Saturday, April 29, 2017

Review: Richmond Symphony Chorus

Erin Freeman directing
April 28, Second Baptist Church

The Richmond Symphony Chorus remembered its founding director, James Erb, in a program ranging from sections of Brahms’ “A German Requiem” and the Renaissance polyphony of Roland de Lassus to Erb’s own compositions and arrangements.

The emotional highlight of the program, not surprisingly, was its climax: the arrangement of “Shenandoah” that Erb prepared for his University of Richmond Chorus to take on its first European tour in 1971. (He founded the Symphony Chorus that year, as well.)

His “Shenandoah” has been sung by hundreds of choruses worldwide, and has been put to sometimes unlikely uses, such as accompanying the end credits of Oliver Stone’s film “Nixon.” Erb liked to joke that royalties from its many performances financed quite a few family vacations.

In this concert, the Symphony Chorus sang “Shenandoah” once onstage, then descended to the aisles of the Second Baptist Church, where the choristers were joined by audience members – among them, many alumni of Erb’s collegiate and community choruses – to sing it again.

It was the finale of a set of American and Anglo-Celtic folk-song arrangements that Erb had made over the years, all of them wistful or yearning in lyric content. Erb’s treatments mostly introduced the tunes in straightforward folk style – “Amazing Grace,” for example, at the outset clearly echoing the late-18th century shape-note tradition – then developed them in a mid-20th century style that might be described as romantic with modestly modernist touches.

Four members of the ensemble – Steve Travers, Gabriella Francesca Bergeret, Rondy Michael Lazaro and Colleen James – took solo turns in three of the folk tunes, most affectingly Lazaro in “Colorado Trail” and James in “Now Is the Cool of the Day.”

The chorus also sang Erb’s setting of William Blake’s “The Lamb,” and his arrangement of the Scottish song “John Anderson, My Jo,” by way of Robert Schumann’s “Romances and Ballads,” Op. 145.

The Brahms requiem was the last large-scale work that Erb prepared with the Symphony Chorus before his retirement in 2007. In this concert, his successor, Erin Freeman, led the ensemble in three of the work’s most solemnly lyrical sections, “Seilig sind, die da Leid tragen” (“Blessed are they that mourn”), “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” (“How lovely are Thy dwelling places”) and “Seilig sind die Toten” (“Blessed are the dead”).

The choristers sang these pieces with affectionate warmth and satisfying collective heft, the latter underscored by Michael Simpson in his organ accompaniment.

A chamber contingent of the chorus was on less familiar ground in Lassus’ chanson “Dessus le marché d’Arras” (“Near the Marketplace in Arras”), whose bawdy lyric describes a Spaniard bargaining for the favors of a French girl (Freeman eschewed translation in this church setting), and the Magnificat that the composer based on the tune – a piece that, nearly years later, Erb edited for the scholarly edition of Lassus’ compositions.

The singers strained to negotiate the heavy traffic of notes in the chanson. They produced a firmer ensemble sound in the Magnificat.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Washington Performing Arts 2017-18

Martha Argerich, the eminent Argentine-born pianist who has rarely appeared on US stages in recent years, will perform twice in Washington Performing Arts’ 2017-18 season, playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Antonio Pappano conducting the Orchestra di Santa Cecilia of Rome on Oct. 25 and playing works of Bach, Franck and others with violinist Itzhak Perlman on March 20, both at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Washington Performing Arts, marking its 50th anniversary next season, is the region’s leading presenter of internationally prominent classical artists.

Its coming season also will feature concerts by the Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg, Valery Gergiev conducting, with pianist Daniil Trifonov, Nov. 12; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti conducting, Feb. 7; the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting, March 6; and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel conducting, April 26. All will perform in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall except the Philadelphia Orchestra, which will play at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, MD, in the DC suburbs.

Solo and chamber recitalists include Ensemble Signal, Brad Lubman conducting, with composer Steve Reich in an all-Reich program, Oct. 18 at the Library of Congress; pianist Nikolai Lugansky, Nov. 1 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater; violinist Joshua Bell with pianist Alessio Bax, Nov. 5 at Strathmore; violinist Maxim Vengerov with pianist Roustem Saitkoulov, Jan. 26 at Strathmore; pianist Alexandre Tharaud, Feb. 13 at the Terrace Theater; flutist Emmanuel Pahud with pianist Alessio Bax, Feb. 16 at the Terrace Theater; pianist Mitsuko Uchida, Feb. 21 at Strathmore; the trio of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Emanuel Ax, Feb. 23 at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall; pianist Boris Berezovsky, March 22 at the Terrace Theater; pianist Roman Rabinovich, March 24 at the Terrace Theater; the Kronos Quartet with pipa (Chinese lute) player Wu Man, April 19 at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium; and pianist Evgeny Kissin, May 16 at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

The second season of SHIFT: a Festival of American Orchestras will present the Fort Worth Symphony, Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducting, with violinist Augustin Hadelich and the Texas Ballet Theater, April 10; the Albany Symphony, David Alan Miller conducting, with pianist Joyce Yang and tuba player Carol Jantsch, April 11; the Indianapolis Symphony, Krzystof Urbanski conducting, with cellist Alisa Weilerstein and two choirs, April 13; and Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda conducting, with baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, April 14. All will perform at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

For a complete schedule of performers and programs, visit Washington Performing Arts’ website at

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

'Curating' the classics at The Times

A lot of dust has been kicked up lately about changes in the way The New York Times covers classical music – notably, the brevity or omission of reviews of some performances.

There’s some urgency to the discussion, as The Times is one of the few newspapers in the US that still devotes significant space and staffing to the subject.

In an interview with Steve Smith on The Log Journal, Zachary Woolfe, who recently became classical-music editor of The Times and has overseen many of its changes in coverage, explains how the paper is “curating” classical news, features and reviews, online and in print, and the wider audience he intends to reach:


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Letter V Classical Radio this week

April 26
noon-3 p.m. EDT
1600-1900 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Beethoven: “Coriolan” Overture
Anima Eterna Orchestra/Jos van Immerseel
(Zig Zag Territories)

String Quintet
in G minor, K. 516
(EMI Classics)

“Variations sérieuses,”
Op. 54
Alfred Brendel, piano

Antonio Bertali: Chaconne in C major
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra Consort

J.S. Bach:
“Chromatic Fantasy
and Fugue” in D minor,
BWV 903
Leon Fleisher, piano
(Vanguard Classics)

Quartet No. 3
in G major, Op. 94
Emerson String Quartet
(Decca Gold)

Past Masters:
Symphony No. 9
in D minor (“Choral”)
Ursula Kaszut, soprano
Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo-soprano
Nicolai Gedda, tenor
Donald McIntyre, bass
Munich Philharmonic Choir
Munich Motet Choir
Munich Philharmonic/Rudolf Kempe
(recorded 1973)
(Warner Classics)

Monday, April 24, 2017

Fisk renews at symphony

The Richmond Symphony has extended the contract of David Fisk, its executive director, through 2020.

The English-born Fisk, a 51-year-old graduate of Manchester University and the Royal Northern of Music in Manchester, joined the Richmond Symphony in 2002 after serving as chief executive officer of the Ulster Orchestra Society in Belfast and as manager of the Orchestra of St. John’s, Smith Square, a chamber orchestra in London.

Fisk, a pianist, and his wife, the Irish-born soprano Anne O’Byrne, are active performers in local recitals and chamber concerts.

Review: Chamber Music Society

April 23, University of Richmond

A blisteringly expressive performance of César Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor, concluding a program of otherwise rarely heard French chamber works, wrapped up the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia’s current season.

The Franck, which probably comes as close as any piece to what chamber music by Richard Wagner might have sounded like, pits an often thunderous piano against a string quartet whose parts, singly and collectively, are impassioned and rich – or dense – with chromatic harmonies and swelling dynamics.

Richness, rather than density, characterized this performance by pianist Roman Rabinovich, violinists Diana Cohen and Daisuke Yamamoto, violist Amadi Azikiwe and cellist James Wilson, who, aided greatly by the bright acoustic of the University of Richmond’s freshly renovated Perkinson Recital Hall, projected unusual clarity in the normally heavily weave of Franck’s miniature orchestration.

Rabinovich didn’t hold back in the piano’s massive chordal punctuations; but the string players, paced by Cohen, matched him in volume and intensity, and their treatments of the recurring, lyrical leitmotif – a sound portrait of a woman (not his wife) with whom Franck was obsessed at the time – underlined the passionate edge of this reading.

The Franck was preceded by two rare examples of chamber music with trumpet, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Septet in E flat major, Op. 65, and Vincent d’Indy’s “Suite dans le style ancien” (“Dance Suite in the Old Style”), Op. 24, both composed for a late 19th-century Parisian chamber-concert series called La Trompette.

In these performances, trumpeter Justin Bland alternated between instruments, playing a modern valved trumpet in the Saint-Saëns and a valveless “natural” trumpet, for a better blend with two flutes in a wind chorus, in the d’Indy octet.

In both pieces, Bland ably reined in volume and brightness, keeping his instrumental lines within the fabric of ensembles rather than blaring over them – a peril that explains the scarcity of trumpet parts in chamber works with strings.

Saint-Saëns and d’Indy consciously couched their pieces in the antique form of the baroque suite, with a decorous introduction followed by dances (minuet, sarabande, gavotte). Neither exactly impersonated baroque musical style – virtually unknown in their day – opting instead for structures and tonal blends that Mozart or Haydn might have recognized, d’Indy a bit more rigorously than Saint-Saëns.

Bland, joined by the string players and Rabinovich in both works and by flutists Tabatha Easley and Brandon Patrick George in the d’Indy, delivered stylishly classical, somewhat understated treatments, with Rabinovich adding an appropriately romantic gloss to the Saint-Saëns.

George and Rabinovich rounded out the program with a straightforward reading of Gabriel Fauré’s Fantasie, Op. 79, for flute and piano, an unabashedly romantic piece, but one without the emotional tumult of the Franck.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Review: Takács Quartet

April 20, University of Richmond

The Takács Quartet’s recorded cycle of the Beethoven string quartets has been widely rated as a reference version since the discs were released between 2002 and 2004.

Some of the same qualities that have gratified record collectors – a middle-of-the-road interpretive stance that stood up to repeated hearings, warm-blooded collective tone that made room for felicitous details from individual players – characterized the ensemble’s performances of three of the quartets in a return engagement at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center.

The Takács – violinists Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther and cellist András Fejér – sampled early, middle and late Beethoven, playing the quartets in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 6, and F major, Op. 135, in the first half of the program, and the third “Razumovsky” Quartet, in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, after intermission.

The later quartets lent themselves more readily to the Takács’ expansive, room-filling sound and borderline-romantic mode of expression. The foursome’s long lyrical arc in the slow movement of Op. 135 and pacing of the slow movement of Op. 59, No. 3 – almost Mahlerian in its scale – were perhaps the most rewarding performances in the program.

Dusinberre’s quasi-cadenza in the opening movement of the “Razumovsky” was a rare burst of solo brilliance. Elsewhere, the Takács emphasized consistent, concentrated ensemble sound, exploring gradations of dynamics – how many degrees of mezzoforte can these musicians produce? – and playing with a tonal weight reminiscent of the Budapest and Guarneri quartets in their primes.

I’ve heard the playful Beethoven – of the first movement of Op. 18, No. 6, for example – played more playfully, and the energetic finale of Op. 59, No. 3, played more speedily, than they were in this performance. There were times, especially in the early quartet, when I would have preferred a leaner, more focused tone.

But very few string quartets at work today have this music as securely in hand. The Takács has a clear, long-considered notion of how Beethoven quartets should sound, and makes a compelling case for its approach.