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Charlotte Symphony's new Al Fresco series had already reached an admirable level of originality in its first four installments. Although they had launched many inventive series in the past, chamber music had been off-limits programming before the current pandemic, and we can only attribute the birth of an online-only series to the necessities of our current plight. But thanks to two multi-talented CSO musicians, principal cellist Alan Black and French hornist Bob Rydel, weekly Al Fresco webcasts have been judiciously programmed and masterfully played and have risen to admirable distinction with Black's insightful interviews and Rydel's remarkable audio engineering in an outdoor setting and his immaculate video editing. The original touches enhancing all this artistry and virtuosity have been centered in Black's emphasis on the musicians' point-of-view in interviewing his guests and in the creative editing of each episode. Unlike a concert in real time, a prerecorded concert can dispense with scenery changes as we shift from one set of players to another – or from interview mode to performance. Beyond that, Black and Rydel have occasionally flipped the chronology of interviews and performances in their episodes. That innovation allows Black to discuss performances we're about to see and hear with his fellow musicians – as in the previous "Viennese Serenades" concert, wherein Black and two CSO violinists discussed what it was like to play a swift Haydn divertimento while wearing masks.
The latest Al Fresco concert, "All-Lamb Jam," added new layers of originality, an entire program of new compositions by CSO cellist Jeremy Lamb and interviews with the composer that took us through how this music came to be written. After a brief welcome to us and an intro to Lamb, a member of CSO's cello corps for three-and-a-half years, Black plunged right into the unique titles of the three-part Lamb Jam Set. As it turns out, they had a lot to do with the musicians for whom Lamb wrote the piece, cellist Sarah Markle and bassist Taddes Korris, with whom he bonded shortly after joining the Charlotte Symphony. A prime motive for writing all the pieces on the program turned out to be the scarcity of music previously written for two cellos and a bass. Both Markle and Korris, Lamb soon found out, were vegans, so "The Hempeh Tempeh Jam" was an outgrowth of Lamb's learning curve as he struggled to remember the difference between the two soy products. The entire Lamb Jam was itself an outgrowth, the composer revealed, of a melody that hit him during work on A Ride on Oumuamua, the more ambitious piece that would conclude the concert.
As for Lamb's anecdotes about the other titles in the Lamb Jam, "A Stroll Down Alpha Mill Lane" and "Keepin' It Schwifty," those would have to wait until I replayed the episode later. Weather at my viewing location, across the state line in York County, scrambled the audio and visual signals that followed in this conversation between Black and Lamb. Fortunately, I was able to recover the YouTube channel in time for the music to begin. "Hempeh Tempeh" sported the back-and-forth feeling that might have been evoked by its title, for the harmonized melody line of the two cellos drew shuffling answers from Korris' bowed double bass. In the next chorus, Lamb and Markle played higher and longer, and then Korris' answer bridged the end of this chorus and the beginning of the next, where the cellos were now answering him. Lamb was clearly the lead afterwards as the music grew bluesier in the closing chorus. It was only after I replayed the episode that I heard Lamb's confirmation that his template for "Hempeh Tempeh" and the ensuing "Alpha Mill Lane" was a 12-bar blues. As you could expect, "A Stroll Down Alpha Mill Lane," named after the street where Markle and Korris reside, ambled along at a medium-speed loping gait, and you might find it (at the Al Fresco webpage) even jazzier than the opening piece in the Jam, with a nifty Korris glissando launching the final chorus.
The "Schwifty" title derives from the cartoon world of Rick and Morty, a realm where my erudition is limited to an animated 87-second clip on YouTube. It's easily the most free and provocative movement in Lamb's suite – and the one that most decisively deserves to be called a jam. It began with a Korris pizzicato intro, taken up by Markle as Lamb carried the melody. Two of the sections had the feel of an accelerating locomotive, with Markle emphatically seizing the lead at cruising speed the first time around as Lamb sawed a propulsive ostinato. Korris also had some telling licks during the fray, which was driving and bluesy in the medium-tempo sections. The rocking sway of the most memorable passages were even more reminiscent of Elvis Presley's "Any Way You Want Me" than parts of "Alpha Mill Lane" had been.
Named for the first interstellar stellar object to have ever been observed passing through our solar system, A Ride on Oumuamua ambitiously chronicles the birth of the object (estimated in 2017 at perhaps more than a half-mile in length), its epic journey through space, its arrival in our solar system, its flybys the sun and the Earth, and its voyage beyond. In his second conversation with Black, Lamb credited a Glass-like riff that he heard Korris playing for inspiring his Oumuamua, but in his opening section, "In the beginning, the motion of the stars," Korris contributed richly yet sparingly, his long, widely spaced notes simulating the primordial darkness in which the cellos' arpeggios played out. With the opening notes of the ensuing section, "Oumuamua is hurled away; the journey begins," Lamb had already broken free from Glass' minimalism. Other notable sections followed before Oumuamua reached our solar system. Korris has a fine melodic lead in "...icy worlds appear," where the cellists both got chances to sing, and in "...a lonely voyage; calling out," there was a forlorn cadenza for Lamb that seemed to float in deep space.
Because the titles flashed only briefly onscreen, in thin white letters spread across an orange brushstroke design, one might miss some of the 14 section titles on first viewing. That's the only significant production flaw I've found so far in the Al Fresco concerts, requiring me to "rewind" numerous times as I documented the titles that flashed on and off the bottom of the screen. Oumuamua went on to make Lamb's strongest case for composing music for this unique instrumental combination – and a strong argument for applying Glass' hypnotic arpeggios to space travel. In the course of "...Earth appears," "...Earth fades into the distance," and his concluding "...infinite vistas: time loses meaning," Lamb reminded me more than once of the sensation of interstellar travel that Star Trek delivered on TV, his fadeaways particularly evocative. Yet Lamb didn't conclude with a fadeout. Instead, he seemed to circle back to the cello arpeggios that had signaled Oumuamua's birth, stopping abruptly when the reprise had barely begun. The more I thought about it, the more appropriate it seemed.