Monday, October 31, 2011

Myers Park meets John Cage

John Cage would have to rank high on any list of composers whose whose works are talked-about much more than they're actually performed. He became known far outside the classical-music world decades ago, thanks to his "4'33," " in which a pianist takes his place at the keyboard and proceeds to spend 4 minutes and 33 seconds playing: nothing.

Cage wrote reams of works that do produce sound. But until the Third Coast Percussion quartet played at Queens University of Charlotte on Oct. 29, none of those -- nor "4' 33," " for that matter -- ever landed in front of me at a concert. That must've been true of most everyone else in the audience, too.

So we all had our inauguration at at Queens, in Myers Park -- the heart of Charlotte gentility. Guess what: The earth did not open up and swallow Selwyn Avenue. Actually, minds may have opened instead: Some ordinary Charlotte concertgoers came up to me afterward and said they enjoyed Cage's music.

Admittedly, the music in question was nothing outlandish. Third Coast, a quartet based in Chicago, included two works that Cage wrote for his own percussion ensemble around 1940, when he was just beginning to evolve into the cheery provocateur of 20th-century music. Cage's "Construction No. 2" and "Construction No.3" employed a wide but un-shocking array of drums, bells, rattles other instruments from around the world. The main innovation was what Cage dubbed a prepared piano: an instrument with paper and other objects stuck between strings to alter the sound.

So there was an extra rumble to a pithy theme that welled up from the piano's bass range. Cage did work with some building blocks as traditional as identifiable themes, you see, in addition to indulging the sheer sonic impact of the instruments. The music that emerged from the stageful of instruments -- and kept the four players very busy -- was dynamic, colorful and exuberant. No wonder it spoke to people.

Besides keeping Cage's music crisp and vivid, the group turned the sound of the marimba into the stuff of sculpture. When the four players joined forces at two marimbas, strumming them gently, the glowing tones let Tobias Brostrom's "Twilight" very much live up to its name. Along the way, a melody floated from player to player, and the four of them showed that percussionists can operate as smoothly as any violinist or singer.

The marimba music particularly struck someone I spoke to afterward. He said the mellowness of it took him back to when he attended concerts by the Grateful Dead. This time there were no controlled substances.


Friday, October 28, 2011

You decide if Fabio is fab

Legions of opera lovers are about to become acquainted with a conductor who's likely to become very important to them in the coming years.

Fabio Luisi will conduct the Metropolitan Opera's movie-theater relay of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" on Saturday, Oct. 29. He's stepping in to replace the Met's ailing music director, James Levine, and he'll take on even more heavy lifting next Saturday, Nov. 5, when the Met beams Richard Wagner's "Siegfried" out to the theaters.

The peripatetic Luisi -- raised in Italy, leader of an opera house in Switzerland, head of an orchestra in Vienna -- has conducted more than 70 performances at the Met since his debut there in 2005. But these will be his first appearances for the movie-theater crowds. In "Don Giovanni," besides introducing himself to them, he'll treat many opera buffs to something they've never encountered: Unlike most conductors, Luisi puts down the baton and plays the harpsichord during Mozart's sung dialog. As best I recall, even Levine -- who's a keyboard virtuoso -- leaves that to others.

When he took over Levine's autumn performances, Luisi -- who became the Met's principal guest conductor in 2010 -- was elevated to principal conductor. There's wide speculation that Luisi will ascend to the Met's top artistic job if Levine's health woes force an end to his 35-year reign.

However that turns out, Luisi is already making his mark.

The Met did an audio webcast of the opening night of "Siegfried" on Thursday, Oct. 27, and I heard most of it. The performance's sweep, subtlety and theatrical spark showed that Wagner was in accomplished hands. The orchestra's rich experience playing this music under Levine must've contributed, of course. But Levine wasn't behind one thing: Luisi brought in "Siegfried" in about 5 hours and 10 minutes -- 20 minutes less than the Met's website predicted. No wonder the music seemed so alive.

Photo: BALU Photography

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Brush up your Wagner

Many devotees of the Metropolitan Opera's movie-theater showings have been following the installment-plan presentation of Richard Wagner's epic "The Ring of the Nibelung." Part 3 of the epic cycle, "Siegfried," beams into theaters Nov. 5. If you're a real Wagner fan, you can get a jump on it Thursday, Oct. 27.

Listen in on the Met's website as the new production of "Siegfried" premieres, beginning at 6 p.m. Obviously, you won't be able to see how director Robert Lepage uses his staging's most famous component: the 45-ton set, a mechanical contraption that has turned out to be as temperamental as any prima donna. (A computer glitch held up the movie-theater relay of Part 2, "The Valkyrie," for about 45 minutes. Do you suppose any human diva has ever done that?)

Unless you're a hardcore Wagner buff, though, you can probably use a refresher before going out to Stonecrest or Concord Mills on Nov. 5. "Siegfried," the next-to-last opera in Wagner's 19-hour saga of gods and monsters, introduces the hero bred to untangle the mess the gods have gotten themselves into. But there's far more to it than I can summarize here.

Assuming that the set cooperates, "Siegfried" will run from 6 p.m. to about 11:30. If you happen to be tied up early in the evening, there's good news: the juiciest part is the last half-hour. That's when Siegfried discovers Brünnhilde, the warrior maiden put into a magic slumber at the end of "Valkyrie." He wakes her and they instantly fall in love. If you're still up around 11 p.m., it could make a nice bedtime story.

Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Orchestra will have a second date wiith Bearden

The Charlotte Symphony is getting ready for Romare Bearden 2.0.

The orchestra opened this season's KnightSounds series last Friday by combining the Charlotte native's art -- projected on a screen above the players -- with music that amplified it. For instance: "Take the A Train" and other Duke Ellington hits became the soundtrack for Bearden's depictions of jazz musicians in full swing. The orchestra swung right along with them.

Versatility is one of American orchestras' virtues. The same musicians who dance a graceful Mozart minuet can turn around and kick up their heels with Bearden and the Duke. They'll have another date with Bearden on Nov. 3, when the orchestra plays an altered version of the concert at Central Piedmont Community College.

The bulk of the program will be the same, including the Ellington medley, Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" and Leonard Bernstein's "On the Town." If the orchestra delivers the "Fanfare" the way it did at the Knight Theater -- with the brass and percussion lined up across the stage, firing into the audience at almost point-blank range -- the Halton Theater may still be vibrating the next morning.

The concert will give the orchestra a second crack at the Bearden multimedia component, which hit a snag last Friday. Introducing Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," conductor Jacomo Rafael Bairos told the audience about the black-and-white artworks that were in store. But as the music unfolded, the screen remained blank. What happened? The computer that was programmed with the images malfunctioned, according to the orchestra's executive director, Jonathan Martin.

Maybe the second time will be a charm. The concert will start at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3 at CPCC's Halton Theater. Unlike the KnightSounds evening, this one won't include free food beforehand or a free visit to an art museum. But the tickets are only $20 for adults, $12 for students. So it's still a good deal. Tickets are available from the Charlotte Symphony box office (not in this case) at 704-972-2000;

Romare Bearden photo by Marvin E. Newman.

Friday, October 21, 2011

'Trovatore' hits high note with a boost from France

In a post earlier this week, I pointed out that an extra high C that Lisa Daltirus adds to Opera Carolina's "Il Trovatore" harks back to the celebrated soprano Leontyne Price. In the meantime, I've gotten a handle on where the flourish in Act 4 -- a Price trademark -- actually originated.

I had time one night to check around through CDs and LPs on the shelves at home. Nothing bore out my original impression -- which I kept quiet about a couple of days ago, luckily -- that the alteration rose in Germany. I finally tried out the very first recording of "Trovatore," made in France in 1912.

Not only is it sung in French, but it's based on a revised version that Verdi himself crafted for use in Paris. The biggest change: Because even Verdi knew when he had to comply with the fashions of Paris -- where audiences demanded ballet -- a dance sequence pops up in Act 2. It's predominantly bright, perky and hardly recognizable as Verdi. And in Act 4, when the offstage voices of the tenor and chorus chime in with the heroine, soprano Jane Morlet lets fly with the same high C that later became fodder for Price -- who, for my money, did it better.

Shining high notes were a specialty of Price's during her heyday. In that passage of "Trovatore" -- where there are four opportunities to throw in the C -- she sometimes did it twice. Opera buffs cherish a recording made in 1962 during a fireball of a performance at the Salzburg Festival in Austra. If you enjoy full-throated singing, it's worth tracking down.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Latest NPR flap draws in WDAV

WDAV-FM is helping deal with the latest brouhaha involving National Public Radio and politics.

WDAV produces "World of Opera," a weekly program featuring performances recorded in theaters across the United States and Europe. Distributed by NPR, it airs on 61 U.S. stations. Lisa Simeone, a Maryland-based broadcaster who works for WDAV as a freelancer, is the host.

The Capitol Hill journal Roll Call reported Tuesday night that Simeone also acts as a spokesperson for October 2011, a group involved in anti-Wall Street demonstrations in Washington. NPR, which has been stung by disputes involving its radio personalities and their political views, put out word that it was looking into Simeone's actions. The blogosphere quickly picked up on the hot topic, as did Fox News.

Simeone was fired Wednesday as the host of another program: "Soundprint," a show that airs on some NPR stations but isn't produced by NPR. Meanwhile, WDAV general manager Scott Nolan went into discussions with NPR about "World of Opera."

Thursday afternoon, WDAV put out word on its blog, Classical Musings, that Simeone will stay put on "World of Opera":

As host of World of Opera, Lisa Simeone is an independent contractor of WDAV Classical Public Radio. Ms. Simeone’s activities outside of this job are not in violation of any of WDAV’s employee codes and have had no effect on her job performance at WDAV. Ms. Simeone remains the host of World of Opera.

The item added that the station is working with NPR to "find a solution to the issues surrounding 'World of Opera,' " and said it will publish any updates on its blog.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

'Il Trovatore' carries extra resonance

Besides containing the most powerful collection of voices that Opera Carolina has fielded in recent years, the company's "Il Trovatore" contains a couple of reverberations from the big, splashy world of opera outside Charlotte.

Italian tenor Antonello Palombi, who plays the troubadour Manrico, made international news in 2006 when he made a sudden debut at Italy's -- if not the world's -- most famous opera house.

Milan's La Scala had hired Palombi to do a couple of performances as Radames, the tenor role in Verdi's "Aida." Palombi also signed up to be the backup for other occasions. On one of
those nights, he was on standby offstage -- warmed up but not in costume -- when star tenor Roberto Alagna went onstage for the evening's performance. Mere minutes into the performance, at the end of Ramades' aria, Alagna was pelted by boos. So Alagna did something that rarely happens even in Italy's tempestuous theaters: He threw up his hands and walked out in mid-scene.

There was no time to waste. The stage manager grabbed Palombi and pushed him onstage in his street clothes. Even if you don't understand the narrator in this report from Italian television,
the video will take care of you.

Palombi got into costume during the next intermission. And soon, media around the world picked up the story. Another biographical tidbit about Palombi: He grew up in Spoleto, the Italian hill town whose summer cultural festival spawned the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston.

The other reverberation comes through the music: an echo of a great American singer, Leontyne Price.

If you go to one of the remaining performances, be on alert early in Act 4. First, the opera's heroine, Leonore, laments the fate of her beloved Manrico, who languishes in a dungeon. Then an offstage chorus chimes in, praying for mercy for prisoners who are about to be executed. Leonore's voice sails above, and toward the climax, her voice rises repeatedly to a high A-flat.

That's what Verdi wrote, anyhow. But when Price was in her heyday, she spurned one or two of the A-flats and, staying with the right harmony, vaulted on up to high C -- to radiant effect. I don't think she wasn't the first soprano to do that, but she was the one who became known for it.

When Opera Carolina's "Trovatore" opened last Thursday, soprano Lisa Daltirus followed Price's lead. The last time the phrase came along, Daltirus, too, zoomed up to a high C. It took that prayer a little closer to heaven.

Friday, October 14, 2011

4 dancers take their places with NCDT

Dancers come and go from N.C. Dance Theatre most every year. Not only do they move around in search of opportunity, but, let's face it, dancers' careers aren't very long. That's why they're eager for opportunity.

If you go to N.C. Dance Theatre's "Director's Choice" program this weekend at the Knight Theater, you'll see four dancers who have joined the main company this fall. aking their debut with the main company. You may have a bit of deja vu, though: Three of them moved from the NCDT 2 training company. Here's an introduction to the group:

You're sure to notice Jordan Leeper during William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," where he has a series of athletic solos. Also be on the lookout for him in one of Forsythe's less-conspicuous but intriguing turns: Leeper will be in a back corner (to the left from the audience's perspective) reaching through the air as if he's measuring off the space around him. While this is his first season in the main company, Leeper belonged to NCDT 2 last year.
Hometown: Jamestown, N.Y.
Began dancing: age 12.
Training included: Chautauqua Regional Youth Ballet School near his hometown;San Francisco Ballet School summer program.
If he weren't a dancer he'd be: a figure skater.
Favorite thing to do an a day off: relax and watch movies.
Never misses an episode of: "True Blood."
Pet peeve: when people chomp on food.

Naseeb Culpepper, the only complete newcomer to NCDT, is one of the five men in Sasha Janes' "Rhapsodic Dances." He and Jamie Dee are the couple in green.
Hometown: Florence, S.C.
Began dancing: age 11.
Training included: UNC School of the Arts; Houston Ballet.
Last season: member of the Colorado Ballet's studio company.
Favorite music: Bob Marley, Fleetwood Mac.
Favorite TV show: "Batman: The Animated Series."
Prized possession: electric guitar, a Jackson KE3 Kelly.

Kate Ann Behrendt, like Leeper, moved up this season from NCDT 2. She's one of the women who stir up the lazy men in Mark Diamond's "Bolero."
Hometown: St. Paul, Minn.
Began dancing: age 10.
Training included: Minnesota Dance Theatre; Pacific Northwest Ballet; bachelor's degree in dance from New York University.
At NYU: minored in anthropology.
If she weren't a dancer she'd be: an archaeologist.
Favorite music: Lynne Li, Mumford & Sons, Yann Tiersen.
Pet peeve: clutter.

Daniel Rodriguez is one of the men roused by Behrendt and the women in "Bolero." At the beginning, he's stretched out at the front of the stage, toward the audience's left. He also moved up from NCDT 2.
Hometown: New York City.
Began dancing: age 10.
Training included: National Dance Institute in New York; LaGuardia High School of Music & Art.
Prized possession: Lava lamp.
Favorite Charlotte restaurant: Cuisine Malaya.
Favorite thing to do on a day off: watch football.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

One sour note in "Prohibition"

Ken Burns' "Prohibition" on PBS isn't about music, obviously, but music helps tell its story. Church hymns capture the temperance movement's rock-ribbed resolve. Wynton Marsalis and his band keep the party rolling for revelers in clubs and speakeasies. One choice of music bothers me, though.

The booze-fueled business boom for gangsters is one of the documentary's main story lines. A chapter titled "The Goons" describes criminal action in Chicago and other big cities. It tells about crooks who aren't well-known today, such as the Bernstein brothers and the Fleishers, descendants of Jews from eastern Europe. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack, a piano and orchestra rip through the Concerto in F by George Gershwin -- a descendant of Jews from eastern Europe.

"Prohibition" is sweeping and thought-provoking. It's well worth 5 1/2 hours of your time. But that one conjunction of story, music and heritage grates on me, and I'm still trying to figure out why.

After all, it was probably just a coincidence. Gershwin and his background aren't mentioned. In the part of the concerto we hear, the pianist lets fly with a pounding bass line. That could've struck a producer or music consultant as a perfect match for mobsters' strong-arm tactics. But to me, it rings hollow. Gershwin's music is one of the most uplifting examples of how immigrants have defined this country's spirit and flavor; the mob's Bernsteins and Fleishers definitely are not. Should Gershwin supply the soundtrack for the goons?

Monday, October 10, 2011

A boost for arts coverage

Since the recession broke out, arts coverage by newspapers and other media has probably been even more squeezed than the cultural groups receiving the coverage. But a consortium of Charlotte media organizations including the Charlotte Observer is among five groups nationwide that will look for ways to use new media to reverse the trend.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts announced this morning that they will give up to $20,000 in planning money toward each of these projects:

In Charlotte, media outlets will join with UNC Charlotte to create the Charlotte Arts News Alliance. The group envisions publishing arts stories across media platforms including a newly developed mobile app. The media operations involved are the Charlotte Observer; Charlotte Viewpoint; WCNC-TV; WFAE-FM; and After talking with the ringleaders, I'll put more about the project in the Observer, or here.

In Detroit, iCritic Detroit aims to have a mobile video booth in which audience members will record reviews to be posted on websites and shared via social media.

In Miami, ArtSpotMiami plans to create an online marketplace and app through which citizen journalists propose stories about the local arts scene, the public pays for the stories they like, and the citizen journalists team with traditional media to produce the stories.

In Philadelphia, students and faculty from Drexel University would work with one of the city's newspapers, the Philadelphia Daily News, to expand the paper's arts coverage.

In San Jose, Calif., Silicon Valley Arts Technica envisions a three-part endeavor: a mapping component to highlight arts events; a mobile app allowing users to add comments, reviews and images; and a series of investigative stories about arts funding in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

The five groups will use their grants to create fleshed-out proposals they'll submit to the Knight Foundation and NEA by the end of the year. Three of the groups will receive up to $80,000 each to produce their projects. Those winners will be announced next spring.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Working overtime at the Bechtler

Galleries in a museum do no one any good when they're closed. But paintings and sculptures can't just be thrown in and yanked out. What's a museum to do?

Get busy, that's what.

"Niki de Saint Phalle: Creation of a New Mythology" closed Monday afternoon, Oct. 3, at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. The museum's next show -- "Geometry and Experimentation" -- opens tonight, Oct. 7. And it isn't as though the Bechtler has acres of space at its disposal. The precise, cool works in "Geometry" have moved into the same galleries "Niki" left behind.

Here's how it played out. As soon as the museum doors closed at 5 p.m. Monday, president John Boyer said, workers went into action. They toiled into the night, moving Saint Phalle's art into other parts of the museum, patching up holes where art had been attached, and repainting the walls.

Over the next two days, the 50-plus works in "Geometry" were uncrated and assembled -- a delicate operation, in some cases. Meanwhile, workers began crating Saint Phalle's works. For the more complex pieces, they used photographs they had taken while unpacking them last spring.

Thursday, a semi stood outside the museum, ready to take Saint Phalle's works back to their home in southern California. One of the last to go was that dramatic wedding-dress sculpture, which took a last look at Charlotte -- and vice versa -- from museum's front plaza before the last piece of its crate was fastened up. By midafternoon Thursday, the new show -- "Geometry and Experimentation: European Art of the 1960s and 1970s," for its full title -- was ready to go.

The lights in the galleries are lower, this time, and Saint Phalle's grand, dramatic fantasies have given way to more compact and controlled works. But that doesn't mean that "Geometry" is sedate. As you can see from even a miniature image of Angel Duarte's "Untitled," art that's carefully wrought can still play games with your eyes.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

'Bolero' needs a white knight

In a city that's still developing, as Charlotte is, you have to get used to the idea of having to wait for some things you'd like the arts scene to have. But once in a while, a better setup comes so close that you can nearly see it dancing before your eyes.

If you've ever been disappointed when N.C. Dance Theatre performs to the sounds of a recorded orchestra, this is one of those occasions.

Last weekend, the Charlotte Symphony capped off a Spanish-style program with Maurice Ravel's "Bolero." When NCDT opens its season next week, Oct. 13-15, it will do Mark Diamond's choreographed "Bolero" -- accompanied by a CD. So close, yet so far.

As with so many aspects of the arts in Charlotte, money is the hitch -- especially since the recession. But solutions are out there.

NCDT isn't the only dance company crimped this way. The Miami City Ballet, a substantially bigger company than NCDT, originally used an orchestra, but had to give it up during the downturn.

So I was a little let-down when I headed to a performance by the company during a trip to Florida last spring. George Balanchine's "Scottish Symphony" was on the bill, and I wasn't looking forward to hearing Mendelssohn's music emanating from loudspeakers. Imagine my surprise, then, when I drove into the parking garage and saw people dressed in black taking instrument cases from their cars.

The printed program held the explanation. Miami City Ballet had brought back its orchestra thanks to a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which was started by the onetime owners of the Miami Herald. The Knights owned a newspaper in Charlotte, too, and their foundation has an office here. Shouldn't someone go by there with a proposal?

Photo of Mark Diamond's "Bolero" by Jeff Cravotta.