Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Music Alive residency in Richmond

The Richmond Symphony is one of 12 recipients in the latest round of $7,500 grants from the Music Alive program of the League of American Orchestras and New Music USA, which finances one-week residencies by composers with small- and mid-market U.S. orchestras. The Richmond grant is for a residency by composer Laura Schwendinger in the 2015-16 season.

Schwendinger, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, was the first composer to win the American Academy in Berlin Prize. Her works have been performed by the American Composers Orchestra, soprano Dawn Upshaw, violinist Janine Jansen, cellist Matt Haimovitz, the JACK Quartet and other leading artists.

The composer’s Richmond residency will feature a performance of her “Waking Dream” (2009) for flute and chamber orchestra.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Letter V Classical Radio this week

Oct. 23
noon-2 p.m. EDT
1600-1800 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Haydn: Symphony No. 93 in D major
Les Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble/Marc Minkowski

Ligeti: Quartet No. 1 (“Métamorphoses nocturnes”)
Hagen Quartet
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Berlioz: “Lélio” – “Fantasia on Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ ”
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Michael Tilson Thomas
(RCA Victor)

Past Masters:
Mahler: Symphony No. 1
in D major
Czech Philharmonic/
Karel Ančerl
(recorded 1964)

Dvořák: “Silent Woods”
Alisa Weilerstein, cello;
Anna Polonsky, piano

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review: Richmond Symphony

with soloists, Richmond Symphony Chorus
Steven Smith conducting
Oct. 18, Richmond CenterStage

Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony (No. 2) may be the most challenging work that Steven Smith has undertaken in his four years (and counting) as music director of the Richmond Symphony.

The piece is long, lasting about an hour and 20 minutes. Its big outer movements, veering between tempestuous and softly lyrical, at times otherworldly, passages, can seem episodic or internally disjointed. It is scored for a very large orchestra, with double or triple the standard complements of winds, brass and percussion, including several offstage ensembles, with chorus, organ and two vocal soloists in its conclusion.

So, the Mahler Second is an epic job of traffic control for the conductor. All the more so with an orchestra, like Richmond’s, that must bring in a large number of extra players to muster a band of this size, meaning that the conductor must meld an ensemble from musicians not used to playing together.

Moreover, this is not a piece that speaks fluently if you just play and sing the notes. It is more spiritually charged than many overtly religious works; and it requires deep immersion in Austro-German romantic style, especially the long arcs of phrasing and expression that are uniquely characteristic of this style.

In the first of two performances of the “Resurrection,” Smith showed a firm grasp of most of the demands this music makes. He paced the symphony unerringly, and with great sensitivity to its extraordinary dynamic range, from earth-shatteringly loud to a level of quiet that is almost sensed more than heard. He maintained fine balance between string sections not much larger than the orchestra’s usual complement and oversized wind and percussion sections. He obtained idiomatically Viennese waltz tempos in the second and third movements.

The only shortcoming was a slackening of tension in quiet sections, especially in the first movement, “Totenfeier,” a sprawling funeral march that, along the way, poses a query in tone: “Wherefore hast thou lived? Wherefore hast thou suffered? Is it all some great, fearful joke?” The questions are posed in lyrical music, but need to retain some audible edge.

The orchestra performed splendidly, both en masse and in solos and ensembles. An 11-member French horn section paced the band in expressive sonority. The percussion section, with two sets of timpani and plentifully employed bass drum and cymbals, was suitably emphatic but never coarsely loud. Lower strings sounded with impact and plenty of bite. English horn player Shawn Welk, oboist Gustav Highstein, flutist Mary Boodell, trombonist John Sipher and violinist Daisuke Yamamoto contributed characterful solos.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Feinstein proved to be an ideal Mahler singer in “Urlicht,” the solo song preceding the symphony’s “Resurrection” finale, and blended beautifully with a richly sonorous soprano, Michelle Areyzaga, in that finale.

The Richmond Symphony Chorus, prepared by Erin R. Freeman, was in generally fine fettle but sounded distant, as it usually does when pushed to the back of the Carpenter Theatre stage and fronted by a large orchestra. The male choristers’ exclamatory passages, more than faintly echoing Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” projected better than massed choral sections.

A performance of great concentration and gripping tonal drama was rewarded with a lengthy ovation.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$78. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Letter V Classical Radio this week

Oct. 16
noon-2 p.m. EDT
1600-1800 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

D.J. Sparr: “Woodlawn Drive”
New Music Raleigh (Centaur)

Bartók: “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta”
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon)

Rachmaninoff: Étude-tableaux in B minor, Op. 39, No. 4; Élegie in E flat minor, Op. 3, No. 1; Étude-tableaux in E flat minor, Op. 39, No. 5
Yuja Wang, piano (Deutsche Grammophon)

Beethoven: “Leonore” Overture No. 1
Tonhalle Orchestra, Zürich/David Zinman (Arte Nova)

Past Masters:
Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor
Berlin Philharmonic/
Eugen Jochum (Deutsche Grammophon)
(recorded 1953)

Domenico Scarlatti: sonatas in F minor, K. 386-387
Mikhail Pletnev, piano (Virgin Classics)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Likes and dislikes

Norman Lebrecht, on his Slipped Disc blog, invited readers to list the top 10 composers or works they never wanted to hear again and those they considered worthy of more exposure. I couldn’t resist joining in the fun.

Scroll down to comments for my and others’ honor rolls:

And my and others’ dishonor rolls:

Begging the question, “Who cares if you listen?” (borrowing the title given a Milton Babbitt commentary on another issue)? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s useful to know the likes and dislikes of those of us who publicly assess musical performances.

As a reviewer, I try to take music as it comes, whatever it is – with one exception.

That would be No. 1 on my dishonor roll: Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony. I have heard it played by some of the greatest orchestras and conductors (starting with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, in concert in the 1960s), and I have always loathed it. So, when I retired from doing music journalism for money, I granted myself the privilege of never again having to endure the piece.

Is the “Pathétique” a masterpiece? Yes.

Should you trust any judgment I would make about a performance of it? No, and you won’t have occasion to.

UPDATE (Oct. 11): Conductor Leonard Slatkin weighs in:

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Letter V Classical Radio this week

A show full of new recordings, including a potent reading of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto by Leif Ove Andsnes, the Violin Concerto that Richmond-bred Mason Bates composed for Anne Akiko Meyers and piano discoveries from Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Bach-by-way-of-Brahms . . .

Oct. 9
noon-2 p.m. EDT
1600-1800 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

J.S. Bach: Partita in D minor, BWV 1004 – Chaconne
(arranged for piano left-hand by Johannes Brahms)
Leon Fleisher, piano

Bates: Violin Concerto
Anne Akiko Meyers, violin
London Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
(eOne Music)

Tchaikovsky: Dumka in C minor (“Russian Rustic Scene”),
Op. 59
Lada Valešová, piano

Wagner: “Sonata for Mathilde Wesendonck”
Llyr Williams, piano
(Signum Classics)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major (“Emperor”)
Leif Ove Andsnes,
piano & director
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
(Sony Classical)

“Five Sheep, Four Goats”
Danish String Quartet

Monday, October 6, 2014

Atlanta Symphony: How many care?

Howard Pousner of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution summarizes an interview with Douglas Hertz, chairman of the board of the Woodruff Arts Center, corporate parent of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, whose musicians have been locked out over a contract dispute since Sept. 7:

Some of Hertz’s comments, especially his wondering aloud whether the orchestra’s musicians are “a bunch of crazy people” and his remark that ASO Music Director Robert Spano, who protested the lockout, “hasn’t been particularly constructive to this point,” have provoked quite a backlash, at home and elsewhere.

For example, here’s the reaction of orchestra administrative watchdog Drew McManus, on his blog Adapistration:

Hertz, unfortunately, does not address the statistic that compensation of ASO musicians amounts to about 25 percent of the orchestra’s budget, a substantially lower percentage than spending on musicians by comparably sized orchestras. That’s a key data point in comments from writers whom Hertz dismisses as “journalists who want to take the musicians’ side.”

To me, Hertz’s most telling comment is that “less than 5,000 donors in a metropolitan area of 5 million” support the orchestra. “If the public cared[,] maybe we wouldn’t be in this stituation.”

By comparison, the Richmond Symphony, performing in a market one-fifth the size of metro Atlanta, had about 1,250 individual, corporate, foundation and government donors in the 2013-14 fiscal year. (There were additional matching gifts.)

I find Hertz’s equation questionable. The orchestra’s relatively small donor pool may reflect public indifference; or it may be the result of not effectively reaching out to the public.

The only financial angels Hertz mentions are those who’ve donated or raised millions. How many of the less than 5,000 are small donors ($1,000 or less), and how much effort goes into soliciting their gifts?

Some professional fund-raisers question the tangible value of small donations – soliciting them may cost more than the solicitation raises. But there’s the intangible value: The more stakeholders an institution has in its community, the more credible its claim that the community cares about it. Big donors notice whether small donors care, so the intangible can translate into the tangible.

And when the crunch comes, as it obviously has in Atlanta, the more people literally invested in the institution, the brighter the prospects for a resolution of the crisis.