Tag Archives: Christopher James Lees

Rhiannon Giddens Returns to Charlotte and Leaves Plenty of Music in the Air

Review: Rhiannon Giddens with Charlotte Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

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November 5, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Since the long-anticipated world premiere of her new opera, Omar, at Spoleto Festival USA back in May, composer-singer-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens has hopscotched the worlds of folk, jazz, and classical music. Her Spoleto apotheosis down in Charleston was embellished with a sit-down interview event and an outdoor concert with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, her collaborator on They’re Calling Me Home, the 2022 Grammy-Award-winner for Best Folk Album. Among Giddens’ many gigs since then, she has headlined at the San Francisco Jazz Festival and Carnegie Hall before entering downstage at Belk Theater for a rendezvous with the Charlotte Symphony and resident conductor Christopher James Lees. As you might presume of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, Giddens is not easily pigeonholed.

2022~Rhiannon Giddens-23Yet the Greensboro native co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops, her first Grammy Award exploit, and now has an opera firmly rooted in the Carolinas to her credit, so an audience studded with black ties and tuxes had no difficulty embracing the polyglot Giddens as their own – even as she navigated a songlist that included Parisian and Celtic selections. They may not have realized that Giddens had played Charlotte before, as far back as 2008 when I caught her with the Chocolate Drops at Northwest School of the Arts. Turrisi and bassist Jason Sypher, who shared the Cistern Yards stage with Giddens at the College of Charleston in May, accompanied her once again, though Lees and Symphony lightened their load. Nor was it obvious that Turrisi would be playing piano until late in the concert when he insinuated himself upstage.

As soon as my QR code scanner brought up the evening’s program, I could see that the Symphony offerings would be more eclectic, accessible, and daring than the set Giddens performed at Spoleto. Even before Giddens led her trio onstage, Lees and the orchestra demonstrated that they would not be content to trot out the stale and familiar, following up on John Williams’ brassy Liberty Fanfare with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Overture to Hiawatha, referencing a half dozen episodes from the composer’s trilogy of Longfellow-inspired cantatas. In the wake of the fervid Fanfare, a little more finesse could have been applied to the opening of the African Britisher’s evocation of the primeval American classic, letting the harp sound more clearly, but Lees was certainly simpatico with the shifting moods and tempos afterward. Violins were gossamer-light in “The Wooing” section, the waltzing section that followed had admirable propulsion, and the cello corps warmed the tenderest episode, before the big build in the “Reunion” finale.

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The truly treasurable experiences began when Giddens strode onstage and picked up her banjo; for her first song, “Spanish Mary,” was co-written with Bob Dylan, with a fine orchestral arrangement for Lees and Symphony to luxuriate in. Shedding the banjo, Giddens followed up with “Julie’s Aria” from Omar, co-written with Michael Abels, reminding us of her own capabilities as an operatic soprano. Yet within minutes, Giddens was delivering a smoking-hot version of “Water Boy,” the pile-driving prison song immortalized in recorded versions by Paul Robeson, Odetta, and Harry Belafonte.

No doubt, Giddens has listened repeatedly to all three of these cultural touchstones, for the simple hammering arrangement was borrowed from Odetta and Belafonte while the lyrical clarity hearkened back to Robeson. The Odetta recordings of “Water Boy” are unparalleled, particularly when it caps a medley begun with “I’ve Been Driving on Bald Mountain,” shot through with explosive grunts and gasps from the hammer-wielding prisoner. But Giddens has found her own path toward heightening the intensity at the end, and the orchestra beats delivered by Symphony added jolts of electricity throughout the piece that simple guitar strums couldn’t match. Better still, Giddens’ preamble, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” was certainly a coupling with “Water Boy” that civil rights champion Odetta would have appreciated, repeatedly delivering a “you can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood but not my soul” mantra.

2022~Rhiannon Giddens-19“Mouth Music” was all we needed to hear if we needed assurance that Giddens could make a credible showing at a jazz festival, and there would be more to follow. Lees ceded the stage to the guest trio, lightening the vibe, and Giddens picked up a viola and yielded some of the spotlight to her bandmates, especially Turrisi when he sizzled on his accordion during one of the fiddle tunes. The merriment faded when Lees returned to the podium, replaced by the romance of “Autumn Leaves” en français until Giddens favored us with the English lyric as well. If you hadn’t glimpsed the program, just the tropical sway of the violins was enough to announce our return to the Carolinas and “Summertime” from the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, sweetly sung. Plenty of space was afforded to both Giddens and Symphony in the arrangement of “La Vie en Rose,” and the singer did not seem to be straining to sound like Edith Piaf, which was more than OK with me.

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Homing in on the end of the evening, Giddens and Symphony tacked toward the spiritual. With Turrisi at the keyboard, Giddens embarked on this final journey with “He Will See You Through,” followed by “Wayfaring Stranger,” opting to travel through this world “alone” rather than “below” or “of woe” as others have sung. These songs of faith certainly cleared the way for the affirmation and joy of Giddens’ final two selections, an irresistible pairing of “That Lonesome Road” and “Up Above My Head,” a perennial YouTube favorite that can’t be found on her albums. The last of these was memorably inspired. We all heard so much “music in the air” that we could leave more than satisfied, even without the planned encore.

Thorgy Brings Plenty of Christmas Cheer – and Drag Artistry – to the Queen City

Review: Charlotte Symphony Premieres A Very Thorgy Christmas

By Perry Tannenbaum

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The first thing to know about Thorgy Thor, a distinguished alum from the eighth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, is that she is outrageous. If political correctness is your passion, then the next thing to know is that I’ve chosen her pronouns after consulting the program for the world premiere of A Very Thorgy Christmas, performed with the Charlotte Symphony and resident conductor Christopher James Lees. The Wikipedia entry for Thor, née Shane Galligan, is a tossed salad of pronouns that doesn’t conclusively settle the question.

Headlining a Christmas show with a full symphony orchestra, Thorgy proved to have multiple talents. Not only did she serve as a guest violin soloist on three Christmas songs, she performed a standup monologue, screened a self-produced takeoff on an NPR podcast, presided like a gameshow host over a farcical giftwrap contest between four Symphony musicians, sang an autobiographical rewrite of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” and interviewed Lees a la late-night TV.2021~Thorgy Xmas-18

If Thorgy’s debut with Symphony in January 2020 had even half the variety and surprises of her Christmas extravaganza, it’s easy to understand why she was invited back so quickly – to basically do whatever she wished. The only restriction she acknowledged was an imposed limit of one f-bomb, and she certainly detonated that one with maximum impact. Lees and the ensemble began conventionally enough at Knight Theater for a very full house, launching into a merry rendition of “Joy to the World.” But the arrangement of this familiar carol soon became a mashup of several other carols and then an outright Christmas barrage – “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night” at the same time? – before I began to wonder what few Christmas carols might be left over after this extravagant overture.

Unlike Jack Benny or Henny Youngman, the only other violinist comedians I can reference, Thorgy took herself seriously as she came on to play “O Holy Night.” Her tone was actually quite beautiful when she played, even though the arrangement and tempo didn’t demand impressive dexterity. “Carol of the Bells,” played just before intermission, required fleeter fingering, but even with this more energetic fare, Thorgy was flawless, unstressed, and only wisecracked once or twice over her performance. More of her freewheeling flamboyance came out when she put away the lumber and spoke out. This Very Thorgy Christmas was clearly a 2021 edition if Thor has any intentions of reprising her show as a Yuletide tradition. Not only was the new show silly, as Thorgy herself off-handedly remarked, it was also ephemeral.

Thorgy’s monologue was largely about her upcoming prospects and what she had done during the pandemic. Her pandemic shenanigans were plentiful enough, in fact, to supply prime fodder for her next two comical exploits prior to intermission. In the first, she went through the lowlights of her stint as a cameo celeb, that seemingly wholesome profession of producing customized video greetings for clients’ loved ones. As the smut piled on, we quickly realized that Thorgy didn’t attract a Hallmark Cards clientele. In the NPR video she showed us afterwards, Thorgy and a fellow drag queen, rather sedately dressed for this studio format, interviewed a comparatively blue-collar guy named Chef Schwetty. Judging by the varied colors of the samples he brought with him, I’d say Schwetty was a pastry chef. Without adding flavors or adjectives, Schwetty described his specialty as balls. Needless to say, the two gay interviewers feasted on the possibilities.

2021~Thorgy Xmas-36.jpgMore signals came after intermission that a 2022 edition of Thorgy Christmas would undergo drastic changes, for it was obvious that Thor revels in surprises. Dispensing with the customary concert preludes served up by her symphonic hosts, Thorgy burst onto the stage and kicked things off with a brash “Jingle Bells” spot. Of course, she had changed her outfit during intermission – from an ensemble highlighted by garish red-and-green-striped slacks to a fiery, glittery, fuchsia spectacular. She almost visually jingled in this one-piece caprice, and she discarded her dazzling Dolly Parton white wig in favor of a towering brunette bouffant. Thorgy is rather tall already.

Genial, easygoing, and relaxed, Lees complemented his guest artist handsomely. After the opening overture pillaged a huge chunk of Christmas inventory, Lees allowed the orchestra to stray briefly from holiday fare with an excursion to Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King.” When he returned to the podium, after the screening of Thorgy’s cameos, he and his cohort basically coasted along with a couple of snatches from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, rep that they play repeatedly for Charlotte Ballet every December. After Thorgy made her splash to open the second half, Lees engaged with the Knight Theater audience to help him out with the whipcracks in Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” A woman in a lower box seat happened to have a black fan that made a whippier sound than our claps when she opened it, adding to the fun (especially when she was late).

Although the Knight audience was heavily infused with RuPaul devotees, the “12 Days of Christmas” parody was too crammed with obscure references to Thorgy’s misadventures on Drag Race and its All-Stars spinoff – and often too unintelligible – to garner universal laughter. And of course, the repetitions built into the familiar song didn’t help, a lesson for Thorgy to learn for her 2022 edition. After this partial misfire, Thorgy came up with her most hilarious bit of the night, the giftwrap contest with four surprisingly smart-alecky Symphony musicians. With a connoisseur’s unerring judgment, Thorgy chose four gifts for wrapping that offered maximum opportunity for failure and embarrassment: a cluster of inflated balloons, an open umbrella (closing it was strictly forbidden), a toilet plunger, and a broom and dustpan combo.

Like those frenetic cookoffs you may have watched on TV, the four wrappers had to cope with a tight time limit, so Lees and the orchestra timed the competition by performing… something. The action was too engrossing for me to take heed, but the ending and Thorgy’s flamboyant flourish were emphatic enough to signal the sudden frantic finish. The cluster of balloons proved to be disappointingly wrappable and humdrum, but the unopened umbrella was such a colossal fail that I found myself howling with laughter.2021~Thorgy Xmas-29

On the other hand, the wrapping for the plunger, cunningly separated into two pieces, was an absolute triumph. But flutist Jill O’Neill ultimately won the night – via a plurality of audience applause – with her amazing wrapping for the broom and dustpan. Audaciously rolling the merchandise on the floor helped O’Neill execute her design, and I suspect that adopting a witch persona as soon as she first held the broom helped to sway the judges. I was actually impressed by the rapport that Thorgy developed with each of the four contestants as they displayed their handiwork.2021~Thorgy Xmas-31

We gracefully glided homeward after this high-energy highlight, as Thorgy sat down for her cozy interview with Lees, occasionally prompting principal cellist Alan Black to imbibe from a tumbler of alcoholic beverage during the course of the conversation. Things became unexpectedly revelatory when, after a very personal question, Lees suddenly asked his interrogator if they could continue their conversation backstage later on. Some marital history soon followed. Those hilarious moments prevented the sitdown with Thorgy from becoming overly anticlimactic after the madcap giftwrap – and it segued nicely into Thorgy’s closing performance on violin, a beautiful and heartfelt “Silent Night.”

Originally published on 12/25 at CVNC.org

“Appalachian Spring” Brings Glory to Picnickers on the Symphony Park Greensward

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Evenings at the Park Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Whether or not history ultimately judges them premature, the reawakenings happening across America this past month – at sports and performing arts – are destined to be lasting memories for those of us who make it to the other side of this waning pandemic. More than Charlotte Symphony’s return to Belk Theater five weeks ago, more than the five events my wife Sue and I attended at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston earlier this month, the most recent Evenings at the Park concert at Symphony Park felt like a regathering and reaffirmation of our community. String players and the Symphony president had worn masks on the Belk Theater stage, and the spacing of the musicians underscored how few there were behind guest soloist Branford Marsalis. At Spoleto, the absence of the usual opera, orchestral, and choral presentations left the indoor and outdoor stages in Charleston similarly depopulated.

Onstage at Symphony Park for Father’s Day weekend, the string players, associate conductor Christopher James Lees, and all the other players were unmasked, apparently spaced normally. Woodwinds, brass, and percussion were amply represented, so the selections from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite weren’t drained of their customary colors. Wedged between them, David R. Gillingham’s Appalachian Counterpoint rounded out a 50-minute program of music connected to the Carolinas.

2021~Symphony Evening @ Park-03Malleted percussion and a harp were in the forefront as the Porgy and Bess selections began in a mysterious mood, veering toward the romantic with the iconic “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and – after an interjection from a 747 jet – taking a jaunty, brassy turn with “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.” Violins ushered in “Summertime” with a softly cradling sway, handing off to a forlorn oboe before “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’” entered brashly with the swagger of a trombone over a clarinet. After so many months of watching masked string players soldiering on, I felt gratified to be in a crowd listening to long-sidelined flutes, a muted trumpet, wood blocks, and a xylophone joining with their bowing comrades as the orchestra cruised through “There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way” before circling back to the inevitable “Bess.”

After all the heavy-lifting and going-it-alone that the string sections of Charlotte Symphony have done on local stages since last October, it was nice to hear Lees telling us that the strings would be sitting out the next piece while the winds, brass, and percussion carried on. A luxury well-earned! Originally written for a tuba-euphonium quartet last year, Gillingham based his Appalachian Counterpoint on an old folk lullaby, “All the Pretty Little Horses.” As the absence of strings hints, Gillingham didn’t keep the tune in that sleepy idiom in composing his contrapuntal contortions. This expanded version gave the different strands of the original quartet to different instruments, so it lost much of its original mellowness while ascending into the treble.

Even in the slow middle section, sandwiched between the two speedier sections that were conspicuously cast in a mountain mode, Gillingham wasn’t about lulling us. Since a brassy modernistic scattering was happening in this more diverse version than in the quartet original, it would have been useful for Lees to let us hear the traditional “All the Pretty Little Horses” melody briefly before performing Gillingham’s Counterpoint. That way, those of us hearing the piece for the first time could track the theme more easily.

Darkness didn’t envelop the park until after Appalachian Spring concluded, so those attending an outdoor Charlotte Symphony concert for the first time never did get to see the beauty of the vast stage canopy when it is lit up – in a succession of vivid colors – under the stars. Nonetheless, we could hear how ideally suited this vernal piece is for the outdoors in its quiet beginnings when the chirping of the birds and the chuffing of the cicadas mingled with the music, casting a twilight spell over the greensward and our assembly of picnickers. The cavalcade of beautifully-stitched-together ballet episodes ranged from hoedown to scenic grandeur and from slapstick to sanctity, giving various sections of the orchestra a workout while evoking the variety of moods and costumes that Martha Graham and her dance company envisioned in the 1944 choreography.

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During the ebb and flow of energy and sublimity, Lees never allowed his ensemble – or his audience – to drift into doldrums, deftly insinuating the strains of the Shaker tune, “Simple Gifts,” into the shifting panorama. At first, the tune danced tentatively. Soon it frolicked. While the stage never illuminated, it seemed to burst into bloom at that spectacular moment when, out of an expectant hush, Copland brings his recurring tune to full force and glory. It was only in the quiet aftermath that the riskiness of programming Appalachian Spring as an outdoor concert finale was cruelly exposed. However this performance may have ended, presumably with a poignantly fading flute solo peeping out in the gloaming, it was almost totally upstaged by the drone of a passing passenger jet overhead. While this wasn’t a triumphant note to end on, few in the crowd left unsatisfied with the occasion – or unaware of its overall uplift.

Branford Marsalis Helps Bring Charlotte Symphony and Subscribers Back Together at Last

Review:  Branford Marsalis Plays Ibert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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More than 15 months had elapsed since my wife Sue and I had sat together at Belk Theater and enjoyed a Charlotte Symphony concert – exactly 15 months since we had seen Gabriella Martinez with the orchestra on Valentine’s Day at Knight Theater. Needless to say, much had changed since our last night out in Uptown Charlotte. Until we turned off the I-287 innerbelt onto College Street, we had no idea what a solemn concrete canyon the Center City has become – because the explosion of new buildings, high-rises, penthouses, and parking garages has hit us while foot traffic on a Friday night remains nearly extinct. Fortunately, we had allowed for extra travel time as we made our way to the landmark “Branford Marsalis Plays Ibert” concert, for the capricious Saturday night traffic was as heavy as usual, doubling our surprise when we left I-77. There wasn’t a Hornets basketball game scheduled that night, so we were among the first to enter the BankAmerica parking garage, with hundreds of spaces to choose from.

Thwarted by travel restrictions that kept him on the other side of the Atlantic, Christopher Warren-Green was unable to preside over our auspicious reunion, so resident conductor Christopher James Lees was called into action, acquitting himself quite brilliantly. Attendance for the concert was capped at 500, about 24% of capacity, and our tickets had been channeled to the Apple Wallet app on my iPhone, which the usher firing his QR scanner gun was able to wield better than I. We were so eager to enter the hall and see the CSO again that I forgot to get an exit parking stub in the lobby, but there was no crowd lined up for them after the concert when I did remember. Masking was still in effect for everyone except wind players, so it was helpful to find staff at their customary posts in the lobby – at the ticket booths and at the entry to the grand tier – so we could recognize and happily greet one another.

Marsalis, the Grammy Award-winning saxophonist, would be playing Erwin Schulhoff’s Hot-Sonate in addition to Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera, so there was plenty to bone up on in our seats before the lights went down. Sadly, there were no program booklets to assist our preparations, only the sort of glossy 5”x8” cards subscribers will remember from the pre-pandemic KnightSounds series. An informational email from the ticket office had popped into my inbox that afternoon, which contained a link to a PDF version of a 24-page program booklet. If you’re among the lucky 500 attending the sold-out concerts, you’re covered.

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Filled out by Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances and Gershwin’s Lullaby for string orchestra, the program was an adventurous delight from start to finish – about an hour in length, as promised in that handy email, without an intermission. Bartók was particularly shortchanged by the abbreviated program handouts, for the names and tempos of his six Folk Dances couldn’t fit on the same card with all the movements Marsalis would be playing. Even if the Bartók movements had been listed they would hardly be indicative of what we would see and hear. Until the penultimate “Poargă românească (Romanian Polka): Allegro,” the dances weren’t at all festive. The “Brâul (Sash Dance): Allegro” was rather poignant, despite its nimble pace, and the “Pê-loc (Stamping Dance): Andante” was actually bleak. Even the gorgeous “Buciumeana (Hornpipe Dance): Moderato” had a forlorn fiddler-on-the-roof sadness to it. Otherwise, what was surprising was the extent that all these arrangements by Arthur Willner were miniature violin concertos, here featuring concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, who was especially impressive high up in the treble of the “Stamping Dance.”

A nice array of winds and brass – including principals Victor Wang on flute, French hornist Byron Johns, and trumpeter Alex Wilborn – joined the strings onstage as Marsalis made his first appearance. Beginning with “quarter note = 66,” the movement markings in Schulhoff’s concerto for alto saxophone were deceptively fussy and clinical, for the heat of the Hot-Sonate came from jazz, just emerging from its raucous childhood when this suite was composed in 1930. Originally written for sax and piano, the arrangement by Harry Kinross White is most beguiling in its bluesy third movement, where the horns added an astringent accompaniment. Quaintly described by the composer “lamentuoso ma molto grottesco (plaintive, but very grotesque),” this “quarter note = 80” movement delivered the deepest jazz flavor, and I could easily imagine Johnny Hodges, on leave from Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, playing its premiere. Unfortunately, Schulhoff’s idea of the grotesque was no more edgy than his grasp of the alto saxophone’s capabilities. Despite the undeniable appeal of the music, Marsalis wasn’t really tested by the demands of Hot-Sonate.

Gershwin’s Lullaby, not jazzy at all, was a perfect palate cleanser between the two Marsalis stints. The strings wafted a tropical lightness that had a “Catch a Falling Star” lilt and laziness. Little showcases were set aside for the string section leaders, most notably Lupanu and cellist Alan Black, and the piece ended deliciously in bubbly geniality, with rounds of delicate pizzicatos. Absent during the Gershwin, horns and winds reasserted themselves forcefully in the Concertino da camera, originally scored by Ibert for 12 instruments, including the soloist, with only five string players. Marsalis was noticeably more tasked now, from the opening Allegro con moto movement onwards: more speed, more range, more complexity, and more technique were required from him, while the vibrant accompaniment offered more distractions. There’s actually some percussion from the strings amid this opening movement, but I was so focused on Marsalis and his unmasked accompanists that I didn’t notice which string players were tapping their bows.

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An achingly lovely, oboe-like lament by Marsalis began the Larghetto section, with the strings gradually creeping in ever-so-stealthily behind him. Extra strings, 22 in all, were a definite asset here as the music swelled. Wang’s flute and Wilborn’s trumpet had the most impact behind Marsalis as we cheerfully swung into the concluding Animato. Though often labeled as separate movements on CDs (including Branford’s recording with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2000), this concluding Larghetto-Animato was in itself like a three-movement concerto, for Marsalis drew a second cadenza between orchestral bursts that was far more demanding than anything he had played so far, nearly requiring circular breathing to execute its cascading, fleet-fingered runs. The audience was keenly attuned to the saxophonist’s virtuosity, for they gave him a lusty standing ovation when he was done, a judicious upgrade from the warm applause showered on the Schulhoff.

A wonderful evening, all in all, and a giant step back to normality.

Despite Benched Clarinets, Charlotte Symphony Shines in Mozart and Handel

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

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

CSO and Lupanu Debut a Harlem Nachtmusik, a Starburst, and Youthful Mendelssohn

Review: Mozart’s Night Music

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By Perry Tannenbaum

One of Mozart’s most beloved compositions and the inspiration for the title of a Stephen Sondheim musical, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is perennially popular on streaming sites, CD players, and classical radio stations. WQXR’s annual countdown of audience favorites listed Eine Kleine Nachtmusik at Number 38 in its Top 100 for 2020 – ahead of Mozart’s own Clarinet Concerto, his Symphonies 40 and 41, and two of his most familiar operas, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute. Yet if Charlotte Symphony is an accurate barometer, this Mozart masterwork is rarely heard in public. Until last Saturday night, the piece hadn’t been played in Charlotte on CSO’s classics series during the current millennium. The performances led by Christof Perick in September 2004 were played out of town at the Matthews United Methodist Church, Winthrop University in Rock Hill, and Davidson College.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has refocused our thinking about what music can be performed safely by symphony orchestras, while the BLM movement has been shuffling our thinking on what music should be offered. So it’s natural to conclude that Symphony’s dusting off of this old chestnut was purely in response to pandemic conditions, for the Nachtmusik is actually the 13th – and last – of Mozart’s string serenades, written in 1787 for string orchestra (or quintet).

Opting for safety first and omitting wind players from their recent performances at Knight Theater, Symphony must have found Mozart’s G Major to be an inevitable choice, especially since they’ve already dusted off Barber’s Adagio, the only piece for string orchestra that currently polls better than Nachtmusik. Notwithstanding this logic – and Symphony’s history – it must be remembered that Nachtmusik was already scheduled for a rendezvous at the Knight last April, under the baton of guest conductor Jeannette Sorrell, when the pandemic struck. So there may be an additional logic at work: very likely, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik rehearsals had already commenced. Certainly the musical scores were already in the string players’ hands.

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The real responses to 2020 and the “New Normal” actually lay elsewhere in the program, most notably in the resourceful pairing of Mozart’s famed Serenade with Leonardo Balada’s A Little Night Music in Harlem, premiered in 2007. The preamble to this Nachtmusik pairing on the program, Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst, was also noteworthy. Starburst was commissioned by The Sphinx Organization, a non-profit dedicated to the development of young Black and Latino classical musicians, and The Sphinx Virtuosi, who performed its 2012 premiere. Capping the live-streamed concert from Knight Theater, concertmaster Calin Lupanu spearheaded the Charlotte premiere of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D, a work discovered and premiered in 1952 by violinist Yehudi Menuhin, 130 years after it was composed. Like the Balada and the Montgomery, this excavated Mendelssohn was the antithesis of the utterly predictable Mozart revival.

Clocking in at 3:31 on Montgomery’s own Strum CD in 2015, “Starburst” was a perfect prelude to the lengthier nocturnal works that followed, cued by resident conductor Christopher James Lees with an effervescent vitality that augured well for the rest of the concert. The minimalistic repetitions didn’t last long enough to become stale monotony, churned our way with infectious enthusiasm. Strands of melody were sprinkled with pizzicatos, and the bracing celestial explosions came in collective four-note clusters at the tail end of cheery sawing from the violins.

After explaining the interconnection between the Mozart and Balada pieces, Lees drove the orchestra into the opening Allegro of the Eine Kleine Nachtmusik with the same zest he lavished on the Montgomery aperitif. There was a dramatic contrast between the delicate passages in the treble and the onset of the full orchestra’s robust responses, which always came back louder, accelerated, and edgy. While you might prefer the way Sir Neville Marriner interpreted the music with his Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields on their Philips CD, allowing the music to speak for itself, the CSO reading was more exciting. Lees not only hears the sturdiness of the melodies we so readily remember in movements 1, 2, and 4 (not performed) of the Nachtmusik – and their amazing simplicity, anticipating the miraculous opening of Symphony No. 40 – he hears the dialectic in Mozart’s idiom. Even in the ensuing Romance: Andante, where repose might be more readily excused, Lees had Symphony playing crisply, so this wasn’t a lullaby. The brief second theme had some zip to it, subsiding graciously into the more familiar strain.

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Born in Barcelona, Balada studied composition at Juilliard with Aaron Copland, began teaching at Carnegie Mellon University in 1970, and became a naturalized citizen in 1981 at the age of 48. The two Naxos albums of Balada’s music on my shelves; featuring concertos for Violin, for Cello, and for Four Guitars; both left me hungry for more. Both were recorded by the Barcelona Symphony, so it would have been easy to overlook Balada’s American ties if it weren’t for the Cello Concerto’s alias, “New Orleans.” A Little Night Music in Harlem, one blushes to say, was commissioned by the Hungarian Chamber Orchestra and recorded on Naxos by the Iberian Chamber Orchestra, underscoring the simple fact that Balada is underappreciated and neglected in his adopted homeland.

Music in Harlem is merely a peephole into Balada’s capabilities, but many of us who watched this Symphony webcast will not only accept Lees’ invitation to replay this performance online but also to seek out more of the composer’s output. A recurrent baseline through this composition, bowed or in plucked pizzicatos, could be construed as locals walking up and down Lenox Avenue or back and forth along 125th Street, also known as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Or it could just as easily be heard as the spirit of jazz clubs along that street, the pulsebeat of Harlem. Like Mozart’s Nachtmusik, perhaps even more so, Balada’s piece displays its layers, denser and more pictorial than the Serenade. Aside from Balada’s echoes of the second and fourth movements of Nachtmusik, the new piece evokes vehicular traffic with its occasional glisses and takes us underground for the rumble of the subway. Lees told us that he hears the extended whistling sounds toward the end of the piece as commuters emerging from a subway station whistling together. It was certainly an eerie, sad, and ethereal contrast with much of the big city bustle and cacophony we had heard before.

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Listening to Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D minor for the first time, I couldn’t help thinking that the reason it’s so rarely heard can be traced, like the absence of Mozart’s Nachtmusik from our concert halls, to its having been written for string orchestra. The biggest names to have recorded the work since the piece was discovered 69 years ago are Menuhin and Kyoko Takezawa. On the strength of their performance on Saturday, the CSO’s Lupanu, Lees, and the 22 string players onstage at the Knight can thus be counted among this concerto’s leading exponents. The sound from the orchestra was full-bodied and satisfying from the outset of the opening Allegro. After playing along with the others through most of the prologue, Lupanu showed that he was fully warmed-up, attacking the opening bars of his solo fiercely, bowing with bold panache, sharply punctuating the swiftest passages and then singing the lyrical sections with ardor, all the while producing the fullest, loveliest tone I’ve ever heard from him.

As the middle Andante movement began, I had momentary fears that Mendelssohn’s immaturity – he composed this concerto at the age of 13, after all – might have been too much of an impediment to achieving true excellence in a slow movement. However, soon as Lupanu ascended into the treble in his first solo, all doubts were dispelled, for there were no pedestrian moments afterwards. On the contrary, Lupanu’s soulfulness increased with his silvery pianissimos. The catchiest theme in Mendelssohn’s youthful concerto came in the final Allegro, enabling Lupanu to play with greater verve and virtuosity than ever. Lees and the CSO seemed to be lifted by Lupanu’s brio, maintaining the torrid pace set by the concertmaster while he rested briefly before his crowning cadenza. Some fancy bowing gave way to a final burst of ethereal lyricism as Lupanu circled back to the sunny main theme. The soloist and the orchestra tossed it back and forth with engaging spirit, triumphantly finishing in just under an hour.

CSO Takes Flight With Stravinsky “Firebird”

Review: Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reservations Are Required – and Rewarded – at Charlotte Symphony’s “On Tap” Concert

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s “On Tap” Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Beer gardens, rathskellers, and brewpubs have traditionally encouraged their patrons to listen to music, lift their glasses in song, and maybe dance a polka, but for many classical music enthusiasts, Charlotte Symphony’s excursions to local breweries for their Symphony on Tap concerts may seem to be pioneering. Apparently, they originated in 2015 with a season kickoff party at Belk Theater, evolved into a similar event the following September at Booth Playhouse, before Symphony ventured forth to the NoDa Brewing Company for their third Symphony on Tap in November 2016. In terms of sampling these more informal concerts – and getting the word out – I will freely admit that I’m late to the party. Special dispensation was required to review the latest in this concert series, since it was sold-out weeks in advance.

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Obtaining their tickets in advance, patrons pre-qualified themselves as interested in Symphony’s product, though you had to wonder how many of them had bothered to check out the CSO website and see what they would actually hear. When NoDa Brewing owner Susie Ford drew attention to the stage, the crowd quieted, and there was no great commotion when the musicians performed. Yet there were limits to the decorum. Lines to the taps got shorter when the concert started and, after a strategically placed intermission, when it resumed, but people continued to line up for their pints and sampler flights of NoDa brew. Symphony conductor Christopher James Lees was not all perturbed. On the contrary, he encouraged the relaxed atmosphere and even plugged the brewery’s award-winning Hop, Drop ‘n Roll on numerous occasions.

In a place where you couldn’t call for a Bud, a Blue Ribbon, or a Miller Lite, it was encouraging – but not altogether surprising – that Lees was emboldened to offer us more than a strict Haydn-Mozart diet. After opening with the “Adagio and Fugue,” not the lightest of Mozart’s works, we detoured into Gustav Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite. Further out on the musical frontier, the second half of the program began with “Tango” by Alicia Bachorik Armstrong, a living composer who was on hand to introduce the piece. Even the Haydn symphony that closed out the evening, the No. 30 “Alleluja,” was off the beaten path.

As I quickly discovered in the Mozart, the hall was unkind to low decibels and high frequencies. While the bass-heavy opening to the Adagio segment sounded natural enough, it had to compete for my attention with the churning hum of the brewing apparatus in the adjoining space behind the bar. By the time we reached the Fugue section, initiated by the double basses, I was fairly well acclimated to the steady hum, but I wasn’t pleased by the thin querulous sound of the violins as they layered on. Without the resonance of a church or concert hall, the trebles were more like the sounds we hear on authentic ancient instruments. The bass foundation under the violins was rich and lovely as the performance climaxed.

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Unacquainted with the Symphony on Tap ground rules, I was afraid that we were only going to hear the spirited Jig from the St. Paul’s Suite. It transitioned nicely from a merry dance to a briefer, more insistent episode – almost a march – before the Vivace movement accelerated to an even quicker pace. Effectively shaped and very well suited to the room, the movement drew applause. Lees not only tolerated this beerhall response, he encouraged it, for he proceeded to introduce each of the next three movements before they were played.

Just as he had explained what a fugue was prior to the Mozart, he now deciphered the mystery of what an ostinato was before playing the movement that bore that title. Second violins initiated this repetitive figure over pizzicatos from the other strings, not the swiftest presto I’ve heard on this movement, and concertmaster Calin Lupanu soloed gracefully. Lovelier Lupanu was wrapped into the ensuing Intermezzo as he entered over delicate pizzicatos – and over a baby’s cries in his most virtuosic passages. Violist Ning Zhao engaged Lupanu in a couple of satisfying duets here as well. Probably the most engaging music of the evening, Holst’s Finale ended by meshing an Irish folk dance with the traditional “Greensleeves,” both melodies frequently playing simultaneously in this rousing Allegro. Even without the customary percussion, it energized the audience.

Born in the Philippines, schooled at the NC School of the Arts (when Lees was on the faculty), and currently residing in Greensboro, Bachorik Armstrong wrote her “Tango” for orchestra in 2016 and last year completed a string quartet version that can be auditioned at her website. Her personable intro of the orchestral piece rivaled those delivered by her mentor, chiefly pointing out that the piece grew out of her lifelong love of dance – and repeated efforts to excel at it. We could relate. Reflecting her tentative starts and reboots, Bachorik Armstrong could have easily titled her dance “Attempted Tango,” for its beginning was indeed tentative over a pizzicato vamp, until the violins danced more confidently to the plucked lower strings, and there were two definite restarts later on, initiated by the cellos and the double basses. Over the sustained bass figures, there were unexpected shifts in tone and tempo, with a modicum of modernism instead of a noxious deluge. Lupanu and a second violin had tasty little cameos toward the end.

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A mini-break followed Bachorik Armstrong’s “Tango” – and the composer’s bows – as a modest group of wind players joined the strings. Still no percussion, but the question of whether Haydn’s Symphony No. 30 should be performed with timpani remains under dispute. The chronology of Papa’s early symphonies hasn’t been settled by the numbers assigned to them, but the “Alleluja” is the last of the numbered symphonies to be written in three movements. Surprisingly for a symphony that may have premiered on Easter of 1765 – or the Holy Week preceding – the “Alleluja” spirit is rather festive, with no slow or mournful movements. In other words, “Alleluja” was a perfect cloudless finale for a brewpub concert.

Wind instruments fared far better at NoDa Brewing than the violins, instantly pleasurable in the opening Allegro with a nicely gauged crescendo from the cellos toward the end. After setting the stage for flutist Erinn Frechette’s exploits in the ensuing Andante, Lees didn’t allow the tempo to flag to anything slower than a brisk canter. At that speed, Frechette’s filigree became brilliant over the crisp strings, and the flute’s birdlike warblings remained jocund, unalloyed by any solitary gloom. Collectively, the winds reached their fullest bloom in the impressive allegretto Finale. If Lees kept them a little too subdued in the opening Allegro, he unmistakably unleashed the woodwinds here to rollicking effect, establishing a clear 3/4 minuet sway along the way.

Although this was the last official Symphony on Tap for the 2018-19 season, the uniquely relaxed vibe of the series lingered on after the final note. Along with an audience mostly seated in casual dress at tables, instrument cases stowed under musicians’ chairs, and audience applause between movements, there was no sudden rush for the exits after the final note. The night was young and the taps hadn’t shut down. Charlotte Symphony has obviously reached out successfully to the community with these concerts, and NoDa Brewing Company isn’t the only joint they visit. Come summer, Symphony will return to Triple C Brewing for a June 27 concert in the Barrel Room, and a whole new flight of On Tap events is already booked for 2019-20.

Fall Works Fetes Bernstein and Robbins in Witty Style

Review: Charlotte Ballet Fall Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

Hope Muir’s second season as artistic director with Charlotte Ballet began very much like her first, with another program titled Fall Works that revived a gem from the company’s existing repertoire while introducing a pair of pieces that were new to the Queen City. It wasn’t as splashy or audacious as last year’s edition, when Muir not only gave us our first sighting of choreographer Javier de Frutos but also delivered the electricity of Tony Award winner Levi Kraus. The 2018 program was merely more polished and more consistently satisfying.

We began with Jerome Robbins’ setting for Leonard Bernstein’s Fancy Free, the 1944 prototype of On the Town, their joint debut on Broadway later that year. Muir’s company hasn’t staged this work since it was Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s company, NC Dance Theatre, in 2006, but it certainly returned propitiously, in the centenary year of both Robbins and Bernstein. Robbins was celebrated with a full evening of his works at Spoleto Festival USA earlier this year, a fitting tribute since Robbins founded his dance company, Ballets: USA, at the Italian Spoleto in 1968.

That March 2018 celebration in Charleston circles back to Charlotte when you remember that the program of Robbins duets at Spoleto USA replicated one that had been originally staged in Italy in 1973 – with Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride among the elite superstars who danced the pas de deux.

Longtime NYC Ballet stalwart Kipling Houston, who danced Fancy Free on Dance in America back in 1986 during his younger days, staged a very handsome revival, aided by the dreamy original set design by Oliver Smith and the spot-on World War II costumes by Kermit Love – both on loan from Richmond Ballet. What really livened this staging was the live accompaniment by the Charlotte Symphony under the direction of Christopher James Lees

Peter Mazurowski and Juwan Alston were the two sailors on shore leave in NYC who left James Kopecky in the lurch to pursue a bright yellow skirt, otherwise known as Sarah Hayes Harkins. Kopecky didn’t need to lick his wounds for long before Alessandra Ball James sauntered in, working a burgundy dress. The tone got more serious when James popped up, for the sailors engaged in horseplay even before Harkins arrived on the scene – and teased her a bit after they had vied in preening for her.

Harkins was sassier than usual before her first exit, a welcome sign that she’s hungry for this kind of role. As we saw a couple of times during this comedy, Mazurowski and Alston were in cahoots with one another at Kopecky’s expense, but they competed against each other, too, for the arithmetic is obvious when the young men and women reassemble at the bar. Three men were vying for two women’s favors. Each of the men took a turn at making his case. Landing two prodigious splits after high leaps, making me wince both times, Mazurowski definitely impressed me.

The moment of truth, when we expected the ladies to choose their men, turned chaotic and comical as the guys sought to usurp the ladies’ privilege and wound up brawling with one another – in front of and behind the bar. By the time the fisticuffs had concluded, Harkins and James had escaped, leaving all three sailors high and dry. Cue the entrance of Sarah Lapointe, really working it as she sashayed into view for a delicious cameo.

With Sasha Janes taking Bernstein’s music and replacing Robbins’ choreography with a totally new setting, Facsimile showed us more of Bernstein’s symphonic side and gave us a fuller view of the company to start the 2018-19 season. Instead of Robbins’ original love triangle, Janes presented us with a sometimes-surreal seduction, with Harkins trying to perk up the downtrodden, woebegone Kopecky. Listlessly pushing a custodian’s broom, Kopecky found Harkins beaming sympathetically at him.

Daring and precise as she has always been, Harkins seems to be taking a more lithe and spontaneous approach these days, with a new fluidity that makes her even more versatile and formidable than she has been before. As the troubled Lead Man, Kopecky was more troubled than pathetic, exactly the right mix to keep up Harkins’ efforts to puncture his despondency. You want him to be worth her time.

Janes’ Lead Woman suddenly receives backup when an upstage scrim lifts and a colorful gallery of circus characters appear, from Ringmaster and Equestrians to sideshow Fortune Teller and Strong Man, garishly costumed by Jennifer Janes, the choreographer’s mom. Among this motley crew, Drew Grant as the Ringmaster and Amanda Sturt-Dilley as the Fortune Teller were the most vivid diversions, but I couldn’t help ogling Maurice Mouzon Jr. with his barbells and Colby Foss as the Bearded Lady.

None of these fantastics could quite keep Kopecky’s mood levitated though they became a rather bacchanalian carnival when Lees stirred up the orchestral hullaballoo to max volume. They vanished almost as suddenly as they appeared, leaving Harkins one last half-hearted opportunity to accomplish what the circus could not. Here we saw perhaps the best of Kopecky’s performance as he summoned up sufficient ambivalence to justify a hopeful if not happy ending, chiming beautifully with the music.

With his mischievous against-the-grain style, Medhi Walerski and his Petite Cérémonie easily supplied the most fun of the evening. Dancers in mostly black formal attire, designed by Linda Chow, entered a bare stage – some of them processioning up the theater aisles – and formed a strict chorus line upstage, staggered by gender, repeating the same monotonous step. Then as the rapturous, prayerful strains of Bellini’s “Casta diva” played softly in the background, the men and the women moved in regimented unison, often with the men and women assigned different sequences of movement.

Or a couple might break away from the ensemble to perform a brief duet conspicuously devoid of human connection. Creepily enough, there were times when the ensemble’s regimented routines – or even the couple’s movements – were louder than the opera.

It took awhile for the audience to get Walerski’s humor. There was no turning back when Ben Ingel came out and juggled three balls under a boom mic and delivered a disquisition on the difference between male and female brains while Mozart played faintly in the background and other dancers attempted to distract him. The visibly disproven point our juggler made about men’s brains was that they couldn’t concentrate on more than one thing at the same time.

Similar disconnects between the recorded music and the live action persisted in settings of a Benny Goodman Orchestra version of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Moon” and a Mozart concerto, finally arriving at a witty obliquity when we reached an excerpt from Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The ensemble danced in the same regimented, sometimes robotic style we had seen in previous sections of Petite Cérémonie, but now each of the 15 dancers also moved a white cube along the floor.

When you recognized the music as coming from Vivaldi’s Winter Concerto, you might imagine that the dancers were performing an ice dance, sliding those white cubes along a frozen pond. As the music churned to its conclusion, they piled all those cubes up and struck a pose. In that final tableau, you could imagine that they had built a little ice castle for their backdrop.