Tag Archives: Kenney Potter

Newly-Minted Charlotte Master Chorale Couples with NC Baroque for Wonderful “Messiah”

Review: Handel’s Messiah

By Perry Tannenbaum

Backed by the Charlotte Symphony Chorus, formerly the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte, performances of Handel’s Messiah by the Symphony have been a fairly consistent holiday staple over the years. Since 2002, the only gaps on my calendar have occurred in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2016. Until this year, when Symphony passed on performing the Handel masterwork, Symphony Chorus would also sit out. But with the new Charlotte Bach Festival spreading its wings here, in Gastonia, and in Winston-Salem over a full week in June, piloted by former Oratorio Singers music director Scott Allen Jarrett, there’s a new Baroque fervor in the air – and evidently new connections for the Charlotte Symphony Chorus and current Symphony director of choruses Kenney Potter to explore. As a result, Symphony Chorus, newly rebranded for the holidays as the Charlotte Master Chorale (with a PO box in Matthews, so stay tuned), is giving three Messiah performances under Potter’s direction. Joining them for two of the performances at First United Methodist Church – and the third in Gastonia – is the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, which certainly enhanced its stature at the June festival.

The concerts mark the return of the Chorale to First United, performing Messiah there for the first time since they were still the Oratorio Singers in 2004, but it obviously represents a departure as well, for the 24-member NC Baroque performs on authentic period instruments, including two valveless trumpets and a double-necked theorbo, and its musicians adhere to Baroque performance practices. Though originally presented in a concert hall, I couldn’t help feeling that the church, the authentic instruments, and the reduced orchestra brought us closer to the Messiah that Handel originally imagined – and what amazed Dubliners actually heard in 1742. Compared to Belk Theater, which flings the sound of the Chorus at us, First United seemed to cuddle, warm, and slightly mute Master Chorale’s sound before it wafted over the musicians’ heads. From beginning to end, they were ideal, exactly what you would hope for in a city known for its churches.

Perhaps the best example of the Baroque Orchestra’s mettle was in its effortlessly fleet introduction to Master Chorale’s “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” and in the gritty churning of the strings that underpinned the climaxes at “Wonderful! Counselor!” The ensemble’s jubilation was thrilling and infectious, but they also showed their affinity for sacred music when they dug into the intro and accompaniment for “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” Individually, I would single out the work of first trumpeter Doug Wilson in the triumphant “The Trumpet Shall Sound.”

Of course, the biggest variables at annual iterations of Messiah are the solo vocalists. How would Potter fare on recruitment? Here we had the best news of all, for all four of the guest performers were eager, strong, confident, and at ease. Soprano Awet Andemichael and countertenor Timothy Parsons were seated on the audience left side of the stage, with tenor David Vanderwal and bass baritone Jesse Blumberg at our right. Evaluating their performances is largely a matter of cataloguing what each of them sang and lauding the pure tone, genuine feeling, and impeccable breath control they brought to each piece, with the possible exception of Vanderwal, who only had one extended chance to shine and hit his home run on “Thou Shalt Break Them” late in the evening, making his mark with the rigor of his attack on the verbs, break and dash.

Andemichael was the most facially expressive and theatrical of the soloists, showcasing her soothing declamatory capabilities in the “I bring you good tidings” recitative and the suppleness of her coloratura in “Rejoice, Greatly.” Listening to Parsons on “Thou That Tellest Good Tidings,” I admired his ability to reach the low note of “Judah” without scooping, as many contraltos do, but I worried whether he would be able to attack the “He Was Despised and Rejected” air with the necessary forcefulness. Not only did he render “He gave His back to the smiters” with true grit, he also managed to negotiate “spitting” without sounding pompous or silly.

Here it should probably be mentioned that the vocalists were refreshingly uncommitted to authenticity, adding the extra syllable at the end of past-tense verbs only when the melody compelled it. Blumberg especially gratified me when he didn’t add the extra syllable to “The People That Walked in Darkness” every time he repeated the verb. A relaxed, America manner is not amiss here. From the moment we began to hear Blumberg’s well-rounded low notes, I knew that he could rank among the best basses I’ve heard live in Messiah since I first became enamored of it in the late ‘60s up in New York at Queens College. While I might have liked to hear the conspiratorial decrescendos some more theatrical singers employ to add a little twinkle to “all nations” – after a mighty “shake the heavens” – the range, authority, and sheer beauty of Blumberg’s singing were nonpareil. Coupled with Wilson’s virtuosity, Blumberg’s was the best “Trumpet Shall Sound” I’ve heard anytime, anywhere.

 

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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.

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.