How does the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra find these whizbangs?
Almost all the youngish music director candidates of the last two years impressed me, and the trend has continued since the naming of Kwamé Ryan. The latest guest conductor, Savannah Philharmonic music director Keitaro Harada, sailed into Knight Theater one week short of his 39th birthday and lit up the podium.
Last things first. Any review of Saturday’s concert should begin with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41. For once, it earned its nickname of “Jupiter,” applied in 1788 because of musical thunderbolts.
From the muscular opening movement to the elegant yet exhilarating finale, this rendition blew away preconceptions of Mozart as an academic or unemotional composer. This was proto-Beethoven, perhaps an inspiration for the 18-year-old German who was yet to write a symphony. (Interesting to think that, had Mozart reached 72 – not unimaginable, as Haydn died at 77 – he’d have outlived Beethoven. How might they have influenced each other?)
When a baby cried out during the opening allegro vivace, Harada turned his head with a smile and gave an “I heard ya” nod without breaking stride. When the movement ended, he told the crowd, “They say it’s the Mozart Effect, right? You have to make babies listen to Mozart. Clearly, that baby didn’t like my first tempo. Maybe he or she will like this one better.” And he launched into a brisk andante that still held tenderness.
He embodied lack of pretension, from his fire engine red socks to the “more, more” gesture he made to ask the audience for applause – in that case, for violinist Francisco Fullana. The Spanish-born soloist, who announced he’d recently become an American citizen, seemed as relaxed as Harada in his flowing flowered shirt. During Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2, their smiling heads bobbed toward each other, as if sharing a joke.
Like his compatriot Chopin, Henryk Wieniawski was a Pole who moved to Paris (and other places), died young and wrote dull orchestrations with strong parts for his instrument – in his case, the violin. His concertos work only if played with complete conviction, and Fullana brought that to bear. He varied his tone from sweetly caressing in the slow movement (the most memorable) to explosively vivid in the pyrotechnic sections.
Fullana deserved and got a real ovation, not the obligatory half-hearted standing O that Charlotte audiences usually provide. So he played an encore, in tribute to the Granada region where his father grew up: Francisco Tárrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” (“Memories of the Alhambra”). He turned one of the great guitar solos into a violin piece that demonstrated his gifts but didn’t suit his instrument, as it lost the dreamy romance of the original.
The symphony musicians played well in the Mozart but really shone in the reduced forces of the opener, Zoltán Kodály’s “Dances of Galanta.” Kodály lived in that region of Hungary (now part of Slovakia), heard Gypsy music there and later adapted Gypsy tunes he found in songbooks into this orchestral suite.
Dances flit in and out of our consciousness, seldom staying long enough to develop a full melody yet providing rich orchestral sonorities. The woodwinds rose to the occasion, even sounding like a klezmer band in spots, and the irrepressible Harada danced right along with them on the podium.
You know, we’re still going to need guest conductors after Ryan takes over. Harada’s day job puts him four hours away down the interstate, and he already seems to have a rapport with our musicians. Just sayin’….
Each week throughout the month of February, WDAV’s First and The Future blog series highlights two Black composers or musicians who have shaped the course of classical music: one who shattered a historical barrier, and one whose extraordinary achievements in the same field continue today. Check back here every Thursday at noon for the next pair of classical artists!
Conductors: Eva Jessye and Jeri Lynne Johnson
Revered as the first Black woman to achieve international recognition as a choral conductor, Eva Jessye began her career as a music teacher in 1914 after earning two Bachelor’s degrees from Western University and Langston University. Twelve years later, Jessye founded the Dixie Jubilee Singers, a multi-genre ensemble that would later become the famed Eva Jessye Choir.
She and the choir soon relocated to New York, where they found remarkable success: throughout the 1920s and 30s, they made regular appearances in the Capitol Theatre stage show, performed on the radio extensively (including a regular spot on the Major Bowes Family Radio Hour), and recorded on Brunswick, Columbia, and Cameo records. In 1935, the choir was selected to perform in the original production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and Jessye herself was chosen as the production’s choral director. The Eva Jessye Choir’s popularity climbed for decades, and in 1963, the ensemble was chosen to be the official choral group of the March on Washington.
Along with her choral conducting career, Jessye published several beloved compositions and spiritual arrangements, which remain widely performed today. Her home state of Kansas declared October 1 “Eva Jessye Day” in 1978, and in 1982, Governor John Carlin named her the “Kansas Ambassador for the Arts.”
Jeri Lynne Johnson is an acclaimed conductor and orchestra founder based in Philadelphia, PA. Like Eva Jessye, Johnson’s achievements include a historical first: she was awarded the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship in 2005, becoming the first African-American woman to win an international conducting prize. Johnson’s career has included engagements with the world’s leading orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and Germany’s Weimar Staatskapelle, world-premiere performances with MacArthur Genius Grant Winners, and a collaborative appearance at Carnegie Hall with Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, and The Roots.
In 2008, Johnson founded Philadelphia’s Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, which features “top musicians in the country from diverse cultures and ethnicities as a model for the 21st-century orchestra.” Now a beloved staple of the city’s cultural landscape, Black Pearl has the distinction of being the only organization in the United States to win three Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grants.
Today, Johnson serves as the Artistic Director of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra and the current cover conductor of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra. Among her numerous accolades, she was named one of today’s leading young women conductors on the NBC Today Show and has been honored as a 2010 Philly 360 Creative Ambassador, a 2010 British American Project Fellow, and a 2011 Philadelphia Business Journal Woman of Distinction.
First Black member of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra; the BSO’s first Black principal player
There’s a reason harpist Ann Hobson Pilot is so often described as “legendary:” at 79, she remains one of history’s most esteemed harpists after over 55 years as a top soloist, recording artist, and educator. Born into a musical family in 1943, Pilot took up piano as her first instrument, following in the footsteps of her concert pianist mother. When she switched to the harp at age 14, the racist backlash from others at her predominantly white school was swift. In one incident she described to Sarasota Magazine, “[A friend’s mother] pointed to a portrait on the wall of a white woman, with long blond hair, playing the harp, and she said, ‘See, she is what a harpist is supposed to look like.’ I was shocked that she said that to me. What did she want me to do, quit?”
Pilot persisted, and at just 18, her skill began to garner public attention as she performed alongside artists like Peggy Lee, Andy Williams, and Johnny Mathis at a Philadelphia nightclub. Following her subsequent studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music, she won a position as a master harpist with the National Symphony Orchestra in 1966 and joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra as assistant principal harp in 1969, becoming both orchestras’ first Black member. Pilot also made history when she earned the principal harp position in 1980, which made her the BSO’s first Black principal player. During her time in Boston, she served on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston University for decades, toured the globe as a soloist, and recorded numerous albums.
Though Pilot officially retired in 2009 after 40 years with the BSO, she immediately returned to open the BSO and Carnegie Hall seasons with the premiere of “On Willows and Birches,” a concerto written for her by John Williams. Pilot’s solo career continued to flourish after her retirement: “Everybody says to me, ‘Do you miss it?,’ and I can’t really say that I do, because I am still playing,” she told PBS. “I will continue as long as I can.” She released her latest album, “A Dream,” in 2020 and has made many high-profile returns to the stage, including a performance at the opening of the the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
A frequent award recipient, Pilot has been honored twice with the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Distinguished Alumni Award and has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Boston Musicians Association and the Talent Development League of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. She has been granted honorary doctorates from Tufts University and Bridgewater State College and became the only harpist recipient of the League of American Orchestras’ Golden Baton award, its highest honor, in 2017.
Harpist, educator, and activist; founder of Challenge the Stats and Artistic Director of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble
In 2007, teenage harpist Angelica Hairston found a mentor in a living legend: Ann Hobson Pilot. “It was so gratifying to look into the eyes of a professional orchestral harpist from one of the top symphonies in the country who looked like me,” she said of their first meeting in an interview with Lyon & Healy. “She taught me to understand that it is possible to pursue a classical music career that reaches major stages and secondly, that I was not alone.”
Growing up surrounded by music of all genres, Hairston gained a new perspective on the art form’s power while listening to gospel music at her grandmother’s church. “I learned that the world wasn’t looking for artists who only played the right notes,” she explained. “What the world needed were more artists who told a deeper and more meaningful story.” She began her musical study as a violinist at 4 years old and transitioned to the harp at 12. Hairston performed on From the Top for the first time at age 18, later winning the From the Top Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award, a scholarship that aided her studies at Toronto’s Royal Academy of Music.
While completing her graduate degree at Northeastern University as a 2015 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Fellow, Hairston founded Challenge the Stats, a growing initiative dedicated to empowering BIPOC classical artists and challenging racial inequality and systemic oppression in classical music. She currently provides free harp instruction to over 90 students as the Artistic Director of the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble.
Hairston is an alum of the Sphinx Organization’s SphinxLEAD, a 2019 winner of a Georgia Governor’s Award for the Arts & Humanities, and a recipient of the 2020 Atlanta Magazine’s Women Making a Mark Award. Now 30, Hairston remains dedicated to activism in the Atlanta area and beyond as a musician, educator, speaker, and consultant. “Everything we do is right at the intersection of classical music and justice,” she told Atlanta Magazine in 2021. “Facing a pandemic – but especially as a Black woman facing this racial reckoning and all the violence that’s been happening toward Black communities – has been really challenging, but I feel grateful that the work I do has a direct impact on what’s happening in the world around us.”
One of the earliest American guitar virtuosos; considered the United States’ first Black classical guitarist and Cleveland’s first Black professional musician
Classical guitarist and civil rights activist Justin Holland is remembered as one of the United States’ most important early classical music figures. Born in Virginia in 1819, Holland moved to Boston at 14 after the death of his parents and Nat Turner’s Insurrection, and there he discovered a knack for the guitar. He would go on to study with guitar masters at Oberlin College followed by two years in Mexico, where he honed his Spanish language skills to better understand classical guitar pedagogy “at its source.”
Holland returned to Ohio in 1845 and settled in Cleveland, quickly establishing himself as a well respected, no-nonsense guitar instructor; in his own words, he maintained “the most cautious and circumspect demeanor, considering the relation a mere business one that gave me no claims upon my pupils’ attention or hospitality beyond what any ordinary business matter would give.” In addition to his musical pursuits, Holland was known to work with Frederick Douglass as a member of the Underground Railroad and campaigned tirelessly for abolition and civil rights throughout his life.
Now considered Cleveland’s first Black professional musician, his reputation as a composer, performer, and teacher blossomed into fame. Holland played the guitar, piano, and flute professionally, and his many published works achieved national popularity (though he is credited with 35 original compositions and 300 arrangements, roughly ⅔ of those have been lost). His instructional texts, including his Comprehensive Method for the Guitar (1874), were some of the earliest of their kind in the United States and remain hugely influential in classical guitar instruction today.
For more information about Justin Holland, find a full bio and media sources on his life in the links below.
“I’ve no exact memories of why I chose the guitar, but it was this instrument or nothing! … First, I had an electric guitar toy and then a classical one. I would play it all the time, so my parents understood that it was not just some childish desire, but something I really wanted and probably needed.”
Feuillâtre started guitar lessons at the Cholet Conservatory at age nine, soon moving up to the Conservatory of Nantes and the Paris National Superior Conservatory of Music and Dance, where he earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Classical Guitar with highest honors. Now just 26 years old, his achievements – though remarkable – have only just begun. In addition to his landmark GFA competition win, he is the recipient of several major awards, including first prize at both the International Guitar Competition José Tomás and the Concours & Festival de Guitare. WQXR named his album “Guitar Recital: Raphaël Feuillâtre” one of the best classical recordings of 2019, praising his “virtuoso technique and elegant phrasing.”
Patrons arrived with lips turned blue by the sudden savagery of a January wind. Soloist Jennifer Koh stood on the Knight Theater podium, her bright blue hair shining like a cheerful beacon. And Missy Mazzoli’s Violin Concerto, commissioned for Koh in 2021 – she alone has the right to perform it through February 2 of this year – had a bluesy tinge throughout, whether in the mournful or uplifting sections.
Folks who thirsted for melodies had to wait for the last piece of the night, a suite from Aaron Copland’s ballet “Billy the Kid.” Neither Samuel Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra nor Jennifer Higdon’s suite from her opera “Cold Mountain” provided tunes worth speaking of.
But while Mazzoli didn’t make melody her goal, she ran through so many moods in her concerto that she consistently aroused my interest. I didn’t take the title “Procession” or the titles of the five linked movements too seriously, except as a vague indicator of diverse emotions. But from the first loud orchestral groan, which underpinned Koh’s swirling solos, I felt connected.
This isn’t a traditional concerto for violin and orchestra or even one for violin against orchestra, as the great fiddler Bronislaw Huberman described Brahms’ concerto. (“The violin wins,” he added.) Instead, it’s a piece where the two go their own ways and occasionally intersect.
The soloist plays almost constantly, which requires the focused tone, ceaseless commitment and intensity Koh provided. Meanwhile, the orchestra makes sounds that are spooky or scurrying or mysterious or occasionally bluntly forceful. They come together at last for a section of yearning (“Ascension”) before an oddly abrupt finale. Somehow, this combination works.
The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) wisely programmed the two pieces by less familiar composers before the intermission, perhaps to prevent people from leaving at the break. The concert started with Higdon’s suite, which this orchestra co-commissioned. Every Higdon piece I’ve heard has been colorful, mostly restless and surging, and unmemorably derivative in slower sections; this conformed to that forgettable pattern. (Are these really the highlights from a full-length opera? Oy vey.)
Barber’s three essays are much alike: cleverly orchestrated, frequently full of rousing gestures that don’t add up to much emotionally, hinting at melodies without fulfilling our expectations. Guest conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya shone brightly here, drawing beautiful sonorities and controlling the ebb and flow of Barber’s music with perfect judgment. (Despite her Russian name and birth, she has lived in the United States since she was 9.)
She handled Copland’s “Billy” suite equally well. The orchestra let her down with anemic playing during the beginning on the open prairie, but the players kicked into a higher gear when Billy got to town to work his mischief. From there to the exultant ending, Yankovskaya and the CSO found all the pathos and violence in Copland’s first great ballet.
P.S. Talking about unconventional violin concertos reminds me that the much-anticipated Regina Carter concert scheduled for Feb. 9-10 has been postponed, due to an injury. The CSO hopes to bring her in a future season and will perform “The Music of Elton John” in her place.
The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) has announced that Kwamé Ryan, hailed as a “dynamic conductor” by The Baltimore Sun, will assume the role of the Orchestra’s next Music Director beginning in 2024–25, ushering in a new era for the CSO’s 93rd season. Ryan will serve as Music Director Designate through the remainder of the 2023–24 season and will lead two performances of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 and Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme April 5–6, 2024.
“Having witnessed his artistry and extraordinary musicianship in action with the Charlotte Symphony during his recent appearances, I am confident that Kwamé Ryan embodies all of the qualities essential for an exceptional Music Director,” said President and CEO David Fisk. “As a dynamic leader who understands the full potential of the relationship between an orchestra and its community, Kwamé will undoubtedly deepen the Charlotte Symphony’s service to Charlotte and the region, and, with his passion for music education, bring extraordinary, powerful music making to a wider audience of all ages.”
Born in Canada and raised on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, Kwamé Ryan discovered his passion for conducting at the age of nine. He studied Musicology at Cambridge University and trained in conducting under renowned composer/conductor Peter Eötvös. Ryan previously held the position of General Music Director of Freiburg Opera, and served as Musical and Artistic Director of the National Orchestra of Bordeaux Aquitaine. An active guest conductor, Ryan has led orchestras across the United States including the Baltimore, Dallas, Atlanta, and Houston symphonies, while his international credits include London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, the BBC Proms, Brussels’ Theatre La Monnaie, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the Opera Bastille in Paris. In the fall of 2023, Ryan conducted the world premiere of Jake Heggie’s Intelligence at Houston Grand Opera. In the spring of 2024, he will make his debut with Opera Theatre of St. Louis and the New York Philharmonic.
When not on the podium, Ryan dedicates his time to educational and community engagement initiatives. He has previously served as Musical Director of the National Youth Orchestra of France and as Director of the Academy for the Performing Arts at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. Additionally, Ryan is the host of “8 Minute Idea,” a podcast in which he offers insights, tools, and life hacks.
“On my very first visit to Charlotte, I felt instantly connected with the dynamic energy of the city and then profoundly inspired by the wonderful musicians of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra,” said Kwamé Ryan. “Their dedication to balancing artistic innovation and preservation as a means to engage with their community resonates naturally with my own creative philosophy, and I very much look forward to discovering how this exciting new partnership can enrich the orchestra’s legacy and the cultural fabric of Charlotte.”
In January 2023, Ryan made his Charlotte Symphony debut leading the Orchestra in Copland’s Symphony No. 3, John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and Korngold’s Violin Concerto featuring Bella Hristova as soloist. Returning in November 2023, Ryan conducted Verdi’s Requiem, earning acclaim from WDAV critic Lawrence Toppman who noted, “He’s cheerfully animated on the podium, attentive to details, unlikely to linger in places where other conductors might do so… yet unafraid to use silences to make emotional points. He can hold the orchestra in check carefully or let it roar, and it made a monumental sound Saturday.”
As the Charlotte Symphony’s 12th Music Director, Kwamé Ryan will begin his four-year contract in the 2024–25 season, succeeding Christopher Warren-Green after a 12-year tenure.
“I have quite eclectic musical tastes, which are a product of my biography,” Ryan said of his approach to programming on an episode of WDAV’s Piedmont Arts podcast, available on demand. “I’m very enamored of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, all the way through to Mahler and Strauss, [but] Charlotte audiences shouldn’t be surprised to find representation of the rest of my background in programs – be that classical Indian music, or African-inspired music, or certainly North American music, which I enjoy a lot as well. It’s going to be rich, and I think it’s going to be an exciting adventure for the orchestra, for me, and for [the Charlotte Symphony’s] existing and future audiences.”
Watching the impressionistic, free-form “Maestro,” I felt as if I were attending one of the chaotic parties Leonard Bernstein loved to host.
Celebrities pass by, identified by one name or none. Snatches of conversation hint at secrets and revelations. We drop in and out of people’s lives, without always knowing why they matter.
Your hostess, Costa Rican-born actress Felicia Montealegre Bernstein, remains more in the background, slowly revealing facets of her character. Her husband, composer Leonard Bernstein – hereinafter and always referred to as “Lenny” – sucks all the air out of every room with his exuberance, prattle and almost unconscious egotism.
The film doesn’t pretend to be a biography: For that, go to the “American Masters” profile “Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note.” In “Maestro,” we hear pieces of his mostly unidentified successes in passing, and his musical bombs – “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” “A Quiet Place,” the sprawling “Mass” – barely or never get mentioned.
Instead, scenes bounce back and forth in time and place, ultimately forming an in-depth portrait of a relationship between a bisexual but mostly gay man and a woman who thought she could accept him with all his flaws, including carnal infidelities. Theirs was a one-of-a-kind love affair, and “Maestro” shows you what kind.
If you know Bradley Cooper directed, starred, co-wrote the script with Josh Singer and co-produced, you might wonder whether to call this a vanity project or a labor of love. It’s the latter: Cooper was in high school when Lenny died in 1990, and decades of fandom have translated into an extraordinary performance.
Buried under remarkably apt makeup – forget snarky comments about the nose, which looks right – he speaks in Bernstein’s voices, from the throbbing intensity of the young man to the gravelly, cigarette-tinged purr of the elder. (I haven’t seen this many coffin nails smoked in a movie in years. No surprise that cancer killed both husband and wife.) Cooper bounces and swaggers and slumps and sulks like the Bernstein we’ve seen in photographs, especially on the podium.
Carey Mulligan gives an equally remarkable performance as Felicia. She peels back the actress-socialite’s composed veneer, showing all her joys and disappointments with heart-rending subtlety. Felicia, who had broken off an early engagement to Lenny (the movie doesn’t mention this), realized he’d be her destiny and married him in 1951, when he was still a promising Broadway composer and hadn’t made much impact on classical music.
As he did, and the world claimed him, she began to realize she and her three children would never have more than a piece of this musical polymath. She tried to make that piece be enough, despite his extramarital relationships, and even a year-long separation couldn’t kill their love. (Would gay men really have kissed openly on busy New York streets 75 years ago? I doubt it.)
Cooper directed in a way that’s meant to capture the patchwork nature of Lenny’s frenzied life. Scenes end suddenly or begin out of nowhere. Some of the film has been shot in black and white, some in color. It’s projected in a 4:3 ratio that reflects the way movies were shown in Bernstein’s early years, before widescreen pictures.
We sometimes see characters from afar, at the end of an arbor or ambling on a lawn. Lenny delivers a long monologue with his back to the camera, while we study the uninteresting faces of students listening to him. These affectations don’t detract much from the impact of the story, and moments such as Lenny’s conducting of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony in Ely Cathedral snap us back to attention.
By then, Lenny has become the elder statesman who revived Mahler in America and, after 11 fiery years of leading the New York Philharmonic, taught his music to European orchestras who ignored or hated it. As we watch him summon every ounce of energy and emotion to put across Mahler’s most uplifting finale, we experience the kind of musical ecstasy Bernstein felt all his life. We understand why Felicia couldn’t let go of this live wire, even though he was burning her up.
“Maestro” will play at the Independent Picture House, its only Charlotte run, starting Dec. 15. It starts streaming on Netflix Dec. 20.
The Decca Recording Company used to boast about ”ffrr” discs: full frequency range recordings, which captured everything from barely audible pianissimos to ground-shaking fortes. That’s what guest conductor Kwamé Ryan gave us Saturday, taking the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) from fearful whispers to heaven-storming prayers in Verdi’s Requiem.
The Trinidad native is the last auditioner for the job of music director, which should be filled by early 2024. Ryan, who memorably conducted Copland here in January, gave you got a sense at Belk Theater of what he might coax out of the CSO and Charlotte Master Chorale (prepared, as always, by Kenney Potter). Ryan’s one of only three conductors to appear twice during the audition process, and I’d bet a gold-tipped baton that he, Jessica Cottis and Paolo Bartolameolli (the other two) are the final three candidates under consideration.
In some ways, Ryan reminded me of outgoing music director Christopher Warren-Green. He’s cheerfully animated on the podium, attentive to details, unlikely to linger in places where other conductors might do so – the piece came in at a trim 80 minutes – yet unafraid to use silences to make emotional points. He can hold the orchestra in check carefully or let it roar, and it made a monumental sound Saturday.
Brahms offers comfort for the living in his requiem; Mozart supplies a sense of celestial harmony; Faure paints an almost dreamlike picture of eternal rest; Beethoven depicts spiritual bliss in his Missa Solemnis. Verdi mostly wants to scare the pants off us crawling sinners.
He sets the text “Merciful Lord, grant us peace” to a titanic blast of sound. “Who am I?” ask the quartet of soloists. “A wretch to be beaten. Who will stand faith for me, when even the just are unsafe?” The singers seem to skip deftly among lightning bolts and lakes of fire while begging for grace.
Except for revisions of older works, Verdi had only two operas left in him when he finished this requiem at 60 in 1874. We hear things that turned up in different ways in those revolutionary masterpieces, such as the opening storm sequence in “Otello” and the canonic singing that caps “Falstaff.”
While the requiem’s solos don’t sound like arias, it’s operatic in its proportions and requires voices suited to the stage. The quiet moments don’t seem intimate, so much as calms before terrific storms, and the tension never lets up after the subdued opening sequence.
The Charlotte Master Chorale relished both extremes of sound, and each soloist found a moment to make an effect. Mezzo Leann Sandel-Pantaleo used her lower notes to strike extra fear into us. Tenor Cooper Nolan treated the “Ingemisco” section (“I groan, my face red with guilt”) not as a man delivering a beautiful showpiece but as a reflective penitent. Bass Robert Pomakov’s darkly attractive sound seemed to come from a man astride his own grave.
I have the awkward task of reserving highest praise for soprano Melinda Whittington: “awkward” because we have sung together in Opera Carolina, “highest” because she deserves no less for the concluding “Libera Me.” Verdi had written a version of this movement five years earlier to end an abortive requiem for Rossini, which he patched together with 12 other composers. (It went unperformed until 1988.) His improvements strengthened and extended it.
The revised version requires the soprano to ride the whirlwind of orchestral sound at its peaks, drop into a hush that grips the audience in other places, and placate an angry God as if she were the title character pleading with the abusive Scarpia in “Tosca.” Whittington conveyed all this with her face and voice, ending in an exhausted final plea to be spared eternal death.
Until last weekend, I had two opinions about Christopher James Lees. I formed the first from our interviews long ago; there he was funny, articulate, relaxed and insightful about music. I formed the second from watching him on the podium; there he seemed cautious, anxious to get things right without unbuttoning himself enough to help musicians maximize their potential.
Lees, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) resident conductor, changed my mind Saturday night at Knight Theater. He drew forth all the spooky drama of Antonin Dvorak’s “The Noon Witch” and all the drama, humor, struggle and triumph in William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, often called the Afro-American Symphony. I haven’t heard him conduct in a while, and I had no idea the musicians would play for him with such vitality and keenness.
The program started – for me, at least – with music no conductor could enliven much. I commend the CSO for reviving interest in obscure female composers. (May I suggest Louise Farrenc, who wrote three fine Romantic-era symphonies?) But on the showing of this “Faust” overture, Emilie Mayer has small claim to our attention. The zestful Mendelssohn-like surges and Schumann-esque horns seemed to have nothing to do with the Faust legend, and the piece stayed in memory for exactly the time it took to play it.
Then came Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, actually the first of two he wrote. Has a first-rank composer ever orchestrated a concerto more banally? Granted, he wrote it at 19, but its repetitiveness and empty gestures through the 20-minute opening movement made me nod over my notebook time and again.
I came to for the beautiful larghetto, the solo part of which could have been one of Chopin’s sublime nocturnes, then found my attention wandering during the blandly showy final rondo. Pianist Orli Shaham played with the right tenderness, sparkle and virtuosity and made me want to hear her in something substantial.
After intermission, Lees prepared us for the wide range of emotions to come. He spoke entertainingly about “The Noon Witch” and Still’s symphony, and we later heard the nuances he’d took us to look for.
Dvorak, an amiable and universally beloved man, wrote symphonic poems about abductions, murder, suicide, the decapitation of a child, etc. “Noon Witch” follows that pattern: An exasperated mother threatens her misbehaving youngster with a visit from the Noon Witch, who does indeed appear to snatch the boy; the mother, frantically trying to protect him, accidentally smothers him herself.
The orchestra rightly played this like horror movie music written in 1896, before feature films existed. The violins created an ominous haze through which Allan Rosenfeld’s bass clarinet slithered, embodying the witch. The all-out climaxes, followed by a mournful resolution, worked as Dvorak meant they should.
Still’s symphony, which premiered in 1930, consists of four movements: longing, sorrow, humor and aspiration. They encapsulate the life of an extraordinary man who had already worked with W.C. Handy’s band, recorded with Fletcher Henderson’s Dance Orchestra, played in the pit for Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s Broadway musical “Shuffle Along” and arranged “Yamekraw,” a classical rhapsody composed by Harlem stride pianist James P. Johnson.
Small wonder then, that it opens with a bluesy riff for trumpet, played in sinuous style by Alex Wilborn. Symphony musicians often have difficulties capturing the feel of other kinds of music, even if they can play the notes. Not here. The jazzy riffs, traditional classical gestures, Juba dances (which first appeared in this country in Charleston) and other elements came together smoothly and vivaciously, in a performance that must have won Still new fans.
Pictured: Conductor Christopher James Lees/ courtesy Charlotte Symphony.