Tag Archives: Victor Wang

Jinjoo Cho and Joshua Gerson Make Impressive Belk Debuts

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Barber’s Violin Concerto

 By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Barber Violin-20

March 25, 2022, Charlotte, NC – While Christopher Warren-Green’s tenure as music director at Charlotte Symphony winds down, as he transitions to the roles of conductor laureate and artistic adviser in seasons to come, the appearances of guest conductors at Belk Theater and Knight Theater are gaining an extra aura, an extra sparkle of excitement. For this stately parade of baton-wielders can now be construed as a prolonged set of auditions as audiences, Symphony execs, and orchestra musicians make up their minds on who should follow in maestro Warren-Green’s footsteps. Suddenly, everything going on behind the scenes at Symphony is freshly cloaked in intrigue.

Was the absence of Kwamé Ryan, listed on our own calendar as guest conductor, a last-minute indication that he is fielding offers elsewhere and withdrawing from candidacy? Was his replacement, Joshua Gersen from the New York Phil and the New World Symphony, a hot new prospect for our upcoming vacancy, or was Symphony’s substitution based on Gerson’s availability and preparedness for the planned program? With Jinjoo Cho slated to play Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto as the headline piece, Gerson’s readiness needed to be on par with the musicians’ for that work, since they had presumably mastered their parts sufficiently to greet Cho and Gerson at rehearsals when they arrived.

No notice of the substitution came our way via email, but changes weren’t so last-minute that Symphony’s program booklet couldn’t be changed in time for Cho’s Charlotte debut with Gerson. Digital brochures, thankfully, can be altered more nimbly than printed editions, the pre-pandemic norm. Impressively enough, Gerson was able to conduct the preamble to Cho’s appearance, Errollyn Wallen’s Mighty River, a 2007 British piece that certainly isn’t standard rep. César Franck’s Symphony in D minor, however, had to be jettisoned, replaced after intermission by Robert Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony No. 3. Some of the answers about what was going on behind the scenes were answered – you have to pay attention, folks! – by the announcement of Symphony’s 2022-23 season earlier in the week. Ryan resurfaces as one of the 10 guest conductors who will continue the pageant of candidates, and Franck’s Symphony also resurfaces as part of next season’s classics playlist, but they are no longer linked on the same program.2022~Barber Violin-02

Subscribers who were not attuned to these program and performer shuffles probably didn’t notice any significant glitches. I’d have to say that Symphony’s musicians not only rose to the occasion but were energized by its challenges. If that didn’t happen before they assembled on the Knight Theater stage, then Gerson’s extended and enthusiastic introduction to the music could have provided the spark. As relaxed and genial as he was speaking to the audience, Gerson was as instantly intense when he faced away from us to his musicians.

Born in Belize in 1958, Wallen was commissioned to write a piece celebrating the bicentennial of the repeal of the Slave Trade Act. Since the British Parliament passed that landmark legislation on March 25, 1807, Charlotte Symphony’s first performance of the piece was a celebration in itself, staged exactly 215 years later. Principal French hornist Byron Johns, played no small part in assuring that the debut was a success, playing the affecting “Amazing Grace” melody that frames Wallen’s composition and often infuses it throughout. The title was Wallen’s affirmation of the flow of history toward freedom, driven by the yearning and pursuit of all who respond to their human instincts and nature’s law. Horns and strings wasted no time in percolating their evocations of that flow. Principal timpanist Jacob Lipham furnished the most distinctive landmarks along the way, with principal harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell adding vivid detail, supplemented by Erinn Frechette tweedling her piccolo. Wallen handed off solo honors to the oboe, flute, and other winds before handing it back to Johns, with principals Hollis Ulaky on the oboe and flutist Victor Wang making their colors count the most.2022~Barber Violin-19

We’ve seen both Joshua Bell and Elmar Oliveira playing the Barber concerto here in Charlotte over the past 25 years, so to say that Cho’s performance with Gerson eclipsed them both is no small claim. Head-to-head, Cho generated more electricity than Oliveira, and behind the glamorous violinist, Gerson and the Charlotte Symphony got out of her way more deftly than the Houston Symphony and Christoph Eschenbach were able to manage in 1998. Cho was sublime in the opening Allegro and seemed to summon a special ardor from Gerson and the orchestra in their response – I don’t think we ever did get enough of the catchy main theme.

In the hushed Andante that followed, Cho may have been even more magical, more transported by the score. The concluding Presto in moto perpetuo, rewritten according to Gerson to provide a greater challenge to the soloist, seemed to become a new and spontaneous challenge that Cho and the orchestra hurled back at each other. There actually was a pause for the native Korean to gather herself as the ensemble rushed on. After a visible deep breath, Cho’s fresh onslaught was even more fiery and swift.2022~Barber Violin-24

The power of the Barber drove a fellow critic and his spouse to the back of the hall after intermission, but the Schumann proved worthy of staying for, not at all an anticlimax. The zest and drive of the opening Lebhaft of the “Rhenish” were unlike anything I’d heard in live performances before – certainly better than anything on the complete set of Schumann symphonies by Roy Goodman and the Hanover Band, ballyhooed as the first complete recording on period instruments (and a complete RCA dud). No, you have to listen to the John Eliot Gardiner set on DGG, also on period instruments, to find an equal to the glories unfolded at Knight Theater by our Symphony.

Gerson didn’t quite achieve the lightning bolts you’ll hear from Gardiner in the opening movement, though he sustained a wondrous sense of expectancy in the relatively quieter section between the great pinnacles. The middle movements, culminating in the rich heraldry and solemnity of the penultimate Feirlich fourth movement, achieved parity with Gardiner’s benchmark recording for me. But it was the grand military Lebhaft finale where Gerson and Symphony surpassed what was previously on record, establishing a new highwater mark for the “Rhenish.”

Originally published on 3/27 at CVNC.org

Ukraine’s Colors Shine Through Charlotte Symphony Celebration

Review: Dona Nobis Pacem at Belk Theater

 By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Dona Nobis Pacem-31

March 12, 2022, Charlotte, NC – When 57 musicians gathered at the Carolina Theatre on Tryon Street to present the inaugural Charlotte Symphony concert on March 20, 1932, none of them could have possibly predicted how the orchestra’s 90th anniversary would be celebrated in 2022. Three of the five pieces that Christopher Warren-Green conducted, nearing the end of his distinguished tenure as Symphony’s music director, hadn’t been written yet, and one of the composers hadn’t been born. Even last May, when CSO’s 2021-22 season was announced, Warren-Green himself couldn’t have predicted how grimly appropriate Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem would be for the occasion. As originally conceived, the program was an olive branch from England to America, three British composers conducted by one of the Crown’s finest, two of the pieces paying homage to Walt Whitman, our greatest poet.

A small dent in the all-English lineup turned up when Symphony’s Australian second trombone, Thomas Burge, finished enough of his to-be-continued “Charlotte Symphony Fanfare” for it to serve as a preamble to the orchestra’s celebration. What truly turned the tone of the anniversary festivities upside-down was Vladimir Putin’s horrific invasion of Ukraine, lending Dona Nobis Pacem – “Grant us peace” – unforeseen pertinence and meaning. With St. Patrick’s Day weekend revelers teeming along the sidewalks and spilling over onto Tryon and Fifth Streets, there was a dramatic contrast for concertgoers who became pedestrians shortly after hearing Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and the Dona Nobis at Belk Theater on Saturday night. The most festive of the night’s festivities were outside the hall.

Burge’s new composition will no doubt impress more when it takes its intended place at the launch of a future Symphony’s classics season and the composer’s showy post-pandemic staging can be realized: three brass choirs spread out across the Belk balcony. For the 90th, the brass battalion was confined behind the masked string sections, but the peep we had into the work-in-progress was sunny and glorious. Gustav Holst’s Walt Whitman Overture, a youthful piece completed in 1899 when the composer would turn 25, was arguably the most sustained celebration of the evening, though it might be somewhat deflating to learn that Holst had been dead for over 48 years when the piece was first performed in 1982. The transparent violins at the beginning, hovering over churning basses and cellos before flutes and brass peeped in, struck me more like Schubert than any American or British music. When the brass first broke through, however, there may have been a glint of Sousa, and the final swell of the piece was in a grand Victorian vein.

The Four Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), premiered in 1957, were clearly the most winsome offering of the evening, shuttling between slow and fast tempos – not only between dances but sometimes within them. Inspired by Louis Armstrong more strongly than by Whitman, Arnold’s music displayed a more American élan, geniality, and broad humor than the other Brits’. If your head wasn’t spinning from the abrupt acceleration that Warren-Green called forth in the opening “Strathspey Pesante,” which ended with a pedestrian “shave and a haircut” phrase, then the slowdown in the ensuing Vivace (Reel), initiated by Joshua Hood galumphing on his bassoon, would certainly have caught your ear. And if that weren’t sufficient mischief, Warren-Green’s hambone slacking and slouching at the podium added a visual cue. Perish the thought that Maestro Warren-Green’s predecessor, Christof Perick, would ever have tainted himself with such levity.

After these pranks, which reminded me of the Western merriment in Copland’s folksier pieces, the work of principal harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell, principal flutist Victor Wang, and oboist Erica Cice was sublime in the penultimate “Hebridean Song,” shining through the shimmer of the strings. The concluding “Highland Fling” had as much Scottish flavor as the “Pesante,” rushing at us unabated with sudden shifts in volume, the tweedling of the high woodwinds answered by onrushes of orchestra colored with fiery alarms from the trombones.

If the customary programming conventions for galas were being observed, I’d strongly question the wisdom of delaying the comparatively solemn and serene Tallis Fantasia until after Arnold’s suite, which would have sent us off to intermission in a lighter mood. But Symphony president David Fisk had already solemnized the occasion by dedicating the concert “to Ukraine and the courage, strength, and resilience of its people,” a theme that would subsequently be echoed in the digital program and by Warren-Green, when he prefaced his performance of the Dona Nobis. By coincidence surely, Vaughan-Williams composed his 1910 Fantasia very similarly to Burge’s spanking new “Fanfare,” dividing his aggregation of strings into three parts, two string orchestras with a string quartet within the larger orchestra. Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu had the last and most eloquent solo among those doled out to the four principal string players, but kudos should also go to principal violist Benjamin Geller, whose solo launched the memorable quartet episode.

What will stand out for me, however, was the extraordinary alchemy of this performance. Whether it has always been baked into Vaughan-Williams’ orchestration, maybe something special that Warren-Green was able to elicit from his musicians, or whether it was the unprecedented high placement of the small string orchestra on the platform where the Charlotte Master Chorale would soon sing, flush against the upstage vestigial pipes at the Belk… I could have sworn that there was a softly playing organ in the orchestral mix. Needless to say: amazing.2022~Dona Nobis Pacem-27

Those organ pipes were more verifiably involved in the culminating performance of the Dona Nobis Pacem, after more than 40 Master choristers filed in, followed by our two guest soloists: soprano Christina Pier and, in his Charlotte debut, bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch. It was then that Warren-Green dedicated this piece to the valiant, freedom-loving people of Ukraine. Between the moment that the maestro turned away from us and Symphony began to play, those silvery pipes, illuminated until then entirely in blue light, suddenly became halved into stripes of gleaming blue and yellow gold, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. A proud moment for us all.

Whether prescribed by COVID protocols, Warren-Green’s decree, or the unmasked singers’ personal preferences, Pier and Okulitch sat further apart than the vocal soloists we usually encounter at Symphony concerts. With Pier mostly singing the “Agnus Dei” refrain that contains the Latin title, and Okulitch confining himself in the middle movements in Walt Whitman’s English – and Old Testament translations in the Finale – the separation between the singers wasn’t awkward at all.

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Pier tended to sing with the orchestra and the choir, but there was an extended stretch where Okulitch, standing to Warren-Green’s right, was accompanied solely by Lupanu, seated to his left. So the tableau enhanced the intimacy of their duet. What was really unfortunate and compromising for us were the vast stretches of incomprehensible text from the chorus that Vaughan-Williams had scored so splendidly. If there had been supertitles above the stage or printed programs in our hands, the experience would have been even more powerful. Those of us who were able to download the digital program were adequately equipped, but the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center has had repeated problems with transmitting these copious, colorful, and informative materials.

In future performances where we’re expecting to follow along at the Belk, I will try to download the digital materials before I leave home. Clearest of all was the chorus’s mighty “Beat! Beat! Drums!” refrain from one of Whitman’s most metrical Civil War compositions. Even when we might be lost in the less familiar words of other war poems by the Good Gray Poet (“Reconciliation” and “Dirge for Two Veterans”), the music, the voices, and the colors of the fighting Ukrainians’ flag landed on us forcefully. It was thrilling.

Originally published on 3/14 at CVNC.org

Symphony Arrives at Sublimity, Amping Up Mahler to Heavy-Metal Decibels Along the Way

Review: CSO Plays Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~CSO Mahler's Ninth-17

January 14, 2022, Charlotte, NC – When the new Compact Disc digital recordings were first heralded and released in the early 1980s, the mythic story began circulating from Sony and Philips that the dimensions and capacity of the new CD format were determined by its ability to present all of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on a single disc. Subsequent refinements to the technology increased the capacity of those discs from 74 minutes of music to 80, leaving Ludwig far out of the equation. The 80-minute capacity we see on today’s prerecorded discs and the recordable CD-Rs we might dub them onto is more suitable for containing Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – but only if conductor and orchestra are in a hurry. Only the very quickest of the many recordings of Mahler’s last completed orchestral work clock in at 79 or 80 minutes. Completing his Mahler Journey with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in his final season as music director, Christopher Warren-Green let it be known that his Ninth would be a more expansive 90-minute experience. There was no intermission at Belk Theater, and program booklets remain a strictly online affair.

Vaccination cards were scrutinized at both the outdoor entrances to the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center and at the indoor entrance from Founders Hall. My mom and I felt very comfortable with the social distancing downstairs in the orchestra section, but no such amenity was granted to subscribers who entered the hall from the lobby – in fact, I’ve never seen the Grand Tier more fully occupied, a gratifying affirmation of the Queen City’s Mahler enthusiasm. The balcony above looked similarly packed. Masking, of course, was compulsory, but ticketholders should chiefly be forewarned that vigilance was strictly enforced at the entrance to the orchestra section. Folks that were late for the first notes of the Mahler performance, between 7:35 and 7:40pm, were obliged to wait in front of TV monitors in the lobby until the conclusion of the opening Andante comodo movement at approximately 8:05.

Each of the outer movements, both preoccupied with mortality and dying, is as lengthy as the two inner movements combined. Only the second movement can be described as lighthearted, and all four are teeming with mood swings. Without adding audible gaps between episodes, recordings conducted by Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic are divided into 33 and 30 tracks respectively. Those seemed to be very conservative numbers when Warren-Green and Charlotte Symphony immersed themselves in the score, reveling in its seemingly countless contrasts. Emerging with the opening melody from a backdrop of cellos, basses, horns, and harp, the second violins emphatically signaled that all sections of the vast ensemble would have their chances to shine.

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This was by far the most extensive instrumentation we had seen at either Belk Theater or Knight Theater since the beginning of the pandemic. From orchestra level, it was difficult to precisely count all the unmasked flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, French horn, and trumpet players arrayed behind the masked string sections. But the percussionists were plain enough when they stood up, either singly or as an ominous group, and there was additional space set aside, upstage and on the stage left wing, for the three trombones, two harps, and the tuba. Curving around stage right to the upstage was an armada that included timpani, a mighty bass drum, cymbals, a gong, snare drums, and tubular bells.

So the prospect of high-volume music was apparent before all the Symphony musicians were fully congregated. Yet when these expected Mahler explosions actually occurred, Mom and I were both taken aback by how loud they were. The difference between sitting at the rear of the grand tier late last spring and sitting in Row O below was compounded by the additional troops and artillery onstage. Earplugs weren’t quite necessary for these fortissimos, but rock-concert decibels weren’t far in the distance. Mom may have nodded off for a few seconds during Gershwin’s Lullaby last year or when Branford Marsalis luxuriated in the luscious Larghetto middle movement of Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera. Not this year. Onsets of trumpets, trombones, or percussion could be so sudden that, even if she didn’t revere Mahler, Mom wouldn’t dare close her eyes.

There were plenty of less aggressive surprises scattered across the lordly length of this symphony. In the epic Andante, the harpists reached out to pluck a bass line, and the mournful funereal dirge had the backbone of a military march, punctuated by the wan tubular bells. If you’re new to Mahler, the waltzing liveliness of the “Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers” (in the tempo of leisurely country dances) might catch you pleasantly off-guard – and what plan did the composer have for a triangle and cymbals playing in unison? The third movement Rondo-Burlesk was brimful of contrasts and contradictions as Warren-Green kept us on the lookout for the next twist. A busy, contrapuntal opening suggested a fugue with frolicsome and comical touches, but midway through this Burlesk, each of the orchestra’s sections seemed to have something soulful to say – not at all the path you would expect leading to a screaming conclusion.

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Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening came at the climax of the Adagio finale when a furious pounding of the big bass drum, topping off a majestic crescendo, suddenly gave way to – in the hushed blink of an eye – nearly total silence. This abrupt whisper of weepy violins, proved that Mahler’s precipitous subsidings can be almost as dramatic as his volcanic peaks. Most of Symphony’s principals distinguished themselves over the course of this epic evening, including oboist Hollis Ulaky, clarinetist Taylor Marino, cellist Alan Black, and concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, but the final movement underscored the special praise earned by French horn principal Byron Johns and principal flutist Victor Wang. Even Johns’ one little wobble on the horn came at an ideally aching moment, and Wang was merely perfection in the sublime epilogue.

Originally published on 1/15 at CVNC.org

Big Names and Big Sound Mark Symphony’s Return to Mainstream Programming

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Beethoven’s Fourth

 By Perry Tannenbaum

Vaccinated, boostered, masked, and carded, we’re all starting to feel more comfortable at public events these days. Charlotte Symphony had more than twice the number of musicians onstage on Friday night at Knight Theater, compared with just a couple of months ago. Social distancing is suddenly an ancient artifact. The stranger who presumed she could safely poach my seat at intermission readily took consolation by poaching the empty seat right next to me. Christopher Warren-Green felt so much at ease that, instead of scrounging for orchestral pieces that could be credibly performed by a reduced number of masked and distanced musicians, he stuck with a program of Mozart, Beethoven, and Prokofiev – returning to brand-name white male composers who have been dead for at least 65 years. And in a show of restraint that was unthinkable at the beginning of Symphony’s 2021-22 season, subscribers didn’t feel obliged to give every piece a standing ovation and every movement applause.

Premiered in 1918, Sergei Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony No. 1 actually qualifies as an antique. Looking back to Josef Haydn and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for inspiration, with a third-movement Gavotte that the composer reworked for his 1935 Romeo and Juliet, the aim of the “Classical” was to straddle old and new styles. Warren-Green took a more delicate and reposeful view of the work than the one we find in the acclaimed London Symphony collection of Prokofiev’s seven symphonies conducted by Valery Gergiev. The joy of the work was also arguably purer at Knight Theater than that recording if you find Gergiev’s accelerated tempos more than slightly manic.

There was more than sufficient zest and high-stepping marching spirit in the opening Allegro con brio for the delicate episodes to stand out in relief. Lovely orchestral textures were lavished on the ensuing Larghetto, with principal Victor Wang and fellow flutist Amy Orsinger Whitehead peeping through to admirable effect. The CSO actually made better sense of the Gavotte than either of the recordings in my collection by the National Orchestra of the Ukraine and Gergiev’s London Symphony, starting out with a mock grandeur and ending a stealthy impish exit, better than the usual awkward afterthought. The purity of Warren-Green’s concept was especially apt in the joy emanating from the Molto Vivace final movement, where the composer made a special point of avoiding minor chords.

Although Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 is the marquee piece now, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto had top billing when it was last performed at the Knight in 2016 by guest soloist Michael Collins – interestingly enough, paired with selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Charlotte native Taylor Marino was the soloist this time around. Maybe that was the reason that the Concerto surrendered top billing to the Symphony, but there was no surrender in quality. In the opening Allegro, Marino quickly demonstrated why he won numerous concerto competitions before joining Charlotte Symphony as principal clarinetist in 2019. Here there was ample drama from the orchestra behind Marino’s virtuosity, maintaining a brisk, effervescent tempo that subsided effectively into a sedate whimper.

The lovely Adagio, singled out in Amadeus as the quintessence of Mozart’s genius, was absolutely exquisite in Marino’s hands, answered richly by the lower strings and woodwinds. I can never help reminiscing, when I hear this concerto, about the shining moment in 2004 when I heard it played by Martin Fröst on a basset horn at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, conducted by Ton Koopman. There was no applause or standing ovation here, but a couple of people sitting behind me could be heard marveling. The concluding Rondo: Allegro was only a slight anticlimax after such sublimity, for Marino’s virtuosity shone brightly again, and the bassoons added extra punch as we rounded toward intermission.

Between the heroic Symphony No. 3 and the mighty No. 5, Beethoven’s No. 4 can be seen as a merry middleweight. Returning from intermission without a score, Warren-Green wanted us to be in on Ludwig’s prank, making the Adagio opening to the first movement extra grave before it broke through to the galloping panache of its dominant Allegro vivace section. Violins snapped off phases with whiplash sharpness, the trumpets added steel while the flutes frolicked. The languid Adagio never quite lapsed into lullaby as the bumptious trumpets maintained patrol – with more restlessness from the lower strings and principal timpanist Jacob Lipham, while Wang on flute was an island of lyricism. Acting principal bassoonist Joshua Hood earned a subsequent curtain call from Warren-Green in the cheerful Allegro vivace, heckling the cheerleading strings. Yet the violins had the emphatic last word in the closing Allegro ma non troppo, busily sawing when they weren’t dominating. The cellos and the double basses only momentarily stole their thunder in preparing us for the ultimate climax.

Looking ahead, the concert was a fine bridge to the weightier fare that lies in front of us, as the 2021-22 season builds toward a Mahler symphony and Beethoven’s Ninth.

Originally published on 11/21 at CVNC.org

Anthem, Summer, and Winter Bring Enthusiastic Charlotte Symphony Audience to Its Feet

Review: CSO Plays Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Charlotte Symphony had plenty to celebrate as their 2021-22 Classical Series began: they were playing on the Knight Theater stage for the first time since February 2020, they were beginning what is expected to be their first full season since 2018-19, it’s their 90th season, and it’s maestro Christopher Warren-Green’s farewell season as CSO’s musical director. Happy as Warren-Green and all the musicians appeared to be, there was no hiding that the return was not altogether smooth. The disconnect between what brochures in the lobby said the orchestra would be playing and the reality was fairly dramatic. All three of the selections originally scheduled in the “Russian Masters” program – including a Shostakovich symphony, a Glinka overture, and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, featuring Paul Huang – were dropped. Now we were three-quarters Italian, with works by Ottorino Respighi, Pietro Mascagni, and Heinrich von Biber served up before intermission and Huang switching off to Antonio Vivaldi’s beloved Four Seasons after the break.

When last season belatedly opened back in May at Belk Theater, in front of a socially-distanced audience, I wondered whether Warren-Green would honor Symphony’s tradition of playing our National Anthem to mark the first live concert. He declined then, and it seemed quite possible that he would hold off yet again, since the vaccinated audience, masked but no longer distanced, would be obliged to stand and sing together. But the mood was different now. Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu preceded the maestro to the stage, gesturing so victoriously that you would have thought the orchestra had won the Super Bowl. After Warren-Green told us how glad he and his orchestra were to be playing to a live audience once again, he indeed turned sideways to cue the drumroll for the Anthem. As we stood together singing, rounding into the final eight bars, Warren-Green’s previous hesitance felt justified. For after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the January 6 invasion of the nation’s Capitol, the affirmation that “our flag was still there” was more vivid now in a closely bunched crowd, suddenly fresh and renewed.

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All of the pieces that Warren-Green followed up with were musically descriptive in some fashion. Respighi chose three masterworks by Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli for his Trittico botticelliano. The first, “La Primavera (Spring),” offered a tasty comparison with the opening Vivaldi concerto, light and airy with little solo passages that reintroduced us to the orchestra’s worthy principals playing French horn, trumpet, celesta, glockenspiel, flute, and reeds. Beauty and liveliness were nicely counterpoised in the steady, brisk tempo until the strings imposed their serenity. “L’Adorazione dei Magi (The Adoration of the Magi)” belied its expected bustle and ecstasy as it began, dark and solemn as acting principal Joshua Hood began on the bassoon and principal oboist Hollis Ulaky layered on. After some lovely runs by principal flutist Victor Wang, the middle of this movement did become more hectic and dramatic, keyed by harp and percussion, with a gently quickened tempo as the strings asserted themselves. Wang returned to the forefront at the start of the climactic “La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus),” surely Botticelli’s greatest hit, but the slow massing and building of the judiciously trimmed string section, forcefully topped by the violins, was the prime wonder in this satisfying ending.

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With unerring instinct, Warren-Green programmed Mascagni’s “Intermezzo from Cavelleria Rusticana” between the more substantial Respighi and Biber compositions so the three-minute piece for strings and harp played like an interlude as originally intended. The throbbing harp gave this lyrical gem a heartbeat, while the singing strings made it affecting like an aria. Now it was time for some fun as Warren-Green reveled in introducing Biber’s Battalia à 10, an eight-part evocation of warfare with some astonishing quirks. Most of these were novel ways that the musicians were called upon to replicate percussion instruments, beginning with the entire ensemble stamping their feet. Fingerboards of the basses and cellos were wrapped in paper and rapped with bows to simulate marching drums in the “Mars” section while Lupanu impersonated the piper on his violin. “Bartók slaps” were inflicted on the basses to mimic canon fire in the climactic “Battle” section, made more bizarre when the cellists turned their instruments sideways like guitars – with added mock drama when the harpsichordist fainted comically over her keyboard. Vying with this spectacle for the most memorable aspect of Battalia – and certainly the most modernistic – was the Bohemian composer’s second movement, “The lusty society of all types of humor.” Evoking the drunkenness of a teeming tavern, Biber split his little ensemble into four parts, each one playing a different song and blithely oblivious to the others. Warren-Green half-turned to us during this unspeakable cacophony and gave a little shrug.

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Returning to Charlotte for the first time since his Symphony debut two years ago, when he played the Dvořák Violin Concerto, Huang did not pale at all in comparison with the charismatic Aisslinn Nosky when she played – and conducted – The Four Seasons in 2018, the last time it had been presented here. The magnificent tone Huang achieved on his coveted 1742 “ex-Wieniawski” Guarneri del Gesù instrument was nearly as impressive as his fleet-fingered virtuosity and intensity. Even on normal occasions, recordings do not nearly capture the excitement of a live Four Seasons performance. On opening night, the pent-up hunger of this audience was palpable enough for the soloist, the musicians, and Warren-Green to feed off, and in the most turgid moments of these four familiar concertos, there was a feverish frenzy to the onset of the wind and storms that Vivaldi brings on. After the final notes of “Summer,” the crowd sprang to their feet, either electrified by Huang’s bravura or convinced that nothing could possibly follow what they had just heard. There are 12 movements, after all, so any confusion was easily forgiven – and the string players also joined the ovation, tapping their bows.

Yet there was more to come, including some nifty double bowing from Huang in the first movement of “Autumn” and a sprinkling of “Bartók slaps” from the upright basses in the last. Nor was “Winter” at all anticlimactic as Huang reached hyperintensity once again as Sirocco and Boreas engaged in windy combat. The final standing ovation was no less deserved than the previous outburst, and it lasted longer.

Cox and Beilman Play the Changes, Guesting with CSO

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Wagner, Mozart, and Brahms

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

Branford Marsalis Helps Bring Charlotte Symphony and Subscribers Back Together at Last

Review:  Branford Marsalis Plays Ibert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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More than 15 months had elapsed since my wife Sue and I had sat together at Belk Theater and enjoyed a Charlotte Symphony concert – exactly 15 months since we had seen Gabriella Martinez with the orchestra on Valentine’s Day at Knight Theater. Needless to say, much had changed since our last night out in Uptown Charlotte. Until we turned off the I-287 innerbelt onto College Street, we had no idea what a solemn concrete canyon the Center City has become – because the explosion of new buildings, high-rises, penthouses, and parking garages has hit us while foot traffic on a Friday night remains nearly extinct. Fortunately, we had allowed for extra travel time as we made our way to the landmark “Branford Marsalis Plays Ibert” concert, for the capricious Saturday night traffic was as heavy as usual, doubling our surprise when we left I-77. There wasn’t a Hornets basketball game scheduled that night, so we were among the first to enter the BankAmerica parking garage, with hundreds of spaces to choose from.

Thwarted by travel restrictions that kept him on the other side of the Atlantic, Christopher Warren-Green was unable to preside over our auspicious reunion, so resident conductor Christopher James Lees was called into action, acquitting himself quite brilliantly. Attendance for the concert was capped at 500, about 24% of capacity, and our tickets had been channeled to the Apple Wallet app on my iPhone, which the usher firing his QR scanner gun was able to wield better than I. We were so eager to enter the hall and see the CSO again that I forgot to get an exit parking stub in the lobby, but there was no crowd lined up for them after the concert when I did remember. Masking was still in effect for everyone except wind players, so it was helpful to find staff at their customary posts in the lobby – at the ticket booths and at the entry to the grand tier – so we could recognize and happily greet one another.

Marsalis, the Grammy Award-winning saxophonist, would be playing Erwin Schulhoff’s Hot-Sonate in addition to Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera, so there was plenty to bone up on in our seats before the lights went down. Sadly, there were no program booklets to assist our preparations, only the sort of glossy 5”x8” cards subscribers will remember from the pre-pandemic KnightSounds series. An informational email from the ticket office had popped into my inbox that afternoon, which contained a link to a PDF version of a 24-page program booklet. If you’re among the lucky 500 attending the sold-out concerts, you’re covered.

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Filled out by Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances and Gershwin’s Lullaby for string orchestra, the program was an adventurous delight from start to finish – about an hour in length, as promised in that handy email, without an intermission. Bartók was particularly shortchanged by the abbreviated program handouts, for the names and tempos of his six Folk Dances couldn’t fit on the same card with all the movements Marsalis would be playing. Even if the Bartók movements had been listed they would hardly be indicative of what we would see and hear. Until the penultimate “Poargă românească (Romanian Polka): Allegro,” the dances weren’t at all festive. The “Brâul (Sash Dance): Allegro” was rather poignant, despite its nimble pace, and the “Pê-loc (Stamping Dance): Andante” was actually bleak. Even the gorgeous “Buciumeana (Hornpipe Dance): Moderato” had a forlorn fiddler-on-the-roof sadness to it. Otherwise, what was surprising was the extent that all these arrangements by Arthur Willner were miniature violin concertos, here featuring concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, who was especially impressive high up in the treble of the “Stamping Dance.”

A nice array of winds and brass – including principals Victor Wang on flute, French hornist Byron Johns, and trumpeter Alex Wilborn – joined the strings onstage as Marsalis made his first appearance. Beginning with “quarter note = 66,” the movement markings in Schulhoff’s concerto for alto saxophone were deceptively fussy and clinical, for the heat of the Hot-Sonate came from jazz, just emerging from its raucous childhood when this suite was composed in 1930. Originally written for sax and piano, the arrangement by Harry Kinross White is most beguiling in its bluesy third movement, where the horns added an astringent accompaniment. Quaintly described by the composer “lamentuoso ma molto grottesco (plaintive, but very grotesque),” this “quarter note = 80” movement delivered the deepest jazz flavor, and I could easily imagine Johnny Hodges, on leave from Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, playing its premiere. Unfortunately, Schulhoff’s idea of the grotesque was no more edgy than his grasp of the alto saxophone’s capabilities. Despite the undeniable appeal of the music, Marsalis wasn’t really tested by the demands of Hot-Sonate.

Gershwin’s Lullaby, not jazzy at all, was a perfect palate cleanser between the two Marsalis stints. The strings wafted a tropical lightness that had a “Catch a Falling Star” lilt and laziness. Little showcases were set aside for the string section leaders, most notably Lupanu and cellist Alan Black, and the piece ended deliciously in bubbly geniality, with rounds of delicate pizzicatos. Absent during the Gershwin, horns and winds reasserted themselves forcefully in the Concertino da camera, originally scored by Ibert for 12 instruments, including the soloist, with only five string players. Marsalis was noticeably more tasked now, from the opening Allegro con moto movement onwards: more speed, more range, more complexity, and more technique were required from him, while the vibrant accompaniment offered more distractions. There’s actually some percussion from the strings amid this opening movement, but I was so focused on Marsalis and his unmasked accompanists that I didn’t notice which string players were tapping their bows.

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An achingly lovely, oboe-like lament by Marsalis began the Larghetto section, with the strings gradually creeping in ever-so-stealthily behind him. Extra strings, 22 in all, were a definite asset here as the music swelled. Wang’s flute and Wilborn’s trumpet had the most impact behind Marsalis as we cheerfully swung into the concluding Animato. Though often labeled as separate movements on CDs (including Branford’s recording with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2000), this concluding Larghetto-Animato was in itself like a three-movement concerto, for Marsalis drew a second cadenza between orchestral bursts that was far more demanding than anything he had played so far, nearly requiring circular breathing to execute its cascading, fleet-fingered runs. The audience was keenly attuned to the saxophonist’s virtuosity, for they gave him a lusty standing ovation when he was done, a judicious upgrade from the warm applause showered on the Schulhoff.

A wonderful evening, all in all, and a giant step back to normality.

New Al Fresco Series Delivers Fine Sound, Gorgeous Music, and a More Personal View of Symphony’s Musicians

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Al Fresco Concerts

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’ve learned so much about our nation’s leadership in the past few months – and perhaps even more about ourselves. Much of what we’ve seen has been disheartening and infuriating. Aside from the horrifying death and economic devastation, sweeping the globe and becoming so intense here in North Carolina, I’m most heartbroken by the spectacle of what has happened to arts and education. Vitally important to our quality-of-life and our future, both arts and education have been forced to retreat into self-imposed isolation while politicians and citizens have so catastrophically bungled our response to COVID-19. Virtuality has often been our refuge, a poor substitute for so many plans we made. One by one in May, my mom’s 100th birthday, Spoleto Festival USA, and a class reunion dropped off my event planner, so like many of you, I’ve had revelatory experiences in recent months coping with the quirks of ZOOM meetings and discovering new frontiers in streaming. Neither of these comes close to matching the benefits of live meetings and performances, but they do offer consolation.

Occasionally, the necessities of confinement and social distancing have mothered some worthwhile inventions. Celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday in April, the Chickspeare theatre company began with a fairly common 24-hour new play format, issuing a prompt to a select group of playwrights and expecting original 10-minute plays by each of them to be written, cast, rehearsed, and presented 24 hours later. Instead of the community projects I’d seen in past incarnations of this format, the new works were household creations – written, acted, and recorded by small groups of people, usually pairs, who were quarantining together. The results showed that these writers, actors .and stage directors were also quite adept at filming and wielding video editing software. Chickspeare had broken into an entirely new medium.

Charlotte Symphony’s new Al Fresco series of chamber music concerts has been similarly revelatory. The webcasts began steaming weekly on Wednesday nights on June 10, in a more relaxed environment than Belk or Knight Theater, where Symphony’s classics series is presented, and on a more intimate scale. Not surprisingly, the Al Fresco series is the brainchild of principal cellist Alan Black, a longtime catalyst for chamber music programming in the Charlotte area, beginning with a monthly series at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church back in the ‘90s and continuing with more acoustically pleasing seasons of Sunday afternoon concerts at Tyler-Tallman Hall on the Davidson College campus. The new series, subtitled “changing venues for changing times,” is performed outdoors in the backyard of Black’s bosky Davidson home.

Fortunately, while choosing his programming and recruiting personnel, Black brought French hornist Bob Rydel into the process for a set of wind quintets by Josef Haydn and Robert Muczynski. As Black tells us during the “Winds in the Woods” program, first streamed on June 24, his original concept called for recording the concerts with an iPhone or two, tools we have seen so very often behind the scenes at ZOOM meetings and guerilla theatre productions. Operating the Acoustic Mobility remote recording service, Rydel has been able to bring his engineering expertise to the task with state-of-the-art microphones, digital recording, and editing equipment. Video production has been a tack-sharp as the audio, boasting HD quality, with at least three cameras superbly integrated in the editing mix.

Before tuning in to “Viennese Serenades,” I had caught up on the previous Al Fresco concerts at their convenient webpage [https://www.charlottesymphony.org/csoalfresco/], playing the first three concerts through my home theatre system on the YouTube channel with a Chromecast streamer. This “Viennese” concert was already posted when I looked in on the site on Tuesday, so I was able to set a reminder at YouTube that worked perfectly, counting down the minutes to showtime. At exactly 7:30, a two-minute timer flashed colorfully onto my TV monitor, with jazzier old-style movie graphics counting down the final 10 seconds. In a rather elegant touch, you hear wind chimes when the opening title flashes on the screen.

The atmosphere is relaxed and informal, with Black invariably dressed in jeans, already sitting as our show begins. One or two other musicians are also seated on the small stage, which is still sufficiently large to devoutly maintain social distancing. They will talk before they play. In an earlier show, Black explained how he has chosen to deal with masks: if one of the musicians wishes to don a mask, all must. Only wind instrument players draw an exemption, so on a previous “Music in the Time of Mozart” webcast, flutist Victor Wang played the lead in Mozart’s Flute Quartet without a mask while the string players were all masked. Interestingly, Wang had a special appliance attached to his instrument, a Wind Defender. The device was originally designed to help flute players to perform outdoors, but in his conversation with Black, Wang said he was finding that it was useful during the COVID-19 crisis in minimizing the spread of airborne droplets as he blew across the instrument.

Black’s conversations with his guests frequently veer toward the players’ experiences in performing the music rather than sticking with the customary descriptions of the music and how it came to be written. More intriguing, Black doesn’t stick to the convention of talking about the music before it’s performed. We might see an interview that was recorded after a performance shown to us before the music begins – or Black and Rydel might edit the webcast so that an interview segment airs between movements.

Altering the focus and chronology was particularly insightful when, prior to airing Haydn’s Divertimento No. 12, Black interviewed his “Viennese Serenades” guests, violinists Jenny Topilow and Lenora Leggatt, and asked them point-blank what it had been like playing their music with masks on. Leggatt was almost exclusively concerned with the heat that wearing a mask dictated and its cumulative oppressiveness, but both Topilow and Black cited multiple challenges and annoyances that illuminated physical aspects of playing stringed instruments and the added communication needs of chamber music performance that go beyond playing in an orchestra.

After revealing that the neck of her violin collided unpleasantly with the part of her mask covering her chin and jaw, Topilow went on to describe how visibility, breathing, communication, and cuing were affected. Black confided that he hoped that a portion of his performance, when the fingers of his left hand got stuck momentarily in his mask, would be edited out of the final cut. Visibility and breathing were linked problems for Black, who customarily wears glasses when he plays the cello. Because his glasses repeatedly fog up in performance, Black finds that he needs to time his breathing as he plays! He also finds that he needs to listen more intently when seeing is so spotty. For her part, Topilow finds it startling to realize how much she normally uses her face for communicating in a chamber music setting, yet she vows to continue wearing a mask when Charlotte Symphony resumes live performances. Next month? Hope so.

The individuality of the musicians’ conversations carries over to their musicmaking. Uniform dress codes have been discarded for this series, so the players can be showy and comfortable at the same time. Topilow and Leggatt were the first guests so far to opt for standing as they played their violins in Stamitz’s Trio in G, and while I can remember Topilow rocking a splotch of blue hair at the Belk, I’m sure that I’ve never previously glimpsed her tattoo. Facing each other from opposite corners across the front of the cozy stage, the two violinists blended exquisitely in the opening Allegro moderato while Black, seated upstage between them, added a rich undercurrent as the tempo never quickened far beyond andante.

The mellow sound of the ensuing Andante made the best case for earlier remarks emphasizing how much both Stamitz and Haydn reflected their era. Although we could see fronds and leaves swaying throughout this concert – and multiple clips holding Topilow’s score in place – the sound maintained a studio-quality presence without a hint of wind even in the quietest moments. In the concluding Rondo-Allegretto, I found the most persuasive proof that both violinists revel in playing fast. Topilow remained the lead voice, but Leggatt kept pace beautifully with the harmony. I wasn’t completely pleased with the way Stamitz abruptly transitioned to the slow section of this movement, where Black shifted to a suddenly somber pizzicato, but the slowdown at the end of this section and the accelerating return to jollity were very satisfying.

What I wrote about Black’s series of St. Peter’s concerts in the ‘90s, that they show off the virtuosity of Charlotte Symphony’s musicians more fully, remains true today. But now that this new series is actually a part of Symphony’s programming, I can further observe that it offers the opportunity to venture beyond the composers who figure most prominently in the orchestra’s rotation of classics. Beside the likes of Stamitz, Muczynski, and Ignaz Pleyel, whose music has already been featured in Al Fresco, we can add Haydn to the roster of the neglected, for only two of his symphonies – and none of his concertos – have been presented in the classics series since 2015, and none are on tap in the already-announced 2020-21 lineup. And how many of us have heard of Haydn’s Divertimentos – or knew that they were chamber music? My 11-CD set of Mozart Divertimenti on Phillips certainly didn’t prepare me for anything as small as the string trio configuration of Haydn’s No. 12, the second to be featured in this series.

It’s a beautiful piece from the start, a soulful Adagio that was more serious and tender than the Stamitz, with a yearning undertow from Topilow’s lyrical lead. Hardly a leaf was stirring as she wove her spell, yet Haydn brightened the tone and quickened the pace to andante in a more genial midsection of this movement. Topilow was most fully in the spotlight when she leapt into the ensuing Allegro, sawing away with plenty of verve. The weather wasn’t quite as tranquil where I was watching, but it only stressed the transmission here once. What looked and sounded like a split-second edit disappeared when I subsequently replayed the movement – twice to be sure. The final movement, Tempo di Menuet, seemed to be a misstep at its somewhat plodding start. Once the 3/4 rhythm was established, however, Haydn loosened the reins, and Topilow had ample opportunity to show off her dexterity and Papa’s joie de vivre.

The concerts, the conversations, and Black’s hosting style are all winners for Symphony’s new Al Fresco. I’m hoping for more sinewy music, like a Beethoven string quartet, if the series reprises after the traditionally lighthearted summer season, and I’d love to see programs at least as long as the 75-minute noonday concerts that are traditional at Spoleto Festival USA. But what’s so nice about the Al Fresco format and its webpage is that you can replay multiple concerts one after another. More than enough for an evening out – or in – is now very handsomely at our disposal.

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!

CSO and Graf Make Debussy’s “Faun” a Dynamic Prelude

Review:  Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Slipping out of town for Charlotte Symphony’s Firebird concert back in October, maestro Christopher Warren-Green has orchestrated a nice little three-month vacation for himself, but so far, the music director’s pinch-hitters on the podium haven’t let him or us down. Christopher James Lees was best when he lit into the Stravinsky that subscribers came for, and last week in his Queen City debut, German-born guest conductor Hans Graf demonstrated his mastery at Knight Theater on works by Brahms, Mozart, and the evening’s headliner, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

The CSO rarely leads off their programs with their marquee piece, but L’Après-midi was the shortest on the bill, so its position wasn’t shocking. The last time the piece was played as part of a Classics Series in 2003, the beloved tone poem actually launched Symphony’s season after musicians went on strike over pay cuts. Since that momentous “French Masters” program conducted by Christof Perick at Belk Theater, Warren-Green has presented L’Après-midi at UNC Charlotte in a most unusual concert – scientifically proving that, after an Allegro from Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, a little Debussy will bring your blood pressure back down.

A medicinal effect wasn’t Graf’s aim at all, scorning the notion that L’Après-midi is all about casting a misty, hypnotic spell. There were actually pauses in the performance, like you’ll hear in recorded accounts conducted by Herbert von Karajan and Bernard Haitink. You could actually imagine Debussy conceiving his interpretation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s symbolist poem as a series of scenes and reveries. When the orchestra swelled, the dynamic range was as robust as Simon Rattle’s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, reminding me how unaccustomed I was to sitting so close to the ensemble at Knight Theater. Yet the woodwinds blended piquantly where they should, and principal flutist Victor Wang exquisitely led us into the enchanted glade.

In another auspicious debut, Chinese-born Angelo Xiang Yu gave a showy, ebullient account of Mozart’s “Turkish” Violin Concerto No. 5, sparking outbursts of audience applause after the opening Allegro aperto movement and after the less-familiar middle Adagio. Yu forcefully produced a gleaming, golden tone from his 290-year-old Stradivarius and seemed to be having fun even in the slow movement. Like Graf, Yu relished changing tempos and dynamics, approaches that yield happier results with Mozart than with Debussy’s concupiscent Faun. A little puckish mischief was mixed with the fun during the final Rondeau, making the joy even more contagious. More gusto from the lower strings during the “Turkish” section of the finale would have added some agreeable lagniappe.

Yu never did hide his delight in performing, so it wasn’t surprising that he could be coaxed into an encore. Yu probably wasn’t punning when he said he had first heard his little Piazzolla tango on YouTube a couple of days earlier – and still hadn’t been able to acquire the sheet music. Maybe it’s in the mail, since it sounded to me like the Tango Etude No. 3 that I was able to find on Spotify in a couple of versions.

Likely judging that audiences will always enjoy Brahms Symphony No. 2, especially its concluding Allegro con spirito, CSO has now programmed it three times during the last six years. Outside the Classics Series rotation, that final movement last popped up at a 2015 Bachtoberfest at the Knight. Until we reached that rousing spirito at the full 2014 performance, Warren-Green and the orchestra had sounded rather spiritless. Continuing to emphasize dynamic contrasts, yet still vigilant with detail, Graf drew more excitement from his musicians and more energy from Brahms.

The opening Allegro non troppo was especially freshened with sharper shaping, eloquent violins, and a new hint of sadness from the cellos. Yet Graf kept his finger more persistently on the slower middle movements, where languor has won out in the past. The Allegro con spirito now hearkened back to the opening of the Mozart, where Symphony and Yu initially lulled us with a deceptive sense of calm. On both occasions, Graf had the orchestra exploding brilliantly, and with trumpets blaring and principal timpanist Ariel Zaviezo unleashed, the evening ended giddily, like a triumphant military march just slightly out of control.