Thursday, April 17, 2014

Letter V Classical Radio this week

April 17
noon-3 p.m. EDT
1600-1900 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Baroque music for Passover and Easter . . .

J.S. Bach: Concerto in D major, after BWV 249 (“Easter Oratorio”)
Musica Antiqua Köln/Reinhard Goebel (DG Archiv)

Salomone Rossi: “Sinfonia decima;” Psalm 100: “Mizmór letodá;” “Gagliarda disperata;” “Correnta sesta;” Psalm 146: “Haleluyáh”
Profeti Della Quinta (Linn)

Heinrich Schütz: “Feget den alten Sauerteig aus” from “Symphoniae sacrae III”
Cantus Cölln, Concerto Palatino/Konrad Junghänel (Harmonia Mundi France)

Louis Saladin: “Canticum hebraicum”
Boston Camerata/Joel Cohen (Harmonia Mundi France)

J.S. Bach: “Erbarme dich” from “St. Matthew Passion”
Andreas Scholl, alto
Orchestra of Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi France)

J.S. Bach: Partita in D minor, BWV 1004, with related chorales and Chaconne for violin & voices (“Morimur”)
(arranged by Christoph Poppen and Hilliard Ensemble, based on research by Helga Thoene)
Christoph Poppen, violin; Hilliard Ensemble (ECM)

Handel: “Messiah” (Part 2)
Lynne Dawson, soprano; Hilary Summers, contralto; John Mark Ainsley, tenor; Alastair Miles, bass; Choir of King’s College, Cambridge;
Brandenburg Consort/Stephen Cleobury (Argo)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Shankar concert canceled

“Musical Crossroads,” an April 26 concert by sitarist Anoushka Shankar with the Richmond Symphony, has been canceled “due to health concerns” on Shankar’s part, the orchestra has announced.

Ticket refunds or exchanges for tickets to other symphony concerts may be arranged by calling the orchestra’s patron services desk at (804) 788-1212.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review: Leila Josefowicz

with John Novacek, piano
April 12, Virginia Commonwealth University

Juxtaposing works of Franz Schubert and Igor Stravinsky is pretty radical programming. Which composer, one wonders, would be more rattled or put off by the company he’s keeping? Stravinsky, I’d guess, and I don’t think I’m just being contrary.

Hearing violinist Leila Josefowicz and pianist John Novacek play Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 574 (known as the “Duo”), followed by Stravinsky’s “Duo concertant” and “Chanson russe,” followed by Schubert’s Rondo in B minor, D. 895, I was struck repeatedly by the questing, explorative character of Schubert’s writing, contrasting sharply with the sense that all issues are settled in Stravinsky’s pieces.

The “Duo concertant” (1931-32) is a highly polished exemplar of Stravinsky’s middle-period neo-classical style. Not a note or gesture is out of place or in need of amplification; proportions are as symmetrical and sensible to the ear as those of a Greek temple are to the eye. The piece is witty, akin to time spent with a clever conversationalist who needs neither an interlocutor nor a straight man, just a willing listener.

The “Chanson russe,” originally an aria from the opera “Marva” (1922), subsequently arranged for violin and piano by Stravinsky and Samuel Dushkin, conveys a different, earthier and more sly kind of wit, at least to ears that have had some exposure to klezmer and other Jewish/Slavic/gypsy dance music of Eastern Europe.

The Schubert sonata and rondo, by contrast, are about the lyrical and emotional stretching of classical form, an often garrulous and sometimes unruly process that resulted in hits and misses throughout the composer’s instrumental canon. The sonata, written in 1817 when Schubert turned 20, hits in details and misses in totality; the rondo, written in 1826 when he was 29, is better organized, structurally and expressively, but like many of his later works may be longer than its contents warrant. (The “heavenly” aspect of Schubert’s “heavenly length” is definitely in the ear of the beholder.)

Josefowicz did not play up the contrast between these two composers as much as she might have, largely because her sound did not vary greatly from one to the other. The lean, focused tone she produces – with and without muting the strings – is ideal for Stravinsky, and her rather chaste brand of lyricism suited the “Chanson russe” especially well. In Schubert, however, such fiddle tone sounded rather undernourished, at least in combination with a modern piano. (Has she ever done these pieces with a fortepiano?)

“Tre pezzi” (“Three Piece”), a 1979 opus by the Hungarian composer György Kurtág, came across as a detour of dubious relevance. Josefowicz and Novacek exphasized these short pieces’ rarified fiddle and keyboard effects, which recall those of Anton Webern but lack the implied line without which such music sounds like a succession of unrelated gestures.

Novacek’s performances amounted to a clinic in the art of accompaniment. His presence was in ideally proportional in all but the Schubert “Duo” and his style was unerring throughout the program. He even managed to coax some expressiveness out of the sometimes skeletal piano lines Stravinsky wrote for the “Chanson russe” and “Cantilene” of the “Duo concertant.”

For an encore, the violinist and pianist played Charles Chaplin’s “Smile,” a haunting musical postscript both in the context of the program and in its rather austere arrangement.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Letter V Classical Radio this week

April 10
1-3 p.m. EDT
1700-1900 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Beethoven: Sonata in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (“Moonlight”)
Fazil Say, piano (Naïve)

Schubert: Fantasy in C major, D. 934
Jennifer Koh, violin; Reiko Uchida, piano (Cedille)

Mozart: Rondo in A minor, K. 511
Richard Goode, piano (Nonesuch)

Dag Wirén: Serenade for strings
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Montgomery (EMI Classics)

Past Masters:
Delibes: “Le Roi s’amuse”
Royal Philharmonic/ Thomas Beecham (EMI Classics)
(recorded 1958)

Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 4 in C minor
Stephen Hough, piano
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo (Hyperion)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: Takács Quartet

April 7, University of Richmond

A few years ago, Gramophone, the British classical-music magazine, polled a panel of experts to pick the world’s greatest symphony orchestra. The Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam came in first. A similar poll on string quartets quite likely would place the Takács, the Hungarian-bred ensemble now based at the University of Colorado, at the top of the heap.

I’m inclined to avoid such rankings – “greatest [whoever] I’ve heard lately” is tough enough in this era of musical over-achievers. I would say that an ensemble that tours with a program opening with Beethoven’s Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127, followed by Anton Webern’s “Six Bagatelles,” must feel reasonably secure about drawing a crowd on the strength of its reputation. And that it pays its audience the compliment of taking listeners’ discernment for granted.

(The Takács also tours with the six Bartók quartets in pairs of concerts, presented last season at the University of Richmond and reprised in January at Washington’s Kennedy Center. Compared with that, this may be its easy listening show.)

Violinists Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther and cellist András Fejér may be the ideal foursome for Op. 127 and the Webern bagatelles. Both require painstakingly exact balances among string voices – especially inner voices – and close attention to the finest details of articulation, dynamics and tone color.

Beyond technical considerations, both need performers who are deeply immersed in the distinctive styles and spirits of these works. Op. 127 is the first – and, some say, the knottiest – of the six quartets that Beethoven wrote in his last years. Like the other late quartets, it calls for voicings and balances that teeter between the elusive and the barely possible. (Webern’s employment of some of the same sounds nearly a century later was considered “experimental.”)

Even more challenging, perhaps, is Beethoven’s juxtaposition of highly sophisticated classical structure with folkish tunes and rustic dance rhythms. Does any other music ask players to think algebraically while clog-dancing?

In this performance, the Takács managed those technical and interpretive challenges expertly. The differentiation of fiddle tones in the first movement and earthy groove of the finale were just two of many highlights in a reading whose spontaneity was as striking as its exposition of fine points.

Spontaneity, remarkably, was the most distinguishing feature in the group’s performance of the Webern. This highly concentrated work – six movements in barely four minutes – often sounds to be all detail, with little or no sense of linear flow. The Takács conveyed linearity through careful treatment of dynamics and pacing of silence, the black (but textured, not flat) surface on which the composer paints his little starbursts and shafts of light.

Smetana’s Quartet No. 1 (“From My Life”), which closed the program, could easily have sounded anticlimactic after the Beethoven and Webern. Like Beethoven, Smetana was deaf when he wrote this music (although Smetana’s recollection of hearing was much fresher); and like Beethoven, Smetana freely and challengingly juxtaposed classical form with folk-dance rhythms, notably the polka. “From My Life,” however, proceeds along a pretty explicit story and time line, and an emotional trajectory from light to dark.

The Takács traced the work’s narrative and darkening of spirit quite effectively, and treated its folkish elements with appropriate verve. The ensemble’s sound was a bit too rich, to my ears, thickening musical textures as an idiomatically Czech interpretation would not. A few slurred notes and imbalances also detracted from the performance.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Review: 'Carmen'

Virginia Opera
Adam Turner conducting
April 6, Richmond CenterStage

Ginger Costa-Jackson, the mezzo-soprano in the title role of Virginia Opera’s current production of Bizet’s “Carmen,” has the dusky brilliance of voice and sinewy physicality that audiences crave in a Carmen. Abetted by stage Tazewell Thompson – or was it the other way around? – she essays this character with none of the usual ambiguity.

Singers and directors often try to mitigate the essential badness of Carmen by emphasizing her yearnings for “freedom,” or treat her as a femme fatale who just can’t help it. None of that here: Costa-Jackson’s Carmen delights in seduction, discards lovers like used tissues, dismisses the lives she ruins without a backward glance. She sneers. She leers. She’s a she-devil who gets the good tunes.

Whether this is what Bizet and his librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, had in mind is an argument for another time. This time, Costa-Jackson’s gypsy seductress is a character who might have been conceived by Quentin Tarantino, a personfication of danger and evil, and she pulls it off with a characterization that chills as it provokes.

She is ably supported by most of the rest of the cast. Dinyar Vania, as José, the corporal of the guard who falls under Carmen’s spell, conveys the conflict between obsession and duty in every vocal and physical gesture. Corrine Winters, as Micaëla, the sweet girl who would be José’s bride, sings and acts her part with touching naïveté. Matthew Sconlin, as Zuniga, officer of the guard, is thoroughly convincing as the worldly antipode to Vania’s José.

In the second of two Richmond performances, Ryan Kuster, as the toreador Escamillio, projected weakly and sounded hoarse. Vocal difficulties aside, he simply did not command the stage, even when spot-lit at its center.

He wasn’t helped by a Las Vegas lounge lizard outfit, the major wardrobe malfunction in Merrily Murray-Walsh’s otherwise inoffensive semi-modern-dress costume design. Scenic designer David P. Gordon sticks to the traditional, dusty rococo look of old Spanish Seville.

Choreographer and fight director Anthony Salatino finesses the challenge of integrating choristers and dancers, not overly taxing the singers as they work alongside frenzied gypsy dancers.

Adam Turner, Virginia Opera’s resident conductor and chorusmaster, taking over from conductor John DeMain in the Richmond performances, obtained energetic and atmospheric playing from the pit orchestra, drawn from the Richmond Symphony.

Final performances of Virginia Opera’s “Carmen” will be staged at 8 p.m. April 11 and 2 p.m. April 13 at the Center for the Arts, George Mason University, in Fairfax. Tickets: $44-$98. Details: (888) 945-2468 (;

Friday, April 4, 2014

Review: Chamber Music Society

April 4, Church of the Holy Comforter

“Rule Brittania?” Not lately, musically or otherwise. But there were times . . .

George Frideric Handel’s time, in the first half of the 18th century; Henry Purcell’s time, in the last decades of the 17th century; John Dowland’s time, at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. All three were distinctive, and distinctively English, composers (the German-born Handel by adoption), who set the country’s aspirations and temperament to music as well as any composers in any lands at any time.

The Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia offered that welcome reminder in the first of three concerts of baroque music rounding out its 2013-14 season.

Cellist James Wilson, the society’s artistic director, recruited a cast of top-tier instrumentalists and singers of the historically informed performance (HIP) school. Heading the list, the German violinists Florian Deuter and Monica Waisman, whose energy and virtuosity made a lasting impression when they first visited Richmond in 2009.

Deuter and Waisman sizzled anew, leading an ensemble in two of the Op. 6 set of concerti grossi by Handel. Their playful call-and-response in the rollicking finale of the A major, Op. 6, No. 11 – plus the crunchy resonance of the bass continuo provided by cellist Wilson, harpsichordist Francesco Padrini and lutenist David Walker – probably will run through the mind’s ears of many in the audience for days to come.

The string bowers and pluckers, joined by oboist Meg Owens, were no less musically potent, and a shade tighter as an ensemble, in the program’s opener, the Concerto Grosso in D major, Op. 6, No. 5.

The resonant acoustic of the church sanctuary lent orchestral scale to the performances of one- or two-to-a-part instrumental forces.

Deuter and Waisman also were featured in the Chaconne from Purcell’s Sonata No. 6 in G minor. This slow dance was widely employed in baroque instrumental suites, most famously by Bach in his solo-violin Partita No. 2 in D minor. Purcell’s treatment is more decorous and danceable, and so perhaps sounds less profound or weighty than Bach’s. Purcell, however, weaves a more elaborate texture with two fiddles and gives their players more opportunity for expressiveness and spontaneity. Deuter and Waisman exploited the difference.

Three familiar Purcell songs, “Fairest Isle” (from “King Arthur”), “Music for a While” and “If Music Be the Food of Love,” and three by Dowland, “By a Fountain,” “Time Stands Still” and “Shall I Sue,” showcased soprano Jessica Petrus and tenor Owen McIntosh. Both proved to be estimable early music stylists, Petrus with an achingly lovely, low-vibrato “white” tone that especially suited the more yearning and lovelorn Dowland numbers, McIntosh with a more assertive, theatrical style that paid special dividends in the Shakespeare setting.

Playing less prominent, but no less impressive roles in this program were recorder player Anne Timberlake, who paced the ensemble in John Blow’s Overture to “Venus and Adonis” and, using two registers of recorder, complemented Petrus’ voice in “Fairest Isle;” mezzo-soprano Margaret Lias, featured in Handel’s highly charged Italian love aria “Dolc’è pur d’amor l’affanno” (“The pain of love is sweet if suffering”); and Peter Walker, playing the mellow, alto-voiced English bagpipes in a couple of dance tunes.

Walker’s mini-set, and an earlier one featuring Timberlake, were helpful reminders that the divide between classical and popular music is a modern one. Handel, Purcell and other composers of their eras felt free to adopt folk and popular music, especially dance tunes. Their putatively lowbrow contemporaries no doubt returned the favor. Old England, musically at least, was merrier for it.

The Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia continues its spring baroque festival, “Aspects of Time,” with a free mini-concert by violinist Florian Deuter and Monica Waisman at noon April 5 at the Richmond Public Library, First and Franklin streets, and ticketed concerts at 7:30 April 5 and 4 p.m. April 6 at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter, Monument Avenue at Staples Mill Road. Tickets: $30. Details: (804) 519-2098;