After infusing their first season with NASA animations, quirky program listings, and a post-concert salsa party that sparked box office stampedes, the Charlotte Symphony has predictably expanded their second season of KnightSounds concerts to meet demand. Thinking resolutely outside the box continued for "Bearden 100," the first concert of the 2011-12 series, starting with hors d’oeuvres spread out in the Knight Theater lobby a full hour before the all-American program began. Admission to the concert not only included a free drink ticket but also, with your ticket stub, a peep at the major Romare Bearden retrospective exhibited across the street at the Mint Museum. Programs were printed on large glossy perforated cards, divided evenly into six smaller cards, one of them entitling the holder to a discount on Mint membership. During the concert, a generous sampling of Bearden’s paintings and collages were projected overhead, offering supersized enticements to explore the Mint exhibit. After the concert, audience members were invited to tear out the concert selection they liked most from their programs and paste it onto a group collage in the lobby.
Associate conductor Jacomo Rafael Bairos proved to be a cordial and appealing host, with the rugged California looks of a Howie Long or an Arnold. Not a surprise, since the Portuguese-American maestro also hosts the youth-oriented Lollipops series. Bairos spoke as gushingly as a guest lauding the Symphony’s brass choir as he introduced Copland’s famed "Fanfare for the Common Man," and the musicians stood and played impressively enough to justify the praise – four trombones, three trumpets, and five French horns tightly blended.
Following this familiar work, Bairos programmed a work by a composer he knew from his days at Brevard College, Mason Bates. I had actually heard Bates when he introduced his Rusty Air in Carolina to concertgoers at the Eastern Music Festival in 2007, prior to a performance by the festival’s youth orchestra conducted by Robert Moody. The Charlotte orchestra trumped their Greensboro counterparts in their share of the performance, but the pre-recorded accompaniment of cicadas, crickets, katydids, and other nocturnal sounds didn’t come through nearly as clearly on the puny array of loudspeakers deployed at the Knight. Yet the atmosphere layered on by the Bearden slides, switching from the dusty works depicting local storefronts and front porches for Fanfare to a set of works showing local gardeners and gardens, was appropriate to the colorful score. Harp, muted trumpets over cellos, and hushed percussion – marimba, xylophone, and piano – made for an agreeable, accessible mix, with a short Elizabeth Landon flute solo midway providing a sublime oasis.
While Bearden’s rustic reminiscences are largely inspired by his Charlotte birthplace, where his posthumous 100th birthday is the spark of widespread celebration and commemoration around town – and across Mecklenburg County – the artist spent the bulk of his years in New York. So it was altogether appropriate that a set of Bearden’s urban pieces be shown to the music of Duke Ellington, since the visual artist and the jazz icon were personally acquainted with one another. On the other hand, the compositions by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn wrapped into Jeff Tyzik’s The Essential Ellington weren’t altogether urban in character. Enfolding the tunes listed in the program – “Take the A Train,” “Satin Doll,” “Perdido,” and “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” – was a swaddling of Ellington’s sacred masterwork, “Come Sunday.” The string section caressed this minor key melody and offered a respite from the jazzier sounds of “A Train” and “Perdido” when we reached their bridges, but the idioms of big band and jazz trio effectively dominated. It was fairly obvious, when the spotlight fell on the Noel Freidline Jazz Trio as we reached “Caravan” (mentioned neither in the program nor in the Schirmer description of the work), that pianist Freidline and his bassist were channeling the classic version of the piece on Ellington’s Money Jungle album with the great Charles Mingus. Similarly, when clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo stood up for his solo on “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” it was more than likely that he was familiar with the work of Ellington band member Barney Bigard.
From this predominantly joyous episode, we transitioned to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, made more lugubrious by a computer malfunction in the light booth that prevented the promised series of Bearden monochromes from being displayed while the orchestra played the elegy. Technical problems were solved, however, by the time Bairos introduced the more adventurous finale, three dance episodes from Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town. The urban theme resumed, but instead of the profusion of Bearden works preoccupied with jazz combos that complemented the Ellington, we saw him taking cityscapes for his subjects. Meanwhile the sounds remained jazzy enough, with a roar of brass in “The Great Lover” mixed with some smooth violins and cute flutes. “Lonely Town” was flavored with a forlorn oboe and a muted trumpet – but only a sliver of the beloved melody. Appropriately, "Times Square 1944" was a kaleidoscope of instrumental colors, including solos from tenor sax, trumpet, and clarinet, plus a cameo appearance of the iconic “New York, New York” theme. Most memorable among the solos was Drucilla DeVan, standing up with her E-flat clarinet at the beginning of the piece.
The interactive post-concert events were as popular as any of the musical selections. From where I could see, the Copland and the Ellington cards were the ones most frequently affixed to the community collage. Sitting on the left side of the house, my wife Sue and I had to cross the lobby – and an enormous crush of people – to reach the art project. We probably would have split between Copland and Ellington in our voting, but the crowd, swollen by people gathered around an encore performance by the Freidline Trio, was just too dense. That collage should have been placed in the middle of the lobby instead of the far corner, but aside from the pre-recorded sound and projection glitches, that was the only misstep of an otherwise flawless evening. Maybe if Bairos had directed the electronics and the crowd flow, we might have experienced perfection.