Tag Archives: Christina Pier

Ukraine’s Colors Shine Through Charlotte Symphony Celebration

Review: Dona Nobis Pacem at Belk Theater

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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March 12, 2022, Charlotte, NC – When 57 musicians gathered at the Carolina Theatre on Tryon Street to present the inaugural Charlotte Symphony concert on March 20, 1932, none of them could have possibly predicted how the orchestra’s 90th anniversary would be celebrated in 2022. Three of the five pieces that Christopher Warren-Green conducted, nearing the end of his distinguished tenure as Symphony’s music director, hadn’t been written yet, and one of the composers hadn’t been born. Even last May, when CSO’s 2021-22 season was announced, Warren-Green himself couldn’t have predicted how grimly appropriate Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem would be for the occasion. As originally conceived, the program was an olive branch from England to America, three British composers conducted by one of the Crown’s finest, two of the pieces paying homage to Walt Whitman, our greatest poet.

A small dent in the all-English lineup turned up when Symphony’s Australian second trombone, Thomas Burge, finished enough of his to-be-continued “Charlotte Symphony Fanfare” for it to serve as a preamble to the orchestra’s celebration. What truly turned the tone of the anniversary festivities upside-down was Vladimir Putin’s horrific invasion of Ukraine, lending Dona Nobis Pacem – “Grant us peace” – unforeseen pertinence and meaning. With St. Patrick’s Day weekend revelers teeming along the sidewalks and spilling over onto Tryon and Fifth Streets, there was a dramatic contrast for concertgoers who became pedestrians shortly after hearing Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and the Dona Nobis at Belk Theater on Saturday night. The most festive of the night’s festivities were outside the hall.

Burge’s new composition will no doubt impress more when it takes its intended place at the launch of a future Symphony’s classics season and the composer’s showy post-pandemic staging can be realized: three brass choirs spread out across the Belk balcony. For the 90th, the brass battalion was confined behind the masked string sections, but the peep we had into the work-in-progress was sunny and glorious. Gustav Holst’s Walt Whitman Overture, a youthful piece completed in 1899 when the composer would turn 25, was arguably the most sustained celebration of the evening, though it might be somewhat deflating to learn that Holst had been dead for over 48 years when the piece was first performed in 1982. The transparent violins at the beginning, hovering over churning basses and cellos before flutes and brass peeped in, struck me more like Schubert than any American or British music. When the brass first broke through, however, there may have been a glint of Sousa, and the final swell of the piece was in a grand Victorian vein.

The Four Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), premiered in 1957, were clearly the most winsome offering of the evening, shuttling between slow and fast tempos – not only between dances but sometimes within them. Inspired by Louis Armstrong more strongly than by Whitman, Arnold’s music displayed a more American élan, geniality, and broad humor than the other Brits’. If your head wasn’t spinning from the abrupt acceleration that Warren-Green called forth in the opening “Strathspey Pesante,” which ended with a pedestrian “shave and a haircut” phrase, then the slowdown in the ensuing Vivace (Reel), initiated by Joshua Hood galumphing on his bassoon, would certainly have caught your ear. And if that weren’t sufficient mischief, Warren-Green’s hambone slacking and slouching at the podium added a visual cue. Perish the thought that Maestro Warren-Green’s predecessor, Christof Perick, would ever have tainted himself with such levity.

After these pranks, which reminded me of the Western merriment in Copland’s folksier pieces, the work of principal harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell, principal flutist Victor Wang, and oboist Erica Cice was sublime in the penultimate “Hebridean Song,” shining through the shimmer of the strings. The concluding “Highland Fling” had as much Scottish flavor as the “Pesante,” rushing at us unabated with sudden shifts in volume, the tweedling of the high woodwinds answered by onrushes of orchestra colored with fiery alarms from the trombones.

If the customary programming conventions for galas were being observed, I’d strongly question the wisdom of delaying the comparatively solemn and serene Tallis Fantasia until after Arnold’s suite, which would have sent us off to intermission in a lighter mood. But Symphony president David Fisk had already solemnized the occasion by dedicating the concert “to Ukraine and the courage, strength, and resilience of its people,” a theme that would subsequently be echoed in the digital program and by Warren-Green, when he prefaced his performance of the Dona Nobis. By coincidence surely, Vaughan-Williams composed his 1910 Fantasia very similarly to Burge’s spanking new “Fanfare,” dividing his aggregation of strings into three parts, two string orchestras with a string quartet within the larger orchestra. Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu had the last and most eloquent solo among those doled out to the four principal string players, but kudos should also go to principal violist Benjamin Geller, whose solo launched the memorable quartet episode.

What will stand out for me, however, was the extraordinary alchemy of this performance. Whether it has always been baked into Vaughan-Williams’ orchestration, maybe something special that Warren-Green was able to elicit from his musicians, or whether it was the unprecedented high placement of the small string orchestra on the platform where the Charlotte Master Chorale would soon sing, flush against the upstage vestigial pipes at the Belk… I could have sworn that there was a softly playing organ in the orchestral mix. Needless to say: amazing.2022~Dona Nobis Pacem-27

Those organ pipes were more verifiably involved in the culminating performance of the Dona Nobis Pacem, after more than 40 Master choristers filed in, followed by our two guest soloists: soprano Christina Pier and, in his Charlotte debut, bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch. It was then that Warren-Green dedicated this piece to the valiant, freedom-loving people of Ukraine. Between the moment that the maestro turned away from us and Symphony began to play, those silvery pipes, illuminated until then entirely in blue light, suddenly became halved into stripes of gleaming blue and yellow gold, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. A proud moment for us all.

Whether prescribed by COVID protocols, Warren-Green’s decree, or the unmasked singers’ personal preferences, Pier and Okulitch sat further apart than the vocal soloists we usually encounter at Symphony concerts. With Pier mostly singing the “Agnus Dei” refrain that contains the Latin title, and Okulitch confining himself in the middle movements in Walt Whitman’s English – and Old Testament translations in the Finale – the separation between the singers wasn’t awkward at all.

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Pier tended to sing with the orchestra and the choir, but there was an extended stretch where Okulitch, standing to Warren-Green’s right, was accompanied solely by Lupanu, seated to his left. So the tableau enhanced the intimacy of their duet. What was really unfortunate and compromising for us were the vast stretches of incomprehensible text from the chorus that Vaughan-Williams had scored so splendidly. If there had been supertitles above the stage or printed programs in our hands, the experience would have been even more powerful. Those of us who were able to download the digital program were adequately equipped, but the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center has had repeated problems with transmitting these copious, colorful, and informative materials.

In future performances where we’re expecting to follow along at the Belk, I will try to download the digital materials before I leave home. Clearest of all was the chorus’s mighty “Beat! Beat! Drums!” refrain from one of Whitman’s most metrical Civil War compositions. Even when we might be lost in the less familiar words of other war poems by the Good Gray Poet (“Reconciliation” and “Dirge for Two Veterans”), the music, the voices, and the colors of the fighting Ukrainians’ flag landed on us forcefully. It was thrilling.

Originally published on 3/14 at CVNC.org

Charlotte Symphony’s Missa Solemnis Thrills With Power and Sublimity

Review:  Missa Solemnis

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Beethoven’s original intent, when he conceived his Missa Solemnis, was to honor one of his foremost patrons, Rudolf, the Archduke of Austria, who was to be installed as an archbishop on March 9, 1820, in what is now the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, Beethoven missed his self-imposed deadline, so we are not on the brink of celebrating the bicentennial of one of this composer’s most towering achievements. The score wasn’t placed in Archbishop Rudolf’s hands until the third anniversary of his installation, wasn’t premiered until the spring of 1824 in St. Petersburg, and Beethoven never saw (by this time, he was deaf) a complete performance during his lifetime. Only the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei were offered when Beethoven presided over the only performance of the Missa Solemnis that he ever attended on May 7, 1824. Yet it cannot be said that the Vienna audience was shortchanged, for on the same night, Beethoven’s immortal “Choral” Symphony had its world premiere.

There is certainly a kinship between the two works, which call upon the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra to bring a chorus and four special guest vocalists to the stage each time they are presented. Last conducted at the Belk Theater by maestro Christopher Warren-Green at the season finale for 2011-12, Missa Solemnis has a power and visceral impact that rivals Beethoven’s mighty Ninth, but it is nowhere near the same magnitude as a box office attraction. Symphony has wisely pushed the chorale to an earlier spot in this season’s calendar and, compared with recent Beethoven programs when Emperor Concerto and Symphony No. 8 were given three times each, limited performances to two. Most concertgoers who were there on opening night would enthusiastically confirm that this singular mass was well worth hearing.

Warren-Green’s guest vocalists and the orchestra seemed slightly tentative – and the timpanist slightly timid – in setting up the opening Kyrie, and the ethereal music that Beethoven wrote for organ was conspicuously AWOL during Gloria and the penultimate Sanctus. But the confidence of the singers and musicians firmed up quickly enough for the hesitant opening moments to be forgotten by evening’s end – while the excellence of the guest vocalists remained a constant. In the company of tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan, soprano Christina Pier, and bass Jordan Bisch, mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller initially sounded underpowered in the alto part.

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Satisfaction in hearing Miller tracked similarly to the performance as a whole. When we reached the second section, the Gloria, Warren-Green jumped up and down to spur the musicians on, tempo quickened excitedly with an awesome leap in loudness, horns and brass entered zestfully into the fray, and the chorus – especially the sopranos – sang with heightened crispness and enthusiasm. After the opening Kyrie, each of the remaining four sections was well over 15 minutes in length, epic enough to go through multiple changes in tempo and mood. Beginning with the Gloria, we heard Miller to better advantage when she was freed to explore her upper range.

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Manucharyan and Piers were more consistently strong, powerful enough to assert themselves distinctively even when the Charlotte Master Chorale – known as the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte in 2012 when they previously teamed with Symphony on this work – sang robustly behind them. Displaying admirable stamina merely by remaining standing for the entire 80-minute performance, the Master Chorale were marvelous throughout. Perhaps their most thrilling work occurred in the insistent Credo section, but their hushed moments in the sacred episodes strewn across the work were equally treasurable, more than compensating for the sacramental void left by the absent organ continuo.

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Bisch had his best moments as he opened the climactic Agnus Dei section, which was eventually crowned with military thunder and harmonious choral glory. Perhaps the most memorable moments of the entire concert were cued during the Sanctus when concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu raised his music stand, signaling that he himself would soon stand up and deliver a silvery solo before merging blissfully with the guest soloists, most especially Piers and Manucharyan, in the sublime “Benedictus” portion of this section.

The elegant Preludio played by Lupanu, almost entirely far up in the violin’s range, is said to have been Beethoven’s attempt to simulate the descent of the Holy Spirit into the midst of his solemn creation. Most of the concertgoers at Belk Theater would likely testify to the composer’s success.

A Transcendent New Perspective on Verdi’s Requiem – as Sung by Jewish Prisoners Earmarked for Extermination by the Nazis

Review: Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín

By Perry Tannenbaum

Ever since Verdi’s Requiem was first presented in 1874, singers and musicians have often observed that the composer, not a particularly religious man, steered the text of the Roman Catholic funeral mass in the direction of opera. Considering that Verdi had begun this work as a tribute to Rossini shortly after his death in 1868, those observations may be precisely what Verdi intended. Arranger/conductor Murry Sidlin offered a new perspective in Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín with his new version of the Requiem for chorus, soloists and piano that premiered at the Anne R. Belk Theater on the UNC Charlotte campus. His pared-down instrumentation was not an arbitrary choice. Sidlin was aiming to pay tribute to Rafael Schächter, the Holocaust victim who organized and led the choir of Jewish prisoners that performed for the International Red Cross during their infamous inspection of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in June 1944.

In a miracle that faintly echoes the Hanukkah miracle, Schächter only had a single musical score – for piano and chorus – when the pianist-conductor arrived at Terezín. From that one little musical light, Schächter forged a chorus that offered solace to its members at evening rehearsals after hard days of labor at the concentration camp. And in the text of the Requiem, he found a massive voice that would “sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.”

Interspersed with a recreation of the 16 performances that Schächter conducted for the edification and delight of their fellow prisoners (there is no evidence that the Nazis in attendance were ever entertained or that those Red Cross emissaries were ever enlightened), Sidlin has interspersed clips from Defiant Requiem, a documentary that tells the story of the Theresienstadt Chorus with help from filmed interviews of its living survivors. There were also segments where Sidlin himself, turning towards us after conducting a section of the Requiem, would add his voice to the narrative. If that weren’t enough to evoke the presence of Schächter and the role he played at the original performances, one of the two actors who stepped out of the chorus and participated in this unique concert drama also portrayed Schächter.

Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín has been around since 2002 and has twice been presented at New York’s Lincoln Center in Avery Fisher Hall. But those 2013 and 2015 performances at the home of the NY Philharmonic were with full orchestras. What we saw at the Anne R. Belk may have literally proven that less is more, for the replication of Schächter’s performances was certainly more faithful with just a single piano – plus a violin – replacing the orchestra at a more intimate venue. Nor was the drama diminished when we learned that the final Theresienstadt Requiem for the Red Cross was performed by a depleted choir of about 60 members: the choral group standing before us, from The University Chorale and We Are Sine Nomine, numbered 62 according to our program booklets.

Stripped down to these essentials, and replenished with the contexts supplied by Sidlin and the documentary, what usually sounds devotional and fearful now felt, by turns, poignant and defiant, dripping with vengeful fury. The “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy on us), sung first by tenor soloist Brian Cheney and followed by bass Carl DuPont, soprano Christina Pier, and mezzo Victoria Livengood sounded less like a supplication than a demand.

When the full chorus broke in with their first “Dies irae” (Day of wrath), the performance actually increased in its defiance. Prior to the ensuing “Tuba mirum” chorale, an extended solo from Arlene Shrut firmly established that the piano wasn’t to be limited to passive comping. The hushed pianissimos after DuPont softly uttered his last “Mors stupebit” (Death shall stand amazed) had a solemn eeriness that was unprecedented in the performances and DVD that I’d previously witnessed. Livengood, more reliably dramatic than on-pitch, was regally up to her supreme moment of defiance in “Liber scriptus” (Written book), where she proclaimed – with prophetic volume and fury – that on the Day of Judgment, “what is hidden shall be made manifest, nothing shall be unavenged.”

Spitting defiance in the face of the Nazis and obliquely sending an SOS to the Red Cross were the most important aspects of Schächter’s payload, but the intervening narrative gave us more nuance. There were Jews at Terezín who objected to the embrace of a Catholic Mass – and to the danger that the conductor was subjecting his choristers to should their defiant message be fully grasped by the Nazis. These nuances came from the lips of the survivors on film, who clearly viewed Schächter as an inspiration, a godsend, and even a lifesaver.

idlin’s concert drama also drove home the point that, for the Terezín singers, the “Libera me” (Deliver me) was no longer a plea to be spared from fires of hell sometime in the indeterminate future but a plea to be delivered now from their monstrous captors. Another set of testimonies told us of the uplift that the choristers felt singing the “Sanctus” (Holy, holy, holy) section of the Requiem. Somehow it escaped Sidlin that the first two lines of this section are translated from one of the most sacred Hebrew prayers, when pious Jews not only rise to recite the words but also rise on tiptoe for each of the three “Holies.”

There was plenty of engaging lagniappe to make up for this omission, including a memorable evocation of the artistic beehive of musical activity happening nightly at Theresienstadt, intertwining wisps of Schubert’s “Trout” with “Bei Mir bist du Schoen” and the bittersweet Russian Yiddish folksong, “Tumbalalaika.” But the most sobering addition that Sidlin made to his drama came in the coda that he added on after the Requiem. Instead of the customary applause, we were prompted to remain silent as the musicians filed down the aisles through hall and out into the lobby.

Violinist Oliver Kot was the only musician who remained onstage, and the exit music that he played was the melody to another prayer, the “Oseh Shalom.” It’s not only the most frequently uttered sentence in synagogue, it’s also the ending to two of our most important prayers, the “Amidah” and the various permutations of the “Kaddish” – half, full, teachers’ and mourner’s. “The maker of peace in his high places, he will make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say, ‘Amen.’” Iconic last words, for it is customary to say them in Hebrew while taking three steps backwards, as if taking leave of a king.

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The new ending (a clarinetist had played it in previous orchestral performances) doubly evoked Fiddler on the Roof for me. All productions of Fiddler begin with the sound of a single violinist and many end that way. When I played Motel the Tailor in a 1987 production by Rock Hill Little Theatre at Winthrop University, it was my honor, under the cover of all the helter-skelter of Jews leaving Anatevka by decree of the Russian Czar, to light a single candle. That candle remained lit – on Tevye the Dairyman’s wagon – after the entire cast had left the stage, our tribute to the Six Million. Sidler’s staging could be taken the same way or as a direct tribute to Schächter and the Theresienstadt choristers who didn’t survive the Holocaust. We learned that Schächter had been deported to Auschwitz in October 1944, four months after the Red Cross Requiem. He survived his time there, but in the spring of 1945, he died in a death march, a month before Czechoslovakia was liberated. With that last “Oseh Shalom” tacked on, Sidler succeeded in creating the illusion that we had just witnessed something tantalizingly close to the promising conductor’s final performance.

Of course, we had the luxury of listening to better singers who had musical scores and could read them. I was most impressed overall by Cheney, who excelled in the “Ingemisco” (I groan) tenor aria. Pier sang very sweetly but was occasionally underpowered compared to some of the divas who have taken on the soprano role, so her best moment wasn’t in the powerful entrance to the “Libera me” but later on after the final “Dies irae” thunder from the chorus. Cheney’s “Requiem aeterna dona eis” (Grant them eternal rest) was nothing less than sublime, floating ethereally over the hushed chorus, a timeless little capsule that reminded me how live performance can triumphantly transcend any recording.