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The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's fourth and final On-Demand concert, which premiered this weekend, opened not with a beginning but with a middle: North Carolina native Caroline Shaw's "Entr'acte." Through its programming and performance, the CSO was fascinating and delightful and also provoked a number of pressing thoughts appropriate to our similarly disordered year.
"Entr'acte" is both evident and mysterious. The piece plays off of classical form, structured like a minuet and trio with a recurring theme that begins and concludes. The music, however, is contemporary: with separated, dissonant strikes, layered yet opposing rhythms, and extended bow techniques, Shaw creates an almost literal atmosphere of an intermission with allusions to pre-concert tuning, whispers, and sighs of the crowd. Shaw, who is a vocalist as well as a violinist, is particularly known for her work with the experimental vocal group Roomful of Teeth, which explores the range of the human voice through mastery of a wide range of global vocal techniques. In this piece, Shaw similarly explores the ranges of the instrumental voice with strings murmuring under plucks and even appearing, at times, to whistle. These unique sounds made the piece at times funny, always interesting, and even, towards the end, poignant, when a single cello, principal cellist Alan Black, was left all alone to conclude. Black was beautiful and generous in timing and dynamic, and, with a decrescendo at the very end, evoked dimming house lights and an anticipatory hush of the audience.
Featuring a composer both contemporary and Carolina-born (not to mention female) was a treat and, especially when orchestras all over the world are streaming similar classics on YouTube, etc., it provided a unique reason to tune into this orchestra, in particular. Though surely more difficult to acquire financially, featuring local and contemporary composers for online concerts is a way to create distinctive programs, those much harder to come by elsewhere.
Shaw was the youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music at 30 years old in 2013, and perhaps the CSO was programming to a theme of young geniuses, for the second piece on the program was similarly written by a young talent: Felix Mendelssohn's Sinfonia No. 7. Mendelssohn was slightly younger when he wrote this piece – he was just 12!
Sinfonia No. 7 is in four movements, beginning with an Allegro, followed by a lyrical Andante and Minuet, and concluding with a joyful Allegro molto, a tarantella. The orchestra (which still remains just strings, due to social distancing guidelines) played with great spirit and delight; in introducing it, conductor Christopher James Lees said, "we love this piece." Their performance made this clear.
Apparently, Mendelssohn didn't even want Sinfonia No. 7 (or the other 11 sinfonias he composed from ages 12 to 14) to be published; they were published posthumously. While this sinfonia is by no means Mendelssohn's greatest work, it still remains astounding that such a complete and complex piece of work was composed by a legal child. When I was twelve, I had only recently graduated from playing hot cross buns on the recorder; Mendelssohn, meanwhile, was exploring a wide range of emotional expression through his music, with moments uplifting and exuberant in the first and fourth movements, as well as gentle and touching in the middle sections. Not bad, for a tween.
But really: How could he even have experienced such a variety of emotion at 12 years old, not to mention know that that is in fact what makes a good piece of music? Maybe he didn't know then; maybe he just wrote it, it somehow expressing itself through him in a way that he could articulate but not necessarily understand. The medieval German theologian Meister Eckhart quotes an unknown philosopher in an essay about Advent saying, "I am aware of something in me that sparkles in my intelligence; I clearly perceive that it is something, but what I can not grasp." Maybe that was Mendelssohn, at least at age 12.
This concludes the CSO On-Demand series, though Mendelssohn and Shaw will remain available through ticket purchase On-Demand through Dec. 11th. After that, the orchestra will have a number of streamed holiday events available through their website. Please see our events page for more details.