Friday, April 27, 2012

Violins of Hope: A welcome guest

Beyond what it had to say about the Holocaust and humanity, the Violins of Hope festival added breadth to Charlotte's music scene. 

Alongside Vivaldi and Beethoven came music of a sort that Charlotte rarely hears. Strictly speaking, it was modern music. But thanks to the context the festival provided, it became  meaningful music. 

Take "Acho't Ketana'a" -- "Little sister" -- by the Israeli composer Betty Olivero, from the festival's closing concert. It combined a soprano singing a Rosh Hashana prayer, three violinists playing fragments of J.S. Bach's Chaconne, and a string orchestra's tense, mostly dissonant background. I don't know if Olivero intended it this way, but to me it came across as a musical picture of the Holocaust's tragic collision of cultures. 

The festival also gave us two works by one of today's most powerful musical figures, Estonia's Arvo Part. Actually, Part's "Spiegel im Speigel", or "Mirror in the Mirror," a soulful piece for violin and piano, had turned up previously in Charlotte -- but through N.C. Dance Theatre, not a musical group. Just as Uri Sands' choreography expanded on the music's elegiac tone, so did the slideshow of concentration-camp photos that accompanied it this time. Part's "Fratres," or "Brothers," was a version of work that had been performed by the Charlotte Symphony -- in 2004. Playing off the title, the festival gave the anxious music  a "Band of Brothers" resonance by showing photos of the Normandy invasion. 

Violins of Hope also brought notable musicians to share the spotlight with the instruments. Unfortunately for me, I missed the return to town of Chad Hoopes, who played the Mendelssohn concert so compellingly last winter with the Charlotte Symphony. But Julia Hwang, a young Korean who studies in England, gave a compelling performance of Part's "Spiegel im Spiegel." 

And Shlomo Mintz, one of the most prominent Israeli violinists of the generation after Itzhak Perlman, took part in a series performances. In recent years, Mintz has been more active in Israel and Europe than in this country, and I hadn't heard him since the 1980s. So I was glad for the concert-hall reunion. He closed the festival by bringing out the grandeur, richness and nobility of Beethoven's Violin Concerto. Christopher Warren-Green and the Charlotte Symphony, meanwhile, added their own shadings: tenderness in the slow movement, jubilation in the finale. Beethoven summed up the hope in the festival's title. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

4 dancers prepare to bow out

Get ready to say goodbye to four of N.C. Dance Theatre's leading members at this weekend's performances

The four dancers -- Alessandra Ball, Rebecca Carmazzi, David Ingram and Justin VanWeest -- have combined 30 years' experience with NCDT. Their decisions to move on from the company show how  dancers feel the pull of families and relationships. After all, they may play fairy-tale characters onstage, but they're still human. 

Alessandra Ball:  After the career milestone of starring in "Sleeping Beauty" in March, Ball has a personal milestone. She's s getting married and joining her new husband in the Northeast. This is her eighth season with NCDT. "I came here when I was 19," Ball said in a statement, "so I grew up here. I learned everything I know about being a professional dancer here." 

Rebecca Carmazzi: Her decision can be summed up three words: Jaidyn, Taurin and Rykar. Those are her three children with NCDT's Sasha Janes. "I have been a professional dancer for 20 years, and now I am ready to concentrate on my kids and become the best mom I can be," Carmazzi said in a statement. "Being a professional dancer is very demanding physically and you have to be in  amazing shape to do it. ... That's really hard with 3 kids." This weekend, closing her 10th season with NCDT, she plays the scheming Marquise de Merteuil in Janes' "Dangerous Liaisons." 

David Ingram: He's moving to Indiana to rejoin his wife, Alexis, who last year took a teaching post with the Fort Wayne Ballet. Ingram will teach there, too, but he'll visit Charlotte next season to choreograph a work in NCDT's annual Innovative Works program. He said the highlight of his five season with NCDT was working with NCDT's Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride in Balanchine's "Apollo." In "Liaisons," he'll play the other main schemer, Valmont. 

Justin VanWeest: He's moving to San Francisco to be with his girlfriend, former NCDT dancer Kara Wilkes. A native of Mebane,  he's one of several NCDT dancers raised in the Carolinas. "This company and city have been my home and ... will always be close to my heart," VanWeest said. He'll wrap up his seventh season by performing in "Liaisons" and the other work on the program, Dwight Rhoden's "Artifice." 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Let breezy Rossini cool your summer

Even if Richard Wagner's mythological epics aren't your cup of mead, the Metropolitan Opera may still be able to combat the looming hot-weather doldrums.

Soon after it reprises Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelung" in movie theaters, the Met will offer six replays of recent seasons' high-definition showings. Rossini's bubbly "Le Comte Ory" might be just the thing for summer refreshment. Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" would let you visit 18th-century Vienna's answer to Queens Road.

Admittedly, the other operas are more serious. Mozart's Don Juan will be dragged off to hell, and two Donizetti heroines will go mad. But that beats anything you're likely to see around real-life Charlotte this summer, doesn't it?

The showings are Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. at Stonecrest near Ballantyne -- only there, not Concord Mills. The schedule:

June 13: Donizetti's "Anna Bolena," starring Anna Netrebko as the doomed Anne Boleyn (photo by Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera).

June 20: Rossini's "Le Comte Ory," a little-known comedy that's full of vocal fireworks.

June 27: Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

July 11: Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann," with James Levine conducting one of his last movie-theater operas before his health troubles forced him to step down from the Met.

July 18: Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," also featuring Netrebko.

July 25: Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," with Renee Fleming.

But first, the Met will show Wagner's "Ring" in May. A documentary on the Met's new staging will open the series May 7, and the four-opera cycle will unfold on May 9, 14, 16 and 19 at Stonecrest. After that, everyone may need some Rossini.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Community School opens the door to the arts

The Community School of the Arts' director sums up the way the school operates:
"We are not an isolated fortress of the arts," Andrea Stevenson says.

She speaks in a video the Community School has just put online, offering a profile of its students, programs and goals. "It's about changing the lives of students," a voice-over says at one point.

In the 11-minute video, students show off their skills and discuss what the arts have given them -- from a young fiddler who has done better than his mother expected to a budding painter who already has sold a few canvases. Teachers describe how students blossom.

"One day they come in with a glow on their face, and you know they're going to show you something special," music teacher Laurel Talley says.

If the camera spent more time aimed at the kids and less collecting comments from the usual suspects among Charlotte arts and nonprofit leaders, the video would probably be even more compelling. But if you aren't familiar with the Community School -- which has been teaching kids for 43 years, but isn't necessarily high-profile -- this might open your eyes.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Violins of Hope spotlights violinists, too

While Holocaust-era musical instruments are the heart of Violins of Hope, don't forget that the festival is bringing a string of violinists to Charlotte, too.

The opening concert introduced the first of the guests: Julia Hwang, an on-the-rise 16-year-old who will return to the stage Sunday night. Some precocious young musicians may like to show off with fireworks, but Hwang -- a native of South Korea who studies in England -- on Thursday faced a more rigorous test: The simple but soulful lyricism of Arvo Part's "Spiegel im Spiegel."

It's the kind of music that may sound easy, but mercilessly exposes any glitch or unsteadiness. Hwang didn't let anything like that get in the way. She spun out Part's melody in eloquent, smoothly turned lines. The otherworldly aura was enhanced by the gentle sonorities that Dmitri Shteinberg drew from the piano. Hwang also joined UNC Charlotte violin professor David Russell -- a onetime teacher of hers -- in a melodious duet by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Hwang goes back to work Sunday, April 15, as one of the soloists in Antonio Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Violins. That night will bring back another teenager with a burgeoning career: Chad Hoopes, who played Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto with the Charlotte Symphony in February. The nimbleness and finesse that helped make his Mendelssohn so telling should pay off in Vivaldi, too. Hoopes is another onetime student of Russell's, as is the third Vivaldi soloist, the young Spaniard Paco Montalvo.

The fourth: Shlomo Mintz, the most prominent among the festival's violinists. Mintz, one of the leaders among a crop of violinists that emerged from Israel in the 1970s and '80s, has played in some of the previous incarnations of Violins of Hope overseas. He'll return throughout the festival, and he'll close it April 21 when he plays Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the Charlotte Symphony.

The young Mintz's poise and richness impressed me in the 1980s, when I last heard him in person. I'm looking forward to discovering what he has to say nowadays.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

She designed 'most beautiful book in the world'

When one of your creations is declared the most beautiful book in the world, how do you follow that up?

Maybe Irma Boom will discuss that when she speaks at the Mint Museum Uptown on Thursday, April 12, for its Contemporary Architecture + Design series. The Dutch designer is working with the Mint on a book about the giant textile that dominates the museum's atrium, Sheila Hicks' "Mega Footprint Near the Hutch."

That project will be a tall order, and not just because the "Footprint" is several stories high. The last book about Hicks that Boom designed, "Weaving as Metaphor," won the "most beautiful" prize at the Leipzig Book Fair in Germany. I'd put an image of the cover here, but that wouldn't much help. The front is white, meant to contrast with the vivid colors of the works depicted inside. The edges of the pages are ragged, evoking the rich surfaces Hicks creates. The introductory essay's type is big at the beginning -- aimed at drawing readers in -- then gets smaller with each page.

Persuading Yale University Press to go along with all that "was a struggle," Boom told the New York Times. "I was suggesting something very different to all of the other books they'd published. But they were courageous and, finally, let me do it." The books is one of about 50 by Boom that has landed in the Museum of Modern Art's collection -- as an artwork, you understand, not just a library item.

Another of Boom's best-known creations was commissioned by Dutch industrial conglomerate SHV. To mark the company's centennial, Boom envisioned a book with 4,000 pages. She spent five years collecting images and crafting her design. When she was done, the book turned out to be only 2,136 pages -- in one volume. Yet it has no page numbers or index. She wants readers to dive in anywhere.

"The book is a voyage," she told "You find things you don't want to find, and discoveries happen by coincidence." Here's a closer look at Boom and her books:

Friday, April 6, 2012

Help send the mummies to their next life

If you aren't one of the 100,000-plus people who have seen "Mummies of the World," hear this: It 's down to its last weekend.

The Tattooed Woman and her companions will leave Discovery Place after Sunday. If visiting them in their low-light galleries at the science center doesn't strike you as a festive way to spend part of the Easter weekend, look at it this way: Many of them embody their own cultures' beliefs about the life after the worldly one. During the weekend of resurrection, that may be food for thought.

Besides, if your notions of mummies begin and end with Egypt, the show has a lot to open your eyes. Who knew that some South American cultures preserved their dead this way? I sure didn't. That startling Tattooed Woman came from Chile, where her seated position was typical in the time before 1400 A.D.

"Mummies of the World" is on display Friday through 6 p.m.; Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Depending on your own background and powers of observation, there's no telling what you may notice. I took a friend from Florida who's a dentist. He looked at the gums of a mummy who was missing teeth and surmised that the dearly departed probably had them at the time of death. For a moment, just the thought of it turned the mummy into a person.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Spend an afternoon in Paris with the Met

Did you ever know someone who was too fond of love and luxury for her (or his) own good? That sums up the heroine of Massenet's "Manon," coming to movie theaters Saturday from New York's Metropolitan Opera .

Clocking in at 4 1/2 hours, "Manon" is one of the peaks of French grand opera --which is not just a description, but the name of the genre that reigned supreme in 19th-century Paris. The heroine is a young woman who, at the opening, is being packed off to a convent because her family wants to keep her out of trouble. But she takes a detour with young man instead, and her adventures begin.

While the length may conjure up notions of Richard Wagner's massive creations, opera lovers who don't have the patience for Wagner may find "Manon" much more palatable. Manon's affairs of the heart lead her through a gambling den, a Parisian carnival and the real-life church of St. Sulpice, where she makes a seminarian forget his vows (as you see in the photo of Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala by Ken Howard for the Met).

Massenet's music tips its hat to the elegance of the opera's 18th-century setting. But otherwise it goes all out with the lushness and red-blooded melody of Massenet's late-19th-century heyday. It's one of those operas that isn't likely to show up on a Charlotte stage anytime soon. That's just one more reason to take it in on Saturday. It starts at noon at Stonecrest near Ballantyne and at Concord Mills.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A link to Charlotte's history

As one of the world's leading opera stars of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, Joan Sutherland received a lot of tributes. But I doubt there's an accolade that quite equals the one at Winthrop University: the Joan Sutherland Memorial Toilet.

The name may not be engraved on a tablet, but that what Kassie Minor called it. Here's the story as she told it:

Winthrop booked Sutherland to perform at Byrnes Auditorium in 1981, celebrating the 20th anniversary of a concert she gave there when she was just becoming a star. By '81, the Australian soprano's career wasn't the only thing about her that was large.

Ahead of her visit, Byrnes' then-manager thought about the fact that the backstage area had no restroom at the stage level. He figured that trekking up and down stairs would be a chore for the substantial soprano. So he had a closet in his office converted. Voila: the Sutherland Memorial Toilet.

Kassie recounted that with gusto, which tells you something: Kassie, who died March 24 at 90, didn't put anyone on a pedestal (not even a diva being supplied with a throne). That's why the photo above, from a beach trip, is one of her family's favorites pictures of her.

The story also shows how Kassie loved her decades on the front lines of Charlotte's cultural scene.

She was closest to the Charlotte Symphony -- bonding with players, chauffeuring guest artists, cooking for after-concert shindigs at her home. Yet that wasn't the limit of what she did. When the Community Concert Association -- now called Charlotte Concerts -- was in its heyday, bringing big-name soloists and ensembles to town, Kassie pitched in there, too.

The New York Philharmonic once had a day off here on tour, and Kassie helped organize a picnic at a nearby farm. The day included a softball game between Charlotte Symphony players and the Philharmonic. Even though it took place years ago, Kassie reported the outcome as if it were hot news:

"They killed us! They were like pros!"

Kassie was a link to a time when the arts in Charlotte -- as in other yet-to-boom cities -- relied a lot on volunteers who gathered at their dining-room tables do the work behind cultural events. But she wasn't the sentimental type. A few years ago, when artist fees had inflated to the point that the concert association could rarely afford top performers, Kassie was ready to shut it down.

"It isn't quality," she said.

By that time, Kassie was leaving the work to others. Even though her oxygen machine -- or her "damn nose hose," as she called it -- made concertgoing a hassle, she went out when she was motivated. In the past few years, the Metropolitan Opera's movie-theater showings were one of her main musical pursuits. (I have to give her credit for telling me the handiest way to get to Stonecrest from Charlotte proper -- by driving straight out Colony Road.)

The last Met showing I saw her at was "Boris Godunov" last fall. It starred the German bass Rene Pape, who may have been Kassie's favorite singer of today. She thought he was hot stuff. And she wasn't just talking about his voice.