New Al Fresco Series Delivers Fine Sound, Gorgeous Music, and a More Personal View of the Charlotte Symphony's MusiciansJul 1, 2020
By Perry Tannenbaum
Occasionally, the necessities of confinement and social distancing have mothered some worthwhile inventions. Celebrating Shakespeare's birthday in April, the Chickspeare theater company began with a fairly common 24-hour new play format, issuing a prompt to a select group of playwrights and expecting original 10-minute plays by each of them to be written, cast, rehearsed, and presented 24 hours later. Instead of the community projects I'd seen in past incarnations of this format, the new works were household creations - written, acted, and recorded by small groups of people, usually pairs, who were quarantining together. The results showed that these writers, actors, and stage directors were also quite adept at filming and wielding video editing software. Chickspeare had broken into an entirely new medium.
Charlotte Symphony's new Al Fresco series of chamber music concerts has been similarly revelatory. The webcasts began steaming weekly on Wednesday nights on June 10 in a more relaxed environment than Belk or Knight Theater, where the CSO's classics series is presented, and on a more intimate scale. Not surprisingly, the Al Fresco series is the brainchild of principal cellist Alan Black, a longtime catalyst for chamber music programming in the Charlotte area, beginning with a monthly series at St. Peter's Episcopal Church back in the '90s and continuing with more acoustically pleasing seasons of Sunday afternoon concerts at Tyler-Tallman Hall on the Davidson College campus. The new series, subtitled "changing venues for changing times," is performed outdoors in the backyard of Black's bosky Davidson home.
Fortunately, while choosing his programming and recruiting personnel, Black brought French hornist Bob Rydel into the process for a set of wind quintets by Josef Haydn and Robert Muczynski. As Black tells us during the "Winds in the Woods" program, first streamed on June 24, his original concept called for recording the concerts with an iPhone or two, tools we have seen so very often behind the scenes at Zoom meetings and guerilla theater productions. Operating the Acoustic Mobility remote recording service, Rydel has been able to bring his engineering expertise to the task with state-of-the-art microphones, digital recording, and editing equipment. Video production has been as tack-sharp as the audio, boasting HD quality, with at least three cameras superbly integrated in the editing mix.
Before tuning in to "Viennese Serenades," I had caught up on the previous Al Fresco concerts at their convenient webpage, playing the first three concerts through my home theater system on the YouTube channel with a Chromecast streamer. This "Viennese" concert was already posted when I looked in on the site on Tuesday, so I was able to set a reminder at YouTube that worked perfectly, counting down the minutes to showtime. At exactly 7:30, a two-minute timer flashed colorfully onto my TV monitor, with jazzier old-style movie graphics counting down the final 10 seconds. In a rather elegant touch, you hear wind chimes when the opening title flashes on the screen.
The atmosphere is relaxed and informal, with Black invariably dressed in jeans, already sitting as our show begins. One or two other musicians are also seated on the small stage, which is still sufficiently large to maintain social distancing devoutly. They will talk before they play. In an earlier show, Black explained how he has chosen to deal with masks: if one of the musicians wishes to don a mask, all must. Only wind instrument players draw an exemption, so on a previous "Music in the Time of Mozart" webcast, flutist Victor Wang played the lead in Mozart's Flute Quartet without a mask while the string players were all masked. Interestingly, Wang had a special appliance attached to his instrument, a Win-d-fender. The device was originally designed to help flute players to perform outdoors, but in his conversation with Black, Wang said he was finding that it was useful during the COVID-19 crisis in minimizing the spread of airborne droplets as he blew across the instrument.