Tag Archives: Erinn Frechette

Cox and Beilman Play the Changes, Guesting with CSO

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Wagner, Mozart, and Brahms

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Holding our collective breaths, subscribers can hope that the current Charlotte Symphony program represents the last retreats from the fare originally announced for the 2021-22 season. Although Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll replaced Zoltan Kodály’s Dances of Galánta and Johannes Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 replaced his Symphony No. 3, we still had guest conductor Roderick Cox and guest soloist Benjamin Beilman, though Beilman needed to be as flexible as the orchestra, switching from the Charlotte premiere of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto to Mozart’s “Turkish” Violin Concerto No. 5. Of course, Brahms himself might have laughed out loud at the hasty substitution, since he had been so famously averse to attempting a symphony while Beethoven’s shadow still loomed so large. Compounding the hilarity, the Serenade No. 2 may have been historic, possibly the first closing piece at a Symphony Classics Series concert to be played without violins onstage.

Written for his wife, Cosima, in 1870 and later dedicated to their son upon publication, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll isn’t extracted from any of his operas, though the music sometimes smacks of themes from The Ring cycle, especially Siegfried. It begins intimately enough, with a quiet string quartet, comprised of principals from the string sections, with concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu unmistakably the lead voice. So audience members at Knight Theater could easily imagine the romantic story of the music’s informal premiere, when Wagner stealthily placed his little orchestra (just 13 on that morning) on the stairway leading to Cosima’s bedroom while she was still sleeping – gradually awakening her as the music swelled. A couple of French horns and a trumpet eventually added force and volume to the composition, and principal oboist Hollis Ulaky played memorably in numerous spots.

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Beilman seemed to be even better matched with the Mozart than he had been with the Beethoven in his 2017 Charlotte debut. Hearing a live performance at this level was more rewarding than listening to my favorite recordings by Arthur Grumiaux, David Oistrakh, and Julia Fischer. By this time, it was quite obvious that Cox had taken the eleventh-hour changes in programming totally in stride, for the introductory orchestral passages of first two movements of the Mozart, an Allegro aperto followed by an Adagio, had a bloom that rivaled the most sublime passages in the Wagner, with no less polish. Beilman’s highest notes had admirable muscle, his pianissimos in that stratosphere were ethereal, and his midrange was as burnished as I had remembered from the Beethoven. The closing Rondeau showed us how truly ingratiating Beilman can be as he genially swayed us in a waltzing 3/4 tempo – then suddenly jerked us out of our comfort zone as he and Cox conspired, nearly halfway in, to bring extra drama to the sudden lurch into the “Turkish” section of this movement and its lively duple tempo. Try counting this section any other way than 1-2, 1-2, 1-2… I couldn’t.

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Unlike so many of the serenades inflicted on us – there, I’ve said it! – during the pandemic, Brahms didn’t limit either of his to strings alone. The Serenade No. 2 includes a full complement of woodwinds and a pair of French horns. Bassoonists Joshua Hood and Naho Zhu were unusually prominent in the reedy opening measures of the Allegro moderato, with flutists Victor Wang and Amy Orsinger Whitehead soon afterwards coming to the forefront. Violins over plucked cellos and basses heightened the intensity and made a pathway for Ulaky on oboe to shine again. Rigidly on-the-beat handling his stick, Cox made the ensuing Scherzo: Vivace more march-like than the acclaimed Michael Tilson Thomas recording, but the rhythmic thrust and liveliness remained unmistakable.

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Audience members should have noticed by this time that Brahms intended his clarinetists to switch between A, C, and B-flat clarinets over the course of this Serenade. Churning lower strings (remember, there weren’t any violins) ushered in the middle Adagio non troppo movement, but principal woodwind players had sufficient time to leave their imprints, including Ulaky, Wang, and – far in the treble – clarinetist Taylor Marino. With Cox taking a notably sprightly take, the penultimate Quasi menuetto was more of a trinket than the Scherzo had been, Ulaky and Wang excelling once again. Discarding all remaining restraint and tenderness that we might have expected from a Serenade, Cox and Symphony made the closing Rondo a rollicking romp from the first bars, clearly taking aim at compensating for the lack of a symphony on the program. Oboes, clarinets, and horns led the charge, with the low strings high-stepping right behind them. Erinn Frechette finally had chances to tweedle on her piccolo as the winds reached their maximum effervescence, but the congregation of strings eventually had their say, building to a satisfying ending.

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.

Dvořák’s New World Picks Up Slack in Symphony Concert

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Dvořák’s New World Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Sometimes orchestras program pieces to meet popular demand, and at other times, they program works to meet expectations or fulfill a sense of obligation. It’s so easy to yield to inertia! This past weekend’s Charlotte Symphony concerts balanced both types of choices. Dvořák’s New World Symphony is so popular in the Queen City that an extra row of seats was set up at Belk Theater behind the already-packed Grand Tier.

Before subscribers could be appeased with the New World they were waiting for, we had to withstand lackluster performances by the CSO and guest conductor Ilyich Rivas of Robert Schumann’s “Overture to Manfred” and Johannes Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Neither performance convinced me that Symphony musicians were familiar with the music or took much pleasure in playing it. I was unsure myself whether I had ever heard these pieces before at the Belk.

My files confirmed how consistently forgettable the ensemble had been tackling this repertoire. CSO had last played the Schumann at the Belk in 2001, when I declared that the orchestra had fallen far short of the composer’s Byronic ambitions. Each of the two occasions since then, when Symphony had played the Haydn Variations in 2002 and 2010, I had found that the results were similarly moribund. Outcomes were perhaps marginally better last Friday night, though it’s still uncertain whether our musicians are completely sold on either of these works.

Wouldn’t it be better for everybody if Symphony put fresh new or unfamiliar scores on their players’ music stands – instead of repeatedly exhuming stuff like this so unenthusiastically?

While Amy Orsinger Whitehead ably headed the flutes and the brass accented well, violins seemed sloppy and lackadaisical in the Manfred, their exchanges with the brass and winds more precise than those with the lower strings. Rivas probably sparked more energy and cohesion than in the performance of the Variations led by Christof Perick in 2010, which observed pauses between variations.

But there still wasn’t enough zest – or dramatic contrast – to assure us that everyone was relishing their part, and there was little of the exquisite delicacy we have come to expect in softer, slower movements since Christopher Warren-Green took over the musical director’s baton. A limpid calm prevailed in successive reposeful Con moto movements that descended into lifelessness before a Vivace revival, and even the Finale, an Andante that can be grander than grand, grew slightly slack though it was still strong.

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Indicative of the éclat they created the last time they performed Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” Warren-Green and the CSO waited only four-and-a-half years to reprise their triumph – and with Rivas on the podium, the orchestra satisfied its subscribers just as fully. The magical mojo of 2015 wasn’t quite replicated, but then again, my expectations could no longer be taken so completely by surprise.

And to be truthful, Symphony didn’t get off to a great start this time, the French horns not as solid as the lordly trombones when we moved from the Adagio section of the opening movement to the sweeping Allegro molto. But the horns didn’t take long to steady and the flutes, Orsinger and Erinn Frechette, were superb; and gosh, the sforzando at the end of the movement had a fierce snap.

Four years ago, Warren-Green took the trouble to wade into the orchestra after its New World performance and embrace English horn principal Terry Maskin for his playing of the “Goin’ Home” theme in Dvořák’s lovely Largo movement. Rivas would not have been faulted if he had done the same. The flutes had a sunshiney glint in their frolics, the soft violins wove mystical enchantment, and the brasses and horns added dignity each time they were cued.

Dvořák’s crowning achievement fittingly premiered in the New World at Carnegie Hall in 1893, and the third movement Molto vivace, inspired by Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, has always seemed the most prophetic to me, spawning the film scores of multitudes of Westerns yet to be shot in our rugged plains, canyons, and badlands. All went well here until the ending became too disjointed for comfort.

Rivas regained – and then retained – his mastery in the awesome Allegro con fuoco, where the Old World can be felt birthing the New World and our fearsome Manifest Destiny marches westward, arrogant and irresistible. (“Get over it!” professed patriots might respond.) The Venezuelan-born conductor beautifully navigated the protean moods, and the orchestra keenly grasped the moment. In the wake of the heraldic brass, the violins burst forth with a vigor that had been missing earlier in the evening, adding new summits of grandeur. When the music grew soft, the woodwinds, especially the flutes, sweetened it; each time the brass and strings rallied, Ariel Zaviezo and his timpani triggered the uprising.

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

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s “On Tap” Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cherokee Anguish Upstages “Sleeping Beauty” in Symphony Concert

Review:  Sleeping Beauty

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’ve had a copious amount of Russian music from Charlotte Symphony this year. Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade headlined the first two classics concerts of 2019, and Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty suite is continuing the trend. Even after Symphony emerged from their annual retreat in the Belk Theater pit with Charlotte Ballet’s production of Nutcracker, subscribers do not seem to tire of this steady Russian diet.

The presumption may be that we’ll see better attendance if the featured piece is Russian rather than American, old-style rather than new. Sleeping Beauty wasn’t as long as Michael Daugherty’s Trail of Tears concerto or as new as Aaron Copland’s more familiar Billy the Kid suite, which kicked off the evening. Nor was it played with the same verve at Knight Theater under the baton of guest conductor Joseph Young, who actually has educational, vocational and family ties in the Carolinas.

Principal flutist Victor Wang stepped downstage to play the solos in Daugherty’s concerto, deftly flutter-tonguing, overblowing, and producing multiphonics and glissandos – upstaging the marquee ballet suite that followed after intermission. In the context of the forced Cherokee migration carried out by the U.S. Army in 1838-39, pursuant to Indian Removal Act of 1830, the chord-like multiphonics and glissandos sounded like laments or nostalgic reflections, the overblowing sounded somber and contemplative like a Japanese shakuhachi flute, and the flutter-tonguing had a range of emotional connotations, submission one moment and terror at other times.

There was so much more to admire in Wang’s playing beyond the special effects, particularly in the lyrical middle movement “incantation” that followed the longer, more turbulent “where the wind blew free” section. You might wonder why the concluding “sun dance,” starting off so lightly, becomes as turbulent as the opening movement. Daugherty gives us a moving explanation in his program notes, reminding us that the religious dance ceremony of the Plains Indians was banned for a full century by the U.S. government.

While Wang had a clear path, consistently giving voice to the soul and anguish of Native Americans, Young had a more jagged course steering the orchestra. The delicate early percussion at the start of the outer movements – xylophone, harp, and piano – was obviously consonant with the flute, but the drums sent different signals. In the opening “wind blew free” movement, the snares cued the Trail of Tears march, taking on the role of the Army tormentors, but in the closing “dance,” the timpani were unmistakably tom-toms. Strings could also be mellow or suddenly abrasive as Young navigated this fascinating, bumpy trail.

Notwithstanding the timings provided in Symphony’s program booklet, the Sleeping Beauty suite was actually the shortest piece on the program. But there’s nothing at all sleepy about the opening episode of its opening movement. It should sound like we’ve been improbably dropped into the raucous section of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture where the composer simulates the strife between the Montagues and the Capulets. Instead of medieval Verona or ancient fairyland, the orchestra sounded more like contemporary Vegas – or a carryover of Daugherty’s prairie.

When the music becalmed the brass bloomed, and the Tchaikovsky ballet style became recognizable, but rarely with the charm that Symphony radiates every December in Nutcracker. The grandeur of the Pas d’action didn’t quite wake up, and though I love the eerie foreboding sound of the Puss and Boots sketch, this performance didn’t deliver the predatory snap that should make it memorable. The shimmering magic of the “Panorama” section was mostly moribund until principal harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell gracefully soloed to close it out.

Symphony recovered its swagger to close the evening with the familiar Sleeping Beauty waltz, but this wasn’t the sort of piece that Peter Ilyich intended to climax an evening of ballet, let alone an evening of orchestral music. A lead-off spot would have been more appropriate. As it turned out, Copland’s Billy the Kid suite vied with Trail of Tears as the best performance on this night.

Amy Orsinger Whitehead ably took over the flute chair while Wang waited in the wings, leading a volley of wind solos sounding Copland’s recurring “Open Prairie” theme, followed by principal clarinet Taylor Marino, principal oboe Hollis Ulaky, and French hornist Byron Johns. Pounding the timpani, acting principal Ariel Zaviezo Arriagada signaled the onset of the “Gun Battle,” but this dark episode didn’t eclipse the sunny impression made by Erinn Frechette, merrily playing the piccolo solo when we reached Copland’s “Frontier Town.”

With players of this caliber – and the zest that Young brought to this repertoire – I daresay that even Symphony’s stodgy subscribers would have been better pleased by an All-American evening. Whether they would have attended is a different question.

Beethoven’s Fifth Recaptures Its Elemental Fire

Review:  Beethoven’s Fifth

By Perry Tannenbaum

Meeting an anticipated demand, Charlotte Symphony is programming their 2018-19 season opener, Beethoven’s Fifth, for three concerts instead of the usual two – and meeting subscribers’ hopes, they’re playing it beautifully. Leading off their season with an all-Beethoven program, music director Christopher Warren-Green and his ensemble weren’t exactly blazing new trails.

Last fall, Symphony also led off all-Beethoven, playing his mighty Ninth, and followed that program with more Beethoven in two of the next three concerts. So if anything, Symphony is tapering off on their Beethoven offerings this year – but not ignoring their audience’s rabid enthusiasm for his music. What’s impressive is that the musicians have maintained their enthusiasm as well.

A surprisingly small contingent, less than 50 players by my count, came out and played the “Overture to The Ruins of Athens,” one of Beethoven’s less familiar orchestral works, before guest soloist Garrick Ohlsson came out to perform the Piano Concerto No. 4. I couldn’t detect much desolation in The Ruins after its slightly gloomy intro. The first oboe statement was like a dewy sunrise, triggering a burst of orchestral merriment that drew a festive rejoinder from the oboe and jollity from the two flutes fluttering over the bassoons.

Such a charming appetizer! Then a big video screen descended from the Belk Theater proscenium, and the Steinway was wheeled to centerstage.

Ohlsson’s last appearance with Symphony was back in the early ‘90s, long before an overhead shot of the keyboard could disclose the size of this man’s hands for all to see as he attacked the keyboard. Those prodigious digits didn’t quite stop moving long enough for a conclusive measurement, but it sure looked like his pinkies were as large as the black keys. With that view, what was perhaps most impressive about Ohlsson in the first two movements was his delicacy and grace.

The opening Allegro moderato shuttled between swift, powerful passages and soft lyrical episodes. Ohlsson played both admirably, effortlessly, trilling with both hands simultaneously and, in the dramatic cadenza, clearly articulating its counterpoint. Warren-Green asserted himself more noticeably in the middle Andante con moto movement, so that it became a dreamy dialogue.

Every note of the concerto sounded fresh and new – until we slid into the familiar final movement with hardly a pause. Everyone onstage lit into it with gusto, the swift finger work at the start of this Rondo presenting no difficulty at all for Ohlsson, who proved that he was holding his full power in reserve for this celebratory climax. Ebb and flow weren’t so much about tempo here as they were about dynamics. Ohlsson and Warren-Green meshed beautifully to sculpt the loud and soft moments in a most satisfying way.

As the program notes on the concerto pointed out, it was especially fitting that Symphony had paired Piano No. 4 with the Fifth Symphony, for they were both premiered on the same December evening in 1808 – at a concert in Vienna, where Beethoven played and conducted. That marathon event also unveiled the Sixth Symphony, the Choral Fantasy, four movements of the Mass in C, and the “Ah! Perfido” aria for soprano. Although Warren-Green didn’t mention this historic landmark, when Beethoven would play for the last time in public due to approaching deafness, you can bet he was aware of it.

Six years ago, when Warren-Green conducted the concerto for the first time at Belk Theater, he paired it with Symphony No. 4, also in an all-Beethoven concert that launched the season. On that occasion, Warren-Green did mention that the very first time Beethoven performed the piece in a private concert at the palace of his patron Prince Joseph Lobkowitz in March 1807, he also conducted his Fourth Symphony.

This time around, Maestro called our attention to the fateful opening of Symphony No. 5, “the most famous four notes in the history of music,” saying that this was also the most familiar instance of Beethoven utilizing the music of the French Revolution, something he did throughout his career. Well, that pungent insight illuminated the entire symphony for me. Partly because of Warren-Green’s remarks, a piece that I had come to regard – and describe – as the most perfect ever written became freshly infused with its revolutionary spirit and elemental fire. Repeated hearings of recorded performance, I realized, had dimmed that fire for me.

Even in the relatively quiescent third movement, mostly notable for its 3/4 time and exquisite pizzicatos, there are brief outbreaks of revolutionary marching spirit, and afterwards, a gentle thrumming of the seething timpani as the whole simmering string section comes majestically to a boil and explodes – with a mighty entrance of trumpets – into the joyous, triumphant finale.

From the outset, Warren-Green spikes the sforzandos with terrific force, but the opening Allegro also features fine spots by principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and the French hornist to mellow the brew. It’s the trumpets that ignite the revolutionary fervor at the beginning of second movement Andante, exactly the kind of march that Warren-Green’s prefatory remarks suggested, but you’ll also hit a heavenly patch from the cellos that struck me as a foretaste of Wagner’s Rhein at this listen. Wonderful hushes of strings here hit me as one of the underappreciated reasons why we adore Beethoven. Some exquisite work lightly showered from flutists Amy Orsinger Whitehead and principal Victor Wang.

Maybe Erinn Frechette as well. From my vantage point up in the Grand Tier, I didn’t notice her until I heard her amid the tutti of the final Allegro, when she picked up her Little David of instruments, the piccolo. There she was, perfectly obscured in my line of sight behind Warren-Green! By contrast, I had noticed the elephantine contrabassoon lying neglected on its stand all evening. Only when the whole orchestra was wailing underneath Frechette in the symphony’s full-throated climax did I realize that Lori Tiberio had picked up her lumbering Goliath and was playing with everyone else. Why Beethoven had bothered with her and her contrabassoon I couldn’t say, for I cannot claim to have heard a single note.

I’m sure it was there. But I’ll stop short of making another claim, for I’d likely be surrendering a chunk of my judicial credibility if I told you that Beethoven not only wrote more stirring movements than the immortal “Da-da-da-DAA,” but that one of them is just a short distance down the road in the same Fifth Symphony. That’s one key reason why you need to experience this orchestra playing this music in live performance at the Belk.

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.