Tag Archives: Knight Theater

On Your Toes for a Lively Mix of Mozart, Meyer, and Wirén

Review: Burgeoning optimism could be found in Symphony’s most recent Mozart + Wirén concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Unless a fourth wave of COVID-19 takes us by surprise and the 2020-21 season has to be “reimagined” yet again, Charlotte Symphony seems to be moving slowly, cautiously back towards full-sized concerts with their entire orchestra. Later this month, principal harpist Andrea Mumm will be reunited with the string players, taking a lead role in Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane, and next month, we can look forward to Mozart’s beloved Symphony No. 40, presumably with a full complement of woodwinds. As I sit down to write, Haydn’s Symphony No. 64 has been announced for May, bringing us oboes and horns. Meanwhile a fresh series of five outdoor concerts has been scheduled this spring at the NoDa Brewing Company, all on Tuesdays, with a discreet 7:00pm starting time, improving our chances of keeping warm.

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Another harbinger of spring and burgeoning optimism could be found in Symphony’s most recent Mozart + Wirén concert. Back in February at the Holst + Elgar concert, only Holst’s St. Paul Suite was lively and sunny enough to get musical director Christopher Warren-Green jumping up and down on the podium. Check out the webcast of the Mozart + Wirén program, still replaying online, and you’ll find that both of these composers had the same effect, Mozart with his Divertimento for Strings in D major and Swedish composer Dag Wirén with his Serenade for Strings. In between these two, Warren-Green offered the Charlotte premiere of Jessica Meyer’s Slow Burn, a piece originally devised two years ago to accompany a burlesque dancer in Saratoga. Jumping was probably not the proper response.

Mozart wrote no fewer than five Divertmenti in D Major, so it’s necessary to add that this was the earliest, K. 136, written at the age of 16 – or that it’s the one Divertimento that Yehudi Menuhin recorded in his Mozart collection for Virgin Classics, leading the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne. The youthful energy of the piece burst immediately upon us in the opening Allegro, with churning propulsion from the lower strings and lithe buoyancy from the violins and violas. Dynamics undulated with the floating grace of a glider as the steady churning continued below in rhythmic waves. The sound of the Knight Theater space added the faintest echo, and the airiness of the sound recording was close to the standard set for this piece by the Seiji Ozawa recording of 1994.

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Coming after this sunny effervescence, the middle Andante was so sweet and nostalgic, reminding me of one of the first Mozart pieces I was able to master on the piano more than 60 years ago. Lovely as it is, it was the only one of the three movements that could be imagined as royal background music, which is how a divertimento is normally regarded – and what resident conductor Christopher James Lees warned us against expecting in his introductory remarks. Attcked by the strings with at least as much zest as the Allegro, the closing Presto commanded attention, six staccato notes followed by the kind of explosive ignition we associate with Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which Symphony performed just a month ago. Along with the exciting flux of dynamics, there were also zigs and zags of tempo navigated by Warren-Green, layers of repetition from the three main string sections overlapping one another. The ensemble surpassed themselves with their legerity and clarity in long, swift sweeps of melody.

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Slow or not, Meyer’s dancer evidently preferred to ply her trade in a steady 4/4 time as the piece began, with suggestive gestures from principal violist Benjamin Geller, principal second violin Oliver Kot, and concertmaster Calin Lupanu. Action halted before these solo voices – and after slaps on the double basses that sounded like whip cracks. Resuming the Burn, the music slid into swooning glissandos that allowed the dancer to surrender as much as her audience. Urgency and fury crept in as the tempo accelerated with frequent slaps on the basses, alternating with jazzy pizzicatos. The next halt gave way to a longer statement from Geller on viola that triggered a more frantic acceleration from the orchestra than before, this final gallop prodded by a constant cracking on the necks and sides of the two basses. What a dancer would do at this climax was enticing to imagine. Certainly it would be more like a flamenco flowering than a bump and grind.

Wirén had never crossed my radar before this Charlotte Symphony debut. He merits only a brief paragraph in my two music cyclopedias and only three entries in my last copy of the Penguin Guide, which did declare Wirén’s Serenade of 1937 to have been his greatest international hit. Apple Music is a better place than Spotify to hunt for it, but Symphony’s account was as exemplary as its previous two performances. Lees peeped in for another intro, describing the piece as a blend Mozart lightness and 1930s Paris, where Wirén studied composition. With long sweeping melodic phrases from the violins conveying Mozartian lightness, the opening Preludium had the urban bustle of Gershwin’s Paris – or the Londons evoked by Eric Coates and Noël Coward – and Symphony was not at all tentative about zooming into the cityscape. The cellos and double basses actually injected a heavy, foreboding undertow at times, as if a spot of rain were on the way or the specter of a traffic jam.

The rustic quality presaged by Lees in his intro was further delayed by the Andante espressivo, which began softly with pizzicatos spanning the Knight stage followed by an outbreak of melancholy from the second violins. First violins only intensified the poignancy when they layered on with their bowing, taking us further into solemnity and coloring it faintly with regret. A second round of pizzicatos from the lower strings led into deeper keening from the violas, intensified by another onset of the violins. Cellos blended with violins before a concluding pizzicato hush. The ensuing Scherzo was where Wirén finally fulfilled Lees’ rustic description, though I’d have to guess that the composer had Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony closer to heart than anything Mozart wrote, and a few notes struck up by the second violins had a kinship with “Willow Weep for Me,” written five years earlier by Ann Ronell and dedicated to Gershwin. Amid the hairpin turns of this impetuous movement, interspersed with the laughter of the violins, the cellos took over briefly with their sobriety.

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With violas, cellos, and basses beating their bows on their strings, the beat of the final grand march began, reminding me most vividly of Coates’s British pomp. But here we swerved dramatically, slowing down for our first genuine B section of the evening before circling back to the forceful main theme. This Marcía is the movement that is most excerpted from this most popular Wirén work, and there’s nothing subtle about its appeal. Little strums from the basses thicken its pulse and there are moments when the beat is so strong that you could suspect a drum or two lurking somewhere offstage. Its giddy spirit had Warren-Green on his toes, waving his arms with the sweep of it all, and ultimately jumping. For joy, no doubt.

All-English Symphony Program Moves from Wintry Dreariness to Triumphant Jollity

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Holst + Elgar

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Assailed by the ongoing pandemic, the postponement of vaccinations, and a midwinter cold snap, we must be contented when we receive short rations of Edward Elgar without pomp or percussion and William Walton’s Henry V without winds or brass. In fact, since Charlotte Symphony music director Christopher Warren-Green often shuttles back and forth across the Atlantic to lead our Queen City orchestra and the London Chamber Orchestra, we’re rather fortunate just to have him on the podium at Knight Theater conducting an all-English program. Traveling by air between the UK and the US has become uncertain in recent months, due to the mutating coronavirus, and restrictions pushed Symphony’s Holst + Elgar offering from January 23 into February. Electricity can also be capricious when the Arctic is riled: Texas is merely the most notorious state plagued by power outages this month, not the only one.

We’ve heard more than a couple of Serenades since Symphony returned, string players only, reconfiguring its 2020-21 season and fine tuning on-the-fly. Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor was certainly not the peppiest or the most sweeping of the breed, but Warren-Green, stressing the harmonic blend of the piece instead of its rhythmic flow, gave us a drearier reading than I would have hoped for, particularly in the first two movements, a tranquil and dreamy Allegro piacevole followed by a sleepier Larghetto. Only in the concluding Allegretto did Warren-Green abandon extreme delicacy and pick up his baton. Only now did the orchestra’s energy compare with the more light-hearted Sir Roger Norrington recording of the piece. Here there was more melodic dialogue between the upper and lower strings, more satisfying swells in the sway of the dynamics.

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Although Walton’s Two Pieces for Strings from Henry V have been paired on commercial recordings, they are hardly a representative foretaste of the full musical score written for the 1945 film starring – and directed by – Laurence Olivier. Elsewhere in the score, in places such as the “Charge and Battle” and the “Agincourt Song” collected in more extensive suites, Warren-Green could parade Symphony’s winds, brass, and percussion. Mightily. “Death of Falstaff” and “Touch Her Soft Lips and Part” are soft, brief, and fragile flowers compared to those sturdy oaks, yet they were more affecting than the Elgar pieces. The Passacaglia for Sir John was quiet and grave, almost but not quite a dirge, and the “Soft Lips” was tenderly suffused with pure and chaste ardor, tinged with the sorrow of soldiers’ farewells. Count me as enthusiastically supportive if Warren-Green opts to program a fuller representation of this Henry V score when he can bring the full Symphony to the task.

If we longed for music that quietly reflected our mood during these cold, gray, homebound winter days and nights, then these Elgar and Walton works more than fulfilled their mission, but if it was uplift that we sought, then Gustav Holst’s St Paul’s Suite in C Major was a perfect tonic. Warren-Green’s anecdote about meeting Olivier and Walton after a performance of the Henry pieces was by far the most appealing of his intros. Warren-Green had been onstage as the concertmaster that night, and the actor and the composer had vied ridiculously with each other at the post-performance reception to be more modest about his contribution to that celebrated film. Yet the insight into Holst, when Warren-Green visited the St. Paul’s Girls School in London, was also fascinating. Holst taught at the school, eventually becoming its music director, and a soundproof room was built specially for him at the school where he composed his most famous work, The Planets, as well as this more modest suite.

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To be honest, St. Paul’s sounds more like it was written in the middle of the girls’ playground on a bright sunny spring morning with the children running and squealing in all directions around the composer, especially in the effervescent outer movements. Amid the lively opening Vivace, ebulliently labeled as a Jig, it was inspiring to see Warren-Green jumping up and down on the podium again, excitedly gesticulating after maintaining his British dignity for these many months. The liveliness spread across the Knight stage, and I strongly suspect that the masked faces of the Symphony musicians were smiling. Even the middle movements had a youthful élan. The second movement was a quiet Ostinato at a Presto pace, with concertmaster Calin Lupanu floating a melody over the subdued churning of the upper strings and pizzicatos from the cellos. Lupanu’s soloing resumed in the Intermezzo, where we slowed to Andante con moto and principal violist Benjamin Geller took a couple of turns in the solo spotlight. Here again, a Vivace interlude abruptly shed its orchestral sunlight before we reverted to a slower tempo, ending with a sedate string quartet led by Lupanu.

Jollity reigned when we arrived at Holst’s Finale, an Allegro that riffs on an English folk tune, “The Dargason,” sounding even merrier than the opening Jig, and certainly more familiar. Holst further enhanced the merriment and complexity of his composition by giving the cellos the undercover assignment of introducing the ancient melody of “Greensleeves” under the main theme. No problem if you missed “Greensleeves” while it was part of the cellos’ stealth operation, because it became gloriously dominant when it was reprised. The infectious “Dargason” was not to be suppressed for long, interweaving so well with “Greensleeves,” and Lupanu had one more tasty little cadenza before the full string orchestra pounced on the final fortissimo chords.

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

Review: Mozart’s Night Music

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By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte Symphony Returns, Stoutly Resisting Escapism

Review:  CSO Livestreams Grieg and Tchaikovsky

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Symphony Bolsters CHOPIN PIANO CONCERTO With Improved Beethoven

Review: CHOPIN PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 and a guest shot by Gabriela Martinez

By Perry Tannenbaum

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You can’t really say that Christopher Warren-Green was between Beethoven concerts when he stepped to the podium at Knight Theater for a program headlined by CHOPIN PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 and a guest shot by Gabriela Martinez. In his last appearance at the Knight in January – before Charlotte Symphony resident conductor Christopher James Lees pinch-hit with an all-American program later in the month – Warren-Green launched Beethoven’s 250th birthday year with an evening that included the Leonore Overture and the “Emperor” Piano Concerto.

Ludwig Van’s Missa Solemnis, with four guest vocalists and the Charlotte Master Chorale joining CSO at Belk Theater, is next up for Warren-Green in March, but our maestro wasn’t giving Beethoven a complete night off, even though his program already sported a Valentine’s Day subplot. Instead, after a delicious sprig of music from Frederick Delius, Symphony No. 8 sent us on our way home. No, Warren-Green wasn’t exactly between Beethovens, but it might have been better if he had been.

The evening did not begin auspiciously, that’s for sure. Warren-Green, for the first time I can remember, brought a Symphony performance to an abrupt halt soon after beginning a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Disturbed by people who were coughing in the front rows (which I didn’t actually hear), Warren-Green whirled around and, slightly exaggerating his own pique, urged all the coughers to “just let it out!” and be done.

Shortly afterwards, a woman in the front row scurried to nearest exit, apparently more hurried and distressed than she might have been if she had thought Warren-Green were joking. Meanwhile, Symphony’s music director whirled back to his musicians and relaunched as abruptly as he had just aborted. Surprisingly after such curtness, the monastic calm of the Friar Lawrence prelude was played as exquisitely as if the orchestra had observed a minute of meditation before embarking, with beautiful highlights from the trombone and flute. The raucous section, depicting family strife between the Montagues and the Capulets, came thrillingly after a slow simmering keyed by the harp, the violins and the timpani came to a boil.

The repeated swellings heralding the famous rhapsodic R&J love theme were as sensitively rendered as you could ask, and the concluding section was haunting in its funereal solemnity. Alas, the love theme itself, perhaps the most well-worn melody in classical music – think of all the times you’ve heard it! – sounded somewhat hackneyed to me, despite Symphony’s laudable forbearance, not having performed it in their mainstage Classics Series since 2011.

I doubt many CSO members had ever performed the featured Chopin concerto in Charlotte before. The last time it appears on my radar was when Emanuel Ax played it in 1998 – with the visiting Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Known primarily for his piano compositions, Chopin launches into his PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 with surprisingly lush and virile orchestral writing in the Allegro maestoso: brass, flutes and French horns striding into the mix as the long intro climaxes. Although Warren-Green and Symphony were aggressive in their attitude, Martinez took a more leisurely approach, downplaying the inner dialectic between longhair rigor and liquid lyricism in the early piano soloing, settling instead into a groove that underscored the Concerto’s affinity with Chopin’s Nocturnes. Only toward the end of the movement did Martinez build toward cadenza-level intensity.

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While I admired Martinez’s delicate touch in the treble, her firm left hand patrolling the bass, and her overall technique, the full exquisiteness and drama of the middle Romanze movement somehow eluded her in her earthbound phrasing. Far more satisfying was the concluding Rondo, where she captured the dancing vivacity of the music, sometimes recalling the sprightly charms of Chopin’s Waltzes and sometimes evoking the more emphatic stomp of the Polonaises. Just as importantly, Martinez and the CSO seemed to be having a jolly time, which did not preclude her showing off a bit. Indulging in those delights, however, Martinez missed the poignancy and drama you’ll find at the end of Murray Perahia’s recorded version.

The piece by Delius, “The Walk to the Paradise Garden,” was as dreamy and tropical as you would expect, from a British composer who has likely captured the soul of primeval Florida better than any American. Really lovely passages played by principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and principal clarinetist Taylor Marino were an intoxicating intro to Delius’s special allure, but Warren-Green and his orchestra seemed to back away from delivering the full drama of this operatic extract when the music swelled.

Perhaps the maestro and his ensemble had the context of this composition in mind, coming in Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet just before the lovers fulfill a suicide pact. The lovely performance didn’t have any more of a depressing effect on me than the Tchaikovsky overture had, but it seemed to dampen spirits onstage. It’s quite possible that the opening of Beethoven’s Allegro vivace was the most perfunctory playing I have heard from CSO since the last time they programmed Symphony No. 8 in 2009, a distinctively tepid outing led by former music director Christof Perick.

This time, the orchestra gradually hit their stride after circling back to the main theme, though I still wanted a little more kettledrum éclat in the ensemble explosions. In the ensuing Scherzo, a little more stealth in the soft sections and a little more mock ferocity – like Warren-Green’s attitude toward the coughers earlier? – would have helped. Symphony already had the measure of the Menuetto in 2009, the one movement Perick salvaged, and they maintained their mastery here. Launching with a zesty attack, Warren-Green brought forth the folksy energy in rotation with a wan beerhall merriment and an idyllic refuge for the woodwinds.

The F major Symphony is bookended with Allegro vivace movements, and the last is prime Beethoven, quietly churning at the outset with an inevitable outbreak of irrepressible joy. Warren-Green coaxed both the expectancy and the jubilant payload from the orchestra – plus all the surprises, detours, misdirection, and impassioned releases that make Beethoven so worth revisiting and celebrating, 250th birthday or not. The French horns didn’t mess up as they had in 2009, this time around teaming up with the brass in a rousing finish.

Barefoot in Carnegie Hall, Conqueror at the Knight

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Review: Charlotte Symphony and Conrad Tao Perform Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto

By Perry Tannenbaum

Celebrations of Ludwig van Beethoven don’t really need to lean on a convenient excuse. Just before celebrations broke out worldwide on January 1, 2020, commemorating the great composer’s 250th birthday, New York City’s WQXR played out 2019 with their traditional New Year’s Eve countdown of their audience’s top 100 favorites, culminating in a marathon tribute to Beethoven. Not only did Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony No. 9 take the top spot yet again at the flagship classical FM station, six works by Beethoven were in WQXR’s top 10, including the top three. Charlotte Symphony certainly wasn’t standing in back of the line of orchestras poised for celebration as the new decade began.

Returning to Knight Theater from a tour of Southeast Asia with the London Chamber Orchestra, maestro Christopher Warren-Green capped the first full week of 2020 with a double-dose of the birthday boy’s compositions, the “Leonore Overture No. 3” and the “Emperor” Concerto No. 5, which finished No. 10 in the latest WQXR popularity poll. In between, we heard the Symphony No. 7 in C by Jean Sibelius, perhaps the first time that the Finnish composer’s final symphony has been performed in Charlotte. Pianist and composer Conrad Tao made his Charlotte debut with the orchestra.

We don’t have too many instances of rewrites among Beethoven’s published works, but his lone opera, Fidelio, and its overture are prominent exceptions. The three Leonore overtures (plus a “Fidelio Overture”!) testify that Beethoven not only fussed over the music for his opera, he also fussed over the title. Leonore, Creatures of Prometheus, and Coriolan are the overtures most favored as fillers on CD collections of the symphonies, and Warren-Green programmed Coriolan in an all-Beethoven concert in 2012. As far back as I can trace, this is the first time Symphony has separated the “Leonore Overture” from Fidelio, but our musicians likely recalled rehearsing it for an opera-in-concert version conducted by Christof Perick in 2004 and when Opera Carolina offered us a fully-staged Fidelio in 2015.

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Musicians were perhaps too amped-up for the celebration as the Overture kicked off the concert. The opening sforzando over a timpani beat and the mysterious fadeaway that follows that burst were beautifully played. Woodwinds blended effectively and the flutes had a wonderful rapport before forebodings of the big tune rippled through the lower strings. But the crisp delivery and sleekly calibrated dynamics we have come to expect from this orchestra were missing on the first pass through the main theme, and there was no room left to dramatically turn up the volume later when the big tune repeated twice more. Thankfully, the ensemble steadied immediately afterwards – for the entire evening – sharpening their focus. Winds and horns remained tightly knit, principal flutist Victor Wang continued to charm, and principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn, deployed deep in the balcony, brought us forlorn pathos before concertmaster Calin Lupanu, playing fervidly, triggered the final galloping reprise and climax.

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Other than interpolating how exhausted he still was after conducting the Leonore, Warren-Green was all about Sibelius when he picked up his mic for the first time in 2020, pointing out that the Finn was battling two illnesses as he wrote the piece over a 10-year stretch: depression and alcoholism. He also drew our attention to the trombone solos with insights gleaned from the original 1924 manuscript. The winds and strings, particularly the violins, drew a sweetness from the music that I hadn’t found on either of the CDs in my collection, and there were definite hints in the darkest passages, where the violins played low in their range, of the illnesses that afflicted the composer – and possible promptings for the way Shostakovich would register WW2 in his symphonies. Only the flow and the full grandeur of my Ashkenazy recording with the London Philharmonia were missing in Warren-Green’s reading. As for principal trombonist John Bartlett, the orchestral wreath surrounding his contributions – along with the embroidery Sibelius weaves with the winds – might cause you to overlook his unquestionable excellence.

No such danger threatened Tao as he emerged in his colorful attire. Only later admitting that he had begun the new year by packing negligently and forgetting his formal attire, Tao attacked his opening cadenzas with swashbuckling panache, and his phrasing proved to be no less audacious and individual than his attire and attack. Clearly, Tao has heard this soaring masterwork in his own way – but without perversely differing with traditional interpretations or seeking to draw undue attention away from the composer. Warren-Green and the orchestra responded vigorously to the young soloist, as much in the forefront of the epic opening Allegro movement as the piano. Of course, Tao impressed us more in the softer passages than the accompaniment here, but Symphony was certainly an equal partner in the magical Adagio that followed. The upper strings, delicately supported by pizzicatos from the lower strings, solemnly and lyrically cleared the way for Tao’s ethereal entrance – with a clarity that I’ve never heard on a recording. A bit of subtlety and nuance eluded Tao here and there in his phrasing, but Warren-Green and his ensemble remained marvelously simpatico in sustaining the sublimity.

For those of us who love this piece, Tao’s way with the ingenious transition between the Adagio and the Rondo finale likely sparked the most controversy and admiration. He certainly took his time, not playing the ending quite as softly as the usual pianissimos I’ve heard, but the sforzando burst to launch the concluding movement still had a satisfying snap and éclat. Symphony was as zestful as ever in its response, and Tao parleyed a playfulness and a muscular power we had not seen from him earlier, conclusively proving he could punish a keyboard.

Two more Beethoven masterworks, his Missa Solemnis and “Pastoral” Symphony, highlight the remainder of the 2019-20 mainstage classics series, the latter to be led by JoAnn Falletta. Symphony certainly had the appeal of their Tao program nicely gauged, scheduling an extra Sunday matinee after the usual pair of performances. Of course, Tao may have been kidding us when he spoke of forgetting his formalwear. In his enthusiastic New York Times review of Tao’s Carnegie Hall debut back in November, critic Anthony Tommasini couldn’t help noting that the pianist was clad in black slacks, a black jacket, a black T-shirt… and barefoot!

A Masterfully Engineered Comedy Machine

Review: The Play That Goes Wrong

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Bloopers! TV audiences, theatre audiences, and film buffs love them, for bloopers have been successfully audience-tested in TV series like America’s Home Videos, comedies like Noises Off, and countless gleanings of movie out-takes – some of them nowadays appended to the director’s cut after the credits roll. So SPOILER ALERT: you will see many bloopers at Knight Theater – really a whole evening of bloopers – when you go to see The Play That Goes Wrong.

The barrage of bloopers by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields – who have also colluded on Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Nativity Goes Wrong – often had me in stitches and left me slightly weak with laughter when I exited on opening night. It was almost merciful that I found some of the shtick repetitious or predictable, allowing me to catch my breath. Others leaving the theater were giddier than I about the madcap performances, pratfalls, and hambone hijinks.

But I also noted traces of stone-faced disgruntlement from folks here and there in the crowd, redoubled perhaps by not being able to share in the euphoria surrounding them. Bloopers just may not be so damn funny to everyone, I immediately concluded. Upon further reflection, I hedged my diagnosis: maybe bloopers are so ubiquitous that people need a respite from all those we succumb to daily as click bait on Facebook and Twitter besides all those readily available on TV and in movie houses.

Blooper burnout isn’t pervasive, that’s for sure. Hell, it’s obvious that the Lewis-Sayer-Shields team has made a franchise out of them!

So let me pause to observe how artfully crafted – and expertly engineered – the bloopers we enjoy in The Play That Goes Wrong really are. Which may be a gentle way to remind folks, giddy and disgruntled alike, that they are not really bloopers at all.

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As the other plays created on this same template imply, namely Pan and The Nativity, the Broadway hit making its touring stop at the Knight also has a storyline, a play called “The Murder at Haversham Manor” – in a “Cornley University Drama Society” production. Even before this epic fiasco began, warning signals were firing off onstage and in the hall. One stagehand scurried somewhat frantically up and down the aisles, another – helped by an actor and a recruited audience member – unsuccessfully attempted a last-minute fix of the scenery, and a third issued a warning for audience members to watch out for a chandelier, affixed somewhere with duct tape, that might fall.

Inauspicious, to say the least.

Formality briefly takes over and the curtain goes down as the University emcee makes his sometimes informative, sometimes apologetic opening remarks. Regrets are proffered for budget constraints that resulted in such economies as Two Sisters and Cat. Then the curtain goes up, ending the brief spell of semi-competence. Our murder victim, Charles Haversham, hasn’t quite finished draping himself over the settee.

A parade of characters – suspects all – enters the scene, including Haversham’s fiancée, Haversham’s brother, Haversham’s butler, the fiancée’s brother, and Inspector Carter. Consulting your faux “Haversham Manor” program, a feature I fondly remember from Noises Off, you can see that the cool and composed Chris Bean is portraying the Inspector and directing the show. Not coincidentally, Bean has previously starred at Cornley as Hamlet in Hamlet, Macbeth in Macbeth, and Othello in Othello.

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Sadly, the polished actor has rashly ventured beyond his skills behind the scenes, most disastrously in designing the scenery and making the props. A steady blizzard of technical screwups whips through and inundates the production from the moment an actor makes his first entrance. The front door, which a stagehand and actor struggled to close throughout the pre-show, now will not open. The mantel that couldn’t be affixed over the fireplace needs to be used. The stretcher to gracefully remove the corpse shreds in two.

Sometimes the clumsiness of the actors compounds the flimsiness and unreliability of the set. When a door suddenly does swing open, one of the co-stars is knocked unconscious. The beam holding up the second-story study keeps colliding with another clumsy actor, and the Bean-constructed elevator to the study proves ill-designed for repeated use – and much, much more.

By the time we reach intermission at Cornley, an insurance adjuster would not be amiss. And by the time “Habersham Manor” concludes, a delegation from FEMA ought to be dispatched.

Obviously, the real scenic designer who engineered everything that so reliably “goes wrong” in Goes Wrong – an apocalyptic demolition that must be swept up, propped up, and rebuilt for every new performance – has created an awesome and supremely frivolous masterwork. Of course, Nigel Hook took home the Drama Desk and Tony Awards for scenic design in 2017. Slam-dunk decisions as far as I’m concerned.

As casualties and destruction mount, expect those black-clad stagehands to jump into the breach, further escalating the mayhem – and the acting incompetence. Remedies can often be as zany as the catastrophes that prompt them. What can go wrong usually does.

Comparisons are inevitably made between Goes Wrong and Noises Off, a Michael Frayn concoction that must be custom-built on a revolving stage. That mammoth turntable must show us backstage mishaps, misunderstandings, and antagonisms that unfold in a touring production of a bad farce. Sandwiched around the incompetence and venom that flow freely in the middle act backstage are frontal views of the two-story set where the farce unfolds. Act 1 of Noises Off shows us a belated and ominous dress rehearsal, and in Act 3, we watch the string of disasters that result at a performance months later when the troupe’s flaws and hostilities have fully fermented.

A simpler parallel can be drawn between the Goes Wrong franchise and the chain of “abridged” comedies begun with The Complete Works of Wm Shakespeare (abridged). The writers who formed Mischief Theatre, the company that produces Goes Wrong, wrote the travesty for themselves to star in – just like founding trio of the Reduced Shakespeare Company who wrote their medleys of shticks for themselves to ham up.

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Lewis, Sayer, and Shields made it far harder on themselves when they wowed London and then starred in their own show on Broadway, as you’ll readily see when you watch their touring replacements. Skirting – or succumbing to – the disasters that befall The Play That Goes Wrong requires quick reflexes and considerable physical prowess, especially when segments of Habersham Manor begin to resemble the sinking Titanic.

Standouts include Adam Petherbridge as Cecil Haversham, the victim’s brother and the fiancée’s secret lover, perpetually genial, clumsy, theatrically amateurish, and incurably hambone. Nor could I help but admire the ruffled suavity of Chris Lanceley as the beleaguered Bean, the relatively calm eye of the storm as the Inspector, trying simultaneously to get his investigation and his production on track.

The women draw some of the most challenging physical demands. Jacqueline Jarrold as Florence Colleymore, Habersham’s two-timing fiancée, must literally fight for her role when Bianca Horn, as stage-struck stage manager Annie, steals her costume and takes over. We get some wild World Wide Wrestling action when these two tigresses tangle, not a mere catfight.

Others you’re likely to savor are Jason Bowen as the lackadaisical lighting and sound operator, Trevor, who seems to care more about his boxed set of Duran Duran than Habersham Manor, and Todd Buonopane as the sorry thespian who portrays Perkins, the dignified butler. On multiple occasions, Perkins’ mispronunciations stop the show, and in one deadly instance, Buonopane’s memory lapse throws “Habersham Manor” spinning into an endless tape loop. He’s almost as bad as Petherbridge, which is very good.

Enjoy the silly, juvenile comedy – and the marvelously sophisticated stagecraft. A couple of things do magically go right in The Play That Goes Wrong, adding some delightful wrinkles.

Bringing Back the Bedside Bar Mitzvah

Review: Falsettos

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Amazing how edgy and new an old-hat musical can seem these days. At intermission during opening night of William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos, I ran into a collegial culture vulture in the Knight Theater lobby who asked, “Do you think Charlotte is ready for this?” Not very different from the local director who said, “Charlotte is a hard market for this kind of thing, you know?”

Except that director was Steve Umberger, talking about Falsettos a few weeks before Charlotte Rep first presented it at Booth Playhouse in the autumn of 1993 – a year after Finn and Lapine won Tony Awards for their work. An alternative newsweekly named Creative Loafing sponsored that production, I recall, and Queen City Theatre Company revived the musical briefly in a concert edition at Duke Energy Theater in 2012.

So not withstanding some grumbling inside Knight Theater and a few walkouts, Charlotte has been ready for Falsettos for over 25 years.

Upscaled from the Duke and the Booth, the current touring version directed by Lapine is glitzier and brasher than previous productions staged here, overmiked and maybe a little overacted. What started out as “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” repeatedly became one Broadway diva on a stage belting.

While Finn and Lapine never envisioned the new frontiers beyond the boundaries of the binary sexual template, they tilted toward an inclusiveness that was fresh and daring. When we reach the bedside bar mitzvah scene, a climax that brought me to tears even though I knew it was coming, the six adults celebrating Jason’s Jewish coming of age are neatly divided into homosexual, heterosexual, and lesbian couples.

Back at Booth Playhouse in 1993, this stage tableau was Charlotte’s foretaste of what was heading our way with Tony Kushner’s Millennium Approaches, still in its first run on Broadway and already taking us to a new chapter in America’s ongoing culture wars – a first step toward the diversity we now take for granted on TV sitcoms a quarter of a century later.

Of course, a certain amount of crafty contrivance helps in forging the neat division of sexual orientations in Falsettos. Even before the four Jews dance in from the wings, taking their place in front of a Rubik’s cube-like construct that will become the set, Marvin has deconstructed his marriage – and come out of the closet – to move in with Whizzer, a debonair cruiser with a designer wardrobe. Trina, Jason’s mom, isn’t taking Marvin’s exit or his sexual realignment very well. Angry? Jealous? Overwhelmed? Yes.

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The family shrink, Mendel, is there to help Trina pick up the pieces – which jibes well with the psychiatrist’s own intentions of picking up Trina. So the remainder of the first act, originally presented separately Off-Broadway as The March of the Falsettos in 1979, is an orgy of jealousies, self-doubts, and couples conflicts. Marvin, not at all a model of maturity, is uncomfortable with Trina’s budding relationship with Mendel and beginning to wonder whether he truly loves Whizzer.

Meanwhile Mendel is weighing the freedom and loneliness of continued bachelorhood against the intimacy and responsibilities of matrimony and step-fatherhood. Whizzer? Doesn’t think he loves his man, although Marvin is an excellent provider, and isn’t at all sure about this monogamy deal. No, overmiking doesn’t help all this stressing, bickering, and childishness.

“Bitch, bitch, funny, funny,” the four Jews sing at the beginning, and Act I is every bit of that – but not especially Jewish after that opening song. Then comes Falsettoland, which is what the second act was called when it premiered separately Off-Broadway in 1990. In the 11-year interval between these two one-acts, Finn and Lapine advanced the action a mere two years, from 1979 to 1981, which you’ll see referenced in an effigy of Nancy Reagan if you haven’t scrutinized your playbill.

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Now it’s time for Jason to study for his bar mitzvah, for Marvin and Trina to bicker over whom to invite to the reception – and to decide the utmost practicality, the caterer! Just so happens that one of the two lesbians who have newly moved in next door, Cordelia, is a caterer. The other, Charlotte, is a doctor of internal medicine, which comes in very handy when there’s another new arrival in the neighborhood: AIDS.

Finn and Lapine vividly recapture the early days of the fearful epidemic when Dr. Charlotte leads a quartet in singing “Something Bad Is Happening” – before the disease even had a name. Before evangelicals had the audacity to declare AIDS a curse from God aimed at homosexuals. Compared to the Rep cast of ’93 who all lived through those days, the touring cast now at Knight Theater comes in with a disadvantage, compounded by the fact that so many in the audience weren’t even born during those turbulent times – and hadn’t had the luxury of studying up before Falsettos turned from “funny, funny” to deadly serious.

a - Marvin and Whizzer - 0457rAudio had been dialed down a little from the soundbooth when we crossed over to Falsettoland, so I felt more comfortable with the Knight Theater cast after intermission when the frenetic action calmed down and our adults became more adult and self-aware, with the sort of insight Sondheim brings to the post-fairytale of married life. Max Von Essen improved the most in the transition as Marvin. Yes, it’s true that Marvin is a self-centered jerk when he emerges from the closet, and we should, on balance, despise him. But a wisp of nebbishy Woody Allen bewilderment and insecurity would have brought so much to Marvin’s character and Finn’s lyrics. When Marvin begins to get a grip and reconciles with Whizzer, it was very gratifying to see Von Essen find him.

Maybe Nick Adams’ somewhat laid-back approach to Whizzer had Von Essen believing that he was the stud in this relationship. I never lost sight of Adams’ understated self-confidence and vanity, but Whizzer has the only Broadway-sized ego in this gallery. Adams seemed to be a comedy bombshell kept in check, and I found it disappointing that Lapine in his direction let someone else loose. Yet when his moment came to sing “You Gotta Die Sometime,” Adams rose to the drama.

On the other hand, Von Essen may have judged that the Woody Allen bewilderment domain had been sufficiently occupied by Nick Blaemire as Mendel, lovable no matter how agnostic and indecisive the psychiatrist may be. Eden Espinoza certainly makes Trina a formidable leap for Mendel from bachelorhood and therapeutic detachment. We can also admit that, in adding her showpiece, “I’m Breaking Down,” to the songs they had already written for March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, Finn and Lapine had always intended to enhance the Broadway heft of their score.

Trouble is, Espinoza spreads its one Mama Rose dramatic moment over the whole song, which should play more like a frazzled Lucille Ball. As with Von Essen, I started liking Espinoza more after intermission as she relaxed a little watching Jason’s misadventures in baseball – and she hit stride in her big second act song, “Holding to the Ground,” which was more in her wheelhouse.

Although he splits the role with Thatcher Jacobs in alternating performances, it’s obvious that Jonah Mussolino as Jason has all the grit and talent necessary to hold up his end of the quartets that begin each act. Even if his bar mitzvah Hebrew was garbled and unrecognizable, it was gratifying to see Mussolino, so integral to this show, finally get his solo spots after intermission, especially in his climactic “Another Miracle in Judaism.”

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Bryonia Marie Parham and Audrey Cardwell balance each other nicely as the lesbians next door, Cardwell slightly ditzy and hugely self-doubting as the caterer and Parham dignified, unsettled, and empathetic as Dr. Charlotte amid a shifting medical landscape that shook people’s confidence everywhere. They really do become a part of Jason’s extended family, Doc Charlotte with her bedside manner, Cordelia with her gefilte fish.

David Rockwell’s set design becomes slicker and more metropolitan between acts, but I loved how Lapine had his company join in reassembling the original Rubik’s cube. Then with lighting designer Jeff Croiter artfully dimming the closing scene, a single piece was removed to become a touching marker. A little more of that artful simplicity – and a little less loudness and glitz – would bring this Falsettos closer to perfection. At its heart, it’s a show that hasn’t aged one day since 1993.

Divinity, Orgy, and Terror Are Excitingly Mixed into Charlotte Ballet’s “Spring Works”

Review:  2018 Charlotte Ballet’s “Spring Works”

By Perry Tannenbaum

Spring is always considered a season of growth and renewal, and at Charlotte Ballet, where Hope Muir is completing her first year as artistic director, that old maxim was explosively confirmed on opening night of Ballet’s Spring Works at Knight Theater. Indications were strong that Muir and the company had turned a corner with the triumphant American premiere – after a one-night postponement – of Javier de Frutos’s The Most Incredible Thing in early March, reaffirming that CharBallet could take on bigger challenges and fill anybody’s shoes. The current sequel has brought in Bryan Arias, Helen Pickett, and Filipe Portugal, three choreographers the company had never presented before, and a rousing reprise of Ohad Naharin’s masterful Minus 16 suite.

The evening began with the splendid partnering of Alessandra Ball James and Josh Hall in Pickett’s “Tsukiyo,” premiered by Boston Ballet in 2009. Having watched The Shape of Water on a flight from Rome the previous morning, I saw a common thread between the Oscar-winning film and Pickett’s pas de deux, which is set to Arvo Pärt’s Speigel im Speigel. Both have the look of an amorous encounter between the human and the divine. James emerged from a mist like Botticelli’s Venus, supremely elegant and graceful, radiating a regal and divine assurance.

Hall approached her with worshipful awe, initially repulsed by the goddess, but he didn’t flee, continuing to circle her with awestruck wonder. Somehow Hall, who is the title character of the piece (and a god) as far as I could determine, wasn’t upstaged by James’s perfection. After starring as Leo the Creator in The Most Incredible Thing, Hall may have given an even richer characterization here, often curving his body to a picture of humility, yet strong and worthy of the goddess in those few moments when she yielded to him. The chemistry was profound, meshing beautifully with the music. Costumes by Charles Heightchew and lighting by John Cuff enhanced the magic.

In the wake of this powerful intensity, the next two pieces, both in their world premiere presentations, were comparatively abstract. Set to generous selections from the “Tirol Concerto” by Philip Glass, Portugal’s “Stepping Over” shuttled from fast to slow and back to fast in classic style. Action, divided among eight couples, was lively in the fast sections, most effectively in the final movement, where the music has a ragtime flavor. But I most enjoyed the slower middle movement with its style and grace.

Costume design by Christopher J. Parker detracted from the overall impression, barely transcending workout togs, matching blue outfits for the three lead couples and teal for the others. Hall and James made fairly quick costume changes into blue, each taking on a new partner, Chelsea Dumas and Drew Grant respectively, but it was hard for me to take my eyes off Sarah Hayes Harkins. Eclipsed and maybe a little enervated for much of the 2017-18 season, Harkins regained all her old sparkle and precision paired with James Kopecky, dancing with a new joy and rejuvenated spirit. An impressive North American debut for Portugal.

The only true intermission came after “Stepping Over,” though the program booklet deceptively places another one after the world premiere of “When Breath Becomes Air” by Arias. With more time devoted to ensemble movement, dancers were more detached and impersonal in the Arias piece than in the Pickett. Yet there was something more conceptual going on, since Arias has set his dance to Six Breaths by Ezio Bosso. As his title hints, part of Arias’s intent was the give physical shape to the invisible. All-white costumes by Márian Tatán heightened the molecular quality of the ensemble’s motion. Arias seemed to break away from that mold in the midsections of the piece, breaking down his ensemble into four different couples. Perhaps because these couples came on an evening that was already highlighted by the exploits of James and Hall, I was more enchanted by the trio of Colby Foss, Lexi Johnston, and Harkins.

Lights come up at Knight Theater after the Arias piece and the curtain comes down, but you shouldn’t leave the hall. Naharin’s piece explores the sometimes-ambiguous borderlines between playfulness and madness in a society under constant threat of terrorism. The most famous part of the Israeli choreographer’s Minus 16 is where he sets the Tractor’s Revenge modernization of a Passover song for a tightly regimented group of dancers who curve from one side of the stage to the other, mostly sitting and moving on chairs as “Echad Mi Yode’a” cycles from one to 13 in much the same fashion as “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Naharin brought this part of the piece to the Carolinas when his Batseva Dance Company made its Spoleto Festival USA debut in 2007. But the first complete performances of the suite in the Carolinas came at Knight Theater in 2012 when the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre brought it to town in 2012 – on their way to presenting it at Spoleto. Charlotte Ballet latched onto the piece in 2016 with smashing success.

The encore presentation seemed even better. While the lights were up for “Intermission,” Kopecky came out for his solo, a potpourri of spasmodic, graceful, and acrobatic movement – mixed with stony motionlessness and paranoid scrutiny of the audience. Of course, the sensation of all this wackiness increased as audience members returned from the lobby to discover it. (Maurice Mouzon Jr., who originated this role in 2016 while still a member of Charlotte Ballet II, will do this solo on the evening of April 27 and at an April 28 “family matinee” which will omit “When Breath Becomes Air.”)The curtain rose and fell many times during Minus 16, most shockingly when we suddenly see the “Echad Mi Yode’a” tableau, where costumes resemble those worn by ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews.

Primed by Kopecki’s antics, the audience was inclined to laugh at the end of each refrain, where a wave of prayerful motion sweeps from left to right, to Hebrew words that translate as “One is our God,” capped by one solitary man who explodes from his chair and falls face down onto the stage. It’s only when the ensemble’s collective actions grew crazier, all of them shedding an article of clothing in each refrain, that the laughter subsided – perhaps with the realization that the fallen man was a victim of a terrorist bomb. Maybe the sight of ultra-orthodox Jews tossing off their hats was their cue.

Amazingly, the chaos of clothing strewn across the stage gave way to frantic joy as the borderline was crossed once more to energetic, orgiastic celebration. All of the dancers eventually came out into the audience, as “Over the Rainbow” poured from the loudspeakers, and picked out members of the crowd who came back with them onstage. It really got crazy when the stage filled up again, as a block party broke out to the strains of “Hooray for Hollywood” and Dean Martin’s iconic “Sway.” Joy, laughter, and escape were fully consummated.

 

Hook, Tink, and the Croc All Chomp Scenery in Bonnefoux’s Merry “Peter Pan”

Review:  Peter Pan

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Swordfights and kidnapping are still part of the action in Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s scenario for Peter Pan, and the choreographer hasn’t stinted on the services of Flying by Foy when Peter takes Wendy and her sibs back and forth from Neverland. If you thought the musical version of James M. Barrie’s beloved fantasy injected a little hambone into the villainous Captain Hook, you’ll marvel at how completely this Charlotte Ballet production slathers him in it – with extra dollops divvied out to Tinker Bell and Hook’s menacing nemesis, The Croc.

Bonnefoux first unveiled his choreography in 2004, celebrating the centennial of Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow, and the current run at Knight Theater marks the third time the comedy has been revived since then. With a score that is top-heavy with Rossini overtures, the mood never grows somber enough for Tink to nobly drink Peter’s poisoned milk – or for Wendy to take an arrow from the Lost Boys on her Neverland arrival.

It’s more about dancing and fun, so I’m hoping pickets and protests won’t be organized because Hook cut Wendy free and danced with her after she was abducted to his pirate ship. That was not the first nor the last of the bizarre pairings and tableaus occasioned by Bonnefoux’s mischievous reshaping of Barrie’s characters. While still quite diaphanous and elegant as Tinker Bell, Sarah Hayes Harkins expanded on her jealousy toward Wendy to the point of pugnacity, also targeting Tiger Lily for her adorable aggression. Over and over, the Wendy-Peter-Tiger Lily pas-de-trois was disrupted by Harkins’ interventions and comical assaults. Making Tink more flirtatious chimed well with that profile, though we the audience bore the brunt of Harkins’ simpering.

As Bonnefoux shows us again and again, crocs also want to have more fun. It’s not just terrorizing Hook that delighted Jared Sutton as Crocodile (along with a half dozen Baby Crocodiles, students from the Charlotte Ballet Academy), he barged into the celebratory dance of Peter, Wendy, Tink, and Tiger Lily, joining their merry reel. Having stolen that scene, Sutton chomped down another with a solo display capped by a moonwalk across the downstage. Most heretical – and inspired – of all Bonnefoux’s innovations, when the heraldic trumpets sounded in the mighty “William Tell Overture,” the Croc got a hold of…

Nah, I shouldn’t give it away.

New set designs by Howard Jones and costume makeovers by A. Christina Giannini were commissioned for the 2013 relaunch of the Bonnefoux choreography. Maybe city fire marshals confiscated the bridge for the Baby Crocs to cross the orchestra pit, but otherwise, the new Jones sets still look fresh and new. I’m not at all sure Giannini hasn’t fussed some more with the costumes, for I no longer see the Croc as a green major domo, and Peter looks sufficiently bland and sporty to have done his clothes shopping at J.C. Penney.

The traditional foppery has vanished from Hook’s attire, so the pirate king now seems modeled after the “fantastical” oddness we associate with Petruchio in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Dancing without outerwear as Hook, Drew Grant still stood apart from his pirate crew, not an easy achievement when some are S&M females, crossing over from foppery to outright effeminacy to get the job done. For brash hambone outrageousness, Grant far outdistanced Harkins, vying with Sutton for top honors. One of the many ankelbiters in the audience was laughing uncontrollably at some of Grant’s opening night antics, a sure sign that he was on to something.

Jean Pierre Bonnefoux's Peter Pan_Elizabeth Truell and Peter Mazurowski_Photo by Taylor Jones_7936-2

The dramatic characters, while shamelessly upstaged, were beautifully danced. Josh Hall sparkled with innocent arrogance as Peter Pan, smilingly sure he was the envy of all, and Alessandra Ball James gracefully straddled the borderline between girlishness and pubescence as Wendy, projecting genuine wonder and joy in taking flight for the first time – of course, there was no lingering tedium from doing it over and over in rehearsals!

There was no ambiguity at all about the womanhood of Raven Barkley as Tiger Lily, charmingly shedding her petals before she danced her tropical solo. Discreetly, Bonnefoux and Giannini have adhered to political correctness, so we now have 18 Incas in Tiger Lily’s train instead of Native Americans. Unlike the Crocs and the Butterflies, none of the Incas are cute little children, another instance of Bonnefoux’s taste and wisdom.

The Incas and Sutton as the Croc are the only dancers in the show who are single-cast. All four of the matinees – and one of the remaining four evening performances – will be performed by a second cast. Part of the spectacle spills over into the Knight Theater lobby, where there is plenty of Pan, Hook, and Wendy swag on sale. My mom and I were obliged to halt in the lobby upon our arrival until a line of kids and parents got to experience their photo op in front of the stylish Charlotte Ballet background. You could pose for a camera holding various printed placards with appropriate Neverland quips and slogans.

I only had to explain – confirm, really – one aspect of the show to Mom, which takes me to the remaining comical character, Ben Ingel as Shadow. Ingel cavorts with Harkins’ Tink in the Darling children’s bedroom before Hall arrives as Peter, emerging from under one of the little brothers’ beds to shadow Tink before Peter claims him. Obviously, there’s a pre-history that would need to be explained to any child who isn’t already familiar with the story. I’m glad that Bonnefoux left this episode in his scenario, because for once it allows Wendy and Peter to be a part of the comedy.

Ball, officiously sewing as Wendy, and Hall, squirming and feeling the needle as Peter, made a full three-course meal of the ceremony, and the audience caught up by the time Wendy’s needlework was done. A vanishing act by Ingel and a well-aimed spotlight by lighting designer Jennifer Propst underscored what it had all been about, and of course, Propst was also up to the dramatic moment we all remember from childhood: when the big windows of the Darlings’ bedroom magically spread open and Peter Pan flew into our imaginations for the first time, never to leave.