Tag Archives: Richard Harris

Christopher Warren-Green Conducts a Dramatic, Joyful “Messiah” at Knight Theater

Review: Messiah

By Perry Tannenbaum

Until my first year of college, I thought I knew all that operatic singers and composers could do. My parameters were set by the matinee performances of the Metropolitan Opera and the iconic Texaco broadcasts. But on a freezing December evening at Colden Auditorium on the Queens College campus in New York, I attended my first live performance of George Frederic Handel’s Messiah, my first inkling that there were whole vocal worlds beyond Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Wagner, and Verdi. The first hint that I was in unexplored territory was when the tenor sang his “Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted” air, where the melody line straightens out the crooked and makes the rough places plain.

More jarring than that was the sound of a bass baritone shortly afterwards in the “Thus Saith the Lord” recitative performing the coloratura runs declaring he will “shake all nations.” I’d previously assumed that such virtuosic runs were reserved for higher voices – almost always female. Since then, I rarely allow a Yuletide season to go by without revisiting Handel’s most frequently performed oratorio. During those years, a couple of trends have impacted how we hear the operas and oratorios by Baroque and pre-Romantic composers. Both were in evidence as Christopher Warren-Green, for the first time in his eight seasons as music director of the Charlotte Symphony, conducted Messiah at the Knight Theater.

Both trends, when they hit, were championed in the name of authenticity. The first had to do with the modern tendency to perform Early and Renaissance music on modern instruments with larger orchestras. Authenticists trimmed the size of their orchestras and brought back original instruments. Then came the countertenors to further shake up authentic performance. Although Alfred Deller was established in his career in the late 1940s, but there was no mass influx of countertenors, reclaiming the roles originally assigned by early opera composers to castrati, until at least 50 years later.

Charlotte Symphony subscribers may have been surprised to see countertenor Brennan Hall singing the alto parts formerly taken by contraltos or mezzo-sopranos, but those who were knowledgeable could hardly have been shocked. In years gone by, purists spearheading the authentic instruments trend might have bridled at the idea that Warren-Green was bowing to ancient practice by trimming the size of his orchestra without adapting original instruments, but the requisite treaties in those wars were tacitly signed a couple of decades ago.

The zest that Warren-Green brought to the task wasn’t fully manifested until we reached the mighty “Hallelujah Chorus” at the end of Part 2. Somehow, while the audience was rising to their feet, two trumpeters and timpanist Leonardo Soto made their way through the Knight Theater’s acoustic shell, filling out the Symphony ensemble to 29 members. The hall shook with the sound of the orchestra and the more than nine dozen singers of the Symphony Chorus. Warren-Green was transported enough at one point to leap into the air, and the collective power of his “Lord of Lords” sent chills through me.

There was not only thunderous applause at the conclusion but also bows from the orchestra, the chorus, and the soloists, though Part 3 still lay ahead. More chills came with the tender contrast of soprano Kathryn Mueller singing “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” after we were back in our seats. I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard Mueller’s last phrase, “the first fruits of them that sleep,” delivered with such beguiling fructose.

Those dramatic contrasts typified Warren-Green’s approach. Tempos were quicker than we usually hear on the familiar “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” and “All We Like Sheep,” further lightened by a noticeably more staccato attack from the singers. Yet the excellent tenor, William Hite, could follow the choir’s gamboling “Sheep” with an unusually strong rendition of the “All They That See Him” recitative. Other moments foreshadowing the “Hallelujah” thunder were the declamatory “The Lord Gave the Word,” a choral segment that usually escapes notice, and Symphony’s fierce introduction to bass baritone Troy Cook’s “Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together?”

Cook seemed to grow continuously in power throughout the evening. His “Thus Saith the Lord” was more stolid than the best I’ve heard, not nearly in the same class as his “Why Do the Nations?” after intermission. I had already hoped for mightier deeds when I heard Cook’s unexpected sweetness in his “For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth” recitative. But the baritone’s finest moments came later with the recitative and air that culminated in “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” volleying back and forth with principal trumpeter Richard Harris, who was in fine form. Along with Mueller’s sweetness, these two men conspired to prove that Part 3 isn’t at all an anticlimax after the mighty “Hallelujah.” Warren-Green discreetly axed four segments from Part 3, “Oh Death, Where Is Thy Sting?” the most familiar, to help keep that notion afloat.

The other soloists distinguished themselves before Part 3. Hall had a more suitable range for “O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion” than many contraltos I’ve heard, though his runs weren’t the most even. Together he and Warren-Green emphasized the 3/4 meter of this air more delightfully than I could recall hearing before. The countertenor was most affecting after intermission when he sang “He Was Despised and Rejected,” layering on a superb soulfulness as he sang the verse from Isaiah for the last time.

I was even more impressed by Hite’s emotional range, whose power was the last of his attributes to be revealed. The tenderness of the tenor’s rendition of “Comfort Ye, My People” – a slight sob detectable in his delivery – served instant notice that this was going to be a special Messiah, one that respected the Charles Jennens libretto culled from the Old and New Testaments, and Hite’s “Ev’ry Valley” signaled that it would be wrapped in joy. Anyone who doubts that Warren-Green adores this score only needs to hear him conduct it.

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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.