Charlotte Symphony Roadshow Takes Music to the Masses

By Lawrence Toppman

Administrators and conductors like to remind concertgoers to enjoy “your Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO).” But what does “your” really mean?

The mostly white, prosperous, educated people who attend performances at Belk and Knight theaters? (This includes me.) The donors, corporate or individual, whose gifts pay the largest part of the bills? Or does “your” orchestra mean “everybody’s?”

The city’s busiest performing arts group cast a vote for the latter Sunday, when the CSO Roadshow made its debut.

This new mobile stage, bedecked with sprightly paintings by Charlotte artist Rosalia Torres-Weiner, opened in the parking lot behind the Latin American Coalition building.

You’d have expected Latino music lovers, especially when the concert built to a performance by Ultima Nota, a septet whose twin percussionists set bodies shaking. But the music on this sunny afternoon reached the most ethnically diverse classical music audience here in recent memory.

The bilingual presentation gave everyone a chance to learn about the coalition’s building fund drive, the reason that many tots toted macaroni boxes (more about that in a minute) and the wide range of music on the bill. Only symphony CEO and president David Fisk spoke entirely in rapid-fire Spanish, leaving non-speakers wondering what he’d said.

Fisk, who came to this job after 18 years at the same post in Richmond, was repeating a success he’d enjoyed in Virginia. He masterminded the launch of the Richmond Symphony’s “Big Tent,” a $250,000 mobile stage that premiered in 2015. (He has declined to quote the cost of the Charlotte version, except to say it was under $500,000.)

Our orchestra now has a concert platform that can reportedly hold 30 musicians, though roughly half that number appeared Sunday, and can be erected in 90 minutes. It travels with a sound system and, on Sunday, had a screen provided by the coalition that hung alongside the stage, providing closeups of players.

The CSO has long performed in relaxed outdoor settings, notably Summer Pops concerts at Symphony Park. (It will open that series June 9 with “Sonidos Latinos: Latin Sounds.”) But the Roadshow will more likely visit under-invested sections the city calls corridors of opportunity, one of them the Central-Albemarle district. That provided the impetus for “Musica con Amigos” this weekend.

And friends they were, even before a note sounded. They snacked on pupusas, empanadas and burritos from food trucks. They took selfies with enormous multihued cloth butterflies, symbols of the coalition’s fund-raising campaign. Children and a dog or two frolicked around the edges of the parking lot.

In fact, kids were as much the focus of the day as adults. First up were youngsters from Charlotte Bilingual Preschool. They carried paper bows and “violins” made of macaroni boxes, demonstrating what they’d learned in classes: rhythm exercises, proper postures, bowing technique.

Then came a mini-orchestra from Winterfield Elementary School, one of four schools in the CSO’s long-running Project Harmony. That tuition-free after-school program gives instruments and instruction to kids who might not otherwise afford them. The Winterfield contingent, some of whom picked up instruments for the first time last November, slithered happily through “Salamander Samba,” supported by a string trio from the orchestra.

CSO resident conductor Christopher James Lees took over for the more serious part of the program. Not too serious, as the musicians immediately broke into the bolero-mambo “¿Quién será?” by Mexican composers Luis Demetrio and Pablo Beltrán Ruiz. (Anglos know it better as the Dean Martin hit “Sway With Me.”)

Lees skipped music by U.S. composers, such as Aaron Copland’s “Latin American Sketches” and George Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture.” Nor did he program classical composers from Spain, Mexico and South America, such as Manuel de Falla, Carlos Chávez or Alberto Ginastera.

Instead, he gave us Peruvian songs adapted by Gabriela Lena Frank (whom the CSO has played in its main classical season) and a sinuous dance number by Afro-Cuban composer José White. These suited the mood better, prompting me to wonder how programming will change as addresses do: The Roadshow appears next at Mayfield Memorial Missionary Baptist Church on May 5 and Ophelia Garmon-Brown Community Center on June 21.

The CSO will have to find out if the Roadshow can be a money-making venture taken to festivals and even sporting events, as in Richmond. For now, it’s enough to know the orchestra belongs not only to those of us in concert halls but the people who look for music where they play, worship and hang out. For once, “your” Charlotte Symphony was no exaggeration.

Warren-Green Sails Through Deep Waters with Charlotte Symphony

By Lawrence Toppman

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) concert Saturday was designed to appeal to Anglophiles, fans of massive choral pieces, people who welcomed the return of former music director Christopher Warren-Green to the podium, advocates for obscure female composers and anyone who grew up within a short drive of an ocean. I fit into all five categories, so I blissed out.

Warren-Green chose never to address the audience for the first time I can remember. He husbanded his energy for the last piece, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ majestic but unrelenting “A Sea Symphony,” which takes an hour and requires two soloists, a full orchestra and a large chorus. (Kenney Potter did his usual first-rate job preparing the Charlotte Master Chorale.)

That propulsive performance capped an all-oceanic evening, following Benjamin Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from the opera “Peter Grimes” and Grace Williams’ “Sea Sketches: Five Pieces for String Orchestra.” All three composers on this program wrote film scores – Williams became the first British woman to score a feature in 1949, with “Blue Scar” – and it’s no insult to say that moments of each piece sounded cinematic, summoning images of waters wild or tame.

The conductor laureate went right for maximum drama in Britten, where elements of menace and melancholy seemed portents for the massive storm with which “Sea Interludes” ends. The ferocity of that tempest has almost no parallels in Britten’s orchestral work, and the CSO rocked it like a hurricane.

Williams’ quintet of sketches provided a change of view: She saw the sea from Glamorgan in Wales. As far as I know, she never left the British Isles, and I couldn’t help hearing the wistfulness of someone who longed for distant ports but wouldn’t get there. Even “Sailing Song,” whose title suggested a buoyant ditty, had a gentle restlessness. She reserved the most beautiful melody for the final sketch, “Calm Sea in Summer.” But as any sailor knows, being “becalmed” means you’re going nowhere, and the feeling was not entirely peaceful.

Vaughan Williams, who taught Grace Williams at the Royal College of Music, pulled out all the vocal stops for his first symphony. (He was also one of the examiners who awarded Britten a scholarship to the RCM, though he didn’t teach the lad.) Vaughan Williams became devoted to American poet Walt Whitman in his 30s and matched epic music to Whitman’s equally expansive texts.

The soloists’ roles reverse expectations: The baritone gets the introspective music, while the soprano has soaring phrases that ride out over the orchestra. Andrew Foster-Williams provided the more intense emotions, Georgia Jarman the grand declamations.

Yet the chorus remains the focus. Vaughan Williams begins with a tremendous vocal and orchestral crash – “Behold the sea itself!” — and ends with a whisper, as mighty waters ebb away. The chorus has to rise and fall constantly, singing with fervor at all times, and the Charlotte Master Chorale (which collectively had diction as good as the soloists’) held firm.

Vaughan Williams didn’t write many catchy tunes in “A Sea Symphony;” the one with immediate appeal sounds like an Anglican hymn. (He wrote those, too.) Like Whitman, who broke with conventions about rhyme and meter, he wanted simply to create a mood that rolled over us like a great wave. In the hands of these musicians, it did.

Pictured: Conductor Laureate Christopher Warren-Green; Courtesy Charlotte Symphony.

Finding a Moment of Reflection: Celebrating Earth Day

By Michelle Medina Villalon

Earth Day is an excellent time to slow down our hurried pace of life and reflect on the beauty of the natural world. Often, listeners tell us how tuning into WDAV helps them press pause on their busy schedules and find a moment to simply “be” while enjoying all that classical music has to offer. This Earth Day, why not do both? Here are some ways to celebrate our wonderful planet and the music we love:

Make time for mindfulness

“Mindfulness” has become a buzzword for a relatively simple act of self-care. It’s about being present, even if for a couple minutes, by paying attention to your surroundings. What is a place that brings you peace and joy? Maybe it’s a local park or sitting on your front porch drinking coffee. I personally love the view outside my office window, where I can see squirrels darting about the trees. Today, find a spot where you can sit and watch the ordinary wonder of nature, taking in the sights, smells, and sounds. 

Can’t find time to go outside, or need some lovely music to accompany your mindful moment? Check out this piece!

From the Bohemian Forest: Silent Woods – Antonín Dvořák

Video: From the Bohemian Forest: Silent Woods – Antonín Dvořák

Take a walk

What better way to fully immerse yourself in nature than with a stroll or hike? Walking is an excellent way to exercise, lower your blood pressure, and even get better sleep. Grab your comfiest pair of tennis shoes, maybe a fluffy friend, and head over to your favorite walking trail! WDAV recently created a playlist perfect for strolling, so make sure to take it along.

Indulge your artistic side

Maybe you need a moment of inspiration this Earth Day. Studies show that taking even a few minutes to enjoy nature can help improve focus and spark creativity. Take today to shake off that writer’s block or see ideas in a new light by taking whatever your artistic medium may be outside! Who knows? The sky, trees, or birds might just be the beginning of your next masterpiece.

Need some classical pieces to underscore your creative genius? These will do the trick:

Imagenes – Candelario Huizar

Video: Huizar: Imágenes – Alondra de la Parra, Mi Alma Mexicana

Soirees Musicales – Clara Schumann

Video: JingCi Liu plays Soirées Musicales, Op.6 by Clara Schumann (1819–1896)

In a Landscape – John Cage

Video: John Cage – In A Landscape

Learn about ways to conserve our planet

It is important to maintain a personal and emotional connection to our planet every day, not just Earth Day. If you’d like to learn more about protecting Earth’s natural resources, here are some organizations to be aware of. We’ve also included pieces that illustrate the importance of environmental advocacy through music.

World Wildlife Fund: The WWF collaborates with local communities to conserve nature and reduce the most pressing threats to the diversity of life on Earth.

Mass for the Endangered – Sarah Kirkland Snider

Inspired by a traditional Catholic mass and the urgency behind climate advocacy, Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider teamed up with poet/librettist Nathaniel Bellows to create this piece that “take[s] the Mass’s musical modes of spiritual contemplation and apply them to concern for non-human life.”

Video: Sarah Kirkland Snider – Credo

Clean Air Task Force: Based in the US, the CATF has been working to reduce air pollution from carbon dioxide emissions since its founding in 1996.

The Lost Birds – Christopher Tin

This “extinction elegy” memorializes birds that have already been lost to extinction. Tin uses the words of 19th century poets to pinpoint the dangers that began with the Industrial Revolution. This piece serves as both a celebration of the birds humanity has lost and a warning for future generations.

Video: Christopher Tin, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Flocks a Mile Wide (Visualizer)

DEPLOY/US: DEPLOY/US is a nonpartisan convener, funder, and accelerator of climate leadership.

The Rising Sea Symphony – Kieran Brunt

This piece travels the world, taking its listener to experience the effects of climate change from Ghana to Norway. It combines electronic music, field recordings, words and vocals, and orchestral instruments to create a symphony that seeks to call audiences to action.

Listen to “The Rising Sea Symphony” on BBC.

Autism Acceptance Month: A Spotlight on Tim Arnold

April is Autism Acceptance Month, a recognition created by and for people on the autism spectrum. This movement aims to de-stigmatize conversations about autism by promoting a cultural shift towards true inclusion. 

It is important we center autistic voices every month of the year, especially in the arts. Our creative spaces are often sanctuaries for those seeking welcoming, accepting environments. 

People on the spectrum have profoundly influenced all art forms, and classical music is no exception. One of those influential people is Tim Arnold. 

A London-born artist known for his work as musician, composer, and even film director, Arnold has explored the classical music genre extensively as a solo and collaborative artist, though he’s more commonly regarded for his work in the rock genre and advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community. In his career, spanning nearly three decades, he has worked with names such as Iggy Pop and Lindsay Kemp, who mentored David Bowie and Kate Bush. Arnold’s extensive, genre-bending body of work includes three albums with the Britpop band, Jocasta, and over 20 solo albums

Arnold has been vocal about being autistic, having been diagnosed in 2022. He spoke candidly about being diagnosed later in life in a Medium article back in 2023 saying, “Getting a late diagnosis is like someone lifting a veil from all the signposts.”

In the same article, he goes on to say how music has provided him a coping mechanism for the way he processes the world: “My music has not been, as I and others thought, an artistic pursuit. It’s been my way of calming my brain.”

We’ve chosen to spotlight one of three classical albums by Tim Arnold, an incredibly complex and layered project entitled Sonnet 155.

Sonnet 155 began with Arnold’s love of Shakespeare, and his desire to connect “the spiritual advancement of humanity” to the literary giant. To create this album, Arnold wrote more than thirty letters to icons of the Shakespearean stage such as Sir Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson. His hope was that their thoughts on Shakespeare’s works would provide inspiration for the songs on the album.

The result was an eleven song album that “re-interprets Mozart, Rimsky-Korsakov and Michael Nyman.” It explores themes of love and death with truly epic rock/classical fusion songs. Three live shows at the legendary Almeida Theatre followed the album’s release. These multimedia performances included readings and other contributions from veteran actors, including Benedict Cumberbatch and Lisa Dillon.

Video: Tim Arnold – ‘The Old King’s Fool’ from Sonnet 155 ft Benedict Cumberbatch

Sonnet 155 is one of many complex and beautiful works by Tim Arnold. His other classical works include his albums, Sound to Pictures Vol. 1 & 2 and Restrung. Arnold’s most recent album Super Connected, is an art-rock album that explores modern technology and mental health. It is available to stream on Spotify. 
During Autism Acceptance Month, we celebrate and recognize those on the autism spectrum, including Tim Arnold. To learn more about how to support the autism self-advocacy movement, head to the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network website.

Pictured: Tim Arnold, courtesy timarnold.co.uk

Ryan Delivers Tasty Meat-and-Potatoes Concert with Charlotte Symphony

By Lawrence Toppman

Kwamé Ryan and fans of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) both got a taste of the future last weekend at Belk Theater.

Concertgoers who may have missed his two audition concerts saw him lead his first performance as music director designate. And Ryan took on Brahms and Tchaikovsky, the kind of mainstream composers we’ll hear frequently in the 2024-25 season, now that the CSO has opted for more conservative programming. (Ryan will conduct Brahms’ Requiem in November, in one of only two appearances next season.)

Saturday’s concert began with waves of applause. Symphony president and CEO David Fisk announced that the organization was more than 80 percent of the way toward its goal of raising $50 million for its endowment. Performance Today host Fred Child informed us this concert would be played at some point on his program, heard on public radio stations nationwide (including WDAV, which was broadcasting live Saturday).

Then Ryan came on, a seemingly perennial spring in his step, to the largest ovation. He thanked the CSO for his first gig as music director in an English-speaking country – the first two were in Germany and France – and dug into Wang Jie’s symphonic overture “America the Beautiful.”

The title inevitably recalls Charles Ives’ “Variations on ‘America’,” and Wang’s ending has an Ivesian feel: The main tune marches merrily along, while dissenting sections of the orchestra make themselves heard. But Wang has ideas of her own, and her overture blends urban bustle with the rural flavor of a frantic fiddle solo. Like America itself, her piece has room for many voices. (The Shanghai-raised composer, who’s married to Child, moved to the United States as a college student in 2000 and stayed.)

Then came Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme.” Ryan conducted with the right delicacy, but the reason to sit through this elegant piffle was the solo playing of Sterling Elliott. He blended apt amounts of nobility and sentimental sweetness in Tchaikovsky’s major work for cello and orchestra; his louder passages were rich and full, and his soft ones drew you into the piece further than I’m usually willing to go.

He capped that strong performance with an encore unknown to me: “Truckin’ Through the South,” from Aaron Minsky’s “Ten American Cello Etudes.” Elliott played this dark-hued, almost bluesy etude with beguiling strength and soulfulness.

Ryan capped the evening with the piece that gave us the clearest idea of what to expect from him: Brahms’ First Symphony. The opening movement held yearning, mystery, assertiveness, exultation. The second was more relaxed and easeful than I’m used to, so I listened with new ears. Ditto the brisk third movement, which rolled jauntily past. His fondness for dramatic pauses and decelerated tempos bent the fourth movement slightly out of shape, as it had the second, but he summoned all the life force of the finale in a potent surge.

I had never watched the CSO from the sixth row, and I was able to see Ryan close up. He has dropped traditional maestro garb for a charcoal gray suit. He conducts with his entire body, except for firmly planted feet. He uses no baton, directing with empty hands that frequently take on the Hawaiian “hang loose” position: inner three fingers curled, thumb and pinky thrust out to the sides.

His expressive face has a Bernstein-like pliability, whether intense in serious moments or ecstatic in joyful ones. This could be hamminess in some conductors – that claim was made against Bernstein, though I think unfairly – but the music seems to surge through Ryan like an electric current discharged from his fingertips. I’m glad he’s coming.

Pictured: Kwamé Ryan courtesy of kwameryan.com.

7 Can’t-Miss Sights and Activities at the Charlotte SHOUT! Festival

Guest Article: Charlotte SHOUT!
by Rick Thurmond

On now through April 14 in Uptown Charlotte, Charlotte SHOUT! is the region’s largest arts festival. There’s so much to see and do that it’s hard to know where to start – so, we made this handy guide just for WDAV listeners!

First Ward Park (Zone 1)

This area is home to the Ally Main Stage and several interactive art installations. It is in close proximity to the stage at the amazing art-filled Victoria Yards, the Market at 7th Street food hall, and ImaginOn. You could spend the entire day here and still want to come back for more.

The SHOUT Lounge and Hub at 200 S. College St. (Zones 2 & 3)

The SHOUT! Lounge is your one-stop shop for information and—bonus!—you can take a gander at some incredible artwork by CMS students. The Lounge is also the gateway to the new Charlotte SHOUT! Hub, located in Overstreet Mall directly above. There, you’ll find pop-up art galleries, works by some seriously talented local fashion designers, and opportunities for hands-on artistic expression. You’ll also be steps away from the Spray Jam at Luminous Lane, where dozens of local artists are transforming blank building facades with their unique art styles.

Levine Avenue and The Green (Zone 5)

Best enjoyed late afternoon into the evening, do not miss Sonic Runway, 350 feet of lit-up soundwaves that you can walk through. Street performers will wander through regularly with interactive and entertaining presentations. And if you’re in the mood for an egg hunt, 13 larger-than-life eggs designed by local artists decorate The Green, a pocket park across the street.

Nightingale and the Tower, feat. Sonic Butterfly

Sonic Butterfly, a harp with 60-foot strings, stretches over crowds, immersing them in a musical tale about hope in a dystopian future. See this electro-acoustic chamber opera by Rebecca Comerford at First Ward Park Friday, April 5 at 8:30 p.m. 

The Pianodrome at Grace A.M.E Zion Church

This intimate, unique concert venue, housed inside the gorgeous and historic Grace A.M.E Zion Church, is the country’s first and only amphitheater made entirely of upcycled pianos. Musical performances will take place daily and most nights as well. WDAV’s sold-out Recording Inclusivity Initiative recital An Afternoon of Song will be held in the Pianodrome Sunday, April 14 at 4 p.m. – join the waitlist here

Live music at the Ally Main Stage

A diverse mix of local and national headliners will take the stage Thursdays through Sundays throughout SHOUT! Don’t miss performances include Country Night with Brittney Spencer, Rock & Blues Night with Dana Fuchs and Local Night featuring bands from the region. There’s something for everyone, and it’s all free. 

The Charlotte StrEATs Festival 

This weekend-long festival celebrates the best of our local cuisine, plus an appearance by Food Network star Aaron Sanchez (April 13-14). Saturday is free, Sunday is ticketed. Tip: Check out StrEATs Uncorked, highlighting North Carolina’s unique wine regions, on April 3!

Walk with WDAV on National Walking Day

By Michelle Medina Villalon

Today, WDAV celebrates National Walking Day with a specially curated playlist for our classical community. Whether you take this 50 minute playlist along on a sunny trail or the treadmill, we hope it brings you a moment of joy, reflection, and encouragement for your Wednesday! All pieces were chosen to be specifically “walkable” with approximately 90-110 BPM. You may notice the playlist picks up along the midway mark to put some pep in your step as well. 

Check out our playlist below, also available on Spotify.

  1. “Serenade for Wind in D Minor Op. 44 III Andante con moto” (Antonín Dvořák)
  2. “Appalachian Spring: III. Moderato” (Aaron Copland)
  3. “The Planets, Op. 32: 3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger” (Gustav Holst)
  4. “Carnival of the Animals, R. 125: XI. Pianists” (Camille Saint-Saëns)
  5. “Solace” (Scott Joplin)
  6. “Theme Varie” (Manuel Ponce)
  7. “Sicilienne” (Gabriel Fauré)
  8. “Pièces Froides No. 2  Trois Danses de travers” (Erik Satie)
  9. “Archetypes: IV. The Lover” (Clarice Assad)
  10. “Suite No. 3 in D Major BWV 1068: 11. Air” (Johann Sebastian Bach)

A Musical Journey: Unearthing Oskar Böhme and Julia Perry’s Brilliance at the Charlotte Symphony

By Lawrence Toppman

The least interesting things about the Charlotte Symphony (CSO) concert billed as “Wagner & Strauss” were the pieces by Wagner and Strauss. The orchestra gave workmanlike performances of the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Isolde” and Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration,” occasionally rising higher than that level Friday at Knight Theater.

But in the middle of this Death Sandwich came two pieces bursting with life by Oskar Böhme and Julia Perry. CSO principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn played Böhme’s trumpet concerto vivaciously, and guest conductor JoAnn Falletta gave us her best in Perry’s too-brief “A Short Piece for Orchestra.”

Symphony management unwisely scheduled two weighty pieces by the two Richards in the same night. Those premiered just 25 years apart (1865 for Wagner, 1890 for Strauss) and have similar musical arcs: Both begin with mysterious tremblings, build slowly and repetitively to passionate climaxes, then ebb away into the uneasy peace of death for love (Wagner) and the peace that passeth all understanding (Strauss).

Falletta and the CSO handled them the same way: Weakly and without sufficient atmosphere in the beginning, focusing the energy better midway, then with belated but powerful passion in the climaxes and beyond. I wish I’d heard the Wagner as it was written – a soprano is supposed to sing the Liebestod section – but much of the feeling still came through.

The musicians and the maestro seemed happier bringing us music none of us knew. My notes for Perry’s piece compare her to Leonard Bernstein in his Oscar-nominated film score for “On the Waterfront:” a dramatic opening statement that reappears in subtle ways, a melancholic solo for flute and other woodwinds, a sharp and sudden ending.

Then I learned that Perry wrote her piece in 1952, two years before the movie. Did the two know each other from the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood? Maybe New York City, where she went to the Juilliard School? Was it coincidence that, as the revised “Study for Orchestra” in 1965, this became the first piece by an African-American woman programmed by the New York Philharmonic — and Bernstein was the music director? (William Steinberg conducted it.)

Both Perry and Böhme had hard lives. She fell into financial difficulties and died of a stroke at 55 in 1979. One of Stalin’s flunkies declared him an enemy of the Soviet state in 1938 because of his German heritage; he was tortured and executed after “confessing” imagined sins. (I refer you to the CSO’s excellent program notes.)

Böhme’s trumpet concerto came from happier times in 1899, when he’d just moved to St. Petersburg from Budapest and was playing cornet at the Mariinsky Theatre. Like Chopin, he had happy ideas about writing for his instrument but vague notions of how to orchestrate. So the backing sounds now like Weber in its leaping excitement, now like Schumann in its surging pulse, now like Elgar in odd bursts of dignified grandeur. The orchestral sections don’t always relate to the solos: Those are mostly histrionic in the first movement, tender in the second and merry in the third, but often on an intimate scale.

Wilborn embraced the difficulties with gusto. He’s not a flamboyant player, but his oral and digital dexterity served the tricky writing well. My notes during the third movement say “Reminds me of “Variations on ‘The Carnival of Venice’,” a notoriously tough piece by Jean-Baptiste Arban that preceded Böhme’s concerto by a few decades.

Sure enough, Wilborn came back to play Arban’s variations with flying fingers and tongue and the kind of showmanship this chestnut requires. The rain of applause for his encore was not for a hometown favorite but for a talented musician.

Pictured: JoAnn Falletta by Steve J. Sherman.