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No Joke: Al Fresco Continues in a Modern Vein With "Romance of the Viola"

Jul 15, 2020

By Perry Tannenbaum, CVNC 

On the day of the latest Charlotte Symphony al Fresco concert there was good news and bad news. Getting ready to set a YouTube reminder for my Chromecast hookup to the 7:30 p.m. webcast, I was encouraged to discover on the Al Fresco webpage  that the Wednesday night series had been extended through at least July 29. Unfortunately, that good news may have been an outgrowth of the bad news announced earlier in the day: CSO has canceled the three-week Summer Festival, slated to begin on August 7. All of the festival events a finely judged assortment that included Beethoven's "Pastoral," The Best of James BondPeter and the Wolf, On Tap at the Triple C Brewery, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a free community concert had been scheduled at indoor venues, running afoul of public assembly restrictions mandated in the state capital and still in effect. It was merciful that al Fresco concerts are pre-recorded, for host Alan Black and his "Romance of the Viola" guest musicians would have certainly been downcast if they were giving a live performance in the wake of this daunting setback.

As the latest program began in Black's bosky backyard, with the CSO principal cellist in conversation with violist Kirsten Swanson, the series' subtitle, "changing venues for changing times," more than ever seemed to evoke an escape from Charlotte's barren cultural climate under the COVID-19 siege, a welcome oasis in the musical wasteland. Adding to the freshness, Swanson and Black were discussing a pair of composers few CSO subscribers had come across: Kjell Marcussen (b. 1952) and Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979). Black admitted discovering Marcussen a mere three weeks earlier while combing the internet and, presumably, streaming services in search of music written for the unique viola-cello instrumental combo. As a cursory YouTube search will confirm, the Norwegian composer does favor viola among the orchestral instruments. Black could easily have found Marcussen's "Berceuse" there, for it's the first video that comes up in a Google search for the composer, but the composition also pops up readily on Spotify in a 2017 album, Dedications, recorded by the same Duo Oktava musicians, violist Povilas Syrrist-Gelgota and cellist Toril Syrrist-Gelgota. In solo compositions, Marcussen gravitates toward his own preferred instrument, the guitar, so it's not at all surprising that guitarist Anders Clemens Øien shares the spotlight on the CD.

After watching Swanson and Black perform the "Berceuse," I must say that I found the Oktava video stuffy and pretentious by comparison, and I'm only finding a new way to praise Bob Rydel's audio engineering when I say that the sound at this Al Fresco concert was richer and more detailed than either the YouTube video or the CD (available on Apple Music as well as Spotify). Black gets a rich dark tone when he moves to the forefront in the exposition of this morose lullaby, but he's more varied in his dynamics and the pace is quicker, cutting more than 25 seconds off the Oktava's fastest performance. The real difference maker, though, was Swanson, when she took the lead in the concluding half of the work with her lighter tone, making for a far more poignant experience than the Norwegian duo musters. To be fair, I should say that I've been captivated and perhaps swayed by the open-air informality of the Al Fresco format, which certainly accentuated the élan of Black's approach.

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