Friday, April 27, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

with cellist Nicholas Tzavaras
April 27, Second Baptist Church, Richmond

The Richmond Symphony’s April Masterworks program was meant to culminate this season’s celebration of works introduced by Beethoven 200 years ago – in this instance, the Fourth Symphony and "Coriolan" Overture, premiered in the same concert on March 5, 1807.

The weekend’s concerts, however, have become performances in memory of Alan Paterson, the orchestra’s longtime principal horn player, and Mstislav Rostropovich, the great Russian cellist. (More on each in previous posts.)

In another case of seemingly prescient timing, Nicholas Tzavaras, cellist of the Shanghai Quartet, was already set to play Tchaikovsky’s "Variations on a Rococo Theme," a work Rostropovich knew well and played often. (The piece also has a prominent horn solo, which Paul La Follette played almost elegaically.)

Tzavaras gave the Tchaikovsky an appropriately light touch, playing with generally lean sonority, but without underplaying the set’s richly lyrical sections. As might be expected of a chamber musician, he was attentive to his colleagues onstage – notably, in his duet with flutist Mary Boodell in the fifth variation.

Tzavaras also displayed some uncharacteristic waywardness of pitch and a tendency to slide into (and occasionally past) notes. He looked to be having trouble keeping his instrument firmly anchored, a distraction that presumably will be dealt with before subsequent concerts.

Mark Russell Smith led two of the best performances of Beethoven this orchestra has given in recent years. The musicians played with burnished sonority, surging dynamism and keen attention to internal details, especially of string orchestrations. These concerts use a larger complement of lower strings than those mustered for the Fifth and Sixth symphonies in the separate Beethoven Festival series, and the difference in "bottom" is striking and welcome.

The "Coriolan" is the most overtly theatrical of Beethoven’s overtures, and Smith fashioned an operatic reading, with its turbulence, tension and yearning etched in high relief. His pacing of the Fourth Symphony was slightly broader, and the orchestra’s sound more wide-bodied; but the percolating figures and rhythmic sharp turns that animate this work were clearly audible and cleanly rendered.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. April 28 at First Baptist Church, Monument Avenue at Boulevard in Richmond, and 8 p.m. April 29 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $20-$60. The April 29 concert airs live on WCVE (88.9 FM) in Richmond and WCNV (89.1 FM) in Heathsville. Information: (804) 788-1212 or

Alan Paterson (1949-2007)

Alan Paterson, principal horn player of the Richmond Symphony, died April 27 after a nearly yearlong battle with brain cancer.

Mr. Paterson, who earned degrees from Oberlin College and Temple University, joined the Richmond Symphony in 1974 and performed under three of its four music directors. He played in the symphony's woodwind and brass quintets, led the Richmond Youth Wind Ensemble, served the orchestra in several administrative posts, including personnel and stage manager and librarian, and appeared as a soloist on numerous occasions.

He served for two years (1985-87) as principal horn player of the Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence, Italy, then conducted by Zubin Mehta, and played in the Chamber Orchestra of Musicus Concentus under Lorin Maazel's direction.

He was a member of the faculties of Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Richmond and the Summer Residential Governor's School for Visual and Performing Arts.

His son, Ian, plays trumpet in the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra and Richmond Youth Wind Ensemble.

Mr. Paterson's wife, Barbara, and family ask that memorial contributions in his memory be made to: Richmond Symphony, 300 W. Franklin Street, #103E, Richmond, VA 23220.

A memorial service and concert will be held May 20 at First Baptist Church in Richmond.

Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007)

Mstislav Rostropovich’s death, on April 27 in Moscow, reportedly from cancer, silences not just one of the greatest musicians of the past century but one of the few cultural figures of our time to exert real moral authority in politics and statecraft.

Known almost universally as Slava – the nickname is Russian for "glory" – Rostropovich was a protégé and exponent of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and other leading composers of the Soviet Union. As his fame spread beyond his homeland, he formed close associations with Western composers such as Britten and Bernstein. He was the inspiration and/or dedicatee of works for cello by those figures as well as Walton, Auric, Kabalevsky, Miaskovsky, Lutoslawski, Panufnik, Messiaen, Schnittke, Dutilleux, Pärt, Penderecki, Foss and Kancheli. (That's a partial list, from the obituary in The New York Times.) No musician of his generation, and few others in musical history, worked as closely with so many composers.

Those associations and the musical fruit they bore, and Rostropovich’s robustly virtuosic interpretations of standard cello literature, well-documented in audio and video, form an artistic legacy that ultimately will outshine his role as a Soviet dissident in the 1970s and activist for democracy in Russia and other former East Bloc states. (The fragility of his political legacy was painfully evident in his last public appearance, a celebration of his 80th birthday at the Kremlin, at which he was toasted by the budding autocrat Vladimir Putin.)

Rostropovich the cultural freedom fighter will be remembered longer and more fondly in this part of the United States, thanks to his direction of Washington’s National Symphony (1977-94). During that period he made the orchestra a refuge for émigré musicians and a sounding board for musical critiques of the Stalinist mindset, from Shostakovich’s rowdy satire "Rayok" to Penderecki’s wrenching "Polish Requiem." No dissident of the era had a more public platform, and Slava was masterful at using it.

His passions and enthuasiasm, in art and life alike, were irresistible. In his presence you were embraced, figuratively when not literally. Whoever coined the term "charm offensive" might have had Slava in mind. He dazzled Washington.

As a conductor, Rostropovich thrived on tension and the big rhetorical gesture, which he used to powerful effect in Russian music, especially Shostakovich’s. His ear for refined sonority did not extend much past the string sections, his technical control of the orchestra was often shaky, and his readings of non-Russian scores could be quite eccentric. (He took to English music, thanks no doubt to Britten, and developed surprising fluency in contemporary American music.)

He was at his best performing within the Russian tradition and collaborating with living composers. Forming an emotional bond was intrinsic to his music-making.

For Slava, in music and life beyond music, if it mattered it was personal.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Review: Netherlands Bach Society

Bach: Mass in B minor
April 24, University of Richmond

Performing Bach’s Mass in B minor five times in six days, with a 3,000-mile journey between the fourth and fifth performances, is a pretty convincing scenario for highbrow hell week. That’s what Jos van Veldhoven and his Netherlands Bach Society put themselves through, starting an American tour on April 18 in New York, continuing on to Ann Arbor, Berkeley and Seattle before their April 24 finale in Richmond.

The ensemble’s 15 singers and 22 instrumentalists sounded unfazed by the mileage. If anything, they sounded more keenly attuned for having undergone such concentration on a single work. Especially this work: The Mass in B minor is immense, very complex in its part-writing, very demanding technically; new balances and textures, different emotional modulations and expressive flourishes, await discovery or exploitation in every performance.

Much has been made of the "intimate" approach the Netherlands Bach Socuety takes to Bach’s major choral works. Its vocal forces – 10 "ripienists" and five "concertists," or soloists who also join in the choruses – are far less numerous than those typically employed, even by historically informed troupes. The society’s string contingent – three first violins, two seconds and single viola, cello and double-bass – is also decidedly compact.

The group did not sound downsized in the University of Richmond’s Camp Concert Hall, a 600-seat venue whose acoustical clarity and level of resonance are ideal for pre-modern instruments and the straight tone of early music singers. The ensemble played the room expertly, projecting across an unusually wide dynamic range, filling the space in the most exuberant choruses but making some of its strongest musical points with a few voices at low volume.

Veldhoven does not belong to the lickety-split school of early music conductors. In the Kyrie and other graver sections of the Mass, his tempos were quite measured – more Klemperer than Gardiner – and his treatments of fast sections, while brisk, were never breathless, always aware of their dance origins and inflections.

The most audible departure this group makes from standard-issue Bach is the extra emphasis it gives to the affectus, or tonal-emotional vocabulary, of this music. The sighing figure that underlies the Kyrie is rarely as potent as it was in this performance; likewise, the vivid effects of crucifixion, death and resurrection in the Credo. Veldhoven also played up strong contrasts, as between the Osanna and Benedictus.

The solo voices, paced by countertenor Matthew White, tenor Charles Daniels and soprano Johannette Zomer, were well-matched and struck a nice balance between baroque stylishness and emotional authenticity.

Add to that pinpoint accuracy in choral singing and fine instrumental solos, especially by the concertmaster, Johannes Leertouwer, and flutist Marten Root, and the sum was a performance of extraordinary fluency, vitality and depth.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

with violinist Jessica Lee
April 20, Bon Air Baptist Church, Richmond

The Richmond Symphony’s final Beethoven Festival program was set more than a year ago, but seemed almost prescient on what turned out to be a day of mourning for the victims of the April 16 rampage at Virginia Tech. The musical and emotional trajectory of Copland’s "Appalachian Spring," Vaughan Williams’ "The Lark Ascending" and Beethoven’s "Pastoral" Symphony punctuated a tragic week on a note of hope and renewal.

"The Lark Ascending," the tone poem Vaughan Williams wrote during World War I and introduced in 1921, sounded more human than avian, with an earthy bittersweetness underlying its fine threads of melody, in the hands of violinist Jessica Lee. The Richmond-born prodigy, who went on to Curtis and Juilliard and won first prize in the 2005 Concert Artists Guild International Competition, performed with fluency and spontaneity, building her interpretation from a heartfelt but scrupulous reading of the solo-violin soliloquy at the center of the work.

Conductor Mark Russell Smith chose the original chamber orchestration of "Appalachian Spring," but led the concert suite rather than the original ballet score. The clean, unaffected sonorities of clarinetist Ralph Skiano and flutist Mary Boodell and alert accents of pianist John Walter compensated for a string ensemble that started out sluggishly.

Beethoven’s "Pastoral" is one of the most difficult symphonies in the repertory. It is chamber music on symphonic scale, evenly distributing music-making among many instruments. Phrases are commonly passed among sections or soloists. Rhythms often sound afloat or aloft. Sound effects, evocative asides and bits of musical humor need to be heard, but shouldn’t make more than passing impressions in the lyrical sweep of this symphony.

Smith led a classically scaled orchestra, with 22 strings and with first and second violins divisi, in a nicely paced, well-articulated account. Low strings sounded underpowered in Beethoven’s flat-footed dances, but otherwise a merry assembly tended the garden with energy and enthuasiasm.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. April 22 in Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College in Ashland. Tickets: $27. Information: (804) 788-1212 or

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


My profile of Jos van Veldhoven and his Netherlands Bach Society, performing Bach's Mass in B minor April 24 at the University of Richmond, is in print in Style Weekly and online at:

Tuesday Evening Concerts 2007-08

The Tuesday Evening Concerts, the chamber-music series presented at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, has announced its 2007-08 season. Dates, artists and repertory include:

Oct. 9 – Baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber in Schubert's "Die schöne Müllerin."

Oct. 23 – Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and Miami String Quartet in Schubert and Chausson.

Nov. 13 – Les Violons du Roy chamber orchestra, with soprano Karina Gauvin and countertenor Robin Blaze, in Vivaldi and Pergolesi.

Feb. 12 – Pianist Piotr Anderszewski, program TBA.

March 25 – Violinist Nikolaj Znaider in Bach, Beethoven, Ives and Brahms.

April 8 – Akademie für alte Musik Berlin chamber orchestra in Vivaldi, Marcello, Bach, Erlebach and Graun.

April 29 – Orkis-Hardy Duo, from Kennedy Center Chamber Players, in all-Beethoven program.

All concerts are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays in Cabell Hall at UVA.

Subscription information: (434) 244-9505 or

Monday, April 16, 2007

Q&A: Midori

Midori, the onetime pre-teen violin prodigy from Japan by way of Dorothy Delay’s Juilliard studio, will turn 36 later this year. She was not the typical prodigy, showing off pyrotechnics and tugging a little too insistently at the heart strings; a thoughtful and probing musician since youth, she has matured into an artist of refinement, sensitivity and, above all, clarity.

Midori (a condensation of her full name, Goto Mi Dori) performs on April 21 at the Garth Newel Music Center, near Warm Springs in Bath County in western Virginia. Her recital, with pianist Robert McDonald, highlights a group of spring concerts, a taste of the center’s summerlong weekend series.

Details on Midori's recital are in the April calendar, and on the Garth Newel season at:

I recently interviewed Midori via e-mail about her collaboration with the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara on a new work, "Lost Landscapes," which the violinist is introducing this spring, and about her views on the state of her art. (Questions are in italics.)

In your April 21 Garth Newel recital, Rautavaara’s "Lost Landscapes" is preceded by Beethoven’s "Spring" Sonata and followed by Hindemith and Strauss sonatas. "Framing" new music with older music is common in concert programs. Do you seek to select surrounding pieces that may be complementary or place the new work in a stylistic context or on some sort of musical-historical continuum?

It is always a great pleasure to incorporate a musical composition of our time in a recital program. We select and arrange our recital programs to have an interesting yet cohesive flow between the pieces, and seek to balance various musical elements such as texture, sound and style.

A few months ago, I interviewed Richard Stoltzman about his working with Rautavaara on a new clarinet concerto. Their interaction was extensive, and the finished product was to a significant degree a collaboration between the composer and performer. Did you and Rautavaara engage in that kind of back-and-forth on technical issues, length, suitability of the music to the instrument, reconciling your artistic personality with his?

Mr. Rautavaara and I corresponded as he was writing "Lost Landscapes," and I did visit him a few times in Helsinki while he was working on the piece. I believe that these communications were a natural exchange of our personalities, and after all, we would not have pursued the collaboration if either of us felt that there were irreconcilable differences in our artistry. What resulted is a deeply personal piece from a master composer, and I am delighted to play it.

Some musicians and observers detect a renewal of interest in classical music, especially contemporary and experimental music, occurring "under the radar" of the music industry and mass media. Do you feel freer to program new or little-known music today than you did, say, 10 years ago?

Around Christmastime 2004, I was fortunate to have been able to present my first all-contemporary recital program in Japan with pianist Robert McDonald, and we recreated the New Music Project in a recital tour of the U.S. in spring 2006. I have always been interested in modern works, but this was the first time I was able to offer a concert entirely comprised of music written during my lifetime. I think that the simple fact that I was able to do this both in Japan and in America gives some indication toward a growing interest and acceptance of contemporary music.

Along the same line, do you find your audiences more willing to experience the new or unfamiliar than they were in the past?

Despite making small steps toward wider acceptance, it is still generally believed in the business that contemporary music is indecipherable to most audiences. For some new listeners, particularly younger people, simply having an open mind for new sound experiences greatly enhances the adventure of a new music concert. I have also realized that providing the audience with background information about the composer could sometimes be helpful for them to feel more connected to the composer, which makes the listening a more personal experience.

What can performers do to help people relearn the art of "pure" listening?

Performers need to do whatever we can to help avoid alienating our audiences, and to ensure that listeners don’t simply have a generic experience.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

April 13, Second Baptist Church

April 12 was the 150th anniversary of Edward Elgar’s birth. The Richmond Symphony marks it with performances of the "Enigma" Variations over the weekend. That’s more recognition than the anniversary is getting from most American orchestras.

The British are more creatively dissing Sir Edward: Just in time for the anniversary, his picture is being removed from the £20 note.

In their April 13 concert, conductor Mark Russell Smith and the Richmond Symphony presented the Elgar alongside two other familiar sets of orchestral variations, Brahms’ "Variations on a Theme of Haydn" and Hindemith’s "Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber."

(The Hindemith was a late substitution for Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1. The symphony’s concertmaster, Karen Johnson, who was to be the soloist, is recovering from a broken left pinky finger. She now plans to play the Shostakovich on May 18, 19 and 21.)

Oddly, in the company of Germans "Enigma" sounded less indebted to German romantic tradition than this piece commonly does. That indebtedness is why Elgar is viewed by many modern English musicians as "the composer everyone who came after wanted to shake off," as Norman Lebrecht remarked in an anniversary program on the BBC.

Smith and the orchestra performed the Elgar with ears cocked for bits of color and nuances of inflection and dynamics – almost as if it were French music.

They gave the big, bronzed sonorities of the opening theme, the great "Nimrod" variation and the "E.D.U." finale their due, with bassoons and horns supplying an unusually textured bass. The orchestra's best work, though, came in more lyrical or fanciful sections, paced by string figurations in "H.D. S.-P." and solos by cellist Neal Cary, violist Molly Sharp and clarinetist Ralph Skiano in the lyrical variations.

A similarly fine-tuned sensibility informed the Brahms and Hindemith. Why aren’t these works paired more often? Each begins as a German’s take on a Viennese musical convention – in Brahms’ case, a chorale of Haydn’s time (but not by Haydn) sung by Harmonie (wind octet); in Hindemith’s, a gypsy dance garnished with "Turkish" percussion – and each proceeds as a playful, at times splashy, modernization of tradition.

Smith and the orchestra gave a polished account of the Brahms, bringing out its internal voicings and rhythmic currents while keeping it moving and singing. Up against exuberant brass and percussion, strings sounded recessed and their dynamism underplayed in the Hindemith.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. April 14 at First Baptist Church, Boulevard at Monument Avenue in Richmond, and at 8 p.m. April 16 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $20-$60. Information: (804) 788-1212 or

Friday, April 13, 2007

Josh & Jer

The widely remarked-upon story, by Gene Weingarten in The Washington Post, on violinist Joshua Bell busking in a Washington Metro station:

The funniest remark upon it, by Bell's sometime recital partner, pianist Jeremy Denk:

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Chamber Music Society of Williamsburg 2007-08

The Chamber Music Society of Williamsburg has announced its lineup for the 2007-08 season. The group presents concerts in the Williamsburg Library Theatre, usually sold out on subscription.

Dates and artists for the coming season:

Sept. 18 – Claremont Piano Trio.

Oct. 30 – New Zealand String Quartet.

Dec. 4 – Da Ponte String Quartet.

Jan. 29 – Trio Fedele.

Feb. 19 – Gryphon Piano Trio.

March 18 – Formosa String Quartet.

No program details were announced.

Subscription information: (757) 229-8723 or

NSO taps Fischer as interim chief

Iván Fischer will serve for two seasons as principal conductor of Washington’s National Symphony while the orchestra searches for a successor to Leonard Slatkin as music director.

Fischer, founder and director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, was named the NSO’s principal guest conductor last season. He will conduct for eight weeks in 2008-09, seven weeks in 2009-10.

The NSO joins other major American orchestras – Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit – that have opted for several seasons of interim leadership while they search for new music directors.

Slatkin steps down as music director of the NSO at the end of the 2007-08 season.

Shooting star

Gustavo Dudamel, the 26-year-old Venezuelan conductor who will succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in two years, is the brightest shooting star to streak into the classical firmament in years. His background is inspiring, his ethnicity is intriguing, and by all accounts he is a charismatic presence onstage.

Dudamel is a product of Venezuela’s outstanding music-education system for young people. He began as an 11-year-old violinist in the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra and started conducting at 15. In 2004 he won a conducting competition in Germany, among whose judges were Salonen and Ernest Fleischmann, the former general manager of the LA Philharmonic. Dudamel signed a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon and embarked on guest engagements with major orchestras.

He made his debut with the LA Phil in 2005 in the Hollywood Bowl, first conducted the orchestra on its main stage in Disney Hall last year, also has conducted in Milan, Boston and Chicago, and debuts in Berlin, Vienna and New York next season. He is the incoming principal conductor of the Göteborg Symphony in Sweden and will continue to work with the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra in Caracas.

As Mark Swed noted in the Los Angeles Times, LA likes young conductors. Zubin Mehta and Salonen were 26 and 34, respectively, when they were appointed. (Oldsters Carlo Maria Giulini and André Previn served between them.) And Dudamel seems a good match for a region with a growing Latino population.

Salonen’s LA Phil has been a leading sounding board for contemporary music among American orchestras. Dudamel’s reputation to date has ridden on performances of standard repertory – his debut recording paired the Beethoven Fifth and Seventh symphonies; in modern and contemporary music, he appears to be a blank slate.

A not-unlikely scenario: Salonen, who will continue to live in LA (primarily employed, he says, as a composer) and maintain an association with the orchestra, becomes its modern-music laureate, à la Pierre Boulez, while the charismatic young Dudamel wows ’em with warhorses.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

'Some nuts sound better than others'

– Margaret Leng Tan, as she places nuts and bolts in a piano for John Cage's prepared-piano music

That's from "The MTT Files," Michael Tilson Thomas' new series on (mostly modern) music, from American Public Media and MTT's San Francisco Symphony. In Richmond, WCVE (88.9 FM) plans to air the series at 2 p.m. Sept. 10-19.

Meanwhile, you can hear the first episode, "You Call That Music?!" on music's relationship (and debt) to noise, at: