enhanced acoustics – since the maiden concert at Knight Theater predated the installation there of a sorely needed acoustic shell. If the Knight Theater performance was distinguished by superior showmanship, the Belk Theater sequence excelled in authenticity and sonic brilliance. For the 2018 encore, the showmanship has returned! Most of it was lavished upon the first piece in the program, Eric Whitacre’s Deep Field.The Nevada native’s work premiered in 2015 but it was presented for the first time with a new film, Deep Field: The Impossible Magnitude of Our Universe,and a dedicated Deep Field smartphone app, to be activated by audience members when maestro Warren-Green gave his cue. Contributors to the film include scientists and visualizers from the Space Telescope Science Institute and Virtual Choir 5, which includes more than 8,000 voices, aged 4-87, from 120 countries around the globe. Source material for the film – and inspiration for the music – was the landmark “deep field” image produced by NASA’s  Hubble Telescope in 1995, when it was trained on a seemingly blank and minuscule area of space for an epic 10 days and 342 time-exposures, revealing more than 1,500 galaxies that had never been seen before.

Extra lagniappe was added to the showmanship when trombonist Thomas Burge, who moonlighted for eight years as a WDAV weekend host until this past summer, came out to deliver the evening’s introductory remarks dressed up in a NASA spacesuit. Many if not most of the audience members with smartphones hadn’t acted on emails sent by Symphony earlier in the week urging them to download the Deep Field app, so that and logging in to the Blumenthal Performing Arts’ wi-fi network further ballooned the prefatory segment of the program. Adding to the fun, Warren-Green not only showed us what his silent cue would look like but also pantomimed what his reaction would be if we messed up.

Facing away from us until he gave us his cue, Warren-Green was the only musician onstage with a view of the screen. Synchronizing the ensemble with the film seemed to be a very complex task for him, looking down at his score and directing his players while sneaking peeks at the film. The film adds a whole new layer onto Whitacre’s composition. It was amazing how precise the synchronization appeared to be. Imprecision seemed permissible at the start, when Whitacre’s score merely proved how apt the use of a soft minimalist style was for simulating a journey through space. The power of the Deep Field film asserted itself as soon as it began, transforming Whitacre’s music into an unobtrusive film score. Yet the film ultimately proved to be a potent accompaniment for the film, for the entrance of the French horns was pivotal as the brass section and the first violins joined in the orchestral swell while the density of stars increased onscreen and colorful galaxies blossomed.

Whitacre had a bigger musical build to follow with snare drums and timpani, and the onset of our smartphones was yet to come, with the Charlotte Symphony Chorus standing by-behind the instrumentalists. Techies among our readers will be glad to hear that the Deep Field app was designed to play even when your smartphone is set on mute, thus preventing the interference of other alerts and the sounds you’ve chosen to signal email and message arrivals. No rude surprises there, and the differing reaction times to Warren-Green’s cue only enhanced the floating, white-noise, Star Trek flavor of the app’s sound. The video also had a surprise or two at this juncture, superimposing photos of people onto the galactic panorama. At first, the gallery of portraits evoked a choir for me, but perhaps because the filmmakers wished to avoid a sharp contrast with the black void of space, the black-and-white photos ultimately reminded me of the anteroom of the Holocaust Museum in DC, surely not the intended effect. More colorful, less ghostly images would help.

Three performances of Deep Field and The Planets are scheduled, an obvious indication that Symphony is aware of how hot this ticket is. Looking around the hall on Friday night, I didn’t see any patches of unsold seats, a testament to Charlotte’s undimmed affection for Holst’s astrological explorations. If you’re worried that repetition has dulled Warren-Green’s zest for the planetary suite, that concern was dispelled in the opening movement, “Mars, the Bringer of War,” where the musical director was as animated as I’ve seen him this season, prodding the orchestra to a full roar. It was interesting to see how Holst leaned as heavily on the celesta to depict outer space as Whitacre would lean on minimalism, using its distinctive timbre to sprinkle serenity on the “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” movement and to augment the Tinkerbell playfulness of the ensuing “Mercury, the Winged Messenger.”

“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” seemed to be the most British of the movements with Warren-Green wielding the baton, a countryman of the composer, and his account of “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” had as much gravitas as ever. The lugubrious opening built to an anguish tinged with timpani and tubular bells before twin harps emerged over a haze of double basses. “Uranus, the Magician” retained the Sorcerer’s Apprentice flavoring that I’d noted in previous Symphony renditions and, with the Symphony Chorus softly chiming in from offstage, “Neptune, the Mystic” had a heavenliness that can only be experienced in live performance.

While I might have pointed to the thinness cruelly exposed in the opening of Deep Field, I was at a loss to point out any flaws in Symphony’s presentation until a concertgoer sitting nearby piped up. He thought a larger screen in a darkened hall would have made Deep Field a more immersive experience. I’ve been informed that Symphony actually uses three different screens at Belk Theater, and the one deployed for Deep Field was larger than the one it uses when it presents an overhead view of guest pianists’ hands traversing the keyboard. But it wasn’t the largest screen in the arsenal, the one that hovers over Movie in Concert performances, such as the just-concluded Home Alone showings, where Symphony plays the film scores live and in-sync with the films. Maybe the midsize screen wasn’t the best choice for the Whitacre semi-premiere.

 

Charlotte Symphony’s “Royal Celebration” Delivers Brassy, Breathtaking Music

Review: Music for a Royal Celebration

By Perry Tannenbaum

Charlotte isn’t known as a city that treasures its heritage, so it was gratifying to see that Charlotte Symphony was dedicating its Music for a Royal Celebration concert to the 250th anniversary of the Queen City’s founding. Presumably, the audience that filled Knight Theater knew what all the celebration was about. If they didn’t, nobody was going to fill them in from the podium, although we had an able emissary from the Crown onstage in Charlotte Symphony maestro Christopher Warren-Green, who conducted at Their Majesties’ last two Royal Weddings in his native UK.

Warren-Green regaled us, instead, with anecdotes about programming Sir William Walton’s “Crown Imperial March” at the most recent Royal Wedding and the fire emergency that marred the premiere of George Frederic Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks in 1749. This was the latest of the three Handel works that Symphony performed, including “Zadok the Priest” (1727) and excerpts from the Water Music (1717) – and the only one written during Queen Charlotte’s lifetime (1744-1818). She wouldn’t become queen until 1761, however, seven years before her eponymous Charlotte Town was incorporated.

If you’ve ever heard “Zadok the Priest” performed, you’ll realize that the Charlotte Symphony Chorus had to be part of the celebration. Composed for the coronation of King George II, Handel loosely adapted a couple of verses from the opening chapter of Kings I that fit the occasion, the first of his four Coronation Anthems. With the strings pumping quiet arpeggios, this piece didn’t immediately sound anthemic, but after about a minute-and-a-half, Warren-Green had stirred a keen enough sense of expectancy for the powerful onslaught of the Chorus to feel inevitable, soon reinforced by the brass.

Solomon reigned for 40 years over Ancient Israel, yet the sounds of hosanna and hallelujah that Handel devised to replicate the spirit of his coronation weren’t altogether different from the “Hallelujah Chorus” he would compose in Messiah for the King who shall live forever. As a matter of fact, Handel took the liberty of urging his new King to “live for ever,” too. More reason for the Symphony Chorus to fire up their parts with a gusto that signaled their awareness of the kinship of these kingly compositions. And this was just the concert opener!

As the program booklet seemed to hint – and Warren-Green reemphasized – you can play the three suites of the Water Music in any order you choose. Maestro chose not only to have Suite II and Suite III shift places but also to give far more play to the third suite than the second. The strings sounded rich and resonant plunging into the Overture of the first suite, but their fleet and nimble pace was even more impressive. Principal oboist Hollis Ulaky smoothly cued the ensuing Adagio with hardly a pause and closed it poignantly, a perfect setup for the French horns kicking up the liveliness and tempo in the Allegro. The Bourree found Ulaky combining with Symphony’s new principal bassoon, Olivia Oh, in response to the chirping strings.

Slated to headline Symphony’s upcoming February concert, when he’ll play Michael Daugherty’s Trail of Tears, principal flutist Victor Wang stepped forward during Suite III to acquaint us with some of his virtuosity. Principals from the four string sections formed a quiet little quartet behind Wang in the opening Sarabande before the full sections showed their nimbleness in a fleet Rigaudon. No less virtuosic – but a lot more surprising – Wang picked up a piccolo to front the final Minuet and Gigue, speeding up effortlessly for the latter movement.

Warren-Green’s arrangement of Handel’s score trimmed the movements in Suite II that Symphony performed to a pair, but it was easy to see why he held off presenting them when two trumpets joined the ensemble, including acting principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn. They wasted no time in making an impact, trading spirited volleys with the horns in the Allegro – and then in the rousing Hornpipe, the most familiar movement in all of the Water Music. With the Royal Fireworks still looming after intermission, the loudest outburst of percussion so far sent us off to the break with a foretaste of the thunder to come.

Wilborn and a battery of heavy percussion asserted themselves quickly in Hubert Parry’s “I was Glad,” another choral coronation piece – first detonated in 1902 for Edward VII and Queen Alexandra – that offered the Symphony Chorus another opportunity to loudly proclaim Old Testament scripture, this time adapted from Psalm 122. Instead of obliging the singers to sit through the remainder of the concert, Warren-Green used their departure as an opportunity to deliver his tasty intro to the Royal Fireworks, which we would hear in their entirety.

Written to celebrate the triumphant conclusion of the War of Austrian Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the Music for the Royal Fireworks bursts with imperial pride and colonial ambition, an affirmation that Brits ruled a goodly chunk of the planet in 1749. Especially mighty were the outer movements, an epic Ouverture to start, and the sequence of three movements that climaxed the work, “La Réjouissance” and two Menuets, finishing with a majestic deceleration. There are many recorded examples of Royal Fireworks, but only the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performance comes close to capturing the thrill of hearing Charlotte Symphony’s brass playing it live. Nothing I’ve sampled comes close to replicating the full conquering thunder Warren-Green drew from his orchestra when the trumpets’ roar combined with the pounding drums.

The reposeful movements in the middle of Royal Fireworks, the Bourrée and “La Paix,” were accorded their due as the orchestra – especially the brass – primed themselves for their final blasts. Walton’s “Crown Imperial March,” though more benign than Handel’s closing salvos, wasn’t at all an anticlimax. There was still lively percussion, yet the opening had a sleekness to it from the strings, and the mod harmonies reminded us that we had indeed transitioned from 1749 to 1937. Every recorded performance of this piece doesn’t pause for a moment, as Warren-Green did, before the music truly explodes into its vigorous march – try Andrew Litton’s version with the Bournemouth Symphony to approximate the sensation at Symphony’s celebration. It was carried off so naturally that it felt like all of us onstage and throughout Knight Theater were collectively holding our breaths.

Charlotte Symphony ends its classics season seductively

Review of Carmina Burana

By Perry Tannenbaum

When the Charlotte Symphony Chorus was known as the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte, they hooked up on numerous occasions with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in the most popular piece in the classical repertoire, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. More often than not, those collaborations would happen at the end of a season – or even at the end of a music director’s tenure with the company.

Sure, it’s as important to end your season with a bang as it is to start that way, for it’s your last shot at convincing fence-sitting newbies in the hall – as well as existing subscribers who haven’t yet renewed – to pony up for next season’s concerts. But you can’t trot out the “Choral Symphony” every year, can you? Lately, the CSO has found another winning warhorse in their stable, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

Last week’s trio of Carmina concerts marked the third time in the past eight years that Symphony programmed Orff’s settings of mostly Latin poems. Not one of these poems, dating back to the 11th-13th centuries, has the chaste plainsong flavor of the church or Christianity, except perhaps for the most famous – and fearsome – “O Fortuna.” The worship of Fortune and her wheel surfaces in the works of Chaucer and lingers on in the tragedies of Shakespeare, a medieval oddity if ever there was one. Orff’s music restores its primal, superstitious force.

Lawrence Zazzo

But you need to hear it and see it live to get the full power that movie scores, CD recordings, and TV commercials only hint at. Some of the 24 songs are bawdy, others lyrical, some sensuous, and still others festive and carousing, as the section names suggest: “Springtime,” “In the Tavern,” and “The Court of Love.” The weirdest of the songs, “Olim Lacus Colueram” (“Once I Dwelt in the Lakes”), always sounded Oriental to me when I was growing up, listening to my dad’s vintage vinyl. I never suspected that the narrator was a swan getting roasted on a rotisserie!

Delaying his entrance onto the Belk Theater until this song began, countertenor Lawrence Zazzo literally made a meal out of it. Emitting a high-pitched lament bordering on sobs, Zazzo compounded the weirdness of his torment in way I would never have anticipated. As he reached the song’s final stanza, beginning “Now I am lying in a serving dish,” he pulled out a large handkerchief. Instead of dabbing his wounds or his tears, he stuffed the handkerchief into his shirt collar, turning it into a napkin. Then he reached into another pocket, fetched out what must have been a succulent duck leg, and began munching on it contentedly as he made his exit.

Hard to top that little cameo. But I’d say that Javier Arrey, shouldering most of the solo chores, was the best baritone we’ve had here in Carmina – and his alcoholic Abbot of Cockaigne wasn’t altogether anticlimactic in the wake of Zazzo’s roast duck. I wasn’t especially wowed by soprano Klara Ek’s initial efforts, but when she reached “In Trutina” (“My Feelings Alternate”) and its wavering between chastity and erotic enslavement, she was sublime.

Clocking in at slightly more than an hour, CSO’s Classics Series finale was more like a KnightSounds event at Knight Theater. Indeed, the last time Symphony and Chorus combined on Carmina in 2012, it was a KnightSounds event. At the Belk, when Christof Perick last conducted Carmina in 2008, the program was fortified with a Mozart Violin Concerto served up as an appetizer.

Marketing was also cleverer. After crowning her performance of “Dulcissime” with an orgasmic “Ah!” that topped all the hedonism we had heard before, soprano Heidi Meier didn’t simply vanish into history. Nope, she had already been announced as a guest performer for the season to follow.

That’s not to say that the audience was let down by the relative scarcity of music and promotional tie-in. When I heard various people in the grand tier humming “O Fortuna” as we exited to the lobby – or singing that Latin out loud – I sensed total satisfaction in the air.