CSO

Charlotte Symphony’s Maestro Discusses Tenure, Future Plans

[The Charlotte Observer] – After 12 years leading the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, Maestro Christopher Warren-Green is taking his final bows as music director this weekend. His tenure will end with a flourish, as he conducts Beethoven’s iconic Ninth Symphony May 20-22 at Belk Theater. But Warren-Green isn’t entirely leaving. He will become conductor laureate and artistic adviser to the orchestra until his successor is named. Orchestra leaders have said they expect that decision to be made by 2024.

Read more at The Charlotte Observer

Pictured: Christopher Warren-Green; photo by Jeff Cravotta.

“Angelus,” Lupanu’s Violin Highlight A Mixed-bag Concert

by Lawrence Toppman

Three composers with uncomfortable ties to Russia and the Soviet Union came together Friday in the last guest-conducted concert of the Charlotte Symphony’s classical season.

Vladivostok-born Victoria Borisova-Ollas moved away from her homeland as a teenager in the 1980s and has spent the bulk of her life in Sweden. Dmitri Shostakovich faced condemnation and censorship through much of his career in the USSR. And Jean Sibelius spent the first 50 years of his life under Russian sway: The armies of Tsar Alexander I took control of Finland in 1809, making it an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire until World War I.

No wonder, then, that the current invasion of Ukraine hung over the concert. Even soloist Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, who played Shostakovich’s long-suppressed Violin Concerto No. 1, prefaced his encore with the simple phrase “For peace.” He then gave us the sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin, soul-soothing music at its deepest.

Karen Kamensek, presumably the sixth music director candidate to come through this season, seemed most connected to Borisova-Ollas’ “Angelus.” The two women have known each other for years, and this U.S. premiere of the 2008 tone poem brought out all the beauty and diversity in its 22 minutes.

Kamensek told us the composer had walked around Munich, absorbing the sounds of that metropolis, and you could hear those elements in the steady pulse of her piece: church bells, birdsong, traffic, hurried conversations among scurrying people, perhaps even the rain and thunder of a quick storm. Though the music never varied much in tempo, changes in dynamics and mood kept it interesting.

Shostakovich’s concerto caught fire intermittently, usually when Lupanu played. It lasts about 36 minutes, longer than any mainstream violin concerto except Beethoven’s and Brahms’, and it needs the most incisive playing to make it come to life. Lupanu provided that, especially in the ferocious passages of the scherzo and the savage humor of the final burlesque.

The orchestra seldom did, except in a few waves of passion during the wilder sections. Most of the time it jogged along correctly, in a manner nearly free of tension and despair. Lupanu’s few minutes of Bach contained more heart than most of the orchestral passages of the concerto put together.

Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, a self-described “confession of the soul” that put him on the world’s musical map in 1902, got somewhat more energetic treatment after the intermission. Yet even here, we heard a rendition where all the notes were in place without special insight.

Kamensek carefully observed dynamic markings, took reasonable tempos and occasionally gave us flashes of high drama. But the dark mystery, the sense of danger, the sudden rush of joy at the glorious start of the fourth movement – these were not to be found, and chills never ran up the spine.

P.S. Anyone still describing Charlotte with the embarrassing adjective “world-class” might consider this: Kamensek assuaged anxieties about “Angelus” by saying, “Don’t be afraid because it’s modern. It’s very cinematic.” No concertgoers in any world-class city on Earth would need to hear that before a premiere.

The concert repeats tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Knight Theater. You can get details here.

Pictured: Conductor Karen Kamensek; photo by: Benno Hunziker.

Another Prime Candidate for Charlotte Symphony’s Baton

By Lawrence Toppman

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra hasn’t specified which of the guest conductors this season and next will be considered for the music directorship in 2023-24. Joshua Gersen took the podium this weekend as a late replacement for Kwame Ryan, who’ll appear next season, so I have no idea whether Gersen even wants the job. But on the evidence of Friday’s concert at Knight Theater, he belongs in the front rank of contenders.

Gersen and violinist Jinjoo Cho teamed for an introspective, insightful and finally incendiary reading of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. Gersen also led the CSO through an unfamiliar piece, Errollyn Wallen’s “Mighty River,” and one where long familiarity can lead to boredom in an indifferent performance: Robert Schumann’s Third Symphony, the “Rhenish.” He guided us wisely through the former and blew the dust off the latter with a buoyant reading.

Gersen, who recently concluded a gig as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, introduced the evening by suggesting we think of the pieces as linked by songfulness. “River,” a 2007 piece commemorating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Britain, uses the British hymn “Amazing Grace” as the groundwork for variations. Barber and Schumann each wrote a tremendous amount of vocal music and made some of their orchestral pieces songful, too.

He might also have said the three were connected by rivers. Wallen grew up and studied by the Thames in London and the Hudson in New York City. Barber studied and taught in Philadelphia, along the Delaware, then lived with fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti off the Hudson above New York. Schumann finished his symphony in Dusseldorf, along the Rhine. All three of these works flow with unceasing energy, and Gersen had his fingers on the pulse of each.

Wallen’s curtain-raiser suggested Bedrich Smetana’s “Moldau” at times, not melodically but in the swirls and eddies of music that steadily built in intensity. She used snatches of the American spirituals “Deep River” and (if I heard right) “Going Home,” as the piece buzzed and thrust forward to a strong conclusion.

Gersen showed us at once how he thought the Schumann should go. The taut, bracing opening movement and breezy scherzo reminded me of George Szell’s landmark recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, my favorite. Gersen relaxed in the gracious third movement, gave us a warm but never ponderous fourth – it’s marked “feierlich,” or “solemnly” – and then swept us through the finale, wiping out memories of the watery horns that marred earlier sections.

Yet the Barber concerto remained the high point of the concert. Joy lit Gersen’s face as he gently suppressed the orchestra in Barber’s quieter solo passages and unleashed it for thunderous climaxes. He also beamed at Cho, who sometimes bounced in smiling approval when she wasn’t playing.

Cho took her earliest solos with a small, sweet, silvery sound, ruminative but unsentimental. Her passion mounted as Barber’s did, and she produced the most captivatingly intense rendering of the beautiful slow movement I can recall. (“She’s a human singing violin,” said my wife, aptly.) The pyrotechnics of the fiddle-busting final movement lifted her, Gersen, the orchestra and the audience to the highest level of delighted delirium.

Pictured: Joshua Gersen by Chris Lee.

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Announces Its 2022-23 Season

The Charlotte Symphony announced Monday the details of their 2022-23 season. The Classical Series will feature eleven guest conductors who will lead works by John Adams, Beethoven, Brahms, Copland, Anna Clyne, Grieg, William Grant Still, among others. Additionally, Conductor Laureate and Music Adviser Christopher Warren-Green returns to conduct Handel’s Messiah.

The Charlotte Symphony’s 2022–23 Classical Series opens with a program featuring Elgar’s Cello Concerto, performed by Israeli cellist Inbal Segev, conducted by Andrew Grams. The program, which takes place October 7–8, 2022, will also include R. Strauss’s Aus Italien and PIVOT, a new work by GRAMMY-nominated composer Anna Clyne.

“The 2022–23 season is truly emblematic of what the Charlotte Symphony does best,” said President and CEO David Fisk. “The Orchestra will welcome a variety of guest conductors and artists with perspectives from around the world, offering a taste of the Symphony’s incredible range and versatility and laying the groundwork for an even more vibrant future. We’ll also continue to strengthen the cultural fabric of our community through inspiring performances, our commitment to accessible music education, and meaningful collaborations with partners throughout the city. With such a wide range of offerings, the Charlotte Symphony truly has something for everyone.”

Highlights for the season include the return of conductor Jessica Cottis, leading the Orchestra and Charlotte Master Chorale in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2, Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), and a performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto featuring Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu as soloist, conducted by Mei-Ann Chen. The Charlotte Symphony closes its season with Kazem Abdullah conducting Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D Major, Prague; Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, featuring Alexi Kenney as soloist; and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 in G major.

For a full rundown of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra 2022-23 season, visit the Charlotte Symphony website.

Pictured: The Belk Theater at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center; Courtesy Charlotte Symphony.

Conductor Cottis, CSO Catch Fire with Lesser-Known Works

by Lawrence Toppman

Each guest conductor in this Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) season must be considered a candidate for Christopher Warren-Green’s job, once he steps down as music director this summer. So what they conduct may be as revealing as how they conduct it.

Jessica Cottis led the CSO through four pieces Friday at Knight Theater, all from the last 100 years and three unknown to most of the audience and probably many of the musicians. The orchestra responded with vital, colorful performances across a wide range, from Ravel’s glittering piano concerto in G to Stravinsky’s galumphing ”Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant.”

She saved the longest and best for last: Kurt Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins,” where the players romped through bits of symphonic swooning, parodies and Broadway-style tunes. Whatever Cottis may be like in Romantic Era works that make up so much of the CSO’s repertoire, she’s firmly at home in music of the 20th century.

Cottis started with a piece from our own time, Jessie Montgomery’s seven-minute “Strum” for string orchestra. Players plucked and bowed through fragments of melody that ebbed and flowed, changing in mood from celebratory to plaintive to astringent. The orchestra became a big guitar in Montgomery’s hands, right up to the warm-hearted conclusion.

Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear, who released an album of Ravel’s piano music in 2017, soloed in Ravel’s concerto. He took at face value the composer’s statement that he wanted not to be profound but to entertain, as Mozart and Saint-Saens did.

Goodyear brought out the first movement’s breezy, jazzy flavor, stressing associations with the piano concerto Gershwin had written four years earlier in 1925; meanwhile, brass and woodwinds made ripely raucous interjections. The slow movement, meditative and dreamy in other hands, moved steadily forward with reserved dignity, and the speedy finale sparkled.

The London-based Cottis introduced the Circus Polka after intermission in a voice bearing traces of her native Australia, telling us George Balanchine choreographed it for 50 humans and 50 elephants in pink tutus. Its elephantine wit always seems labored to me, but for once it bounced along in high spirits, right up to the polka-style quotation from Schubert’s “Marche Militaire.”

Cottis neglected to say that Balanchine also choreographed “Deadly Sins” for its 1933 debut in Paris, creating a “ballet chanté.” The leading role of Anna was both sung by Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, and danced by Tilly Losch to indicate facets of the character’s personality. (Losch, who reportedly resembled Lenya, was married to the impresario who paid for the production. Draw your own conclusions.)

The CSO didn’t use a dancer, letting soprano Lindsay Kesselman sing Anna I and the small part of Anna II. She steered away from Lenya’s sardonic bitterness, taking Anna instead from cheerful naivete to tamped-down desperation and finally resignation, as experiences with grasping and acquisitive men beat her down. She and the four singers depicting Anna’s finger-wagging family – William Edwards, Reginald Powell, Zachary Taylor and Robert Wells – all come from North Carolina, a pleasant touch.

Yet even here, the orchestra remained the star. The acidic nature of Weill’s score came out, with hints of “The Threepenny Opera” and “Mahagonny” seeping through. (Bertolt Brecht supplied texts for all three.) The players seemed at home in the jazzy cabaret style – how rare that is for them! – and gave the appearance of improvisation, so fresh were their snarky sounds. Kudos to Cottis for showing them the way.

The concert repeats Saturday, January 29, at 7:30 p.m. For more information, go to charlottesymphony.org.

Pictured: The Belk Theater at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center; Courtesy Charlotte Symphony.

Cox Conquers Knight Theater in Scaled-Down Symphony Program

By Lawrence Toppman

Twelve years ago, Christopher Warren-Green auditioned for the job of music director with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, guest-conducting a concert capped by a vivid rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” The wheel comes round again this year, as six guest conductors get a chance to show what they can do with the CSO before Warren-Green leaves in 2022.

Georgia-born, Berlin-based Roderick Cox began that process Friday night in Knight Theater with his hands partially tied by COVID-19: He led Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 and Brahms’ Serenade No. 2.

None of these pieces exploits the full tonal range of a classical orchestra or plumbs many emotional depths. Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 would have done both, but management replaced it with the serenade to accommodate a reduced orchestra and allow additional spacing for wind and brass players, who can’t be masked. (The concert repeats Saturday; you’ll find information here.)

Yet despite the confines of the programming, Cox conducted with intelligence, sensitivity, precision and energy. He has set the bar high for the five young guest conductors who’ll follow.

Youth ruled the evening. Neither Cox nor solo violinist Benjamin Beilman has reached 35; Brahms finished the serenade at 26; Mozart composed this last authenticated violin concerto at 19. Wagner was 57 when he wrote the idyll as a birthday present for his second wife, but he was probably feeling his oats: He’d married Cosima just a few months earlier, legitimizing their two children.

The “Siegfried Idyll” can easily seem overlong, not music to wake up to – as Wagner meant it to be for Cosima – but a lazy lullaby that floats repetitiously along. Cox gave it no chance to sag, conducting at an unhurried but steady flow and emphasizing the dramatic links to the “Ring” cycle. (Wagner was polishing the third act of the opera “Siegfried” at the time.)

Beilman, who played the Beethoven concerto here in 2017, paired smoothly with Cox in Mozart. Together, they attacked the vigorous parts with swift sureness, especially in the mock-militant “Turkish” section of the finale. When left alone in the solos, Beilman often produced a sweetly intimate tone that anticipated the sentiments of the Romantic era. His 19th-century-style cadenza underlined that forward-looking feeling; I’m guessing it came from Joseph Joachim, Brahms’ favorite violinist.

Cox finally got a chance to imbue a score with a bit of mystery in the serenade. Brahms originally wrote that piece for a full orchestra, then re-scored it 16 years later for a chamber orchestra. He omitted violins in the revision, so the string lineup – eight violas, five cellos, three double-basses – creates a darker sound even in joyful moments.

Only the centerpiece of the five sections, an adagio non troppo Clara Schumann admired, can take much weight; there the musicians played with gravity tempered by a smile. They bounced genially through the other four movements, and Cox capped the piece with a bounding allegro that suggested hunters tally-hoing across spring fields. One can only guess what he could do with a broader musical palette, but I’d like to find out.

Pictured: Roderick Cox; photo by Susie Knoll.

Charlotte Symphony Names New CEO

The Charlotte Symphony has announced that David Fisk will be its next President and Chief Executive Officer starting August 31, 2020.

Mr. Fisk comes to Charlotte from Richmond, VA where he has served as Executive Director of the Richmond Symphony since 2002. Previously, he was Chief Executive of the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast, the national symphony of Northern Ireland. Before that he led a chamber orchestra in London, a sculpture park in Yorkshire, and an international arts festival in Manchester, England. Along with extensive experience in performing arts management, he brings a passion for creating community partnerships and access to music for all.

David Fisk is originally from England and became a U.S. citizen in 2014. He began his musical life at age 8 in the choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He holds a degree in music from Manchester University and a postgraduate diploma in piano accompaniment from the Royal Northern College of Music. David has continued to give public concerts frequently as a collaborative pianist and helps out in church services around town as a substitute organist.

Video: Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Musicians Perform A Symphony A Part

Pictured: Ben Geller, Charlotte Symphony Orchestra violist.

On April 17 at 3 p.m., members of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) played Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony from their homes. Without seeing or hearing one another, each musician played their part, held space for their colleagues, and trusted that the wholeness of the score connected them. The musicians decided to perform this unique performance as a gesture of gratitude for music, one another, the CSO, and their communities.

Watch videos of the musicians’ performances at asymphonyapart.com and on the Charlotte Symphony Facebook page.

First and Second Violins.