Tag Archives: Christopher Warren-Green

Warren-Green’s Reading of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Stamps It as an Instant Favorite

Review:  Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’ve had quite a week in and around Charlotte for jubilant choral symphonies, first with A Sea Symphony up in Davidson and now with Mahler’s stirring “Resurrection” capping Charlotte Symphony’s 85th season. Turnout at Belk Theater for the grand work was robust, especially when the many latecomers were seated after the opening Allegro maestoso. Of course, the stage was heavily populated as well, the presence of the Charlotte Symphony Chorus pushing the musicians downstage and a sizeable contingent of freelance musicians further cramping their space – extra percussion, extra woodwinds, extra brass, second harp, second timpani, and lurking somewhere offstage, four more French horns. Mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani made her entrance halfway into the third movement for the fourth movement “Urlicht (Primal Light)” alto solo, and soprano Kathleen Kim entered during the final Scherzo to join in singing Mahler’s setting of Friedrich Klopstock’s “Auferstehungslied (Resurrection Song).”

Beyond the executive decisions to beef up the orchestra and enable the horn players to follow his baton (presumably with a video installation), music director Christopher Warren-Green was artistically faultless in managing the pacing, the dynamics, and the overarching structure of Mahler’s music. There was plenty of muscle from the double basses in the opening bars, burrowing their way toward the dazzling entrance of the brass, who were as powerful and incisive as I’ve ever heard them. The winds worked well with the brass once the basses faded, and there was lovely work from the oboes, the upper strings, and – with the only imperfections of the night – the onstage horns. Percussion during the climactic explosion was thrilling, yet the strings retained a soft, kinetic excitement in the sudden hush afterwards.

Maybe the only questionable call Warren-Green made all evening was heeding Mahler’s call for a five-minute pause between the first two movements. The break was a welcome spot after more than 20 minutes of music to finally seat those patient latecomers (watching a performance on the big screens in the lobbies is far from ideal). But the audience treated the interval like an intermission, applauding what they had already heard and, in some instances, rushing for the exits for assorted urgencies. Mahler and Warren-Green undoubtedly thought the pause was a time for reflection, a grace period to accommodate the changing mood of the second Andante moderato movement, rather than an applause cue. If Warren-Green is rethinking the pause idea after its first trial, he certainly didn’t need to question whether his orchestra communicated the contrast that followed. The opening episode was suave and urbane, radically different from the thunderous and heart-rending Allegro that had preceded, until we reached a percolating section that could remind listeners of the vivace second movement of Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony No. 9 – not andante at all. Principal flutist Victor Wang sounded ebullient over pizzicato strings, and principal harpist Andrea Mumm provided a nice sheen over another delicate ending.

The whirling motion of the third movement could lull listeners into thinking that Mahler was revisiting the waltzing “Un Bal” movement of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, but there are sudden outbreaks of brass that give this “In calm, flowing motion” movement more jagged edges. Charlotte Symphony’s brasses were undeniably forceful but never overdone, and the brassy blends in the tranquil section of this movement were outstanding. Distant horns camping out backstage until their moment were as fine as the visible players, coming into view after the last big explosion of the movement – and a pair of beautifully articulated solo spots from principal trombonist John Bartlett and principal trumpeter Richard Harris.

I could assemble a fairly lengthy list of so-so mezzos who have sung with the Charlotte Symphony over the past 25 years, but I wouldn’t include the Israeli-born Lahyani on that list. From her first sweet exclamations, “O red rose!” and “Man lies in greatest need,” there was no doubting the purity and control of this voice, perfectly pointed in a hopeful, yearning direction. Beautiful fills by principal oboist Hollis Ulaky, concertmaster Calin Lupanu, and – in the faceoff between the singer and a heavenly angel – principal flutist Wang added to the delight.

Before we reach the dazzling resurrection light of the final Scherzo, there is a tumultuous instrumental drama that is longer than the previous two movements combined. A long crescendo of portentous percussion flowed naturally into the first volley of brass. Amid the general turmoil that followed, the French horn quartet departed once more with a percussionist. Sadly, these offstage voices would be more audible than a tubular bell that was misstruck by an errant mallet about three feet above all the other instruments. But the other onstage percussion during the hushed middle of the movement, a soft bass drum tattoo under the hidden horns, was absolutely spellbinding, and the piccolo filigree from Erinn Frechette was beguiling.

Entrances by the Symphony Chorus and soprano Kim were nothing short of magical, swelling up out of thin air with their wakening affirmation: “Rise again, yes, you will rise again, My dust after a short rest!” For the last sublime six minutes or so, the voices and instruments grew in strength, conviction, and triumph until all were jubilant together, cresting with a burst of brass, cymbals, a gong, and – no misfiring this time – repeated poundings of the tubular bell. It isn’t easy to shoulder aside the various Beethoven masterworks that comprise the core of Charlotte subscribers’ favorite symphonies, but with this milestone performance from Warren-Green and his musicians, Mahler’s “Resurrection” has clearly broken through to claim its place alongside the Beethoven hegemony. The spontaneity and fervor of the standing, cheering ovation that showered down on the singers, the musicians, and the directors – including Chorus director Kenney Potter – stamped this concert as one that will be talked about and remembered for a long time.

Side-by-Side, Davidson College Symphony and Charlotte Symphony Perform Schubert’s “Great”

Review: Schubert Symphony No. 9 in C Major (“The Great”)

By Perry Tannenbaum

There are members of the Theatre Department at Davidson College who will tell you – off the record, of course – that Duke Family Performance Hall, notwithstanding its fine physical appearance and advanced technical capabilities, presents formidable acoustic challenges for their dramatic and musical productions. It’s difficult for actors to project their voices to the back of the hall and up to the highest balcony, more so when musicians in the orchestra present a further barrier. So it was with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation that I attended my first purely musical event at the Duke. Considering that this was a Side-by-Side concert by the Davidson College Symphony and the Charlotte Symphony, I had to do a double-take when I saw our CVNC listing that specified Tyler-Tallman Hall as the venue. I’d gone to concerts at Tyler-Tallman on numerous occasions and, even with its balcony overhang, the room seats less than 200, hardly ideal for a confluence of two orchestras with 98 musicians listed on the program. So after my double-take, I made sure to double-check.

Now I don’t wish to exaggerate. When Christopher Warren-Green took the stage to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Jurists’ March followed by Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, I never counted more than 91 musicians at one time from the combined ensembles. The Schubert actually thinned out the ranks, for the phalanx of five percussionists for the Tchaikovsky was reduced to one principal from the college ensemble when we reached the symphony. You might think that the dampening effect that bedevils theatrical productions at the Duke might actually benefit such a mighty orchestral armada, but that hypothesis wasn’t tested in my presence. The hall was outfitted with an acoustic shell that prevented sound waves from escaping to the wings of the stage or to the impressively tall fly loft above.

In a hall that hardly seats more than 600, less than a third of the size of Belk Theater in Charlotte, a little more breathing room for the sound would have been welcome. The blare of the nine-piece brass section at various points in the Tchaikovsky could be especially unnerving. Davidson College Symphony director Tara Villa Keith had told us in her opening remarks that the last Side-by-Side rendezvous of the orchestras had been ten years ago, so the Tchaikovsky seemed to turn into an adjustment period for both the musicians and the audience. Compounding those adjustments was the unfamiliarity of the music. With only a single oft-anthologized recording to be found in searches of Spotify and Amazon, it’s unlikely that anyone who wasn’t onstage or in the college’s music department had ever heard of the D Major composition before.

More clarity amid the assaults of percussion would have made this new experience more enjoyable, along with greater precision when the 67 strings played at maximum speed. Along the way, introductions to the main theme and its reprises, sounded very much like similar episodes in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and other ballet suites, and the brass steadied themselves in the latter segments, especially the trombones, so I was encouraged as I became more accustomed to the acoustics. Hopefully, this performance was a tune-up for a future encore at the Belk, where I doubt this march has ever been played.

As the Schubert Ninth (“The Great”) unfolded, I found that I was able to ignore the acoustics for a while. When the passages verged on fortissimo, I found that I’d occasionally recover my objectivity and reaffirm that there was little more warmth or clarity in the music than you might hear on an old broadcast where the radio had been turned up to an unwise volume level. Yet in between those trying fortissimos, Schubert’s grand tapestry contains plenty of passages that allowed individual sections and soloists to shine. That didn’t happen immediately in the Andante section of the opening movement. Violas and cellos were sleek and mellow, but the brasses were collectively smudged and the French horns, so crucial at the very beginning, were somewhat fuzzy. Order prevailed with the first marching episode and hints of the big tune to follow when Schubert would decisively plunge into his Allegro ma non troppo section. Numerous relapses into muddiness plagued the music until the trombones entered with a firm, focused sound. Only one treacherous episode marred the rest: in a work scored for two flutes, the five who played together here – two from Charlotte, three from Davidson – sounded mushy and shrill. The speed-up led by the clarinets helped us forget this discomfort and the reprise of the trombones was even better.

While the ensuing Andante con moto wasn’t all quietude, it wasn’t pocked with the fearsome fortissimos we had to weather up until then, so the performance became rather pleasurable. Early and late in the movement, there were some gorgeous passages delivered by Davidson’s principal oboist Katherine Copenhaver, discreetly backed by principal clarinetist Ava Pomerantz. The tutti were far crisper at reduced volume and the sforzandos, punctuated by principal Davidson timpanist Cole Warlick, struck with a zesty exhilaration. Section work from the French horns and the flutes – only three playing here – snapped into a sharp unison. After a lovely hush, the entrance of the cellos over pizzicato violins propelled us toward a deftly managed resolution. The penultimate Scherzo movement swayed attractively in its 3/4 tempo with occasional detours into gravitas that made the prevailing lightness all the more beguiling. Warren-Green deployed four of the trombones here, one more than specified in the score, and he once again ventured to field five flutes. Everything remained under superb control, and the tutti at the end of the movement was the best so far.

Clarinets and woodwinds had their finest moments igniting the Finale, where Schubert’s valedictory C Major Symphony truly becomes “Great” for me. Copenhaver and Pomerantz had more fine moments here, especially when we arrived at my favorite theme, which always strikes me as having a circus or carnival essence when it gathers its full force. But there is also an exotic beauty to this memorable tune as the woodwinds majestically marshal its pace to full cruising gear. The full brass section was very fine with its answering heraldry, but the trombones, used by Schubert with unprecedented daring, were exemplary – all six of them sharing the spotlight here. The trumpets also shone when their big moment came, just after the oboes signaled for the circus parade one last time.

Exactly half of the musicians listed in the program were from the Davidson College Symphony, so this was truly an equal partnership. Presumably, the Duke is a more convivial venue when this Symphony is 49 members strong instead of 98, but there were likely some hidden benefits to the collaboration process even if more of the rehearsal time should have been spent in Davidson. Early last month, the Charlotte Symphony performed the Schubert Ninth at Belk Theater as part of a larger program that included Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture and the world premiere of Leonard Mark Lewis’ percussion concerto. However intense or organized the college students’ participation in that earlier rehearsal may have been, it surely enriched the overall collaboration in a unique way, a win-win-win for the Charlotte Symphony, the Davidson College Symphony, and all of the devoted patrons who filled the Duke for this Side-by-Side effort.

Four Guest Soloists Combine With Charlotte Symphony and Chorus in a Walloping Bruckner “Te Deum”

Reviews:  Bruckner’s Te Deum and Psalm 150, Wagner’s “Overture to Tannhaüser,” and Strauss’s “First Waltz Sequence from Der Rosenkavalier

Georgia Jarman, soprano, performs in Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi in the Venetian Theater at Caramoor in Katonah New York on July 19, 2014. (photo by Gabe Palacio)

By Perry Tannenbaum

The cramped look of the Charlotte Symphony onstage at the Belk Theater clearly confirmed to me that the music we were about to hear would be similarly dense and weighty, particularly when the Charlotte Symphony Chorus arrived to fill the many empty chairs at the rear of the stage. Before those mighty liturgical choral salvos from Bruckner, we had a couple of suitable preambles gleaned from operatic scores.

Placement of the orchestra at the Belk has a noticeable impact on how they sound. Rising out of the pit, the sound of the Symphony was satisfactory enough last month when they played Rossini’s score for the Opera Carolina production of The Barber of Seville. Yet if you had seen them spread out onstage the previous weekend for performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, the ensemble now sounded comparatively muzzled. A similar constriction – but not nearly so pronounced – was evident last night when music director Christopher Warren-Green launched the Symphony into Wagner’s “Overture to Tannhäuser.” With Bruckner’s Psalm 150 and his Te Deum yet to come, the Wagner overture really would seem like a prelude by evening’s end.

In between the densities of Wagner and Bruckner, maestro Warren-Green made an excellent programming choice in inserting the “First Waltz Sequence from Der Rosenkavalier” by Richard Strauss. The flatulent French horns and trombones at the beginning of the piece, followed by a tumult of the violins reminiscent of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, formed a witty bridge back to the Wagner overture. A welcome oasis of comparative quietude featured some fine work principal clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo and a lilting solo from concertmaster Calin Lupanu as we leisurely traveled to the grand dancehall of Strauss’s big waltz. Warren-Green adroitly varied tempos as the familiar waltz slowly, gorgeously developed from a tentative bud to a giddy frolic before bursting forth in its full orchestral bloom.

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Easily the shortest piece on the program, the full éclat of the Psalm 150 manifests itself almost immediately with the hallelujahs of the chorus, a battering of timpani, and flourishes of the trumpets. Lupanu exceled on a tender interlude as we transitioned from the thunder of the chorus to the sweetness of the soprano soloist, Georgia Jarman. The contrast between the chorus and the single female voice had the impact of a descent from the heavenly host of angels praising the Lord’s mighty firmament to the simple awe of a solitary human extoling his mighty deeds. Somehow the juxtaposition of that sweet episode with the finale, where all living things give praise to their creator, was even more awesome, introduced by a second volley of hallelujahs and whipping up from there to a divine frenzy. All creation seemed joined in a jubilant tribute.

530b8ba206611-preview-620After hearing the glorious conclusion of the Psalm 150, it was hard to grasp that an even grander work was yet to come, but the return of Jarman for the Te Deum with three other vocalists – including mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Paul Appleby, and bass baritone Davóne Tines – certainly fueled our anticipation. Like Psalm 150, the Te Deum shoots its volleys of chorus and brass from the start, but the onslaught isn’t as prolonged. Duos between Appleby and Jarman proved to be the most memorable moments of the opening Allegro moderato section, as Appleby distinguished himself with the purest, most penetrating voice. Cano participated in some trio episodes before the mighty return of the chorus, but she really wasn’t a legitimate rival for either Jarman or Appleby.

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On the other hand, I was mostly impressed when Tines made his contributions later on. Though he didn’t project the lowest notes as fully and confidently as I would have hoped, Tines’s warm solo in the penultimate “Salvum fac” section of the prayer remained a thing of beauty. In the fifth and final “In te, Domine speravi” section, the interplay of the solo voices was effectively mirrored – and magnified – by the interplay of the men’s and women’s sections of the chorus. Under the leadership of Kenney Potter, Symphony Chorus delivered some of their most thrilling moments as we hurtled toward Bruckner’s concluding supplications. Backed by the full orchestra, most notably the trumpets, the liturgical piece remained piously devotional. Yet it became electric with affirmation and thunderous with finality.

 

“First Date” Gets a Second Chance

Reviews:  First Date, Breakin’ Convention, A Year With Frog & Toad, Charlotte Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

When it hit Broadway three years ago, First Date wasn’t exactly a critical or box office triumph. Starring Zachary Levi (TV’s Chuck) and Krysta Rodriguez (from Smash), the pocket-sized musical — six actors and 90 minutes — drew jaundiced eyes from the theater press. Though the critics generally liked what they saw from Levi and Rodriguez, they focused far less charitably on the script by Austin Winsberg and the score by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. The most positive reviews conceded that mediocrity was in sight for the sitcom script and the pop rock score, yet when a few of those jaundiced eyes deigned to look around and observe others in the house, they had to admit that the audience was having a rollicking time. After the notices came out, attendance began to tumble, never to recover until the announced closing week less than five months later.

To give First Date a second chance on the road, its creators needed to think makeover. In a new Blumenthal Performing Arts presentation, now at Booth Playhouse through Nov. 20, it’s obvious that Charlotte’s backers and new director/choreographer Dan Knechtges have sparked a lot of rethinking.

Aaron is still a buttoned-down, slightly nerdy, risk-averse guy who is in a steady job without any self-fulfillment on the horizon. Mutual friends have set him up with Casey, an artsy Bohemian who keeps good guys like Aaron at arm’s length. Her weakness for bad boys has littered her past with a string of relationships that never worked out.

At the point where those bad boys come into play, Zachary and Weiner have gone to work on their songlist. Edgy British Guy and Edgy Rocker Guy are replaced by British Artist and Stoner Guy while their song, “Can’t Help but Love Me,” is similarly altered. Before that, we have a revamp of “Forever Online,” a song that was cut from the Broadway production soon after the opening. Now a new character, Google Girl, joins Casey and Aaron for “The World Wide Web Is Forever,” and this song — about Googling prospective dates before you meet them — may be the freshest, most delicious segment that First Date has to offer.

Transplanting the show from the 1100-seat Longacre Theatre in New York to the 434-seat Booth, Knechtges has implemented far more fundamental changes. Not only has he reduced the cast from six to five, he has brought members of the audience onstage, seating them around the bar and at tables at the restaurant where Aaron and Casey meet. These customers don’t sit around idly during the action.

Katerina Papacostas and Matthew Schatz in First Date. - DANIEL COSTON

 

Critics reviewing this remake can’t ignore the audience because they’re part of it. The main responsibility for getting patrons involved falls to Paul Ianniello as our Bartender/Waiter. Though we’ve relocated from Manhattan to Uptown Charlotte, this Waiter fits the New York stereotype of waiters biding their time until that magical day when they nail an audition. He’s super gregarious, marking Aaron as a dude on a blind date as soon as he enters, telling him to lose the tie and unbutton the shirt if he plans to reach first base.

He’ll also chat up the diners and drinkers, prevail upon them to switch tables, move to the bar, or even kick up their heels. Or he might reappear on the roof of the building or re-enter the restaurant from the street. Most memorable among his thought-cloud characters, Ianniello dons a tallit and enters as Aaron’s disapproving grandfather when he discovers that Casey is a shiksa.

Gretchen Wylder is Grandma Ida in this Jewish guignol number inspired by the Fruma-Sarah haunting from Fiddler on the Roof, getting the cheap laugh when she sings “I will break your matzo balls.” Tapering off just a smidge on her madcap energy, she also pops up at odd moments from behind the bar as Aaron’s former bipolar fiancée. Wielding a cocktail glass or a frying pan out in the box seats, Wylder is also Casey’s older and wiser sister, Lauren, reminding the prodigal that her biological clock is ticking or — more to the point — busting her on her self-defeating defensiveness with good guys.

As you’ve already divined, Aaron and Casey’s first date is littered with real and imagined interventions. In multiple incarnations, Kevin Zak as Man #2 completes the unholy trinity. Wearing a Luke Kuechly jersey and toting a “brewski,” Zak is most often Aaron’s best bud Gabe, telling the newbie to blind dating whether or not he’s straying from the golden path to Fuck County. Or he might change costumes and resurface from behind the bar as Reggie, a dimwitted ex-boyfriend who gets enraged when Casey doesn’t answer his repeated bailout calls to her cellphone.

At the eye of this cyclone of eccentricity, Matthew Schatz can be fairly nebbishy as Aaron without coming close to relinquishing his hold on comparative wholesomeness. Likewise, Katerina Papacostas doesn’t need to softpeddle Casey’s practical joking and hostility to sustain her desirability. Together, they rock “First Impressions” almost immediately after they meet, building up a pile of appeal they can squander.

Schatz’s take on Aaron makes him somewhat less cartoonish than Brad in Rocky Horror, while Papacostas’ Casey is slightly more wholesome than the most mainstream member of The Addams Family. Oh, wait a second: Rodriguez was Wednesday Addams, originating that role on Broadway before originating Casey. Pure coincidence, I’m sure.

Papacostas’ foxiness drew extra play on press night when our Waiter asked a customer to move over to the bar so Casey and Aaron could be seated. The audience member shot back a counterproposal, suggesting that Casey be seated right there next to him!

In this more informal format, it becomes more obvious that the very idea of first dates is a powerful draw for audiences, stirring up old memories, tingling feelings of anticipation, and long-dormant hormones. Perhaps the best alteration Winsberg has made to his script is making sure that some of the comedy at every performance will be unscripted.

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Proximity of last week’s openings in Charlotte to the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott — and its tumultuous aftermath — seemed to tamp down turnout at Booth Playhouse on Thursday. Crowds outside for Friday evening’s Breakin’ Convention pre-shows, the spoken word slammers outdoors on the Levine Center for the Arts Plaza and the b-boys working the cypher in the Knight Theater lobby, were about the same anemic size as last year, when bad weather curtailed attendance.

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But when the sun shone so brightly and beautifully on Saturday afternoon, I could tell just by driving past the Spirit Square parking lot that Breakin’ Convention’s all-day Street Jam was bigger and better. Around the corner on 7th Street, another robust crowd of parents and kids were lapping up the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte revival of A Year With Frog & Toad, which is every bit as delightful as the 2008 version at ImaginOn — and more completely polished.

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Charlotte Symphony subscribers kept the good vibe going on Saturday night, thronging to the All Tchaikovsky concert at Belk Theater. Guest soloist  gave them more than ample artistry with her fire, precision, and honeyed tone in the Violin Concerto, drawing a standing ovation after the opening movement. Music director Christopher Warren-Green and the orchestra were vibrant and dynamic in their accompaniment, so I had no qualms about joining the cheers and the ovation when Yoo’s performance reached its triumphant end.

Charlotte Symphony Spotlights the Balcony in “Romeo and Juliet” Tribute

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By Perry Tannenbaum

May 20, 2016, Charlotte, NC – A distinguished scholar who taught my undergrad Shakespeare course once told us that a precious folio edition of the Bard’s plays was on display at one of England’s most prestigious libraries, available to all to peruse, and that the most well-worn page in the whole book – by far – was the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. “Rightly so,” she added after a brief pause, defusing my presumption that she was about to sneer at popular taste. Charlotte Symphony Orchestra musical director Christopher Warren-Green might very well agree with my professor’s sentiments, for at the latest KnightSounds concert, he programmed that scene twice in succession, underscoring the fact that we still haven’t tired of that balcony 400 years after Shakespeare’s death.

Helping the demonstration at Knight Theater were emissaries from UNC Charlotte’s Theatre Department and Charlotte Ballet. Charlotte-based soprano Melinda Whittington helped to similarly double-underline the appeal of two other prime Juliet moments. So in the space of a mere 70 minutes, 50 less than the “two hours’ traffic of our stage” promised in the tragedy’s prologue, we not only had orchestral and operatic works inspired by Shakespeare’s first great tragedy, we had the lovers themselves speaking the lines of their most memorable scenes.

Tchaikovsky, Gounod, Prokofiev, and Nino Rota all took their cues from the blank verse and rhymed couplets in different ways. Of course, Tchaikovsky’s famed Fantasy-Overture wasn’t written for any specific production of Romeo and Juliet. With three fully developed themes for Friar Lawrence, the Montague-Capulet strife, and the R&J romance, the flavor of the piece is more like a Liszt tone poem than a true overture. About half the size of a Tchaikovsky symphony, the KnightSounds performance quickly offered us opportunities to savor the work of the clarinets, the double basses, the violins, the French horns, the cellos, the flutes, and harpist Andrea Mumm.

At the same time, the performance was streamed outdoors to the plaza at the nearby plaza on the Levine Avenue of Arts, and the screen hovering above the Knight Theater stage gave us the pleasure of seeing what the outdoor audience saw with the added thrill of the live sound. There were more than enough cameras deftly at work to prove that this video production had been nearly as meticulously rehearsed as the music. We didn’t cut to the French horns or the cellos in the early going, and the cameras later settled on the second violins too late and missed English hornist Terry Maskin entirely. Yet overall, direction was quite polished.

Romeo & Juliet 'Plazacast' Closes KnightSounds Sitting toward the front of the orchestra, I found that the cameras consistently revealed who was playing upstage when the musicians in front of them blocked my sightline. My fears of being overwhelmed by the sheer loudness of the orchestra were also allayed: the acoustic shell that graces the Knight stage gathers in the orchestral sound while still allowing it to breathe. This was different from the old school presentation that the CSO brought us of the Fantasy-Overture at Belk Theater in 2011, and while there was little to prefer musically at either performance, I have to say that the camera work lifted the current experience above the one I praised five years ago, enriching what I saw and heard then with occasional close-ups of Warren-Green’s expressions.

I had little hopes for the UNC Charlotte segments of the evening, with Jennifer Huddleston appearing as Juliet and Sammy Hajmahmoud as Romeo. When their stage director, Professor Andrew Hartley, appeared onstage to recite Shakespeare’s prologue, he didn’t exactly fire up my hopes. Nor was I initially impressed with Hajmahmoud when he initially came onstage to launch the party scene where the masked Romeo first meets Juliet. But Huddleston was pure luminosity as Juliet, instantly proving the advantage of casting the role as youthfully as possible. The glow of her performance magically turned Hajmahmoud’s halting awkwardnesses into virtues and he gradually relaxed into Romeo, further igniting their chemistry. Together they grew irresistibly charming, somewhat upstaging their elders when they followed.

13263907_1718667768397005_7712306438347482717_nAfter Huddleston, Whittington seemed woefully mature as Juliette singing the bubbly “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s opera. The costume she wore was comparatively formal and neither the suppleness of her coloratura nor the lightness of her tone matched what we hear from elite sopranos in this showpiece. But she returned later in the concert and absolutely scorched Juliette’s “Potion Aria,” demonstrating the power that opera can add to turbulent moments of indecision. Huddleston and Hajmahmoud do all the potions and suicides as well, but their most glorious moments – and Hartley’s as well – come when they do the balcony scene.

Romeo initiates the scene onstage, but a spotlight cues us to the likelihood that Juliet will appear in the box seat section of the Knight’s balcony. It’s absolutely sublime when she does. Part of the magic is sculptural, after all, for the moonlit Juliet is not only more divine at a height, Romeo is more ardent and worshipful below her with his upward gaze. Hartley played around with the usual blocking and Romeo’s climbing up and down, but somehow he contrived to have Juliet down at the orchestra level and onstage for the latter half of the scene and its exquisite farewells.

The “Balcony Scene Pas de Deux” from Prokofiev’s ballet score had to follow this sublimity, and the presence of two eminent Charlotte Ballet principals, Josh Hall and Alexandra Ball, helped to ease the descent. Hall and Ball were so impressive, in fact, that I fairly well ignored Prokofiev’s music and the excellence of the orchestra. But as majestic as the lifts were – Ball’s hands as she rises have a musicality that most ballerinas can only envy – the sculptural advantages of the theatrical staging we had just seen were surrendered, along with Hajmahmoud’s touching awkwardness and Huddleston’s youth. An impossibly acrobatic final kiss partially compensated for those missing elements

After the stunning sequence of balcony scenes and potion scenes, the concert grew more somber with Rota’s “Romeo and Juliet: A Renaissance Timepiece” and Hartley’s pronouncement of the tragedy’s concluding lines. Until I heard CSO’s performance, I’d assumed that the Rota melody most familiar to me was his “Theme from The Godfather.” As often as I’ve heard that tune over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d heard Rota’s Romeo and Juliet melody even more often. The familiar melody nestles nicely in a composition that has more to offer, with some gorgeous work from Mumm, oboist Hollis Ulaky, and flutists Amy Orsinger Whitehead and Erica Cice.

An evening that I expected to be pleasantly light and superficial turned out to be rich and deeply satisfying. Programs were in the funky style that usually characterizes the KnightSounds series, but they are augmented by the Charlotte Symphony app that can be downloaded to your smartphone. You can get bios of the featured professionals from this app as you ease into your seat – it’s general admission, so early arrival can be recommended. While I couldn’t confirm my suspicion that Charlotte Ballet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux was the choreographer, the app did supply translations of the Gounod arias.

Charlotte Symphony ends its classics season seductively

Review of Carmina Burana

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

Lawrence Zazzo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warren-Green Pays off Bronco Bet After Rousing All-Russian Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

Calin Lupanu plays Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto this week with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.

March 17, 2016, Charlotte, NC – For the first time in nearly two years, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra presented an all-Russian concert. These two programs were elegantly linked by the appearance of CSO concertmaster Calin Lupanu playing one of Sergei Prokofiev’s two violin concertos on each occasion. Or that was the intent, because after conducting Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3, music director Christopher Warren-Green was obliged to pay off a wager he had made in early February, prior to his previous appearance in the orchestra’s classics series. That was the weekend of the Super Bowl, when the Carolina Panthers squared off against the Denver Broncos. Well, since both orchestras are led by Christophers and abbreviate themselves as the CSO, it was natural that the friendly municipal pre-game wagering would not be limited to our mayors. Amid an online exchange of jovial slurs and vaunts, Warren-Green declared that, if the Panthers lost, he would conduct the Broncos’ theme song, Copland’s “Rodeo,” wearing Bronco quarterback Peyton Manning’s iconic No. 18 jersey. Keeping his word, Warren-Green capped an evening that began by intoning the Satanic revels of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” with the sunshine and mirth of the quintessential American composer’s ballet music.

Warren-Green’s prime objective with Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s macabre classic was very much like it was in 2009, when he conducted the piece as part of his audition for the music directorship. Then and now it was quite obvious that Warren-Green felt that the concluding calm of the piece, beginning with the churchly tolling of the tubular bells, was normally undervalued. Fortunately, the orchestra took a more dynamic path this time around than they did seven years ago, when they drained the tone poem’s familiar opening of all its wonder and terror. Now instead of smoothing it over, Warren-Green was exaggerating the contrast, speeding up the tempo of the rampaging strings and calling forth more volume and sforzando snap from the brass and percussion. The effect veered way too far from Bela Lugosi toward video game, but the onset of the bells was far more miraculous this time around. Accompanied by Andrea Mumm’s harp, the violins suddenly sounded mournful and exhausted after the wild Witches’ Sabbath, eventually modulating toward calm and restoration after poignant solos by clarinetist Drucilla DeVan and principal flutist Amy Orsinger.

You could hardly ask for a sweeter opening than Lupanu’s for the Prokofiev Violin Concert No. 2 – even from the justly lauded Maxim Vengerov recording with Rostropovich and the London Symphony. But I wanted more muscle as the tempo speeded up. We occasionally lost the soloist’s line behind the French horns, but the sinew of Lupanu’s playing emerged in the Allegro moderato when the lower string sections moved into the background, very persuasive in the higher passages. Although it couldn’t be confused with Philip Glass’s work, there is intensive repetitiveness at various points of the soloist’s part in Prokofiev’s outer movements, which may explain why Lupanu felt compelled to bring the score with him onto the Belk Theater stage.

Subscribers who are persnickety about such things, expecting their guest artists to memorize their pieces, were probably more pacified by Lupanu’s soulful performance of the Andante assai inner movement. After the stealthy intro from the woodwinds, gently weighted toward the clarinets, Lupanu’s lyricism excelled again in the upper regions. Over a leisurely 3/4 accompaniment, the music swelled to anthemic strength with Lupanu gliding and somersaulting above. Muted trumpets then pulsated, quickening the pace as the soloist broke into a gallop. When the accompaniment resumed its previous repose, Lupanu wove some high filigree and pizzicato work into the fadeout. The jauntiness of the 3/4 tempo was most pronounced in the closing Allegro ben marcato, punctuated by a snare drum, a set of maracas, and the brass pumping a merry oompah behind Lupanu’s lusty fiddling. There was a final burst of intensive churning where Lupanu snuck a glance or two at the score, but he ended admirably with a virtuosic flourish at a blistering tempo.

The CSO program booklet is utterly confused about the orchestra’s only previous performance of the Rachmaninoff A-minor symphony, for the 2009 date ascribed to guest conductor Leslie Dunner was actually the date of Warren-Green’s aforementioned audition with its woeful “Bald Mountain.” No, it was during the twilight of the Clinton Administration, January 1999, when I greeted the only previous performance of Rachmaninoff No. 3 as “turgid, clichéd movie music, grandly entertaining and flamboyantly superficial.” But the allusion to Warren-Green’s is curiously apt because once again, the CSO maestro has improved upon a previous CSO flop.

Where Dunner stumbled in his attempts to “civilize and homogenize” Rachmaninoff’s abrupt shifts of mood and tempo, Warren-Green succeeded brilliantly, rehabbing the music as effectively as my Mariss Jansons recording with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Again the middle Adagio-Allegro movement stood out as when Dunner performed it, with principal French hornist Frank Portone ably caressing the forlorn intro once more. This time, with Lupanu sitting out the second half of the concert, it was Joseph Meyer in the concertmaster’s chair following up so beautifully on the violin. Not only did Warren-Green navigate the rollercoaster shifts of the outer movements more convincingly, he also held the inner logic of the middle movement together more securely. When we circled back to the solos by Portone and Meyer, there was a satisfying sense of an epic circle being completed, crowned by more tasty solo work by Terry Maskin on the English horn and Eugene Kavadlo on the clarinet.

© 2016 CVNC