CSO

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.

Charlotte Symphony Announces Replacement Conductor for Season Finale

POSTED Monday, April 19, 2010 — As a result of the ash cloud from the recent volcano eruption in Iceland that has mandated closures of virtually all European airports and cancellations of flights, the Charlotte Symphony (CSO) announced today that Christof Perick is unable to travel to Charlotte to rehearse and conduct his final concerts as Music Director on April 22, 23 and 24.

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WDAV Previews the Symphony Seasons

This week Jennifer Foster will host two season preview programs – for the Charlotte Symphony and the Winston-Salem Symphony. She’ll take a look at what’s coming up on their classics series and will excerpt some of the planned concert works. She’ll also play recordings by some of the guest artists such as guitarist Jason Vieux and cellist Lynn Harrell and talk to WSS music director Robert Moody.
The Charlotte Symphony Season Preview airs Thursday 9/10, 10 a.m., and the Winston-Salem Symphony Season Preview airs Friday 9/10, 10 a.m.

Charlotte Symphony Musicians Ratify Contract

The Charlotte Symphony Board and musicians have agreed to a new four-year contract which reduces the number of paid working weeks in the Symphony season. The parties negotiated the contract in the face of significant financial challenges facing the Symphony as part of an effort to restructure and stabilize financial operations. The text of the Charlotte Symphony’s press release follows.

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