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Beer gardens, rathskellers, and brewpubs have traditionally encouraged their patrons to listen to music, lift their glasses in song, and maybe dance a polka, but for many classical music enthusiasts, the Charlotte Symphony's excursions to local breweries for "On Tap" concerts may seem to be pioneering. Apparently, they originated in 2015, with a season kickoff party at Belk Theater, and then evolved into a similar event the following September at Booth Playhouse, before the orchestra ventured forth to the NoDa Brewing Company for their third such event in November 2016. In terms of sampling these more informal concerts – and getting the word out – I will freely admit that I'm late to the party. Special dispensation was required to review the latest in this concert series, since it was sold-out weeks in advance.
Obtaining their tickets in advance, patrons pre-qualified themselves as interested in this product, though you had to wonder how many of them had bothered to check out the CSO website to see what they would actually hear. When NoDa Brewing owner Susie Ford drew attention to the stage, the crowd quieted, and there was no great commotion when the musicians performed. Yet there were limits to the decorum. Lines to the taps got shorter when the concert started and, after a strategically placed intermission, when it resumed, but people continued to line up for their pints and sampler flights of NoDa brew. Conductor Christopher James Lees was not at all perturbed. On the contrary, he encouraged the relaxed atmosphere and even plugged the brewery's award-winning "Hop, Drop 'n Roll" on numerous occasions.
In a place where you couldn't call for a Bud, a Blue Ribbon, or a Miller Lite, it was encouraging – but not altogether surprising – that Lees was emboldened to offer us more than a strict Haydn-Mozart diet. After opening with the Adagio and Fugue, not the lightest of Mozart's works, we detoured into Gustav Holst's St. Paul's Suite. Further out on the musical frontier, the second half of the program began with a Tango by Alicia Bachorik Armstrong, a living composer who was on hand to introduce the piece. Even the Haydn symphony that closed out the evening, the "Alleluja" (No. 30), was off the beaten path.
As I quickly discovered in the Mozart, the hall was unkind to low decibels and high frequencies. While the bass-heavy opening to the Adagio segment sounded natural enough, it had to compete for my attention with the churning hum of the brewing apparatus in the adjoining space behind the bar. By the time we reached the Fugue section, initiated by the double basses, I was fairly well acclimated to the steady hum, but I wasn't pleased by the thin querulous sound of the violins as they layered on. Without the resonance of a church or concert hall, the trebles were more like the sounds we hear on authentic ancient instruments. The bass foundation under the violins was however rich and lovely as the performance climaxed.only
Unacquainted with the "On Tap" ground rules, I was afraid that we were going to hear the spirited Jig from the St. Paul's Suite. It transitioned nicely from a merry dance to a briefer, more insistent episode – almost a march – before the Vivace movement accelerated to an even quicker pace. Effectively shaped and very well suited to the room, the movement drew applause. Lees not only tolerated this beerhall response but encouraged it, for he proceeded to introduce each of the next three movements before they were played. Just as he had explained what a fugue was prior to the Mozart, he now deciphered the mystery of what an ostinato is before playing the movement that bore that title. Second violins initiated this repetitive figure over pizzicatos from the other strings, not the swiftest presto I've heard on this movement, and concertmaster Calin Lupanu soloed gracefully. Lovelier Lupanu was wrapped into the ensuing Intermezzo as he entered over delicate pizzicatos – and over a baby's cries in his most virtuosic passages. Violist Ning Zhao engaged Lupanu in a couple of satisfying duets here as well. Probably the most engaging music of the evening, Holst's Finale, ended by meshing an Irish folk dance with the traditional "Greensleeves," both melodies frequently heard simultaneously in this rousing Allegro. Even without the customary percussion, it energized the audience.
Born in the Philippines, schooled at the NC School of the Arts (when Lees was on the faculty), and currently residing in Greensboro, Alicia Bachorik Armstrong wrote her "Tango" for orchestra in 2016 and last year completed a string quartet version that can be auditioned at her website. Her personable intro of the orchestral piece rivaled those delivered by her mentor, chiefly pointing out that the piece grew out of her lifelong love of dance – and repeated efforts to excel at it. We can relate! Reflecting her tentative starts and reboots, she could have easily titled her dance "Attempted Tango," for its beginning was indeed tentative over a pizzicato vamp, until the violins danced more confidently to the plucked lower strings, and there were two definite restarts later on, initiated by the cellos and the double basses. Over the sustained bass figures, there were unexpected shifts in tone and tempo, with a modicum of modernism instead of a noxious deluge. Lupanu and a second violin had tasty little cameos toward the end.
A mini-break followed "Tango" – and the composer's bows – as a modest group of wind players joined the strings. Still no percussion, but the question of whether Haydn's Symphony No. 30 should be performed with timpani remains under dispute. The chronology of Papa's early symphonies hasn't been settled by the numbers assigned to them, but the "Alleluja" is the last of the numbered symphonies to be written in three movements. Surprisingly for a piece that may have premiered on Easter of 1765 – or the Holy Week preceding – the "Alleluja" spirit is rather festive, with no slow or mournful movements. In other words, "Alleluja" was a perfect cloudless finale for a brewpub concert.
Wind instruments fared far better at NoDa Brewing than the violins, instantly pleasurable in the opening Allegro, with a nicely gauged crescendo from the cellos toward the end. After setting the stage for flutist Erinn Frechette's exploits in the ensuing Andante, Lees didn't allow the tempo to flag to anything slower than a brisk canter. At that speed, Frechette's filigree became brilliant over the crisp strings, and the flute's birdlike warblings remained jocund, unalloyed by any solitary gloom. Collectively, the winds reached their fullest bloom in the impressive allegretto Finale. If Lees kept them a little too subdued in the opening Allegro, he unmistakably unleashed the woodwinds here to rollicking effect, establishing a clear 3/4 minuet sway along the way.
Although this was the last official "On Tap" concert for the 2018-19 season, the uniquely relaxed vibe of the series lingered on after the final note. Along with an audience mostly seated in casual dress at tables, instrument cases stowed under musicians' chairs, and audience applause between movements, there was no sudden rush for the exits after the final note. The night was young and the taps hadn't shut down. The Charlotte Symphony has obviously reached out successfully to the community with these concerts, and NoDa Brewing Company isn't the only joint they visit. Come summer, the CSO will return to Triple C Brewing for a June 27 concert in the Barrel Room,* and a whole new flight of "On Tap" events is already booked for 2019-20.
*In addition, there are many, many CSO community events coming up, aimed at bringing the orchestra out of uptown and reaching people where they are.