On the (Partial) Retirement of Alan Black
by Jeremy Lamb
As one of the most familiar faces in the orchestra — both from his seated proximity to the audience and his 36 years in the CSO — it is a big deal that Alan Black, our beloved principal cellist, will be retiring. BUT, only as principal, not from the orchestra entirely. What does this mean, you ask? Well, starting this fall, Alan will have the title “Principal Emeritus”, but he’ll be rotating between the 3rd and 8th chair and turning pages right along with the rest of the cello section.
It was an incredible final year for him as principal. First and most notably, Alan made his final appearance as soloist on April 3rd at the Sandra Levine Theatre at Queens University. Rather than performing something from the standard repertoire — most of which he’s already played, anyway — Alan chose a piece near and dear to his heart, one he had actually commissioned in 2018 from his longtime friend and colleague, Leonard Mark Lewis. I Will Wade Out is a deeply personal composition, a swirling journey that opens with wave-like gestures on solo cello, travels across numerous peaks and valleys, and ends with a sublime F major chord which remains unresolved until the last measure. Speaking from the stage, Lewis confided that the music reflected his battle with anxiety, a struggle spanning his entire adult life. The performance was met with one of the warmest receptions in that hall that I’ve ever seen.
If orchestral solos were baseball cards, then Alan completed his collection in February when he played the one prominent solo that his nearly four decades in the chair never offered him: Symphony No. 1 by John Corigliano. And a doozy it is. Spanning six pages and several minutes, this solo is the glue holding the final two movements together and closing out the 45-minute musical depiction of an agonizing struggle with AIDS; in other words, an ultra-serious piece best handled by a veteran. Halfway through the 3rd movement, the solo becomes a duet with the 2nd cello. That player was me, so I feel uniquely qualified in saying that his exceptional focus was of someone pouring everything they had into a final solo of a long career. His performance, everyone agreed, was breathtaking.
Though he played that concert like his last, this whole season featured the principal cello more than any in recent memory: Clara Schumann's Piano Concerto, Mahler's Symphony No. 9, Jesse Montgomery's Strum, Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, not to mention A Ride on Oumuamua. All had significant cello moments, almost like a preplanned farewell showcase. Although Alan was often preoccupied afterward, muttering that he'd missed a sharp in measure 459 or a slur in measure 5,380, his sound always projected like a cannon and he always played with heart.
During the pandemic, Alan found new ways to contribute, like transforming his backyard into a concert pavilion which he used as the staging area for a socially-distanced chamber music series. Al Fresco, named for its outdoorsiness, temporarily became the CSO's official chamber music series. It ran for two seasons and gathered more than 40,000 views online. Now that video performances are no longer necessary, Alan plans to upgrade his pavilion even more, this time to host live audiences. Billy Joel next, perhaps?
Alan has been a huge presence in the teaching community, coaching the Youth Orchestra of Charlotte and maintaining a full studio of private students. While he plans to continue his private teaching, he will retire from the youth orchestra after this year.
Moving into the principal chair next season will be none other than Alan’s current stand-partner, Assistant Principal Jon Lewis. Jon won the blind audition held in November and will assume the position this Fall. Should I resist the temptation to joke about musical chairs? Probably.
Bon voyage, Alan. Except put that sailboat in reverse and coast for three feet. And once you’re part of the section, we'll bust out the champagne and welcome you aboard!
by Sarah Markle
If you attended our February performance of Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, you might have noticed a few of our violinists briefly swapping their instruments for mandolins. Corigliano includes a mandolin part in the second movement, expertly played by violinists Oliver Kot, Jane Hart Brendle and Leigh Marsh. The moment passes quickly, so only the most observant, or maybe binocular-carrying (I know there are a few of you!) audience members might have caught it.
Making their appearance particularly special was the fact that all three of these folk instruments were crafted by Jane's father, Roger Hart. "My dad was primarily a mandolin luthier later in life, but he always enjoyed building instruments - mostly instruments for traditional Bluegrass settings. Mandolins and guitars were his specialties." Along with building instruments, Roger was also a passionate folk and bluegrass musician. "He practiced probably more than I do - he was always playing either mandolin or guitar.”
Roger passed away in 2015, but Hart Mandolins are still played by many Bluegrass musicians in the region, and one even made it all the way to Scotland! CSO principal Violist Ben Geller is also a proud owner, as well as violinist Leigh Marsh, who bought hers to play with a traveling Broadway show.
Jane’s mandolin came as a birthday gift from her dad, and she was able to pick it up fairly quickly despite some differences in technique. "Because it's tuned the same as the violin, it's very helpful to already have the left hand, the comfort of knowing where the notes are. But with frets, the spacing is just a little different, so the challenge is just finding that place where the fret doesn't buzz. And then the whole right hand technique, getting used to connecting with the string with a pick - that's really the biggest challenge."
Since developing her chops, Jane has been the CSO's go-to mandolin player, performing featured solos in Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, Stravinsky's ballet Agon, and even music from The Godfather. Jane remembers her first mandolin experience with the CSO from the early 90s: "It was the Don Giovanni aria Deh, vieni alla finestra, with Sherril Milnes performing. He was the guest artist for that pair of Classics concerts, and since we were on stage, I was seated rather front and center for that selection. Looking back, I guess my nerves had more of a "made of steel" quality those days!"
Mandolin lovers can hear Jane and Leigh perform regularly with the Charlotte Mandolin Ensemble as part of the Providence Chamber Music Series. In the meantime, keep those binoculars ready— you never know when these instruments might make their next appearance on our stage.
The Viola Joke(r)
by Ben Geller
Every human industry has its own culture. Specific languages, hierarchies, uniforms, or modes of thinking and being result from systems of human interaction, and one particularly human communication is the industry specific joke. Doctors, lawyers, construction workers, and pizza deliverers all have specific jokes that pertain to their fields passed through the generations of oral tradition, from around the prehistoric campfire to the modern day water cooler.
Our industry of Classical/Orchestral/Composed/Art Music (the name itself could be the subject of a joke) is steeped in tradition. With our tuxes, tails, and appropriate applause moments between such venerated tunes, the uninitiated may find much of the surrounding culture a little silly. It should come as no surprise that our industry is a culture teeming with humorous life. Indeed, with so many different types of instruments on stage, there is a joke for each individual instrumental family and player type.
The viola (even though it is my personal favorite and chosen instrument) has long been the butt of many jokes. It is larger than the tiny and seemingly more manageable violin, but smaller than the cello, which necessitates a seated position and optional furrowed brow. Generally playing an accompinemental role, the viola was historically relegated to those of lower ability or ambition. The first viola joke is attributed to the story of Francesco Geminiani who was appointed the music director of an orchestra in Naples. He was reportedly so unsteady and confusing to follow for the musicians that they collectively demoted him to playing viola.
While there has already been much ink spilled and backstage laughter attributed to my instrument, we here at The Soundpost will be taking a more egalitarian tack and hopefully representing all of our instruments fairly. Furthermore, in the spirit of representing our community, please write in with your favorite musical joke!
And so, without further ado, please enjoy these three selections:
How can you tell which kid on the playground is the trombone player?
They can’t swing and they don’t know how to use the slide.
How many clarinetists does it take to change a lightbulb?
Only one, but they’ll go through a whole box of bulbs to find just the right one.
A new conductor was at his first rehearsal. It was not going well. He was as wary of the musicians as they were of him. As he left the rehearsal room, the timpanist sounded a rude little "bong." The angry conductor turned and said, "All right! Who did that?”