Charlotte Symphony Fantastique in Berlioz Under Yashima

By Lawrence Toppman

Oscar-winning actor Walter Huston said, “I ain’t paid to make good lines sound good. I’m paid to make bad lines sound good.” That might be the true test of a conductor: Taking a 35-minute chunk of elevated salon music such as Beethoven’s Triple Concerto – not bad, but nowhere near a masterpiece – and making it seem more intriguing, even beautiful, than it actually is.

Erina Yashima did exactly that with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Belk Theater, abetted by a well-matched trio of soloists who were sensitive to the score and one another. Then she led us through a great piece of music, Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique,” with passion and sound judgment.

She had already asked the CSO to play above their collective heads in the curtain-raiser, the fastest rendition of the overture to “Ruslan and Lyudmila” I’ve ever heard. Now she asked them to sustain the same kind of energy not for five minutes but for 50, and they responded. I have no idea whether she’s applying for the music director’s job here, but she shot into my top three candidates by the end of the concert.

Yashima literally bounded onto the podium and turned a megawatt smile first on us, then on the orchestra; if that smile ever dimmed, I couldn’t tell. She hurled them into Glinka’s whimsical-lyrical overture, getting the kind of rapid-fire precision – especially from the strings – I hear only when the musicians play at their best. (If you recognized the piece, perhaps you know it as the theme to the American TV sitcom “Mom” or the video game “Tetris Classic.”)

Fears that we might be racing through the night ended as soon as she carried us gently into the Beethoven. It’s probably worth noting – I wish it were not – that all three soloists were also female. The piece can turn into a more-or-less piano concerto with strings somewhere in the background, if the keyboard soloist pays no heed to the others. But Anne-Marie McDermott, who has given some bravura performances at Spoleto Festival USA over the years, stayed perfectly attuned to violinist Tai Murray and cellist Julie Albers. At one moment in the finale, they stopped time with a series of hushed notes that pulled you into the piece irresistibly.

Yashima’s version of Berlioz contained one interesting choice after another, many of them subtle. The scene at the ball hinted at mental distress without descending into a swirl of madness. The march to the scaffold had a deliberate dignity, as if the man dreaming about dying went proudly rather than despairingly to his end. The witches’ sabbath, which exploited all the resources of the augmented orchestra, was consistently spooky but also tremendously exhilarating; we soared into the sky on our broomsticks and had a hell of a good time.

On paper, this concert looked like the narrowest range of music this season: three works, all composed within 38 years (1804-42), all by Central and Eastern Europeans from the first half of the Romantic Era. But the soloists and especially Yashima revealed so many colors that we ended up traveling across a whole universe of moods and ideas.

Pictured: Erina Yashima; Photo by Todd Rosenberg Photography/courtesy of Askonas Holt

Charlotte Symphony nowhere near its best in “Pastoral” concert

by Lawrence Toppman

Gather all the adjectives you know that connote speed, and you can write your own review of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra concert Marcelo Lehninger conducted Friday night.

The positive ones might be bracing, vigorous, keen, energetic, zestful. The negative might include rushed, restless, brusque, hard-driven and superficial. You needn’t find synonyms for poetic, introspective or subtle. Those characteristics seldom came into play until the final movement of the final piece, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, where Lehninger showed how much might have been brought to the entire program at Knight Theater.

Pianist Gabriela Martinez did have moments of delicacy and gentleness in Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.” Yet even there, the conductor’s extroverted accompaniment gave her too little opportunity to express herself fully. (The watery horn section, suggestive of the bad old days before Christopher Warren-Green, didn’t help there or in the Beethoven.)

Things started well enough with the opening piece, Lili Boulanger’s “D’un matin de printemps.” Boulanger, who had the most tragically shortened career of any 20th-century composer – she died at 24 of tuberculosis – can stand the energized treatment Lehninger gave her. She became a more muscular Debussy, depicting a spring morning where bees hummed busily and Parisians strode toward their destinations. The orchestra peaked here, playing with a unity it too rarely displayed afterward.

De Falla followed. His piece needn’t be languid or perfumed in Spanish exoticism; the best recording I know among half a dozen comes from a Pole, Artur Rubinstein. But this jaunty trip through Spanish gardens felt more like a brisk walk across the English countryside in nippy air, despite Martinez’ welcome attempts to add touches of mystery.

Any conductor auditioning for the CSO’s music directorship will have to prove himself or herself in core repertoire. Lehninger impressed me greatly five years ago in a concert of music from Spain and the two Americas, but I didn’t hear anything memorable in the Beethoven until the last five minutes.

Repeated phrases came at us squarely, without much variation in tempo or color. The first-movement “arrival in the country” tripped blandly along, followed by a “scene by the brook” whose charm soon wore thin. The “merry gathering” of the third movement quickly became restless and was dispersed by a blustery storm that blew up and blew down too soon.

Then the sun shone, musically and metaphorically. Lehninger found warmth and spacious joy in a beautifully structured final movement, where the peasants expressed relaxed happiness at deliverance from the tempest. Where had this kind of insight and inspiration been for the previous 90 minutes?

Pictured: Marcelo Lehninger; photo by Andy Terzes / marcelolehninger.com

Satisfying Strauss, Less Satisfying Elgar in Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Season-Opener

By Lawrence Toppman

Every cellist who plays Edward Elgar’s concerto after 1965 does so in the shadow of Jacqueline du Pré. Mstislav Rostropovich, her teacher, heard du Pré’s heart-stopping recording and reportedly took the piece out of his repertoire for years, because she played it so definitively. (He never recorded it commercially.)

Great cellists have brought their own qualities to the concerto over the last half-century: Pierre Fournier’s nobility. Yo-Yo Ma’s tenderness, Julian Lloyd Webber’s dignified sadness. But you have to project some intensely personal understanding of it to make the piece strike home, and Inbal Segev didn’t do that in the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening concert Friday at Knight Theater.

She began with a warm, expansive tone that promised well, but she never got deep inside the music: That burnished sound soon turned into endless note-spinning over the next half-hour. She reminded me of golden-voiced opera sopranos who hit every note with impeccable technique but might as well be singing from a restaurant menu. That was also true of her encore, a movement from a Bach suite. (To be fair to her, I was backstage Saturday doing an intermission feature for the WDAV broadcast. From what I could hear, she seemed to be playing with more focus and personality that night.)

Guest conductor Andrew Grams didn’t overwhelm her with sound but took advantage of the orchestral passages to add badly-needed drama. He treated those moments not just as simple accompaniment but as the final bold strokes of a man who finished this concerto in 1919 and never wrote another major work, though he lived 15 more years. (World War I shattered the spirit of this last great Victorian composer.

Grams got us off to a strong start with Anna Clyne’s brief, eccentric and entertaining “Pivot.” That churning piece blends genres recklessly, usually returning to the same percolating rhythm before embarking in a new direction. Hearing it was like walking down the midway at a musical carnival, where tents pumped out the sounds of pastoral landscapes, Celtic influences, brass fanfares, dimly heard hymns, even a touch of Eastern European schmaltz.

The final work on the program, Richard Strauss’ “Aus Italien,” had a similar cinematic quality. Despite movement titles such as “At the Shores of Sorrento” and “Amid the Ruins of Rome,” it never sounds particularly Italian until a final giddy set of variations on “Funiculì, Funiculà.” (Strauss, who vacationed in Italy in 1886, thought he’d adapted a Neapolitan folk song. He didn’t know Luigi Denza had written it six years earlier to celebrate the opening of an elevated railway. Denza sued Strauss and won the right to be paid royalties.)

“Aus Italien” doesn’t sound much like the mature Strauss, either. The 22-year-old composer had yet to find his voice; he’d do that a few years later with “Don Juan” and “Death and Transfiguration.” Still, this Italian jaunt has much to enjoy, including a Mendelssohnian lightness in the long “Sorrento” movement and a vaguely Brahmsian sweep in the opening “In the Country.” Juxtaposing Elgar’s last towering orchestral work with Strauss’ first full-length stretch in that direction is the kind of programming the Charlotte Symphony does more often these days, and I welcome it.

Pictured: Inbal Segev credit Grant Legan/inbalsegev.com

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Concert Brings Balm to A Reeling City

By Lawrence Toppman

Music won’t heat your home, freeze your food or keep your Internet flowing. But if you were one of the thousands of people in Mecklenburg County who lost power during Tropical Storm Ian – I speak from experience – you might have found solace in the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra(CSO)’s concerts last weekend at First United Methodist Church.

The CSO’s Classical Series officially begins Oct, 7-8, with performances of Elgar’s Cello Concerto. These earlier concerts, gently priced at $25 and uniting former music director Christopher Warren-Green with Grammy-winning organist Paul Jacobs, served as a sweet appetizer to the main course.

The program started with restrained merriment in Handel’s organ concerto “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale,” passed through the high drama of Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony (his fifth), and ended with an eruption of joy in Saint-Saens’ “Organ” Symphony (his third).

Why put these concerts, co-sponsored by the Charlotte Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, in this church? Three reasons.

First, the beautiful array of organ pipes at Belk Theater, a noble backdrop for CSO gigs, aren’t connected to anything. (That story’s too long to tell here.) Second, all three composers – four, if you count J.S. Bach for the encore Jacobs gave us – played the organ in churches: Handel briefly in Halle, Germany, as a paid Reformed organist; Mendelssohn as an accompanist to his own sacred works; Saint-Saens at La Madeleine, the official church of the French Empire.

Third, as John Apple of the AGO Charlotte Chapter pointed out, First Methodist has superb acoustics and in one way improves on Belk Theater: You can always hear brass and strings distinctly when they play together. I sat in the back row of the balcony and appreciated the extra clarity in every piece.

The program didn’t give Jacobs, the first solo organist to earn a Grammy, much chance to show off. (He won in 2011 for Messiaen’s “Livre Du Saint-Sacrement.”) He brought good humor and nimble fingerwork to Handel’s brief concerto, where he imitated the birds of the title, and both quiet spirituality and thunderous chords to Saint-Saens’ symphony, which has only a supporting part for organ. He really shone in his encore, an A minor fugue by Bach that required virtuosic technique and energy.

Warren-Green and the orchestra came off best in the “Reformation,” Mendelssohn’s most muscular and Beethoven-like symphony. (He wrote it in 1830, just three years after Beethoven died; it celebrates the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, a key document in the Protestant Reformation.) We went from the hammer blows of the brass in the opening movement to the tension of the allegro vivace, the mournfulness of the andante and the spiritual uplift of the finale, where Mendelssohn incorporates Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

The CSO played Saint-Saens with equal zeal, but Warren-Green made a curious choice: He took the middle section extraordinarily slowly, aiming for deep serenity but stretching the melody to the outermost limits of what the music could bear – and, to my mind, well beyond them.

The long multi-part finale sprang back into shape at once, capped by the three titanic organ chords that lead into the delightful rippling melody used so effectively in the movie “Babe.” If there can be such a thing as a chill of joy running up the spine, this music inspires it.

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.