Tag Archives: Christopher Warren-Green

Warren-Green Bids Farewell With a Rousing Beethoven “Ode to Joy”

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Beethoven’s Ninth

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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May 20, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Even back in the early ‘90s, when Charlotte Symphony struggled to sustain respectable mediocrity, the valedictory concert led by Leo Driehuys in 1993 proved that the orchestra could always rise to the occasion when called upon to perform Beethoven’s thrilling Ninth Symphony. Having heard the same ensemble bludgeon Beethoven’s “Eroica” to blandness just months earlier, it was hard for me to believe that the inspiration came solely from the composer. I struggled with the answer to this anomaly until I interviewed Driehuys’s successor, Peter McCoppin, shortly before his final season at the end of the millennium.

Not referencing Beethoven at all, but explaining why he enjoyed his years in Charlotte so thoroughly, McCoppin observed that the Queen City is incredibly fertile ground for choristers and choruses. You just had to count the churches around town to see his point. Not only had the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte brought extra spark to Beethoven’s “Choral Symphony,” they had also arguably sparked the Charlotte Symphony musicians they were partnering with.

The Oratorios have undergone numerous metamorphoses during the past three decades, at discreet intervals absorbed into Symphony, renamed the Charlotte Symphony Chorus, and eventually set free to seek their own gigs, rebranded once again as the Charlotte Master Chorale. Yet each time it was necessary to muster the instrumental and vocal artillery needed for Beethoven’s masterwork – indeed, classical music’s masterwork – the Chorale has admirably answered the call.

In a recent interview prefacing his valedictory concert as Symphony’s music director after 12 fruitful seasons, Christopher Warren-Green revealed that the chorus had been “one of the big incentives for me to come to Charlotte because of the great repertoire that was written for orchestra and chorus.” Little wonder, then, that Maestro Warren-Green has chosen to conclude his tenure by including the Master Chorale in his final “Ode to Joy” concert – or that he has already announced that, when he returns this coming December as Symphony’s music adviser and conductor laureate, the choir will be in the mix once more as he conducts Handel’s Messiah at Knight Theater.

There always seem to be extra layers of drama and excitement when the “Choral Symphony” returns to Belk Theater, never more than when Christof Perick made his 2001 debut as music director just 10 days after 9/11. Fast forward to the fourth Ninth that Symphony has programmed since then, and there was still a palpable sense of a special occasion in the hall. Symphony president and CEO David Fisk saluted Warren-Green before he made his grand entrance, greeted with a lusty standing ovation. Maestro then pooh-poohed all of Fisk’s accolades, paid tribute to four newly retired Symphony musicians, and – prior to a nifty and brief exit – exhorted the audience to keep supporting the CSO “or I’ll never forgive you.”

That was the last laugh of the evening as Warren-Green returned to the podium, signaled the Chorale to be seated, and presided over the Symphony as Beethoven brought them to a boil, quicker than a microwave oven, in his opening Allegro ma non troppo. Warren-Green’s Ninth would by a turbulent one, far more timely than timeless, discarding many chances for liquid lyricism in favor of alert and spirited rigor – almost militant but never quite lapsing into rigidity with the onset of its rousing quicker tempos. The incisiveness of Jacob Lipham’s timpani came upon us quickly, never allowing us to rest for long, while the affecting woodwinds and the lively strings offered eloquent counterweights.

When we reached the Molto vivace second movement, with its industrious bustle and perpetual overlapping, Warren-Green enabled us to hear early foreshadowings of the teeming humanity we’ll find in the epic fourth movement, struggling toward togetherness and brotherhood. Excitement in the overlaps between various sections of the orchestra was increased dramatically by spasmodic boosts in dynamics and the sharp whacks of the timpani. Also pushing against the flow of the violins and the warmth of the cellos were the percolating winds and the moaning French horns.

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Between the second and third movements, the last true pause in this symphony, the guest soloists entered and took their seats at center stage: bass baritone Jordan Bisch, tenor Sean Panikkar, soprano Alicia Russell Tagert, and (substituting for Briana Hunter) mezzo-soprano Sarah Larson. The two little girls seated in front of my mom and me perked up expectantly at this point, only to be let down by the relatively tranquil Adagio molto e cantabile. The little girls weren’t as restless or fidgety during this lovely movement as you might expect little boys to be, but their attentiveness waned noticeably – despite the sweetness of the first violins, the affecting violas and second violins, and the mellifluous woodwinds and horns. Their adorable decorum was threatened most by the beautiful confluence between clarinet, horn, and flute as the penultimate movement faded into the concluding Presto.

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Having this glorious score in front of you, with its magnificent build-up to the signature fireworks waiting to explode, must be so gratifying and fulfilling as a musical conductor stands on the podium, heading into the homestretch of his 12-year tenure. Surely, the musicians and choristers sensed the excitement and shared an eagerness to deliver. The first violins were certainly ardent and rich over the churning violas and second violins as the build-up began, yet as the gradual gravitation toward the brotherhood theme was beginning, I noticed that Warren-Green was doing something different and new. Instead of seating his cellos and double basses to our right, they were now spread in a long row, starting in front of the podium and reaching to the left edge of the stage in nearly a straight line.

So there was a little more than the usual edge as the journey to the brotherhood theme launched, continuing with dogged inevitability after the woodwinds mischievously flashed back to the agitations of the second movement. Violas layered onto the cellos and basses, adding to the smoldering sensation, and the violins accelerated the familiar strains until the brass made them soar. The little girls in front of us were completely re-engaged ahead of the next magnificent build. Bisch sounded stronger and more robust in his opening declaration, “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! (Oh friends, not these sounds!),” culminating in the announcement of his Joy agenda (“Freude!”), than he did reprising the brotherhood refrain as he plunged into Friedrich Schiller’s “An die Freude (Ode to Joy).” More than a couple of bass baritones who have recorded these passages have fared the same. Perhaps that was Beethoven’s design, for ample reinforcements will emphatically arrive on the scene, first the soloists and then the phalanxes of choristers who were elevated over everyone upstage, ably representing Schiller’s millions.

At least a couple of regatherings follow, as all of us who love the Ninth well know. There’s a grand, brassy military march while the vocalists inhale for awhile and hold their fire, and then there are those sublime audible inhalations as Schiller’s lyrics, helpfully translated in supertitles above the Belk stage, took us “above the canopy of stars” in an ethereally protracted chord. When the Master Chorale reached peak tempo in the concluding Allegro assai vivace, like a herd of horses urged by Warren-Green to full gallop, one of the little girls turned to the other with an OMG expression on her face that her mom would have treasured until her dying day if she had seen it. At this moment, the greatest pleasure in watching kids experience this magnificent storm of sound for the first time is being able to say to yourself. “You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!”

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.

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

Review: CSO Plays Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

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January 14, 2022, Charlotte, NC – When the new Compact Disc digital recordings were first heralded and released in the early 1980s, the mythic story began circulating from Sony and Philips that the dimensions and capacity of the new CD format were determined by its ability to present all of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on a single disc. Subsequent refinements to the technology increased the capacity of those discs from 74 minutes of music to 80, leaving Ludwig far out of the equation. The 80-minute capacity we see on today’s prerecorded discs and the recordable CD-Rs we might dub them onto is more suitable for containing Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – but only if conductor and orchestra are in a hurry. Only the very quickest of the many recordings of Mahler’s last completed orchestral work clock in at 79 or 80 minutes. Completing his Mahler Journey with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in his final season as music director, Christopher Warren-Green let it be known that his Ninth would be a more expansive 90-minute experience. There was no intermission at Belk Theater, and program booklets remain a strictly online affair.

Vaccination cards were scrutinized at both the outdoor entrances to the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center and at the indoor entrance from Founders Hall. My mom and I felt very comfortable with the social distancing downstairs in the orchestra section, but no such amenity was granted to subscribers who entered the hall from the lobby – in fact, I’ve never seen the Grand Tier more fully occupied, a gratifying affirmation of the Queen City’s Mahler enthusiasm. The balcony above looked similarly packed. Masking, of course, was compulsory, but ticketholders should chiefly be forewarned that vigilance was strictly enforced at the entrance to the orchestra section. Folks that were late for the first notes of the Mahler performance, between 7:35 and 7:40pm, were obliged to wait in front of TV monitors in the lobby until the conclusion of the opening Andante comodo movement at approximately 8:05.

Each of the outer movements, both preoccupied with mortality and dying, is as lengthy as the two inner movements combined. Only the second movement can be described as lighthearted, and all four are teeming with mood swings. Without adding audible gaps between episodes, recordings conducted by Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic are divided into 33 and 30 tracks respectively. Those seemed to be very conservative numbers when Warren-Green and Charlotte Symphony immersed themselves in the score, reveling in its seemingly countless contrasts. Emerging with the opening melody from a backdrop of cellos, basses, horns, and harp, the second violins emphatically signaled that all sections of the vast ensemble would have their chances to shine.

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This was by far the most extensive instrumentation we had seen at either Belk Theater or Knight Theater since the beginning of the pandemic. From orchestra level, it was difficult to precisely count all the unmasked flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, French horn, and trumpet players arrayed behind the masked string sections. But the percussionists were plain enough when they stood up, either singly or as an ominous group, and there was additional space set aside, upstage and on the stage left wing, for the three trombones, two harps, and the tuba. Curving around stage right to the upstage was an armada that included timpani, a mighty bass drum, cymbals, a gong, snare drums, and tubular bells.

So the prospect of high-volume music was apparent before all the Symphony musicians were fully congregated. Yet when these expected Mahler explosions actually occurred, Mom and I were both taken aback by how loud they were. The difference between sitting at the rear of the grand tier late last spring and sitting in Row O below was compounded by the additional troops and artillery onstage. Earplugs weren’t quite necessary for these fortissimos, but rock-concert decibels weren’t far in the distance. Mom may have nodded off for a few seconds during Gershwin’s Lullaby last year or when Branford Marsalis luxuriated in the luscious Larghetto middle movement of Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera. Not this year. Onsets of trumpets, trombones, or percussion could be so sudden that, even if she didn’t revere Mahler, Mom wouldn’t dare close her eyes.

There were plenty of less aggressive surprises scattered across the lordly length of this symphony. In the epic Andante, the harpists reached out to pluck a bass line, and the mournful funereal dirge had the backbone of a military march, punctuated by the wan tubular bells. If you’re new to Mahler, the waltzing liveliness of the “Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers” (in the tempo of leisurely country dances) might catch you pleasantly off-guard – and what plan did the composer have for a triangle and cymbals playing in unison? The third movement Rondo-Burlesk was brimful of contrasts and contradictions as Warren-Green kept us on the lookout for the next twist. A busy, contrapuntal opening suggested a fugue with frolicsome and comical touches, but midway through this Burlesk, each of the orchestra’s sections seemed to have something soulful to say – not at all the path you would expect leading to a screaming conclusion.

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Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening came at the climax of the Adagio finale when a furious pounding of the big bass drum, topping off a majestic crescendo, suddenly gave way to – in the hushed blink of an eye – nearly total silence. This abrupt whisper of weepy violins, proved that Mahler’s precipitous subsidings can be almost as dramatic as his volcanic peaks. Most of Symphony’s principals distinguished themselves over the course of this epic evening, including oboist Hollis Ulaky, clarinetist Taylor Marino, cellist Alan Black, and concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, but the final movement underscored the special praise earned by French horn principal Byron Johns and principal flutist Victor Wang. Even Johns’ one little wobble on the horn came at an ideally aching moment, and Wang was merely perfection in the sublime epilogue.

Originally published on 1/15 at CVNC.org

Big Names and Big Sound Mark Symphony’s Return to Mainstream Programming

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Beethoven’s Fourth

 By Perry Tannenbaum

Vaccinated, boostered, masked, and carded, we’re all starting to feel more comfortable at public events these days. Charlotte Symphony had more than twice the number of musicians onstage on Friday night at Knight Theater, compared with just a couple of months ago. Social distancing is suddenly an ancient artifact. The stranger who presumed she could safely poach my seat at intermission readily took consolation by poaching the empty seat right next to me. Christopher Warren-Green felt so much at ease that, instead of scrounging for orchestral pieces that could be credibly performed by a reduced number of masked and distanced musicians, he stuck with a program of Mozart, Beethoven, and Prokofiev – returning to brand-name white male composers who have been dead for at least 65 years. And in a show of restraint that was unthinkable at the beginning of Symphony’s 2021-22 season, subscribers didn’t feel obliged to give every piece a standing ovation and every movement applause.

Premiered in 1918, Sergei Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony No. 1 actually qualifies as an antique. Looking back to Josef Haydn and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for inspiration, with a third-movement Gavotte that the composer reworked for his 1935 Romeo and Juliet, the aim of the “Classical” was to straddle old and new styles. Warren-Green took a more delicate and reposeful view of the work than the one we find in the acclaimed London Symphony collection of Prokofiev’s seven symphonies conducted by Valery Gergiev. The joy of the work was also arguably purer at Knight Theater than that recording if you find Gergiev’s accelerated tempos more than slightly manic.

There was more than sufficient zest and high-stepping marching spirit in the opening Allegro con brio for the delicate episodes to stand out in relief. Lovely orchestral textures were lavished on the ensuing Larghetto, with principal Victor Wang and fellow flutist Amy Orsinger Whitehead peeping through to admirable effect. The CSO actually made better sense of the Gavotte than either of the recordings in my collection by the National Orchestra of the Ukraine and Gergiev’s London Symphony, starting out with a mock grandeur and ending a stealthy impish exit, better than the usual awkward afterthought. The purity of Warren-Green’s concept was especially apt in the joy emanating from the Molto Vivace final movement, where the composer made a special point of avoiding minor chords.

Although Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 is the marquee piece now, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto had top billing when it was last performed at the Knight in 2016 by guest soloist Michael Collins – interestingly enough, paired with selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Charlotte native Taylor Marino was the soloist this time around. Maybe that was the reason that the Concerto surrendered top billing to the Symphony, but there was no surrender in quality. In the opening Allegro, Marino quickly demonstrated why he won numerous concerto competitions before joining Charlotte Symphony as principal clarinetist in 2019. Here there was ample drama from the orchestra behind Marino’s virtuosity, maintaining a brisk, effervescent tempo that subsided effectively into a sedate whimper.

The lovely Adagio, singled out in Amadeus as the quintessence of Mozart’s genius, was absolutely exquisite in Marino’s hands, answered richly by the lower strings and woodwinds. I can never help reminiscing, when I hear this concerto, about the shining moment in 2004 when I heard it played by Martin Fröst on a basset horn at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, conducted by Ton Koopman. There was no applause or standing ovation here, but a couple of people sitting behind me could be heard marveling. The concluding Rondo: Allegro was only a slight anticlimax after such sublimity, for Marino’s virtuosity shone brightly again, and the bassoons added extra punch as we rounded toward intermission.

Between the heroic Symphony No. 3 and the mighty No. 5, Beethoven’s No. 4 can be seen as a merry middleweight. Returning from intermission without a score, Warren-Green wanted us to be in on Ludwig’s prank, making the Adagio opening to the first movement extra grave before it broke through to the galloping panache of its dominant Allegro vivace section. Violins snapped off phases with whiplash sharpness, the trumpets added steel while the flutes frolicked. The languid Adagio never quite lapsed into lullaby as the bumptious trumpets maintained patrol – with more restlessness from the lower strings and principal timpanist Jacob Lipham, while Wang on flute was an island of lyricism. Acting principal bassoonist Joshua Hood earned a subsequent curtain call from Warren-Green in the cheerful Allegro vivace, heckling the cheerleading strings. Yet the violins had the emphatic last word in the closing Allegro ma non troppo, busily sawing when they weren’t dominating. The cellos and the double basses only momentarily stole their thunder in preparing us for the ultimate climax.

Looking ahead, the concert was a fine bridge to the weightier fare that lies in front of us, as the 2021-22 season builds toward a Mahler symphony and Beethoven’s Ninth.

Originally published on 11/21 at CVNC.org

Anthem, Summer, and Winter Bring Enthusiastic Charlotte Symphony Audience to Its Feet

Review: CSO Plays Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Charlotte Symphony had plenty to celebrate as their 2021-22 Classical Series began: they were playing on the Knight Theater stage for the first time since February 2020, they were beginning what is expected to be their first full season since 2018-19, it’s their 90th season, and it’s maestro Christopher Warren-Green’s farewell season as CSO’s musical director. Happy as Warren-Green and all the musicians appeared to be, there was no hiding that the return was not altogether smooth. The disconnect between what brochures in the lobby said the orchestra would be playing and the reality was fairly dramatic. All three of the selections originally scheduled in the “Russian Masters” program – including a Shostakovich symphony, a Glinka overture, and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, featuring Paul Huang – were dropped. Now we were three-quarters Italian, with works by Ottorino Respighi, Pietro Mascagni, and Heinrich von Biber served up before intermission and Huang switching off to Antonio Vivaldi’s beloved Four Seasons after the break.

When last season belatedly opened back in May at Belk Theater, in front of a socially-distanced audience, I wondered whether Warren-Green would honor Symphony’s tradition of playing our National Anthem to mark the first live concert. He declined then, and it seemed quite possible that he would hold off yet again, since the vaccinated audience, masked but no longer distanced, would be obliged to stand and sing together. But the mood was different now. Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu preceded the maestro to the stage, gesturing so victoriously that you would have thought the orchestra had won the Super Bowl. After Warren-Green told us how glad he and his orchestra were to be playing to a live audience once again, he indeed turned sideways to cue the drumroll for the Anthem. As we stood together singing, rounding into the final eight bars, Warren-Green’s previous hesitance felt justified. For after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the January 6 invasion of the nation’s Capitol, the affirmation that “our flag was still there” was more vivid now in a closely bunched crowd, suddenly fresh and renewed.

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All of the pieces that Warren-Green followed up with were musically descriptive in some fashion. Respighi chose three masterworks by Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli for his Trittico botticelliano. The first, “La Primavera (Spring),” offered a tasty comparison with the opening Vivaldi concerto, light and airy with little solo passages that reintroduced us to the orchestra’s worthy principals playing French horn, trumpet, celesta, glockenspiel, flute, and reeds. Beauty and liveliness were nicely counterpoised in the steady, brisk tempo until the strings imposed their serenity. “L’Adorazione dei Magi (The Adoration of the Magi)” belied its expected bustle and ecstasy as it began, dark and solemn as acting principal Joshua Hood began on the bassoon and principal oboist Hollis Ulaky layered on. After some lovely runs by principal flutist Victor Wang, the middle of this movement did become more hectic and dramatic, keyed by harp and percussion, with a gently quickened tempo as the strings asserted themselves. Wang returned to the forefront at the start of the climactic “La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus),” surely Botticelli’s greatest hit, but the slow massing and building of the judiciously trimmed string section, forcefully topped by the violins, was the prime wonder in this satisfying ending.

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With unerring instinct, Warren-Green programmed Mascagni’s “Intermezzo from Cavelleria Rusticana” between the more substantial Respighi and Biber compositions so the three-minute piece for strings and harp played like an interlude as originally intended. The throbbing harp gave this lyrical gem a heartbeat, while the singing strings made it affecting like an aria. Now it was time for some fun as Warren-Green reveled in introducing Biber’s Battalia à 10, an eight-part evocation of warfare with some astonishing quirks. Most of these were novel ways that the musicians were called upon to replicate percussion instruments, beginning with the entire ensemble stamping their feet. Fingerboards of the basses and cellos were wrapped in paper and rapped with bows to simulate marching drums in the “Mars” section while Lupanu impersonated the piper on his violin. “Bartók slaps” were inflicted on the basses to mimic canon fire in the climactic “Battle” section, made more bizarre when the cellists turned their instruments sideways like guitars – with added mock drama when the harpsichordist fainted comically over her keyboard. Vying with this spectacle for the most memorable aspect of Battalia – and certainly the most modernistic – was the Bohemian composer’s second movement, “The lusty society of all types of humor.” Evoking the drunkenness of a teeming tavern, Biber split his little ensemble into four parts, each one playing a different song and blithely oblivious to the others. Warren-Green half-turned to us during this unspeakable cacophony and gave a little shrug.

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Returning to Charlotte for the first time since his Symphony debut two years ago, when he played the Dvořák Violin Concerto, Huang did not pale at all in comparison with the charismatic Aisslinn Nosky when she played – and conducted – The Four Seasons in 2018, the last time it had been presented here. The magnificent tone Huang achieved on his coveted 1742 “ex-Wieniawski” Guarneri del Gesù instrument was nearly as impressive as his fleet-fingered virtuosity and intensity. Even on normal occasions, recordings do not nearly capture the excitement of a live Four Seasons performance. On opening night, the pent-up hunger of this audience was palpable enough for the soloist, the musicians, and Warren-Green to feed off, and in the most turgid moments of these four familiar concertos, there was a feverish frenzy to the onset of the wind and storms that Vivaldi brings on. After the final notes of “Summer,” the crowd sprang to their feet, either electrified by Huang’s bravura or convinced that nothing could possibly follow what they had just heard. There are 12 movements, after all, so any confusion was easily forgiven – and the string players also joined the ovation, tapping their bows.

Yet there was more to come, including some nifty double bowing from Huang in the first movement of “Autumn” and a sprinkling of “Bartók slaps” from the upright basses in the last. Nor was “Winter” at all anticlimactic as Huang reached hyperintensity once again as Sirocco and Boreas engaged in windy combat. The final standing ovation was no less deserved than the previous outburst, and it lasted longer.

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

Review: Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Lapointe in TROS

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

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.

Charlotte Symphony Returns, Stoutly Resisting Escapism

Review:  CSO Livestreams Grieg and Tchaikovsky

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020~CSO Grieg-Tchaikovsky-06

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

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