Tag Archives: Charlotte Symphony

Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Is Luxuriously Long and Varied, Culminating in a Sizzling Rite of Spring

Review: Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration

By Perry Tannenbaum

ROS Rehearsal Photo

Sitting next to an audience member I’d never met before and conversing with her, thanks to the COVID vaccines and to our vaccination cards that had been scrupulously checked in the Belk Theater lobby, I could share her excitement in being back to see the Charlotte Ballet, out in public without pods or social distancing, and enjoying live performance in a real audience for the first time in nearly 19 months. Even though we were all masked – discarding social distancing seems to increase our tendency to take this precaution seriously – my wife Sue and I felt a distinct residue of wariness.

Yet my trepidations must be an infinitesimal fraction of the wariness anti-vaxxers maintain toward getting vaccinated and an infinitesimal fraction of the daily risks they’re willing to take. Trusting that the people sitting next to you and the people checking them are trustworthy was a calculated leap of faith, my first occasion of sitting next to a stranger since March 2020, so I could understand why the upper tiers at Belk Theater were empty for Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, and why the orchestra and Grand Tiers weren’t teeming to capacity.

Gathering us together for their big celebration after two postponements, Ballet didn’t shrink from keeping us together, offering us a longer and more varied program than we’ve seen in many a season. More than that, they welcomed Christopher Warren-Green and the Charlotte Symphony to the pit (have we ever seen him down there before?) to perform a Philip Glass piece and brought four masked Symphony principals onstage to fuel a performance of Antonin Dvořák’s Piano Quintet. With the exception of Salvatore Aiello’s electrifying setting for Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the program didn’t find Charlotte Ballet in a retrospective mood.

Christopher Stuart, the new Charlotte Ballet II program director, jumped into the fray first with a new piece, “Then, Now, Forever,” set to the live Glass. Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, whose work has been featured at Spoleto Festival USA on a couple of occasions dating back to 2009, made an edgier Charlotte debut with “A Picture of You Falling,” paired with the Stuart piece before the first of two intermissions. Framed by the two intervals, Val Caniparoli appeared in Charlotte for the first time with Ibsen’s House, interestingly set to the Dvořák. All of these choreographers were present for the celebration – except for Aiello, the former North Carolina Dance Theatre artistic director who died in 1995 at the age of 51.

TROS Young Warrior

The company itself, launching season 51, looked no less fresh and new, especially with etoile Sarah Hayes Harkins happily sidelined on maternity leave. No less than five dancers were taking their first steps as new members of Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II, including two Isabellas, Franco and Bertellotti, who are time-sharing a role in the three performances of Ibsen’s House through Saturday. Meanwhile, a trio of seven-year veterans of the troupe; Sarah Lapointe, Raven Barkley, and Amelia Sturt-Dilley; are striding more to the forefront. Lapointe and Barkley struck me as the most arresting presences in Section 1 of the “Then, Now, Forever” suite. Tempo quickened noticeably for Section 2, with newcomers Franco and Emerson Dayton paired with Ben Ingel and Davis Preciado. Easing back to a languid midtempo Section 3, Lapointe poured out her newfound imperious confidence opposite Rees Launer, which made the fast pace of Section 4 that much celebratory, teeming with 10 dancers. Stuart’s choreographic style didn’t startlingly depart from classical models, so his costume design collaboration with Katherine Zywczyk, as well as the dancers, somewhat upstaged him. Backlighting and dramatically silhouetting the famously inert Belk Theater organ pipes, lighting designer Jeff Emory made them useful for the first time in their ignominious history.

Standing spotlights were the scenery for Pite’s “A Picture of You Falling,” surrounding Sturt-Dilley and Andrés Trezevant in a semi-circular formation as the tenuously connected couple performed to Owen Belton’s original 2008 music and Pite’s cold, emotion-free text. We are perhaps invited, without any cordiality, to identify with this brief deconstructed romance, first from Trezevant’s point of view as he faced himself and the repetitive emptiness of his life. Eventually, we escape from this spiral as Pite takes us to the moment where he literally bumps into Sturt-Dilley.

Flirtation and courtship do not figure on this island of light in Pite’s pitch-black universe, so when Trezevant is shown falling, the effect is from gravity rather than love – “This is you falling,” “This is you collapsing” – and his heart literally hits the floor rather than filling with passion. Sturt-Dilley seemed to take over the lead, drawing our empathy for a while, as the little chronicle climaxed at “The Place,” with a light hint that what’s happening, as the two are engaged in their pas de deux, isn’t happening to him. “This is how it happens” transitioned swiftly, without the luxury of regret, “to this is how it ends” after repeated, obsessive descriptions of the room, something like a Last Year in Marienbad video loop or some classically gloomy Ingmar Bergman. Repeated collapses followed, and the falling featured some slo-mo and freeze-frame touches reminiscent of The Matrix.

We haven’t seen any Ibsen from our local theatre companies in Charlotte since a lackluster production of A Doll’s House in 1999, so Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House figured to be a bad mismatch with the Queen City’s theatre tastes, theatre history, and local theatre professionals outside UNC Charlotte, where they presumably remember that the Norwegian is revered as the father of modern drama. Caniparoli showcased five oppressed Victorian women, including the heroines from Ghosts, Lady from the Sea, Rosmersholm, and the title character of Hedda Gabler. Yet it would be irresponsible for me to recommend catching up with these scripts, for there was little from Dayton and Ingel that reminded me of feminist icon Nora Helmer, insensitive ingrate husband Torvald, and A Doll’s House – or anything at all from Lapointe as Hedda, Josh Hall as George Tesman, Sturt-Dilley as Mrs Alving, and Peter Mazuroski as her son Oswald that awakened memories of Gabler or Ghosts, the other Ibsen staples in Caniparoli’s gallery that I’ve seen. Dayton captured Nora’s early timidity beautifully and Lapointe had a steely resoluteness that was almost intimidating, yet we never found ourselves in the vicinity of the notorious endings of their dramas. Scenic and costume designer Sandra Woodall is best in evoking this strait-laced and corseted era, and Caniparoli excels brilliantly in choreographing the Dvořák, whose 1887 quintet was completed between the times that Ghosts and Hedda Gabler premiered.

Sarah Lapointe in TROS

Having already previewed The Rite of Spring, we need not dwell on the fire and fury of Lapointe as The Chosen One – other than to say that Lapointe didn’t disappoint and completely owned the sacrificial maiden’s every move (Sturt-Dilley dances the role on Friday and Lapointe returns Saturday). Lapointe upstaged and literally towered over everyone else in sight, but the clash between Ingel as the Old Chieftain and James Kopecky as the Young Warrior was primal, intensely physical, and thrilling. Presiding over everything with a shamanistic presence as the curtain went up was Nadine Barton as the Earth Figure, a grand coming out for her in her third year. About the only clear reminder we had all evening of concessions we’re still making to COVID was the absence of live winds, brass, and percussion blaring forth and flailing away at Stravinsky’s score in the orchestra pit. Representing the Salvatore Aiello Trust, curator Jerri Kumery brought the spirit of the choreographer into the hall, and the 17 dancers onstage kept the temperature of his work white-hot.

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.

Charlotte Symphony Returns, Stoutly Resisting Escapism

Review:  CSO Livestreams Grieg and Tchaikovsky

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Over the past seven months of an unabated pandemic, I’ve become more and more immersed in reporting on and then reviewing performing arts companies and their responses to COVID-19 as it continues to swallow up the norms of our cultural life. Lately, I’ve become fascinated by what artists think we wish to see and what they wish to say. The balance seems to have tilted toward diverting and amusing us while easing the burden on our fragile attention spans. All of us wish to escape this moment, I’m sure, but ceding the drama in our lives to COVID news bulletins and political campaign rhetoric has seemed like a wan, impoverished response.

Sadly, the toolkits of artists who wish to address the moment – not to mention their monetary resources – have been drained by the necessities of social distancing and shrunken live audience limits. Larger organizations like Charlotte Symphony have had to pivot multiple times as the course of events spun out of control. Indoor concerts had to be cancelled late in the spring, and then outdoor summer events, both previously planned and hastily improvised, also fell by the wayside.

Hence a pivot to virtuality with a new CSO On Demand livestreaming series. It was doubly satisfying to see Christopher Warren-Green and a sizable contingent of his musicians onstage again at the Knight Theater, even if I was watching on a smart TV, for they hadn’t returned merely to serve up some musical pabulum. Edvard Grieg’s From Holberg’s Time and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings both have extended contemplative and elegiac episodes, echoing and commiserating with how we often feel in these mournful times instead of prodding us into forgetting.

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Even before they played, you couldn’t think Symphony was back to normal if you were watching. Winds, brass, and percussion were missing in action, so the stage wasn’t teeming with musicians and instruments. Nearly 40 percent of CSO’s string players were absent from this skeleton crew, spread out and socially-distanced on the Knight stage. Yes, I had expected Warren-Green and his orchestra to be masked, but the sight of them still took me aback, and I didn’t anticipate how different the ensemble would look when no two players shared the same music stand.

Whether it was hygiene, democratic deliberations, or aesthetics, the normal formalities of concert dress codes were relaxed, further emphasizing – or memorializing – that we were not back to normal. All were masked. Women were liberated to wear colored blouses or sweaters. Men wore jackets, but white shirts were not mandatory, and none wore neckties. Even with the purple-and-blue background lighting, the overall look didn’t suggest a triumphant celebration. All of these alterations seemed to color the music, making the opening Praeludium of the Holberg Suite sound braver and less festive. Similarly, I found the ensuing Sarabande more affecting, solemn, and poignant than I will if I revisit this concert at Symphony’s website in 2022.

The scent of springtime was unmistakable from the start of the middle movement Gavotte with hints of jollity in its brisk Allegretto. Nothing short of piercing heartbreak came across in the longest movement of the suite, the Air marked Andante religioso, all the more keenly felt when the music faded to a whisper before the last swell of feeling. Thankfully, concertmaster Calin Lupanu brought us back from this precipice with some truly zestful fiddling in the folksy Rigaudon finale, all of the other strings sustaining the merry Allegro con brio tempo behind him with pizzicatos, until his solo reached its jazzy release.

I don’t have any record of hearing Charlotte Symphony playing the Holberg before, but I own two recordings of the suite, one of which I reviewed in 2009, with Yuri Bashmet leading the Moscow Soloists. One of the things I particularly enjoyed on that CD was how the sound of the 17-member ensemble shuttled between the textured graininess of chamber music and the homogenized sheen of orchestral performance. That same delicious variety was audible in the Knight Theater webcast, particularly when I listened via Bluetooth on my Boston Acoustic loudspeakers via my Yamaha Receiver. Some of that texture Symphony’s 22 players was blurred when I listened through the same audio system via Chromecast, which also produced less delightful definition in the pizzicatos.

That same enhancement via Bluetooth was evident when I replayed the Tchaikovsky Serenade, which also appears on the previously mentioned Bashmet recording. So does Mozart’s famous Serenade No. 13, “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” – and with good reason. Tchaikovsky’s piece was written as an homage to Mozart’s Serenades, quickly finished while he was at work on the 1812 Overture and esteemed by the composer as having more heart and artistic merit than his flashier warhorse. Warren-Green didn’t seem to be aiming for Mozart as his trim orchestra launched into the initial Pezzo in forma di sonatina, which moves from an Andante non troppo tempo to Allegro moderato and back again. The massive sound Warren-Green elicited from his ensemble at the slower tempo evoked Bach more vividly than Mozart, and at the quicker Allegro juncture, the music was like the involuted canons Bach or Beethoven might whip up – or a dizzying 3/4 dance that might adorn one of Tchaikovsky’s own ballets.

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With more of a ballroom ambiance as Warren-Green slowed and accelerated his tempos, the dancing flavor carried over to the Valse, where the cellos heightened the sense of intimacy with their warmth and tenderness. Beginning with a weepy whisper, the penultimate Élégie was the most tragic music of the evening, filled to bursting with bittersweet nostalgia. With pizzicatos handed off from section to section – four violas, four cellos, and two double basses to Warren-Green’s right, and 12 violins to his left – optimum audio reproduction paid especially huge dividends here. The orchestra has notably mastered playing softly under Warren-Green’s tenure, and the ending of the Larghetto was absolutely sublime.

The Tema russo conclusion began at a hushed Andante, hardly distinguishable from the Élégie that had preceded. With the onset of the Allegro con spirito section, we felt the joy and exuberance we had been craving during the middle movement of this Serenade – and realized how much we craved them. Before an even more rousing reprise of this celebration, the cellos ignited a romantic theme – and turbulent episode that built to a climax. A stately melody seemingly materialized out of nowhere, encapsulating all bravery, anguish, and grief that had weighed upon us through the evening before a final celebratory romp. Grimly, we were reminded how much more genuine joy feels after we’ve endured suffering and catharsis. Welcome back, Symphony, I’ve missed such authenticity.

 

New Al Fresco Series Delivers Fine Sound, Gorgeous Music, and a More Personal View of Symphony’s Musicians

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Al Fresco Concerts

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’ve learned so much about our nation’s leadership in the past few months – and perhaps even more about ourselves. Much of what we’ve seen has been disheartening and infuriating. Aside from the horrifying death and economic devastation, sweeping the globe and becoming so intense here in North Carolina, I’m most heartbroken by the spectacle of what has happened to arts and education. Vitally important to our quality-of-life and our future, both arts and education have been forced to retreat into self-imposed isolation while politicians and citizens have so catastrophically bungled our response to COVID-19. Virtuality has often been our refuge, a poor substitute for so many plans we made. One by one in May, my mom’s 100th birthday, Spoleto Festival USA, and a class reunion dropped off my event planner, so like many of you, I’ve had revelatory experiences in recent months coping with the quirks of ZOOM meetings and discovering new frontiers in streaming. Neither of these comes close to matching the benefits of live meetings and performances, but they do offer consolation.

Occasionally, the necessities of confinement and social distancing have mothered some worthwhile inventions. Celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday in April, the Chickspeare theatre company began with a fairly common 24-hour new play format, issuing a prompt to a select group of playwrights and expecting original 10-minute plays by each of them to be written, cast, rehearsed, and presented 24 hours later. Instead of the community projects I’d seen in past incarnations of this format, the new works were household creations – written, acted, and recorded by small groups of people, usually pairs, who were quarantining together. The results showed that these writers, actors .and stage directors were also quite adept at filming and wielding video editing software. Chickspeare had broken into an entirely new medium.

Charlotte Symphony’s new Al Fresco series of chamber music concerts has been similarly revelatory. The webcasts began steaming weekly on Wednesday nights on June 10, in a more relaxed environment than Belk or Knight Theater, where Symphony’s classics series is presented, and on a more intimate scale. Not surprisingly, the Al Fresco series is the brainchild of principal cellist Alan Black, a longtime catalyst for chamber music programming in the Charlotte area, beginning with a monthly series at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church back in the ‘90s and continuing with more acoustically pleasing seasons of Sunday afternoon concerts at Tyler-Tallman Hall on the Davidson College campus. The new series, subtitled “changing venues for changing times,” is performed outdoors in the backyard of Black’s bosky Davidson home.

Fortunately, while choosing his programming and recruiting personnel, Black brought French hornist Bob Rydel into the process for a set of wind quintets by Josef Haydn and Robert Muczynski. As Black tells us during the “Winds in the Woods” program, first streamed on June 24, his original concept called for recording the concerts with an iPhone or two, tools we have seen so very often behind the scenes at ZOOM meetings and guerilla theatre productions. Operating the Acoustic Mobility remote recording service, Rydel has been able to bring his engineering expertise to the task with state-of-the-art microphones, digital recording, and editing equipment. Video production has been a tack-sharp as the audio, boasting HD quality, with at least three cameras superbly integrated in the editing mix.

Before tuning in to “Viennese Serenades,” I had caught up on the previous Al Fresco concerts at their convenient webpage [https://www.charlottesymphony.org/csoalfresco/], playing the first three concerts through my home theatre system on the YouTube channel with a Chromecast streamer. This “Viennese” concert was already posted when I looked in on the site on Tuesday, so I was able to set a reminder at YouTube that worked perfectly, counting down the minutes to showtime. At exactly 7:30, a two-minute timer flashed colorfully onto my TV monitor, with jazzier old-style movie graphics counting down the final 10 seconds. In a rather elegant touch, you hear wind chimes when the opening title flashes on the screen.

The atmosphere is relaxed and informal, with Black invariably dressed in jeans, already sitting as our show begins. One or two other musicians are also seated on the small stage, which is still sufficiently large to devoutly maintain social distancing. They will talk before they play. In an earlier show, Black explained how he has chosen to deal with masks: if one of the musicians wishes to don a mask, all must. Only wind instrument players draw an exemption, so on a previous “Music in the Time of Mozart” webcast, flutist Victor Wang played the lead in Mozart’s Flute Quartet without a mask while the string players were all masked. Interestingly, Wang had a special appliance attached to his instrument, a Wind Defender. The device was originally designed to help flute players to perform outdoors, but in his conversation with Black, Wang said he was finding that it was useful during the COVID-19 crisis in minimizing the spread of airborne droplets as he blew across the instrument.

Black’s conversations with his guests frequently veer toward the players’ experiences in performing the music rather than sticking with the customary descriptions of the music and how it came to be written. More intriguing, Black doesn’t stick to the convention of talking about the music before it’s performed. We might see an interview that was recorded after a performance shown to us before the music begins – or Black and Rydel might edit the webcast so that an interview segment airs between movements.

Altering the focus and chronology was particularly insightful when, prior to airing Haydn’s Divertimento No. 12, Black interviewed his “Viennese Serenades” guests, violinists Jenny Topilow and Lenora Leggatt, and asked them point-blank what it had been like playing their music with masks on. Leggatt was almost exclusively concerned with the heat that wearing a mask dictated and its cumulative oppressiveness, but both Topilow and Black cited multiple challenges and annoyances that illuminated physical aspects of playing stringed instruments and the added communication needs of chamber music performance that go beyond playing in an orchestra.

After revealing that the neck of her violin collided unpleasantly with the part of her mask covering her chin and jaw, Topilow went on to describe how visibility, breathing, communication, and cuing were affected. Black confided that he hoped that a portion of his performance, when the fingers of his left hand got stuck momentarily in his mask, would be edited out of the final cut. Visibility and breathing were linked problems for Black, who customarily wears glasses when he plays the cello. Because his glasses repeatedly fog up in performance, Black finds that he needs to time his breathing as he plays! He also finds that he needs to listen more intently when seeing is so spotty. For her part, Topilow finds it startling to realize how much she normally uses her face for communicating in a chamber music setting, yet she vows to continue wearing a mask when Charlotte Symphony resumes live performances. Next month? Hope so.

The individuality of the musicians’ conversations carries over to their musicmaking. Uniform dress codes have been discarded for this series, so the players can be showy and comfortable at the same time. Topilow and Leggatt were the first guests so far to opt for standing as they played their violins in Stamitz’s Trio in G, and while I can remember Topilow rocking a splotch of blue hair at the Belk, I’m sure that I’ve never previously glimpsed her tattoo. Facing each other from opposite corners across the front of the cozy stage, the two violinists blended exquisitely in the opening Allegro moderato while Black, seated upstage between them, added a rich undercurrent as the tempo never quickened far beyond andante.

The mellow sound of the ensuing Andante made the best case for earlier remarks emphasizing how much both Stamitz and Haydn reflected their era. Although we could see fronds and leaves swaying throughout this concert – and multiple clips holding Topilow’s score in place – the sound maintained a studio-quality presence without a hint of wind even in the quietest moments. In the concluding Rondo-Allegretto, I found the most persuasive proof that both violinists revel in playing fast. Topilow remained the lead voice, but Leggatt kept pace beautifully with the harmony. I wasn’t completely pleased with the way Stamitz abruptly transitioned to the slow section of this movement, where Black shifted to a suddenly somber pizzicato, but the slowdown at the end of this section and the accelerating return to jollity were very satisfying.

What I wrote about Black’s series of St. Peter’s concerts in the ‘90s, that they show off the virtuosity of Charlotte Symphony’s musicians more fully, remains true today. But now that this new series is actually a part of Symphony’s programming, I can further observe that it offers the opportunity to venture beyond the composers who figure most prominently in the orchestra’s rotation of classics. Beside the likes of Stamitz, Muczynski, and Ignaz Pleyel, whose music has already been featured in Al Fresco, we can add Haydn to the roster of the neglected, for only two of his symphonies – and none of his concertos – have been presented in the classics series since 2015, and none are on tap in the already-announced 2020-21 lineup. And how many of us have heard of Haydn’s Divertimentos – or knew that they were chamber music? My 11-CD set of Mozart Divertimenti on Phillips certainly didn’t prepare me for anything as small as the string trio configuration of Haydn’s No. 12, the second to be featured in this series.

It’s a beautiful piece from the start, a soulful Adagio that was more serious and tender than the Stamitz, with a yearning undertow from Topilow’s lyrical lead. Hardly a leaf was stirring as she wove her spell, yet Haydn brightened the tone and quickened the pace to andante in a more genial midsection of this movement. Topilow was most fully in the spotlight when she leapt into the ensuing Allegro, sawing away with plenty of verve. The weather wasn’t quite as tranquil where I was watching, but it only stressed the transmission here once. What looked and sounded like a split-second edit disappeared when I subsequently replayed the movement – twice to be sure. The final movement, Tempo di Menuet, seemed to be a misstep at its somewhat plodding start. Once the 3/4 rhythm was established, however, Haydn loosened the reins, and Topilow had ample opportunity to show off her dexterity and Papa’s joie de vivre.

The concerts, the conversations, and Black’s hosting style are all winners for Symphony’s new Al Fresco. I’m hoping for more sinewy music, like a Beethoven string quartet, if the series reprises after the traditionally lighthearted summer season, and I’d love to see programs at least as long as the 75-minute noonday concerts that are traditional at Spoleto Festival USA. But what’s so nice about the Al Fresco format and its webpage is that you can replay multiple concerts one after another. More than enough for an evening out – or in – is now very handsomely at our disposal.

Symphony Bolsters CHOPIN PIANO CONCERTO With Improved Beethoven

Review: CHOPIN PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 and a guest shot by Gabriela Martinez

By Perry Tannenbaum

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You can’t really say that Christopher Warren-Green was between Beethoven concerts when he stepped to the podium at Knight Theater for a program headlined by CHOPIN PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 and a guest shot by Gabriela Martinez. In his last appearance at the Knight in January – before Charlotte Symphony resident conductor Christopher James Lees pinch-hit with an all-American program later in the month – Warren-Green launched Beethoven’s 250th birthday year with an evening that included the Leonore Overture and the “Emperor” Piano Concerto.

Ludwig Van’s Missa Solemnis, with four guest vocalists and the Charlotte Master Chorale joining CSO at Belk Theater, is next up for Warren-Green in March, but our maestro wasn’t giving Beethoven a complete night off, even though his program already sported a Valentine’s Day subplot. Instead, after a delicious sprig of music from Frederick Delius, Symphony No. 8 sent us on our way home. No, Warren-Green wasn’t exactly between Beethovens, but it might have been better if he had been.

The evening did not begin auspiciously, that’s for sure. Warren-Green, for the first time I can remember, brought a Symphony performance to an abrupt halt soon after beginning a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Disturbed by people who were coughing in the front rows (which I didn’t actually hear), Warren-Green whirled around and, slightly exaggerating his own pique, urged all the coughers to “just let it out!” and be done.

Shortly afterwards, a woman in the front row scurried to nearest exit, apparently more hurried and distressed than she might have been if she had thought Warren-Green were joking. Meanwhile, Symphony’s music director whirled back to his musicians and relaunched as abruptly as he had just aborted. Surprisingly after such curtness, the monastic calm of the Friar Lawrence prelude was played as exquisitely as if the orchestra had observed a minute of meditation before embarking, with beautiful highlights from the trombone and flute. The raucous section, depicting family strife between the Montagues and the Capulets, came thrillingly after a slow simmering keyed by the harp, the violins and the timpani came to a boil.

The repeated swellings heralding the famous rhapsodic R&J love theme were as sensitively rendered as you could ask, and the concluding section was haunting in its funereal solemnity. Alas, the love theme itself, perhaps the most well-worn melody in classical music – think of all the times you’ve heard it! – sounded somewhat hackneyed to me, despite Symphony’s laudable forbearance, not having performed it in their mainstage Classics Series since 2011.

I doubt many CSO members had ever performed the featured Chopin concerto in Charlotte before. The last time it appears on my radar was when Emanuel Ax played it in 1998 – with the visiting Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Known primarily for his piano compositions, Chopin launches into his PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 with surprisingly lush and virile orchestral writing in the Allegro maestoso: brass, flutes and French horns striding into the mix as the long intro climaxes. Although Warren-Green and Symphony were aggressive in their attitude, Martinez took a more leisurely approach, downplaying the inner dialectic between longhair rigor and liquid lyricism in the early piano soloing, settling instead into a groove that underscored the Concerto’s affinity with Chopin’s Nocturnes. Only toward the end of the movement did Martinez build toward cadenza-level intensity.

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While I admired Martinez’s delicate touch in the treble, her firm left hand patrolling the bass, and her overall technique, the full exquisiteness and drama of the middle Romanze movement somehow eluded her in her earthbound phrasing. Far more satisfying was the concluding Rondo, where she captured the dancing vivacity of the music, sometimes recalling the sprightly charms of Chopin’s Waltzes and sometimes evoking the more emphatic stomp of the Polonaises. Just as importantly, Martinez and the CSO seemed to be having a jolly time, which did not preclude her showing off a bit. Indulging in those delights, however, Martinez missed the poignancy and drama you’ll find at the end of Murray Perahia’s recorded version.

The piece by Delius, “The Walk to the Paradise Garden,” was as dreamy and tropical as you would expect, from a British composer who has likely captured the soul of primeval Florida better than any American. Really lovely passages played by principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and principal clarinetist Taylor Marino were an intoxicating intro to Delius’s special allure, but Warren-Green and his orchestra seemed to back away from delivering the full drama of this operatic extract when the music swelled.

Perhaps the maestro and his ensemble had the context of this composition in mind, coming in Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet just before the lovers fulfill a suicide pact. The lovely performance didn’t have any more of a depressing effect on me than the Tchaikovsky overture had, but it seemed to dampen spirits onstage. It’s quite possible that the opening of Beethoven’s Allegro vivace was the most perfunctory playing I have heard from CSO since the last time they programmed Symphony No. 8 in 2009, a distinctively tepid outing led by former music director Christof Perick.

This time, the orchestra gradually hit their stride after circling back to the main theme, though I still wanted a little more kettledrum éclat in the ensemble explosions. In the ensuing Scherzo, a little more stealth in the soft sections and a little more mock ferocity – like Warren-Green’s attitude toward the coughers earlier? – would have helped. Symphony already had the measure of the Menuetto in 2009, the one movement Perick salvaged, and they maintained their mastery here. Launching with a zesty attack, Warren-Green brought forth the folksy energy in rotation with a wan beerhall merriment and an idyllic refuge for the woodwinds.

The F major Symphony is bookended with Allegro vivace movements, and the last is prime Beethoven, quietly churning at the outset with an inevitable outbreak of irrepressible joy. Warren-Green coaxed both the expectancy and the jubilant payload from the orchestra – plus all the surprises, detours, misdirection, and impassioned releases that make Beethoven so worth revisiting and celebrating, 250th birthday or not. The French horns didn’t mess up as they had in 2009, this time around teaming up with the brass in a rousing finish.

Cherokee Nation Claims Territory Next to “Appalachian Spring”

Review: Appalachian Spring

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When you think of an All-American concert at Belk Theater performed by the Charlotte Symphony, composers like Samuel Barber or Aaron Copland figure to be in the mix. Sure enough, Copland’s Appalachian Spring is the marquee attraction at the latest Symphony concert led by maestro Christopher Warren-Green, preceded by Barber’s equally familiar Adagio for Strings. What came between these works by a Pennsylvania blue-blood and a Brooklyn-born Jew was really surprising, enlightening, and inspiring – and frankly stole the show.

That work was by a composer most of us had never heard of, William Brittelle, titled Si Otsedoha in a language most of us don’t know. Commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony in 2017 and premiered the following year in Raleigh, the new piece tripled the Appalachian aspect of the concert, for the Boston-born Brittelle was raised in Newton, NC, the county seat of Catawba County. Appropriately enough, the featured performers of Si Otsedoha were the Cherokee Chamber Singers of Cherokee High School, led by Michael Yanette.

With English and Cherokee text by the Singers, the piece is divided into five sections, including a “Still Here Overture.” It’s forceful stuff from the beginning, with each of the Singers stepping forward to recount a segment of Native American or Cherokee history. The history goes back many millennia before the so-called “discovery” of the New World, and after each section – even after the sufferings, indignities, and betrayals inflicted by white European occupiers – the whole ensemble proclaims, “But we’re still here!” with an edge of affirmation and defiance. Special rancor is reserved for President Andrew Jackson.

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These young men and women are telling us things. Though they mention the infamous “Trail of Tears,” they’re not complaining or asking for pity. In the softer second section, “Phoenix Rising,” we hear of the young people’s yearnings, sung in English and Cherokee, keyed by a recurring phrase, “When I look to the sky.” In the next section, we begin to notice the composer, the orchestra, soprano soloist Catherine Brookman and Yanette more; for it is here, with the women answering the men, that the Singers really begin to sing. Brittelle’s music leavens the message of “When Money Becomes Religion,” arguably containing the orneriest statements in the piece. The section on the Keystone Pipeline in North Dakota, in particular, aren’t intended to salve the sensibilities of Evangelicals or Republicans.

Adorned with silvery percussion and gossamer harp strings, “Walls of Glass” is the most soothing and ethereal section of the piece, where the lyricism of the composer and the harmony of the ensemble shine most brilliantly. The finale, “Si Otsedoha,” circles back to the “We’re still here” message of the opening section, but the Cherokee version is spoken with far less defiance than the earlier English preamble. Gradually the music, the singing, and the chanting grow insistent, then exclamatory and celebratory – with a little bit of a militant edge. The next time Native Americans wish to protest construction of a new pipeline that violates existing treaties, Si Otsedoha (first word is pronounced “she”) would be a stirring, powerful statement to fire up demonstrations.

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Though Barber’s Adagio has been programmed at least twice since I heard Jacomo Rafael Bairos conduct it at Knight Theater in 2011, I had never seen what Warren-Green would do with it. Nobody who loves this affecting work will be disappointed. The cellos, violins, and even the violas get opportunities to stand apart during this eight-minute warhorse, and all three perform precisely and sensitively. Watching the performance is a treat – and after navigating the unexpected Uptown detours to find a feasible pathway to the Belk, which seemed to confound Google Maps as much as me, I can heartily credit the players for soothing my frazzled nerves.

Copland’s Appalachian Spring was more of a surprise than the Barber, last performed here in October 2015. After a moribund rendition of the score in 1993, which I consistently cite as among the most wretched Symphony performances I’ve ever witnessed, the orchestra conquered Copland’s iconic ballet suite the next two times I heard it in 2009 and 2015. For the current concert, Warren-Green expands his conquest, restoring music from the original Martha Graham ballet, which Copland called “Ballet for Martha” before Graham discerned spring in the music and took the eventual title from Hart Crane’s The Bridge.

Chamber and orchestral versions that flowed from the 1944 ballet abbreviated the score. Neither of the recordings in my collection break down the piece, but those conducted by Bernstein, Mehta, and Copland are among those you can find on Spotify. Of these, only Mehta’s begins to describe the ballet scenario with any of the detail that you’ll find so helpfully reproduced in Symphony’s program booklet. I suspect the absence or abbreviation of Section 4, “The revivalist and his flock,” was one of the things made that lamentable 1993 version so lifeless.

The “Calm and flowing” Section 7 of the piece, memorable for all its voicings of the “Simple Gifts” Shaker melody – by the violas, the cellos, and (most memorably) the clarinet – seemed to come with more off-road excursions by piano, brass, and percussion before the unforgettable orchestral explosion that Charlotte Symphony plays so grandly together. It may be a less cohesive Spring than Copland conceived in his suite, but after hearing the same-old-same-old so many times, I found it fresher and even more satisfying.

Barefoot in Carnegie Hall, Conqueror at the Knight

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Review: Charlotte Symphony and Conrad Tao Perform Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto

By Perry Tannenbaum

Celebrations of Ludwig van Beethoven don’t really need to lean on a convenient excuse. Just before celebrations broke out worldwide on January 1, 2020, commemorating the great composer’s 250th birthday, New York City’s WQXR played out 2019 with their traditional New Year’s Eve countdown of their audience’s top 100 favorites, culminating in a marathon tribute to Beethoven. Not only did Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony No. 9 take the top spot yet again at the flagship classical FM station, six works by Beethoven were in WQXR’s top 10, including the top three. Charlotte Symphony certainly wasn’t standing in back of the line of orchestras poised for celebration as the new decade began.

Returning to Knight Theater from a tour of Southeast Asia with the London Chamber Orchestra, maestro Christopher Warren-Green capped the first full week of 2020 with a double-dose of the birthday boy’s compositions, the “Leonore Overture No. 3” and the “Emperor” Concerto No. 5, which finished No. 10 in the latest WQXR popularity poll. In between, we heard the Symphony No. 7 in C by Jean Sibelius, perhaps the first time that the Finnish composer’s final symphony has been performed in Charlotte. Pianist and composer Conrad Tao made his Charlotte debut with the orchestra.

We don’t have too many instances of rewrites among Beethoven’s published works, but his lone opera, Fidelio, and its overture are prominent exceptions. The three Leonore overtures (plus a “Fidelio Overture”!) testify that Beethoven not only fussed over the music for his opera, he also fussed over the title. Leonore, Creatures of Prometheus, and Coriolan are the overtures most favored as fillers on CD collections of the symphonies, and Warren-Green programmed Coriolan in an all-Beethoven concert in 2012. As far back as I can trace, this is the first time Symphony has separated the “Leonore Overture” from Fidelio, but our musicians likely recalled rehearsing it for an opera-in-concert version conducted by Christof Perick in 2004 and when Opera Carolina offered us a fully-staged Fidelio in 2015.

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Musicians were perhaps too amped-up for the celebration as the Overture kicked off the concert. The opening sforzando over a timpani beat and the mysterious fadeaway that follows that burst were beautifully played. Woodwinds blended effectively and the flutes had a wonderful rapport before forebodings of the big tune rippled through the lower strings. But the crisp delivery and sleekly calibrated dynamics we have come to expect from this orchestra were missing on the first pass through the main theme, and there was no room left to dramatically turn up the volume later when the big tune repeated twice more. Thankfully, the ensemble steadied immediately afterwards – for the entire evening – sharpening their focus. Winds and horns remained tightly knit, principal flutist Victor Wang continued to charm, and principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn, deployed deep in the balcony, brought us forlorn pathos before concertmaster Calin Lupanu, playing fervidly, triggered the final galloping reprise and climax.

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Other than interpolating how exhausted he still was after conducting the Leonore, Warren-Green was all about Sibelius when he picked up his mic for the first time in 2020, pointing out that the Finn was battling two illnesses as he wrote the piece over a 10-year stretch: depression and alcoholism. He also drew our attention to the trombone solos with insights gleaned from the original 1924 manuscript. The winds and strings, particularly the violins, drew a sweetness from the music that I hadn’t found on either of the CDs in my collection, and there were definite hints in the darkest passages, where the violins played low in their range, of the illnesses that afflicted the composer – and possible promptings for the way Shostakovich would register WW2 in his symphonies. Only the flow and the full grandeur of my Ashkenazy recording with the London Philharmonia were missing in Warren-Green’s reading. As for principal trombonist John Bartlett, the orchestral wreath surrounding his contributions – along with the embroidery Sibelius weaves with the winds – might cause you to overlook his unquestionable excellence.

No such danger threatened Tao as he emerged in his colorful attire. Only later admitting that he had begun the new year by packing negligently and forgetting his formal attire, Tao attacked his opening cadenzas with swashbuckling panache, and his phrasing proved to be no less audacious and individual than his attire and attack. Clearly, Tao has heard this soaring masterwork in his own way – but without perversely differing with traditional interpretations or seeking to draw undue attention away from the composer. Warren-Green and the orchestra responded vigorously to the young soloist, as much in the forefront of the epic opening Allegro movement as the piano. Of course, Tao impressed us more in the softer passages than the accompaniment here, but Symphony was certainly an equal partner in the magical Adagio that followed. The upper strings, delicately supported by pizzicatos from the lower strings, solemnly and lyrically cleared the way for Tao’s ethereal entrance – with a clarity that I’ve never heard on a recording. A bit of subtlety and nuance eluded Tao here and there in his phrasing, but Warren-Green and his ensemble remained marvelously simpatico in sustaining the sublimity.

For those of us who love this piece, Tao’s way with the ingenious transition between the Adagio and the Rondo finale likely sparked the most controversy and admiration. He certainly took his time, not playing the ending quite as softly as the usual pianissimos I’ve heard, but the sforzando burst to launch the concluding movement still had a satisfying snap and éclat. Symphony was as zestful as ever in its response, and Tao parleyed a playfulness and a muscular power we had not seen from him earlier, conclusively proving he could punish a keyboard.

Two more Beethoven masterworks, his Missa Solemnis and “Pastoral” Symphony, highlight the remainder of the 2019-20 mainstage classics series, the latter to be led by JoAnn Falletta. Symphony certainly had the appeal of their Tao program nicely gauged, scheduling an extra Sunday matinee after the usual pair of performances. Of course, Tao may have been kidding us when he spoke of forgetting his formalwear. In his enthusiastic New York Times review of Tao’s Carnegie Hall debut back in November, critic Anthony Tommasini couldn’t help noting that the pianist was clad in black slacks, a black jacket, a black T-shirt… and barefoot!

Stars of Opera Carolina’s Eugene Onegin Shine Brightest in Act 3 Showdown

Review: Opera Carolina’s Eugene Onegin

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Opera Carolina subscribers have never been as fervid about Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky as their Charlotte Ballet counterparts. On opening night of Opera Carolina’s Eugene Onegin, you could calculate the difference by gazing at the empty seats at Belk Theater. Artistic director James Meena, with a generous deployment of musicians from the Charlotte Symphony, gave an admirable account of the score. Scenic designer Peter Dean Beck engineered a setting that evoked the look and feel of the Metropolitan Opera’s Onegin, brimming with wintry birch tree trunks.

Still the new Opera Carolina production wasn’t quite engineered to change subscribers’ minds. In the early going, Alexy Lavrov’s performance as Onegin paled in comparison with what I experienced from the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky in New York. The baritone’s difficulties were compounded when the projected supertitles, wayward all evening long in tracking the action, failed altogether at the climactic moment when Onegin gave his polite and heartless answer to the passionate declaration of love that young Tatyana had written to him the night before. We lost some valuable nuances there.

Tchaikovsky and Alexander Pushkin, whose verse novel the composer adapted for his 1879 opera, no doubt expected us to like and empathize with the earnest young poet, Vladimir Lensky, more than with the best friend who suddenly became his mortal enemy. With tenor Sebastien Gueze as the pure-hearted poet, I also found Lensky more impressive, not only in his valedictory aria before the fatal duel with Onegin but also at the festive ball scene, where the poet’s jealousy over his friend’s advances to his fiancée Olga ruptures their friendship. After his moving performance of “Lenski’s Air,” I was doubly sorry to see Gueze go.

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Yet once the fatal duel had concluded Act 2, something almost magical occurred. After the pivotal gunshot and confirmation of Lensky’s death, Onegin hung around, without the curtain going down, as the scene changed from the countryside to six years later at Prince Gremin’s St. Petersburg palace. Meena and the orchestra kept pouring forth the forlorn music of the bosky pre-dawn duel scene, Lavrov was solemnly helped into a dinner jacket, and just as the opening Polonaise for Act 3 cued the entrance of the noble guests to the ballroom, the baritone exited to the wings. He returned in a fresh garish white-streaked wig, reminding me somehow of the mature Beethoven, and was magnificent from that moment onwards. The wig change had to happen quickly enough so that Onegin could take in the arrival of Gremin and Tatyana – transformed from a forgotten reject into a poised, polished, and radiant princess. For me, it was Lavrov who was more radically transformed. During this humbling soiree scene, he was the person I empathized with. He was the singer I couldn’t peel my eyes away from.

In her youthful scenes, soprano Melinda Whittington as Tatyana didn’t decisively outshine mezzo Leyla Martinucci as her younger sister Olga. Both roles offer a nice range of emotions and feelings. Initially quiet and bookish, Tatyana breaks into bloom upon encountering Onegin, giddily pouring out her love into her letter and impetuously dispatching it to him against her better judgment. In broad daylight, she endures the double agony of realizing the mistake of her impulsiveness and then having it underscored by Onegin’s dignified rebuff. Olga is the cheerful and playful sister, secure in Lensky’s adoration, just a little too prone to teasing Tatyana and goading Lensky’s jealousy until it’s too late. In a matter of seconds, complacency is swallowed by catastrophe. Martnucci brilliantly bridges her flashes of blithe jollity and the sudden onset of shock and disbelief. To a large extent, the impact of the breach between Lensky and Onegin depended on Martnucci’s devastated reaction.

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Whittington was more convincing for me in her quiet formal episodes with Onegin than she was in Tatyana’s great letter scene, singing it well enough but never living it with that intense mixture of terror and exhilaration that can only happen when you’re in free-fall, carried into the void by an overwhelming tide of love. She seemed to be following director Tom Diamond’s instructions station-to-station as she restlessly moved around Tatiana’s bedroom rather than infusing these movements with urgency and spontaneity. My confidence in Whittington’s dramatic capabilities remained shaken until the ultimate denouement, although she was majestic enough with her prince at the palace. When Onegin came begging for love and forgiveness, Whittington was fabulously conflicted, seemingly pleading for release and infuriated by Onegin’s temerity at the same time. As before, there was no restraint in Diamond’s direction, but Lavrov’s complete self-abasement and Whittington’s spasms of rage set the scene ablaze.

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Of course, it was up to bass baritone Jordan Bisch in his cameo as the aging Prince Gremin to justify Tatyana’s devotion and make Onegin’s presumption play like treachery. With a garrulous, avuncular stage presence, wig and makeup designer Martha Ruskai’s best work, and one beautiful heartfelt aria, Bisch did exactly that. It isn’t quite as easy to analyze why Triquet’s gaucherie works so well at the ball before fireworks erupt between Onegin and Lenski, but tenor Johnathan White’s foppery – and AT Jones’s costume design – set exactly the right tone. While I couldn’t explain why subscribers were shunning Tchaikovsky, I could predict an enjoyable Eugene Onegin experience if they gave it a chance, especially if Opera Carolina’s two stars can reach peak form before Act 3.

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.