Friday, September 30, 2011

$500,000 worth of opportunity

Alisa Weilerstein's artistic options just got a lot richer.

You may remember her as the cellist who helped Christopher Warren-Green launch his tenure with the Charlotte Symphony last fall, when she was the passionate soloist in Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto. Those of you who head to Charleston for the Spoleto Festival USA may know Weilerstein from the daily chamber-music concerts, where she's a regular.

A half-million dollars is headed her way. Weilerstein is one of 22 recipients of awards from the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation, which picks artists and scientists for recognition without letting them know it's looking them over. They got the bolt from the blue Sept. 20.

When foundation called, the news was "completely overwhelming," Weilerstein said in a statement. "My first response was an expression of total shock and amazement, and I still cannot believe it."

The foundation's award, paid out over five years, comes with no strings attached.

"Unlike many musical prodigies," a foundation statement says, "Weilerstein chose to pursue a liberal arts (college) degree while continuing to maintain a busy performance schedule. ... Weilerstein has successfully navigated the transition from child prodigy to accomplished professional musician and is expanding the cello repertoire through her collaborations with leading contemporary composers."

Pianist Stephen Hough, who soloed with the Charlotte Symphony in May near the end of Warren-Green's first season, belongs to an earlier group of MacArthur honorees. He used some of his money to buy an apartment in London, the crowded and expensive city that's his home base, and fit it out as a studio for practicing and composing.

Neither Weilerstein's statement nor her Facebook page says what she plans to do. But we can allow her a little time to think it over, can't we? With $500,000 at her disposal, she no doubt has a wealth of possibilities.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The giant head will soon depart

The art show that has livened up South Tryon Street since springtime will only be here a few more days.

"Niki de Saint Phalle: Creation of a New Mythology" ends Monday, Oct. 3, at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. Since I'm not a visual-art critic, I won't try to expound on the show itself. Instead, I'll just offer my perspective as someone whose desk is only a block from where Saint Phalle's sculptures are glistening on the Green.

I pass there several days a week, headed to lunch or to concerts at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center further up the street. Saint Phalle's mirrored "Firebird," with its permanent perch in front of the museum, has lit up the neighborhood since before the museum even opened -- well before the supersized death's head (photo by T. Ortega Gaines) and the trumpeter with his coat of many colors joined it across Tryon.

Here's what I see most every day. People stop. They look. They have their pictures taken with the "Firebird." They step inside "La Cabeza" and peer out through its teeth. They linger in front of the trumpeter as if they're listening to his solo.

Check out reader photos of 'La Cabeza'

Compare that to what happens nearby. There are a pair of newish sculptures on the bridge across I-277, flanking the Observer's front lawn. They're right by the path of uptown workers heading to and from home, and I've never seen anyone stop and look at them. On North Tryon, there are four brawny sculptures at the Square. For all the attention they get, they might as well not be there. And in a way, they aren't -- since their pedestals lift them above the level where actual humans are.

But the "Firebird" and its companions draw people to them. If you believe the old saying that everybody's a critic, there's a review for you. The sculptures on the Green will outlast the indoor part of the show by a few days: They'll stand their ground through Oct. 12.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Pianist Kern will return with fireworks

Olga Kern isn't one to play it safe. Assuming that the announcement lists things in the right order, the Russian pianist will walk onstage and dive straight into one of the most challenging works in the piano repertoire when she returns to Charlotte for a concert Oct. 7.

Kern will start her recital for Charlotte Concerts with a favorite warhorse of generations of virtuosos: "Islamey" by Mily Balakirev, one of her Russian musical forebears. Based on fiery folk music from the Caucasus, it's something of a keyboard equivalent of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Sheherazade" -- ringing, flamboyant and lush. And it's condensed into eight or nine action-packed minutes.

So it takes nerve to tackle it first thing. But Kern may know what she's doing: The first time she played in Charlotte, in 2006, she started with another whirlwind of a piece -- in that case, by Felix Mendelssohn. She tossed it off with no trouble. By the end of the concert, she had whipped the audience into a state that made Charlotte's usual standing ovations pale by comparison.

This time, she'll move on from "Islamey" to another dose of Russian opulence, Rachmaninoff's Sonata No. 2. (Not only has Rachmaninoff been something of a specialty of Kern's ever since she won the Van Cliburn piano competition in 2001, but she played his Piano Concerto No. 2 and "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" in her last two Charlotte visits.) And she'll cap off the concert with one of the piano world's most beloved blends of poetry and exuberance: Robert Schumann's "Carnaval."

Kern will play at 8 p.m. Oct. 7 at Central Piedmont Community College's Halton Theater. Details: 704-330-6534;

Balakirev's "Islamey"

Rachmaninoff's Sonata No. 2

Schumann's "Carnaval"

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Domingo's voice rings out through the decades

A friend of mine who's a veteran operagoer has a favorite anecdote about hearing a young tenor named Placido Domingo in the 1960s.

Domingo had made a splash as the ardent young Alfredo in Verdi's "La Traviata" -- a basically lyrical role. Then he turned right around and appeared in a role that's much more tougher on the voice, especially for a singer who's still maturing: Samson in Saint-Saens' "Samson and Delilah." At one of the performances, my friend and a fellow opera buff shook their heads and said that if Domingo kept on that way, he'd never last.

He showed them a thing or two, didn't he? He did keep on, and at 70 years old, Domingo is still at it.

If he has a secret recipe for longevity, he doesn't divulge it in "Placido Domingo: My Favorite Roles," a tribute that begins airing Friday, Sept. 23, on PBS' "Great Performances." Relaxing in an armchair, he reflects on life, opera and the characters he plays -- many of whom are feeling the pangs of betrayal, lost love or other misfortunes. "In real life, I want to be happy," Domingo explains. "But onstage, it's wonderful to suffer. ... You can give so much of yourself."

And give he does, in video clips of opera performances from across his career. Domingo's robust, ringing tones pour out through the 1970s, '80s and '90s, unleashing the despair and exultation of an array of characters familiar and otherwise. Most of the performances come from the opera house, of course, but a few arise from special circumstances -- such as a "Tosca" filmed in the opera's real-life locations in Rome. As Domingo sings the doomed Cavaradossi's last-act aria, St. Peter's Basilica glows behind him in dawn's early light. Could any opera-house stage equal that?

"Placido Domingo: My Favorite Roles" airs at 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23, on S.C's ETV network. UNC-TV will start it the same night at 10 p.m. If past experience is any indication, each network may show it more than once.
For details on the program:

Monday, September 19, 2011

An anthem to simplicity

If the goal of playing the national anthem is to get the audience to sing along, the Charlotte Symphony probably should go back to the basics.

The arrangement the orchestra uses now gives the patriotic tune a grand symphonic setup. It starts with fanfares, as you might expect. Then it switches gears for a bit of state-occasion dignity. After a half-minute or so, the orchestra launches into the famous melody, and it's time for everyone to join in.

So here's what happened Friday night. It was the opening concert of the season, and the first piece on the program was Shostakovich's Festive Overture, a flashy but not especially well-known piece. Christopher Warren-Green emerged from the wings, bowed and put the orchestra to work. The audience sat quietly and listened. After all, if you didn't happen to know the Festive Overture -- which also starts with fanfares, incidentally -- it would've been perfectly reasonable to think you were hearing it. There wasn't much in the anthem arrangement that would've tipped you off to what was actually coming if you weren't already on the lookout.

Finally, the players rose to their feet and started into a lusty tune. Surprise! It was the national anthem. By the time the audience caught on, stood and inhaled, the first words that came out with much impact were, "the dawn's early light," as best I could tell.

Now, that wasn't much of a way to stir up people's patriotic fervor, was it?

I'm not ordinarily addicted to the way things were done in the past, but orchestras used to do this in a simple but effective way. The conductor stepped onto the podium, cued the percussion, and a drum roll rang out. Everybody recognized the signal and got on their feet. By the time the orchestra set off on the anthem, anybody who wanted to sing was ready to fire away. Maybe we should go back to that.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Princess Grace Award boosts dancer and NCDT

N.C. Dance Theatre's Pete Walker landed an award that not only brings recognition to him, but pays off for NCDT.

Walker, who joined the company last season, is among 21 recipients of this year's Princess Grace Awards. The prizes, given out by the Princess Grace Foundation-USA, go to creators and performers in theater, dance and film. The New York-based charity views that awards as a continuation of the actress-turned-princess' work encouraging young artists.

The award "gives me an overwhelming sensation that dance is the right thing for me to do in my life," Walker said in a statement released by NCDT.

The award includes a cash fellowship for Walker and a grant to NCDT to help with its general operations. The grants to cultural groups that employ the winners range from $5,000 to $30,000 a foundation spokesman said, but she wouldn't specify NCDT's amount.

Walker, a native of Jacksonville, Fla., studied at the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts in Connecticut. (For you trivia buffs, Connecticut is nicknamed the Nutmeg State.) NCDT hired him last fall for its NCDT 2 entry-level company, then promoted him to the main company in mid-season after a dancer stepped down. He quickly made his mark though the dynamism he injected into such works as Jiri Bubenicek's "Le Souffle de l'Esprit," (pictured above; photo by Christopher Record) and Twyla Tharp's "The Golden Section."

NCDT's Alessandra Ball received a Princess Grace Award in 2005. The same year, an award for choreography went to Uri Sands, who had previously been a member of NCDT -- and of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre before that.

Walker and the other honorees will pick up their awards during a black-tie gala at New York's Cipriani hotel on Nov. 1.

Rembrandt's on the way to N.C.

No matter how hard Charlotte tries for the cultural major league, one thing is probably beyond reach: landing some Old Master art works to anchor the city's museums.

Museums elsewhere that had a head start by decades or centuries got first crack at the big names, of course. When something notable goes on the market, the price involves the kind of money that Charlotte doesn't deal in -- at least not for art. (If anyone out there has tens of millions of dollars to work with and wants to prove me wrong, go for it.)

One of the hopes for the new Mint Museum Uptown is that it will be able to bring in touring shows offering Charlotte a glimpse of what it doesn't possess full-time. Until then, for art lovers who are willing to hit the road, the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh is stepping in with "Rembrandt in America."

The show, which opens Oct. 30, will include more than 30 of the Dutch master's paintings. They come from private collections and more than two dozen U.S. museums -- including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. (Speaking of museums that recently expanded: A few weeks after the Mint Uptown opened, Boston's MFA unveiled a $345 million American-art wing.)

The paintings in Raleigh will include the fruits of Rembrandt's successful career as a portrait painter, such as his "Joris de Caulerij" (pictured); his historical and biblical scenes; and three of his self-portraits. As another way to open viewers' eyes to Rembrandt, the show will also include more than a dozen paintings that were once thought to be his, but are now attributed to others.

"Questions of authenticity have plagued Rembrandts for centuries, even during the artist's own lifetime," writes Jon Seydl, a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The confusion reached all the way to the N.C. Museum: Its first director, William Valentiner, was a Rembrandt specialist who "greatly expanded" the list of works ascribed to him, the museum's announcement says. More recent scholars have cast doubt on many of Valentiner's attributions -- including those of two paintings the N.C. Museum bought on his recommendation.

The show will help viewers look, examine and decide for themselves. But Valentiner won't be able to give his side of things: He died in 1958.

The show will run through Jan. 22, then move on to museums in Cleveland and Minneapolis. Details:

Monday, September 12, 2011

Charlotte Symphony will go on the air

For the second year, the Charlotte Symphony's first concert of the season will go out over the airwaves - and the web - Friday thanks to WDAV-FM

The concert, launching Christopher Warren-Green's second season as the orchestra's music director, will feature three Russian crowd-pleasers: Shostakovich's Festive Overture; Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1; and Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." Those will add up to a night of "wall-to-wall musical blockbusters," WDAV general manager Scott Nolan said in a statement.

Warren-Green said in an interview last week that he'd like for all the orchestra's concerts to be broadcast. That would extend the orchestra's reach beyond the music lovers who attend its concerts.

Friday's broadcast will start at 8 p.m. over the air at 89.9 FM and on the web at Before that, Warren-Green and the orchestra's No. 2 conductor, Jacomo Bairos, will step onto the Belk Theater stage to discuss the coming season with WDAV's program director, Frank Dominguez. Their chat will start at 7 p.m., and it's free for ticketholders.

The concert will start at 8 p.m. - and the same time Saturday night - in the Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St. Tickets are $31.50-$80.50. Details: 704-972-2000;

Friday, September 9, 2011

Website gives art groups something to sing about

The songbirds at Wing Haven will be as well-fed as any opera diva. The 200-year-old house at Historic Rosedale will be a little safer, thanks to lightning protection hooked up to the green ash tree next to it. The Light Factory will be able to bring its film series back home to the Knight Gallery.

Those are a few of the latest arts projects that have been paid for during the first week and a half of, a fundraising site devised by the Arts & Science Council. It lets cultural groups post projects that need funding, and it's set up so visitors to the site can make donations on the spot.

Since it went into action Aug. 29, the site has attracted more than $65,000 in donations, the ASC says. Fifteen projects out of more than 50 that the site began with have been completely funded.

As of Friday afternoon, 258 donors have made 325 donations, the ASC says. Forty-four people have given to multiple projects.

So far, the big winner has been N.C. Dance Theatre, which had two projects fully funded on power2give's first day. NCDT is getting $10,000 for a revival of Mark Diamond's "Bolero" and $1,038 to buy uniforms for children taken dance classes through NCDT Reach, a program for kids whose families need help paying for lessons.

Even before NCDT hit the mini-jackpot, executive director Doug Singleton was a backer of power2give, he says. He liked the idea as soon as the ASC first described it to arts leaders.

"It doesn't exist" until now, Singleton says. "That's why it's brilliant."

The two projects nearest their funding targets now: WTVI's request for backing for "City of Canvas," a documentary about Camp Greene, a World War I training camp in Charlotte; and the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art's request for backing for an art project for homeless people at Hope Haven. As of Friday afternoon, WTVI is $442 from the $4,592 it needs. The Bechtler is $316 from its goal of $2,000.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Davidson, Queens help launch music season

If there were a hall of fame for those who make their resources count, my latest nominee would be Davidson College.

The school's music department had a half-time faculty slot open. So it divided that into a pair of quarter-time jobs and landed two musicians who are much more than fractional: Alan Black, the Charlotte Symphony's principal cellist; and violinist Rosemary Furniss, who moved from England last year with her husband, Charlotte Symphony conductor Christopher Warren-Green.

The two will start into their new posts by sharing the stage at Davidson on Sunday -- one of a pair of Charlotte-area chamber-music concerts helping launch the music season. Saturday night, Queens University of Charlotte will host a trio composed of a violinist from Uzbekistan; a clarinetist from Azerbaijan; and a pianist from Russia.

Before Davidson came up with the more-formal job, Black was already pitching in as an ad hoc chamber-music coach. It was an example of how an orchestra's players, even beyond their main jobs, are a cultural resource for the communities around them.

While I'm no expert on liberal-arts colleges, my hunch is that it's a coup for Davidson to land a teacher and player with Furniss' kind of experience. As a violinist-about-town in London, she played in an array of groups, including the Academy of St. Martin the Fields and the very different Fires of London -- a modern-music ensemble led by Scottish composer Peter Maxwell Davies. She taught at the Yehudi Menuhin School, whose famous founder was one of her own teachers.

In Sunday's concert -- at 3 p.m. in Davidson's Tyler-Tallman Hall -- Black and Furniss will be joined by Belgian-based pianist Dana Protopopescu, a frequent collaborator of Black's. (The three are pictured above.) They'll play one of Franz Schubert's greatest feasts of melody, the Trio in B-flat; Chopin's Trio; and the "Serenade lointaine" by Georges Enescu, the early 1900s violinist and composer best known for his two Romanian Rhapsodies.

The three musicians will in part be setting an example for the Davidson students in Black's chamber-music program. The school, Black says, has "a lot of great kids -- a lot of musically talented kids" who aren't necessarily even music majors. They'll be working toward a concert of their own.

"They're doing it completely voluntarily," Black says. "They just want to do it -- which is remarkable."

Academia was also the breeding ground for the Prima Trio, which plays at Queens' Dana Auditorium at 8 p.m. Saturday. Its three members came from their faraway homelands to study at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. They banded together musically there in 2004.

Their program at Queens will be international above all. It will include music by Armenian-born Aram Khatchaturian; the very cosmopolitan Frenchman Darius Milhaud; Germany's Max Bruch; Peter Schickele, an American whom many people know best as P.D.Q. Bach, his comic alter ego; Argentine tango king Astor Piazzola; and Srul Irving Glick, a Canadian who died in 2002. If the trio plays with spirit, the concert should be quite a round-the-world trip.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Met will offer more operatic adventure

This season's movie-theater showings from the Metropolitan Opera will bring another batch of operas that are unlikely to show up on a Charlotte stage anytime soon.

The Met will unveil the last two dramas of Richard Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung," completing the cycle it began last year. Soprano Renee Fleming will star in Handel's "Rodelinda," whose rich score will treat her fans to a string of arias spotlighting her. In opera's answer to the History Channel, Donizetti's "Anna Bolena" will show Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour aiming vocal fireworks at each other as they compete for the favor of Henry VIII.

In addition to the live showings on Saturday afternoons, nice of the operas will have recorded Encore showings on Wednesday evenings. The schedule:

Oct. 15: Donizetti's "Anna Bolena," featuring Anna Netrebko as Anne Boleyn. Encore Nov. 2.

Oct. 29: Mozart's "Don Giovanni," with baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as Mozart's version of Don Juan. Encore Nov. 16.

Nov. 5: Wagner's "Siegfried," Part 2 of his "Ring of the Nibelung." Noon.

Nov. 19: "Satyagraha," Philip Glass' portrayal of Gandhi. Encore Dec. 7.

Dec. 3: Handel's "Rodelinda," starring Renee Fleming as a woman whose husband has disappeared during wartime. 12:30 p.m. Encore Jan. 4.

Dec. 10: Gounod's "Faust." Jonas Kaufmann portrays the scientists who sells his soul to the devil -- played by Rene Pape. Encore Jan. 11.

Jan. 21: "The Enchanted Island," the Met's answer to the pastiche operas of the 18th century. It will borrow music by Handel, Vivaldi and others; leading singers include Placido Domingo and Spartanburg native David Daniels. Encore Feb. 8.

Feb. 11: "Twilight of the Gods," the finale of Wagner's "Ring." Noon.

Feb. 25: Verdi's "Ernani," which eclipses the classic love-triangle concept by having three men vie for a woman's love. Encore March 14.

April 7: Massenet's "Manon," starring Netrebko again, this time as a young woman who avoids the convent and throws herself into a life of romance, luxury and turmoil. (Pictured above; photo by Bill Cooper for Covent Garden.) Encore: April 25.

April 14: Verdi's "La Traviata," with Natalie Dessay as the courtesan who sacrifices her one chance at true love.

The Charlotte-area theaters are the Stonecrest 22 at Piper Glen, near Ballantyne, and the Concord Mills 24 in Concord. Viewers further up Interstate 85 can also opt for the Tinseltown theater in Salisbury, 305 Faith Road.

This season, the starting time for most Saturday showings moves earlier, to 12:55 p.m. The exceptions are noted above. Of course, if the massive and cantankerous "Ring" set malfunctions again, as it did last season before "The Valkyrie" -- delaying the start for more than a half-hour -- it's anybody's guess when the music will begin.