Mei-Ann Chen Makes a Triumphant Return with Charlotte Symphony

by Lawrence Toppman

The most recent Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) concert at Knight Theater was Old Home Week. Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu got his annual solo outing in Bruch’s First Violin Concerto, which played to his strengths. The meat-and-potatoes 19th-century programming that served the CSO for many years brought three works from different decades of the Romantic Era: Fanny Mendelssohn’s Overture in C major, Bruch’s concerto, César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor.

And Mei-Ann Chen made a welcome return five years after conducting one of the most satisfying oddities in CSO history: A pipa concerto by Zhao Jiping so rare it has never been recorded. Her take on Franck added her to the list of top candidates for permanent music director. More than anyone I know, including French masters Charles Munch and Pierre Monteux, she almost convinced me Franck’s lone symphony wasn’t waaaayyyy too long.

She did that, fascinatingly, by embracing its excesses, rather than trying to hide them. The first movement, which grinds a pleasantly melodic theme into the ground through countless variations, acquired grandeur. It began to sound like Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” piling climax upon climax and reaching a kind of luxuriant ecstasy. (Perhaps Franck had read Wagner’s score, as the opera hadn’t yet come to Paris by 1888.)

Chen broadened tempos in the first two movements instead of rushing them, justly confident that the musicians’ big sound and her own passion would carry the day. Then, as Franck continued to chew his slender musical cud in the third movement, her fire and intensity prevented any feeling of lassitude.

She had earlier proved her mettle with Mendelssohn’s only published orchestral piece, which suggested not brother Felix but an opera overture by the earlier Carl Maria von Weber: Carefully crafted, varying in mood from contemplation to tumult, ably scored and melodically unmemorable. Her piano pieces and chamber works demand reappraisal – I’m just getting to appreciate them myself – but on this evidence, she hadn’t found an orchestral voice. (Not that her family’s or society’s lack of encouragement helped, of course.)

Bruch, on the other hand, gave us plenty of melodies in his concerto. It suits Lupanu, whose pairing with Chen proved especially apt. He provided tenderness, sweetness and a sense of yearning; she brought drama and Brahmsian weight to the orchestral portions, never swamping him when they played together but bringing the orchestra to full power when they didn’t.

This piece has not been ranked among the greatest violin concertos, though I’m not sure why: It lacks the profundity of Beethoven or Brahms, the mystery of Sibelius or heart-on-the-sleeve emotions of Tchaikovsky, but it’s as appealing as those by Felix Mendelssohn, Mozart or Shostakovich.

In fact, the whole evening consisted of works musical history relegates to the second tier or below. Michael Steinberg, in his helpful tome “The Symphony,” makes room for discussions of symphonies by Lou Harbison, Karl Hartmann and Roger Sessions but can’t spare a page for Franck’s. Perhaps he’d have changed his mind, if he’d heard what Chen has to say about it.

Pictured: Mei-Ann Chen by Simon Pauly.

Sparkling Grieg, Somber Brahms

By Lawrence Toppman

You can play Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto weightily, with thundering chords and noble grandeur. Or tenderly, with a romantic flame at its core. Or dreamily, with what Mahler called “innigkeit,” a poignant intimacy. Or, if you have enough imagination, with all three qualities in turn, as Joyce Yang did Friday with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra – and all of that in the opening movement.

She flirted with schmaltz in the slow middle section of the concerto, playing at a stretched-out tempo that could have been her choice or guest conductor Joshua Weilerstein’s. (He preferred those in the Brahms symphony that followed.) But in the finale, Yang returned to the thrilling combination of fireworks and deeper feeling that made the whole package memorable.

The show at Belk Theater began with a curiosity: the second-act prelude from Ethyl Smyth’s opera “The Wreckers.” I’ve heard five of Smyth’s large-scale works, and the instrumental pieces stick in memory longer than the vocal ones.

The opera tells of “wreckers” off the Cornish coast, who lure ships onto the rocks with misplaced lights, kill the passengers and plunder the cargo. This prelude could have been one of the “Sea Pieces” excerpted from Benjamin Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes:” We heard wind in the rattle of the snare drum, waves in the watery notes of the harp, a storm surging in the brass. The CSO played at the top of its form for Weilerstein, as it would nearly all night.

Yang then delivered not only her rendition of Grieg’s lone concerto but an appealing encore: a nocturne from his fifth book of Lyric Pieces for solo piano. I’m used to hearing the orchestrated version in the Lyric Suite, four Lyric Pieces set by Grieg and Anton Seidl, but her playing had so much color that I didn’t miss the larger sound.

Weilerstein shared a fascinating story after intermission: All three composers on the program met at a dinner in 1888, along with Tchaikovsky. That’s hard to imagine, as the Russian had earlier referred to Brahms as “a giftless bastard,” but perhaps he’d mellowed by then.

Weilerstein then explained his view of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony: It’s a musical response to the anti-Semitism and social decay he saw around him in mid-1880s Vienna, ending in “an apocalyptic destructive fury.” He led a performance that fulfilled his vision: somber, thick with angst, joyless and furiously explosive at the end. Austrian music critic Eduard Hanslick likened this symphony to “a dark well: The longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back.” We saw the well, but where were the stars?

Weilerstein’s unfussy conducting revealed fresh details in the instrumentation, partly because he went so slowly. The unusually drawn-out second movement, an andante moderato, threatened to become a stately funeral march. The only scherzo in a Brahms symphony, bouncily adapted by Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman as “Cans and Brahms,” is marked “allegro giocoso.” That means “playful,” but here it had a stern Teutonic uplift.

The orchestra committed itself completely to these ideas, and the performance cohered in the powerful last movement: tense, thrusting forward, ultimately blazing with energy. Weilerstein had the skill and intelligence to get exactly what he wanted from these musicians. I wonder if it’s what Brahms wanted.

Pictured: Joyce Yang by KT Kim.

Parameswaran + Sibelius + CSO = Excitement

By Lawrence Toppman

Like many classical concertgoers, I often raise my eyebrows when folks erupt into applause during the silence between movements of a symphony. I know that behavior can be disruptive, distracting or rude. On Friday night at Knight Theater, I did it anyway.

Guest conductor Vinay Parameswaran had just dropped his baton arm and slumped an inch or two after leading the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) through the opening of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5. The movement had apt grandeur, a thrilling undercurrent of menace, a tremendous kind of humming energy and beauty. In those 15 minutes, he showed why the CSO might want him as music director. And as he took a respite before the second half of the piece, I was not alone in clapping for him.

The second movement started with an oddly finicky daintiness that eventually vanished when full-blooded melody flowed forth. From there to the end, allegedly inspired by a circle of swans above Sibelius’ head, Parameswaran showed skill and insight. For instance, he brought the strings up to be as prominent as the brass in the glorious finale. (Pop culture factoid: The band First Class copied this brass melody exactly in 1974 in the top-5 hit “Beach Baby.”)

The symphony capped a program of lesser-known but admirable works: Gabriella Smith’s chameleonic “Field Guide,” Benjamin Britten’s playful song cycle “Les Illuminations,” and William Grant Still’s somber, sometimes majestic “Poem for Orchestra.”

Parameswaran described Smith’s piece as an interpretation of sounds collected on rambles along the California coast and into South America; he said she wrote it for the 70th birthday of her mentor, John Adams, and suggested we listen for Adams’ influence in the motoric rhythms.

Sure enough, I heard that, along with what may have been the buzzing of insects, sounds of the deep woods, mild cacophony of traffic and unidentifiable noises, occasionally in conflict with a warm melody that emerged and submerged. The finale brought gratifying cohesion, possibly suggesting the unity of nature.

I’m used to tenors singing Arthur Rimbaud’s oblique lyrics in “Les Illuminations,” but Britten wrote it in his 20s for a soprano. The absence of a printed program, my inability to speak French and my lack of desire to squint at texts on my cellphone meant I enjoyed Alexandra Smither’s voice without worrying about Rimbaud’s meaning. (A sample: “These are cities! Processions of Mabs in russet, opaline gowns climb the ravines. Farther up, with their feet in the waterfall and the brambles, stags suckle Diana. The Bacchantes of the suburbs sob, and the moon burns and howls. Venus enters into the caverns of blacksmiths and hermits.”)

Smither had an operatic but never histrionic sense of drama and comedy, and her voice remained attractively intimate, despite a widening vibrato near the end of the 21-minute cycle.

Still remains one of my favorite little-known composers. I wish the CSO would play any of his five symphonies, the first being my choice, but I was glad to hear his 10-minute “Poem” live. He premiered it in 1944, when the outcome of World War II was in doubt. He’d served in the U.S. Navy during World War I, the “War to End All Wars,” and seems in this intense piece to be expressing anger and frustration at humankind’s continued stupidity.Though it moves toward a major-key ending that could be interpreted as guarded optimism, its most potent moments come earlier. (Here, too, the brass shone.) The CSO has seldom sounded so big, so muscular. If Parameswaran can get that sound at will, he’s a serious contender for the job.

Pictured: Conductor Vinay Parameswaran; credit Gus Chan.

Ryan Joins List of Top Contenders for Charlotte Symphony Job

by Lawrence Toppman

The Charlotte Symphony played three pieces, all American and all premiered after World War II, this weekend at Belk Theater. That wouldn’t be news in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Here, it is: I don’t recall the CSO grouping three American works from the last 80 years, let alone to such memorable effect, in its Classical Season. (I count Austrian-born Erich Wolfgang Korngold as American; he fled the Nazis in 1934 and became a U.S. citizen.)

Kwamé Ryan, whose appearance as guest conductor last season had to be delayed until this month, spent 90 minutes showing why he’ll be added to the list of top candidates for music director. He had the measure of John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” Korngold’s Violin Concerto and especially Aaron Copland’s Symphony No.3.

Adams’ percolating overture whizzed by in appropriately flashy and forgettable style. Then came Korngold’s concerto in an unexpectedly serious performance from Bulgarian-American violinist Bella Hristova.

“Unexpectedly” because many soloists, knowing Korngold borrowed themes from four of his film scores for the three-movement work, stress the schmaltz that can undermine the piece. That’s why critic Irving Kolodin cruelly said the concerto held “more corn than gold.”

But Jascha Heifetz played the premiere performance and recording with serious dignity. Hristova followed that model in this last Romantic-style concerto: She was serene in the pyrotechnic first movement, tender but not dreamily vague in the middle section, then jaunty yet never – well, corny — in the rollicking jig of the finale. Ryan matched each mood sensitively.

He spoke briefly before the Copland symphony, tying its genesis in 1944 to the four freedoms espoused by President Franklin Roosevelt: Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. (He also gave away the surprise: The last movement is a set of variations on Copland’s 1942 “Fanfare for the Common Man.”)

Ryan’s first movement showed us a muscular Copland, one who wasn’t afraid to be wistful or contemplative but mostly strode boldly along. The second movement combined the jazzier feeling of Copland’s 1930s works with his Americana strain: Skittering hints of Prokofiev in the winds and faint echoes of “Simple Gifts” from “Appalachian Spring” co-existed comfortably.

The lighter-hearted slow movement has sometimes seemed long to me, especially in Leonard Bernstein’s famous late-career recording, but not here. The “Fanfare” finale began with majesty, made the transition to visceral excitement, then returned to grandeur for a conclusion as stirring as anything Copland ever wrote.

Ryan referred to himself as European in his speech, noting that Ukrainians don’t enjoy those four freedoms nowadays and any nation might lose them at any time. He’s really a citizen of the world: Born in Canada, raised in Trinidad, a student in the United Kingdom and Hungary, conducting regularly in France and Korea (among other places).

His discography ranges from Beethoven and Schubert to Morton Feldman and Olga Neuwirth. If he does end up here, I’ll be curious to see how he expands Charlotte Symphony programming during his tenure. His bosses will have to give him some scope.

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