Lawrence Toppman

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.

Corigliano Symphony Shows Charlotte’s Orchestra at Its Most Dazzling

By Lawrence Toppman

A good conductor can remind us why we fell in love with a piece of classical music. But a very good conductor can make us fall in love with a piece that has always left us cold. That happened Friday night, when Paolo Bortolameolli led an overwhelming performance of John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 that finally convinced me of its merit.

He did so first with words, breaking down this complicated work in the longest spoken introduction I remember hearing from the Belk Theater stage. (This is not a complaint; quite the opposite.) Then he did it by leading the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra through 45 minutes of emotional mood swings that left him, them and us wrung out.

If you know Corigliano, who turned 84 last week, you probably recall his rhapsodic, Oscar-winning score for “The Red Violin.” His 1991 symphony, whose first movement bears the subtitle “Of Rage and Remembrance,” comes from a different place. He responded to friends’ deaths from AIDS in music that churns with distress, plunges into grief, seeks solace and seems briefly to find it, erupts again in pain and finally subsides into an exhausted meditation.

Envision 17 brass players lined up against the back of the stage, like a firing squad shooting bullets of angst and anger. Or string players strumming their instruments like maddened mandolinists during a demented tarantella. Or cellist Alan Black keening through a solo lament that’s picked up by his fellow musicians as it builds to a volcanic outburst, then ebbs away.

To see this live, as you can do tonight, creates an impression that even the Grammy-winning recording by Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony could not do. It’s the difference between watching a championship fight on TV and sitting ringside, where every punch seems to land in your solar plexus.

Lest you be put off by such intensity, know that the first half of the evening provides more melodic and easily digestible pieces. Bortolameolli began with an appealing tone poem by his friend, Gabriela Ortiz. (Two living composers on one CSO program? A rarity indeed.)

“Téenek — Invenciones de Territorio” got its world premiere five years ago and has the kind of propulsive, swinging rhythms I associate with other Mexican composers, such as Carlos Chávez or Silvestre Revueltas. Ortiz alternates between disciplined ferocity and mysticism, but the music hardly ever stops percolating.

Christine Lamprea took center stage for Dmitri Kabalevsky’s Cello Concerto No. 1, the shorter and more accessible of his two concertos for that instrument. It offers snatches of folk songs throughout, and the composer spoke of it as a memorial to young soldiers killed in World War II. Yet Bortolameolli asked us to think of it in coded terms, like the works of Shostakovich when he had to placate Stalin. (I’m not wholly convinced: Unlike Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Kabalevsky seemed comfortable with the mind-dulling tenets of “socialist realism” in art.)

Bortolameolli and Lamprea made a case that the merriment is meant to be hollow, the melancholy sections slightly ironic, the humor more sardonic than bemused. Her lustrous and fervent playing made the whole thing memorable, rather than merely attractive.

I left wondering what Bortolameolli might do with traditional repertoire of the 19th century. Any guest conductor may be assumed to be auditioning for the music director’s job that Christopher Warren-Green will leave this summer. Whoever replaces him will have to serve up Tchaikovsky and Brahms, if perhaps in smaller doses than Charlotte has traditionally heard. Can Bortolameolli bring Rachmaninov to life, as he did Corigliano?

Pictured: Paolo Bortolameolli by Josefina Perez.

Unconventional “Pathétique” Caps Unusual Charlotte Symphony Concert

By Lawrence Toppman

I have long believed the way a conductor approaches Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony depends on whether he thought the composer killed himself.

Was Tchaikovsky a tortured, unstable neurotic who took his own life – either by choice or under pressure from court officials — because his homosexuality created a scandal? Or was he a man who, having sketched out a third piano concerto and discussed a concert tour, simply caught cholera and died?

Kensho Watanabe’s interpretation put him firmly in the first camp Friday night at Belk Theater. His performance drove every emotion in the piece to its outer limits, whipping the orchestra into frenzies and dropping it into funereal reveries. Most of the audience rewarded him with a roar of approval. Mine will be a dissenting voice.

Watanabe and pianist Sara Davis Buechner gave sympathetic renditions of two unusual pieces before intermission: Anna Clyne’s “Within Her Arms,” a tribute to the composer’s late mother, and Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, with a middle movement that hushes the orchestra and lets the soloist shine in a mini-sonata with a cellist. (Alan Black played his smaller part feelingly.)

Clyne’s work for 15 strings initially seems a cousin to Samuel Barber’s orchestration of his Adagio: Both use only strings, have layered fragments of melody and project the quality of a lament. (Barber’s adaptation of the slow movement from his string quartet didn’t start that way but has acquired this meaning over time.)

Yet Clyne’s sparse use of the strings and refusal to resolve the wispy, touching fragments of sound into a climax make her closer kin to Morton Feldman, though with more directly communicated feelings.

Schumann wrote her concerto as a teenager, assisted to some degree by her future husband. (Robert set his piano concerto, written a decade later, in the same key.) Yet her music owes more to Liszt in its moments of high drama and hints of gypsy wildness in the finale, and it owes nothing to anyone in its tender passages.

Buechner moved fluidly from bravura sections to gentler ones, reminding us in the long solo of the intermediate romanze that Clara Schumann wrote beautiful songs. Watanabe conducted with such joie de vivre that Buechner rocked with joy on the piano bench when not playing.

Watanabe told us with the agonizingly slow opening moments of the Tchaikovsky where he intended to take us. We immediately entered a gloomy dream, and he snapped us out with a thunderclap to start the first movement allegro. From there, each movement took on the hint of madness that plagues a hypersensitive brain.

The modified waltz of the second movement, now restless and bouncing, lost all elegance and warmth. The third movement march, bustling so feverishly that it recalled the scurrying mouse music in “Nutcracker,” built to a nightmarish frenzy. (Kudos to the orchestra for playing it well at that speed.)

Tchaikovsky the manic-depressive showed up in the finale, which alternated between the now-familiar melancholia (punctuated by long pauses) and bursts of nervous energy that slowly petered out to nothingness, as if the exhausted composer had finally collapsed.

Perhaps your interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s last finished symphony (he left sketches for another) also depends on your understanding of the title. After rejecting the name “Program Symphony,” because he didn’t want listeners guessing what the program was supposed to be, Tchaikovsky chose a Russian title meaning “passionate.”

His brother Modest suggested the French “Pathétique,” usually translated as “pathetic.” That stuck, perhaps over the composer’s objections, when he died nine days after the premiere and the publisher printed it on the score. If you’re looking for the pathetic Tchaikovsky, you’ll find him when the concert repeats tonight.

Pictured: Kensho Watanabe, conductor; by Irina Belashov.

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

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 Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Concert Looks Mostly to the Future

By Lawrence Toppman

Except for the inevitable Christmas “Nutcracker,” the Charlotte Ballet season-opener at Belk Theater represents Hope Muir’s farewell as artistic director. (She’ll take over the larger, better-connected National Ballet of Canada on January 1.)

She could have dwelt entirely in the past for the 50th anniversary celebration, which runs through Oct. 9 and comes a year late because of the pandemic: Robert Lindgren founded N.C. Dance Theatre, the company’s initial version, in 1970 at N.C. School of the Arts. Instead, Muir picked one classic from 1993 – Salvatore Aiello’s “The Rite of Spring,” as explosive now as it was then – and three pieces new to the company that show where it might go.

The fireworks opened with a squib Thursday night, with Christopher Stuart’s vaguely amiable “Then, Now, Forever.” Stuart, who’ll be interim artistic director once Muir leaves, set repetitive swirls and lifts to Philip Glass’ music. The presence of Charlotte Symphony Orchestra members in the pit, usually a rare boon for the ballet, backfired: The rusty, hesitant musicians started out of tune and achieved the proper rhythmic vitality only near the end. Then you noticed the disconnection between Glass’ pulsating score and the slower movements of the dancers.

Crystal Pite’s “A Picture of You Falling” raised the temperature immediately afterward. It’s written for two dancers (Amelia Sturt-Dilley and Andrès Trezevant, both razor-sharp on opening night), who spend the piece alternating solos and finally come together for a pas de deux. Muir has long wanted to get a piece by Pite, and you could see why: The innovative presentation, dramatic movements and ambiguous but thought-provoking psychology struck home.

My companion thought it might be about an unhealthy relationship marred by domestic abuse. I wondered if Pite explored gender identity: The man and woman dress identically in black and white, and the narrator’s voice suggests they may be the same person. The lighting, sometimes pitilessly revealing and sometimes encircling the participants like stanchions in a bullring, added menace.

Meanings became a little clearer with “Ibsen’s House.” Choreographer Val Caniparoli bit off more than anyone could possibly chew by depicting male-female behavior in five of Henrik Ibsen’s plays in about half an hour. The Belle Epoque costumes and darkened ballroom created by Sandra Woodall set the right tone, but the characters ran together in these brief snippets.

You might rightly have inferred that her obtuse husband didn’t satisfy Hedda Gabler, or that Nora Helmer rebelled against a stifling spouse in “A Doll’s House.” But the behavior in “Ghosts” and “Lady from the Sea” can’t be encapsulated that way, and nobody could have guessed that Rebecca dominates Rosmer in “Rosmersholm.” What prompted Caniparoli to set such brooding people in motion to Dvorak’s mostly buoyant Second Piano Quintet I can’t guess, but five Charlotte Symphony members played it with skillful brio.

Aiello’s “Spring” rocked the room, as it always does. I attended the world premiere 28 years ago and remembered the most lurid moments: the final sacrifice of an exhausted virgin, the cannibalistic devouring of a fallen warrior, the dashing and stomping brutes who look like prehistoric cave paintings come to life. I had forgotten the moments of whimsy – look at those waggling, elevated toes on prone bodies – and even some lyrical repose in the second half.

James Kopecky, often the company’s go-to guy for anguish, tore into the Young Warrior’s writhing solo and exulted in the defeat of the old chieftain (Ben Ingel). Nadine Barton’s dignified Earth Mother and Sarah Lapointe’s frenzied Chosen One bookended the action nicely, Lapointe, who’s usually used for elegance and poise, must have found it liberating to leap and twist about in rage and ecstasy, then douse herself in white body paint before flailing to her death. That final tableau still takes away your breath.

Pictured: NC Dance Theater performs The Rite of Spring – Afternoon of a Faun. Photo credit: © Charles & Mary Love.

Looking for love in all the wrong places

By Lawrence Toppman

Remember the 1994 movie “Immortal Beloved”? Its poster showed an improbably dashing Beethoven sitting in a chair, with the arms of an otherwise unseen female wrapped affectionately around him.

That fanciful biography took its title from a letter Beethoven wrote in July 1812 to a woman who has never been identified. The letter began “My angel, my all, my self” and ended “The gods must send what must and what should be for us – Your faithful Ludwig.”

The two likeliest candidates seem to be Antonie Brentano, an affectionate married woman to whom he was drawn, or Bettina Brentano, her sister-in-law by marriage and a younger muse to many men, including Goethe. (She introduced Beethoven to him at the composer’s request; he’d hoped to coax the old man into writing an opera libretto, but that came to nothing.)

Because Beethoven had a profound respect for wedlock, and because Bettina soon became a wife after he met her, he probably didn’t sleep with either. His lifelong bad fortune consistently drew him to women who were married, too young, too flighty, uninterested in him physically or too highly placed socially to accept him as a suitor.

In fact, lasting love of all kinds eluded him after the death of his mother when he was 16. His father beat, humiliated and exploited him. His brothers, neither of whom had any interest in his work except when hawking it to music publishers, went their own ways. He considered one sister-in-law no better than a prostitute and fought her in the courts for custody of her son, Karl. That four-year struggle ended with him gaining guardianship over the 14-year-old in 1820.

As his father had done with him, Beethoven attempted to squeeze music out of his nephew. Karl, uninspired as both a pianist and a composer, reasonably tried to fight free of his uncle’s grasp. He set his mother and uncle against each other, led an unambitious academic life, unsuccessfully attempted suicide in 1826, entered military service the following year and never saw his uncle again.

As this would-be-paternal relationship fell apart, Beethoven stopped seeking loving connections with family members and the opposite sex. Instead, he poured his feelings into music.

When the Missa Solemnis premiered in 1824, he dedicated it to Archduke Rudolf of Austria, his main patron as well as a former pupil and friend. He inscribed Rudolf’s copy “Von Herzen—Möge es wieder—Zu Herzen gehn!” That is, “From the heart – may it return to the heart!” If no individuals loved him deeply, he could still reach out to the heart of the entire world.

The greatest composer? Perhaps. The unhealthiest? Indisputably.

By Lawrence Toppman

Plenty of noteworthy classical composers died young: Juan Arriaga at 19, Lili Boulanger at 24, Pergolesi at 26, Schubert at 31 (the year after he escorted Beethoven’s coffin to the cemetery), Mozart at 35, Purcell at 36, Mendelssohn at 38, Chopin at 39.

But of all those who lived a reasonably full span for their eras, none suffered like Beethoven. Even if you set aside his hearing loss, an extraordinary handicap for a musician, his life seems like a nearly uninterrupted arc of physical misery.

Stomach pains and diarrhea racked him from his teens, possibly because lead leached out of cooking utensils or cheap wines. (Lead had been added to wine to thicken it since Roman times.) For the next 40 years, until he died at 56, these agonies never left him for long.

Friends who knew Beethoven best tolerated his emotional attacks and outbursts – often followed by apologies and repentance – because they knew his melancholy and depression sprang at least partly from pain. Others merely wrote him off wrongly as a misanthrope.

He ultimately endured colic, pancreatitis, what seems to have been an inflammatory bowel disorder, respiratory problems, joint pain, eye inflammation, chronic headaches, tinnitus and cirrhosis of the liver, aggravated by alcohol abuse. Meanwhile, useless treatments for his deafness included the application of leeches and the tourniquet-like fastening of bark from the Daphne mezereum plant to his forearms, which caused them to blister and burn.

Beethoven remained bedridden for months before his death in March 1827, which has been attributed by various sources to liver and kidney failure, peritonitis (inflammation of the fluid lining the abdomen) and encephalopathy, which would explain his disordered mental state.

Only a year earlier, he had composed the serene String Quartet in F, his 16th and last in that form. In his final months, though, he merely jotted notes for a piano piece that never took shape because he lacked the stamina to finish it.

Miraculously, like Mozart writing “The Magic Flute” in ill health months before his death, Beethoven produced some of his happiest music during his unhappiest times. His liver problems intensified as he finished the Ninth Symphony in 1824, yet the final “Ode to Joy” remains the most thrilling 15 minutes he composed. He separated physical agonies from the uplifting beauty he left to the world.