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A Ford Lemon Festival 

Variety show does Tuscany no favors

No doubt about it, a tantalizing array of sensuous morsels was harvested for The Tuscan Sun Festival last week at the PAC. Music by Haydn, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. A knockout Russian cellist who once earned her bread modeling for Chanel until she could afford an instrument. Lush photos by Steven Rothfeld, projected above the musicians, of the Tuscan landscape that inspired Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence and Frances Mayes' best-selling Under the Tuscan Sun. And Mayes herself, reading the choice excerpts from her work that inspired Nina Kotova's new Tuscan Concerto - composed and performed by the beauty herself. Since the festivities were underwritten by the mighty corporate clout of the Ford Motor Company, intermission during this 2-1/2 hour extravaganza wasn't simply stale downtime. No, Mayes sat regally behind stacks of her Tuscan tomes, poised to autograph an inventory that included her luxurious new coffee table collaboration with Rothfeld, Bringing Tuscany Home. Still clothed in her dazzling fuchsia and gold formal, Kotova also deigned to sign her Philips Classics CD, lauded in Time Magazine.

So what could go wrong? Just about everything.

Rothfeld's photos were a gorgeous evocation of Tuscan landscapes, cityscapes, stylish residential interiors, flora, statuary, people and food. But we saw all the slides before the musicians appeared onstage, as technicians continued testing out the rear projection system while we settled into our seats. When Mayes started reading about Bramasole, her home in Cortona, those technicians were unable to access the lovely Rothfeld photos that showcase the place in Bringing Tuscany Home. Instead, we saw the same shots we'd seen at least twice before the show began — in reverse order. Again and again.

The AV was even more pitiful by the time Kotova appeared. During the third movement of her concerto, the blank screen came briefly to life. A countdown clock appeared in a black box labeled "no signal." The countdown aborted at the 1:00 mark, signaling a total meltdown. Musicians of the New European Strings Chamber Orchestra looked up at the screen when the concerto concluded, openly confused. What the hell is going on?

When the screen was ignominiously lifted away, the audience applauded. So did musicians.

Our relief was twofold. While that screen had hovered above the orchestra, the ensemble on the elegant Belk Theater stage sounded like they were playing in a gymnasium. In the opening selection, Shostakovich's "Prelude and Scherzo," the problem was most acute when concertmaster Streten Krstick attempted a solo. His true mettle came to the fore after intermission in the expanded version of the Tchaikovsky, originally composed for string sextet. Equally impressive were lead violist Mikhail Zemtzov, double bassist Boris Kozlov and principal cellist Boris Baraz.

In fact, Baraz's exploits upstaged Kotova, who was cruelly exposed in the Haydn. Two months ago, Daniel Müller-Schott slashed through the opening of the same C Major concerto in his Charlotte Symphony debut, turning the virtuoso fireworks of the furioso finale into a bravura triumph. Kotova never attacked the opening, never matched Müller-Schott's crystalline articulation — or even the richness of Baraz's tone.

After a partial recovery in the adagio, when she finally began playing with some lyricism, Kotova was lackluster in the finale. Runs were hit-and-miss until she reached an oasis where she could depend almost entirely on her bowing to sustain momentum. When she had to rely again on the fingerings of her left hand, it was all blur and no brilliance.

On this tour, promotion seems to be Job 1. Packages touting the festival appeared at editorial offices all across the USA long before the tour arrived, filled with more Tuscan goodies than ticketholders could actually purchase at the event.

Ford Festival quality has more than a trace of lemon. We can only imagine the car wreck when this show hit Carnegie Hall as we went to press.

There's something eternally lovable about the Disney canon, and last week's On the Record at Ovens Auditorium reminded us how much of that affection is invested in the music. Most of the nostalgic nudges came by way of the songs rather than the performers. Design concept? Strictly from the Fortune 500 Disney rather than the Hollywood Disney.Yet the authentic animation did peep through occasionally when the mountain brook of Ashley Brown's soprano washed over us. If scenarist Chad Beguelin and co-conceiver Robert Longbottom confined us in the wintry blue-gray dungeon of a recording studio all evening, the memories of Snow White, Cinderella, Belle and Sleeping Beauty springing from Brown's throat were welcome breaths of fresh air and sunshine.

Otherwise, swiveling boom mikes and blinking recording signs supplied most of the action in this 64-song trek. Every so often, Andrew Samonsky's punkish persona veered toward the boyish mischief of Tarzan or Peter Pan, but worldly redhead Kaitlin Hopkins looked perpetually marooned, waylaid en route to a Chicago, Mame or Gypsy audition. Pursuing Hopkins with the air of a misunderstood adventurer, Brian Sutherland seemed even more hopelessly displaced. A lost ark or a maltese falcon would have been more appropriate grails for this tainted soul.

Jazz temptress Jane Monheit strutted onstage with her quartet at the Belk for her debut with the Charlotte Symphony : and none too soon, since effusive Pop Series maestro Albert-George Schramm's patter had quickly become cornier than the orchestral repertoire. That's not easy when you've already dredged up "Tequila" from the 50s.The voice is velvety smooth, so it made sense for Monheit to begin "Over the Rainbow" a cappella before letting the orchestra in. Trouble was, Monheit didn't come out with smokin' hot confidence. A glossy sheen encased her vocal, but our diva's movements seemed stiff and rehearsed.

Temperatures rose onstage as Monheit slipped into a jazzier mode, vamping her way through Cole Porter's "Why Can't You Behave?" Leaving her mike on its stand, Monheit looked skyward as before, ran her fingers through her long dark hair, and then slid her hands down the shapely contours of her dress.

That orgasmic display seemed to complete the warm-up phase of Monheit's performance (while perhaps short-circuiting a pacemaker or two in the full house). Finally seizing the mike, Monheit launched into some bossa nova by Jobim, "No More Blues," loose enough now to stray further from the beat and venture into some modest scatting.

After intermission, Monheit's second set was longer, looser, and, if possible, more engaging and seductive. At times, I was convinced that she'd transformed herself into a jazz singer. "Waters of March," a longtime Jobim staple of hers, had a rhythmic freedom and a lyrical coherence that were absent earlier in her career. "Taking a Chance on Love" and "I Won't Dance," both off her new CD, were also convincing.

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