You could probably call it a facelift. After Charlotte Symphony’s powerful rendition of Mahler’s dark, morbid, changeable, epic and sometimes spooky Ninth Symphony, almost everything seemed to have changed two weeks later. A new conductor was on stage, Australian-born maestra Jessica Cottis, making her Queen City debut. The six guest artists were making their Classics Series debuts at Symphony, and even the site of their musical creation was different, moving south from the Belk Theater at the Blumenthal PAC to the Knight Theater on Levine Avenue of the Arts. Most transformative was the music, a kaleidoscopic multinational program tied together by a distinct American thread.
Headlining the program was LE CONCERTO POUR PIANO by Maurice Ravel, last performed by Symphony in 2013 when the wonderful Pascal Rogé made his keyboard debut at the Belk Theatre. Folksy by Jesse Montgomery, bluegrass flavor To scratch preceded the main event, when Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear sat down at the Steinway. Cotti reserved many other emotions for us after the intermission, immersing himself in the music of Igor Stravinsky Circus Polka, for a young elephant – actually written at the request of choreographer George Balanchine in 1942 for Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey’s massive troupe of uncontroversial young elephants. Curiously, another commission from Balanchine completed the program, that of Kurt Weill The seven deadly sins (1932) with lyrics by Bertold Brecht – evidently written for people rather than pachyderms.
Almost a year ago, Montgomery’s star burst aptly presented a program featuring Mozart Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (“A little night music”). Longer and decidedly sunnier, To scratch set the tone for the American CSO evening as perfectly as the title prepared us for a work written exclusively for strings. Reading Montgomery’s program notes, chronicling the different incarnations of the piece, we feel like we’re experiencing its evolution as it unfolds, as it bounces between three principal string players before beginning its breathtaking ascent to all power and beauty. With the first pizzicatos, violist Benjamin Geller is soon joined by cellist Alan Black, strumming then bowing. But it was the treacherous entry of concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu that really ignited the fray, setting off Montgomery’s ricochet effects and banjo strumming.
Honestly, CSO’s performance has become a more massive, beautiful and less ferocious thing than the studio version of the Catalyst Quartet on Montgomery’s 2015 To scratch CD. With a full string orchestra, more majesty appeared when the main melodies were revealed – and more bite when the piece ended with a collective pizzicato. Nor are “folksy” and “bluegrass” any less flattering to describe Montgomery’s music here than they are to describe many of Aaron Copland’s iconic works.
From the first time I saw him in 2017, playing all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in a single day at the Savannah Music Festival, Goodyear stood out in my mind as a prodigious talent. Prior to these three three-hour immersions, Tchaikovsky’s Goodyear Distillation Nutcracker, on his 2015 solo CD, gave me a hint. The soloist starts at a disadvantage in RAVEL’S CONCERTO FOR PIANO, having to follow the famous whiplash that launches the opening Allegramente. Don’t worry, Goodyear showed off her mastery of the movement’s bluesy, jazzy licks soon after, and harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell had a nice interlude.
Inspired by Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, Ravel’s middle movement draws absolutely haunting lyricism from Goodyear, with English horn player Terry Maskin behind it as stellar as he was for Rogé. Still, everyone on the Knight stage seemed most inspired by the final Presto. Goodyear unleashed dazzling intensity and bravery, never slowing the tempo, and the ensemble didn’t just follow: they seemed to be pushing their guest to play faster. The turbulence of winds, brass and percussion made the climax even more exhilarating.
Apparently the dancing elephant music is not classified as a ballet, since it does not appear in The Robert Craft Edition of The Ballets on the notoriously complete Naxos label. Yet Stravinsky never disavowed his Balanchine trifle, conducting “Circus Polka” among his voluminous recordings of his own works, where he recorded a modest 3:27 on Columbia. I don’t understand why this exuberant crowd pleaser isn’t played more often as a concert appetizer. While Cottis and the Symphony may have been a little messy where Ravel called for more momentum, they were wonderfully in tune with Igor’s rambunctious nonsense, brassy bombast and festive joy of wild, galloping jamboree. It seemed to start in the middle of the parade before the tricky spots hilariously evoke the pachyderm pixies.
The madness had barely begun. Bass-baritone Reginald Powell, dressed in a flowery kitchen apron to play our temptress/temptress heroine’s mother, led a quartet of barbers across the stage, sitting at the end of their walk behind a bank of microphones. Strange props for a classical concert. So Seven capital sins was classic with a Kurt Weill threepenny twist. It wasn’t an opera either, although a cabaret table and some props were set up before our singer, soprano Lindsay Kesselman as Anna I + II, made her black entrance into a spymaster’s trench coat.
More than a hint of decadent vaudeville accompanied it, as each of the nine sections of Weill’s confection was announced by an old-fashioned sign placed on an easel. Prologue, Epilogue, Greed and the gang were all embroidered with a fitting skull and crossbones pattern. Unfortunately, much of that savory creativity was offset by Charlotte Symphony’s inability to provide supertitle projections once Anna I+II began vocalizing with her family. A few audience members with us in the orchestra section had the audacity to turn on their cell phones, where they had previously downloaded Symphony’s digital program, so they could follow along.
It’s not the best experience when you’re trying to follow German and English columns on your iPhone when there’s also stage action to follow. The magnitude of this blunder would only be compounded if you returned home, flipped through the digital program and discovered that the translation was written by life partners WH Auden & Chester Kallman, esteemed poets and librettists in their own right – they or they worked on operas by Stravinsky! Not only their Sins translation rhyme, the number of syllables in each line meticulously matches Brecht’s text. Learning that all five singers had roots in North Carolina—and then listening to a recording on Spotify with Auden-Kallman’s lyrics—only deepened my disbelief.
Everyone at the Knight Theatre, singers and audience, could have been so comfortable, and all of Brecht’s wit, irony and satire could have been so clear!
Switching to one of the mics, Cottis was helpful in his introductory remarks by laying out Brecht’s storyline, which is essentially Anna’s odyssey through seven American cities on a mission to support her family back home in Louisiana, meeting one of the deaths in each locality. Ideally, the Balanchine concept comes true when Anna I is the soprano and Anna II is a sublime dancer. Some of the comedy that got lost when Kesselman was both Annas was in the lopsided nature of the dialogue between them. Anna II has very little to say.
The staging helped this decadent Weill bauble overshadow Ravel’s cheerfulness – or at least kept it from being an anticlimax. Kesselman quickly stripped off his trench coat, revealing a party dress as Family’s Sloth along the Mississippi River switched to Pride as Anna II took a job in Memphis as a nightclub dancer. Anna added a fiery red boa meeting Wrath in Los Angeles, and an uncredited lighting designer made an equally sinister choice by illuminating the knight’s acoustic shell. Purple became about Gluttony in Philadelphia, a lighter pinkish red presided over Lust in Boston, and a dark golden hue settled in Baltimore when she fought Greed. So I must have thought that no one wanted to offend New York during the Great Depression.
Need it be said that when Anna’s trip ended with Envy in San Fran, where Kesselman made his last big entrance as a wealthy celebrity, totally drunk and wielding a nearly empty vodka bottle, that the scene been flooded with a deep dark green? I did not mean it.
A beautiful end to a melodious, fun and dancing evening. Even without dancers. face lift and uprising.