Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Necessary cat

One or more cats-in-residence seem to be a standard component of a well-tempered classical blog. I’m wary of this. Cat pictures can be the first salvo in a sustained cuteness offensive, soon escalating to emoticons*, bad puns, lapses into baby talk, photos of pets in kilts and fezzes, doctored videos of animals lip-synching great arias and other giggly icky bits.

Nevertheless, a cat looms over, and sometimes insistently nuzzles his way into, these proceedings, and I guess I shouldn’t conceal his existence. Julius, pictured above, is a 4-year-old, cross-eyed orange tabby, adopted from the Richmond SPCA.

He purrs in octaves, croons, chirps and otherwise makes noises that might qualify as musical. But he is indifferent to singing and the sounds of instruments other than "buzzy" ones – bassoon, harpsichord, crumhorn, zither – which inspire him to sit on or snuggle up to loudspeakers. His favorite sounds are mechanical and hissy: streetsweepers, skateboards on cement surfaces, room humidifiers.

He is not into electronics (other than playing with electrical cords, which is discouraged) and is oblivious to virtual reality. He is highly interactive, but olfactory and tactile about it. He hasn’t made your acquaintance until he’s sniffed you and pawed your shoes. Luckily for your shoes, and my furniture, he is declawed. You will not see him in that stereotypical cute-cat pose, curled up with a good book, because he likes to gnaw paper (also discouraged).

Like most domesticated cats, he’s convinced that humans exist to feed, water and amuse him. Anything that distracts humans from those tasks is a bad thing. Julius was not born to blog. This appearance is a rare cameo.

* The best our alphabet can offer in the way of a cat emoticon is a W with an umlaut. Microsoft Word does not seem to offer this character, so I have concocted it in Paint Shop Pro – a humble contribution to the cute-o-sphere.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Review: Hampden-Sydney Music Festival

May 25, Hampden-Sydney College

The Hampden-Sydney Music Festival, staged for 26 years on the rural campus of this Southside Virginia men’s college, is a lot like a family reunion.

Much of the audience is long acquainted with fellow patrons and with the musicians. Many performers return repeatedly for the festival’s two weekends of concerts, capping two weeks spent coaching student artists and ensembles, who perform in preview concerts, then turn into a highly vocal cheering section for their mentors. The size and layout of the venue, Crawley Forum, puts performers in close proximity to listeners, onstage and off.

The Shanghai Quartet, regulars at the festival in recent seasons, returned with a brisk and sharply accented yet expressively probing reading of Beethoven’s Quartet in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 6. Its finest moments came in the scherzo, with syncopated playing of unusual fluidity, and the finale, with a nice contrast between the "Malincolia" theme and its sprightly foil and with its musical surprises well-sprung.

The quartet was joined by the veteran Russian-American pianist Paul Ostrovsky in Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34. This has been one of the Shanghai’s showpieces for years – the ensemble frequently performed and recorded it with the late Ruth Laredo – and the string players showed their customary command of its technical and expressive demands.

Ostrovsky, however, made hard labor of the piece, with often sluggish rhythms, more than a few dropped notes and generally woolly tone.

Pianist James Kidd of Hampden-Sydney, the festival’s executive director, and clarinetist Ethan Sloane, its artistic director, launched the opening-night program with "Cantilene" by the clarinetist-composer Louis Cahuzac and arrangements of Debussy’s "Petite Pièce" and "The Girl With the Flaxen Hair" from Book 1 of the piano preludes. Sloane and Kidd played these minatures of French impressionism without the belabored applications of pastel tone color that many artists feel compelled to add; judiciously phrased and well-balanced between the two instruments, the pieces spoke for themselves quite adequately.

The festival’s May 26 concert is sold out. Limited ticket availability for concerts at 8 p.m. June 1 and 2, with miniconcerts by Artist Fellowship Program participants at 7 p.m. Tickets: $18 Information: (434) 223-6273 or

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

with violinist Karen Johnson
May 18, Second Baptist Church, Richmond

Karen Johnson, the Richmond Symphony’s concertmaster, was a young Arizona teenager when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Nothing in her biography suggests that she would have much insight into that totalitarian state’s impact on the psychology of its artists. Yet she shows complete command of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1, one of the great musical echoes of life and art under the Soviet regime at its most oppressive.

Shostakovich wrote the concerto in the late 1940s, during the final years of Josef Stalin’s brutal, paranoid dictatorship, when the composer endured official censure for the crime of "formalism," or creating artwork that failed to celebrate the Soviet state or promote its ideology. That offense is compounded in this piece by its evocation of Jewish themes and styles, at a time when anti-Semitism was the semiofficial stance of the regime. The composer kept the concerto "in the drawer" until Stalin was dead; its premiere in 1955, with David Oistrakh as soloist, was one of the first signs of a post-Stalinist cultural "thaw."

Johnson’s May 18 performance was deeply attuned, on several levels, to the historical, artistic and spiritual contexts of this work. She played lyrical sections as tragic but stoical soliloquies, gave more aggressive passages an undertone of giddy fatalism and barely concealed terror; every phrase and gesture had a sharp edge yet also conveyed ominous suggestiveness.

Johnson and conductor Mark Russell Smith positioned the violin solo in the near-foreground of the sound picture – appropriate placement in what is often described as a symphony for violin and orchestra.

The violinist sustained the essentially dark tone that Shostakovich gives the instrument, complementing the throaty voice of an orchestration full of low-register woodwinds and brass. Episodes of tonal brilliance struck the appropriate contrast, and showed off Johnson’s impressive technique; but when speaking to the musical essence of the piece – in the opening nocturne, the central passacaglia and subsequent cadenza – her voice was deep, moody and idiomatically Russian.

The orchestra’s final subscription concert of the season is also James Erb’s last as director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus. He prepared the women of the chorus for "Sirènes," the finale of Debussy’s Nocturnes. The positioning of the singers, in three groups on- and offstage, accented the exchanges among the voices and gave the chorus a more spatial quality than one commonly hears.

Smith balanced voices and orchestra nicely, and generally maintained balances among orchestral sections – not an easy feat in the intricate play of tone colors and dynamics in the central "Fétes." The horn section was in excellent form in "Fétes," and Kyle Mustain’s English horn was a richly evocative voice in the opening "Nuages."

After an opening half of tonal ambiguities and moody undertones, Richard Strauss’ orchestral suite from his opera "Der Rosenkavalier" is a late-romantic blowout, an extravaganza of creamy string tone garnished with glittering winds and percussion in broadly inflected Viennese waltzes and bittersweet arias and ensembles. Smith and the orchestra made the most of its colorful theatricality.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. May 19 at First Baptist Church, Boulevard at Monument Avenue in Richmond, and 8 p.m. May 21 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $20-$60. Information: (804) 788-1212 or

The May 21 performance airs live on WCVE (88.9 FM) in Richmond and WCNV (89.1 FM) in Heathsville.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


My profile of James Erb, retiring after 36 years as director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus, is in print in Style Weekly and online at:

Washington National Opera 2007-08

Productions and casting for the Washington National Opera’s 2007-08 season:

Sept. 15-30 – Puccini’s "La Bohème," starring Adriana Damato and Sabina Civlak alternating as Mimi, Vittorio Grigolo and Arturo Chacón-Cruz alternating as Rodolfo, Nicole Cabell and Alyson Cambridge alternating as Musetta, Trevor Scheunemann and Obed Ureña alternating as Schaunard, Hyung Yun and Luca Salsi alternating as Marcello and Günther Groissböck and Paolo Pecchioli alternating as Colline; conducted by Emmanuel Villaume; stage direction by Mariusz Treliński. (Production from Teatr Wielki-National Opera Warsaw.)

Oct. 25-Nov. 16 – Mozart’s "Don Giovanni," starring Erwin Schrott and Ildar Abdrazakov alternating in title role, Ildar Abdrazakov and Askar Abdrazakov alternating as Leporello, Shawn Mathey and John Tessier alternating as Don Ottavio, Marisol Montalvo and Amanda Squitieri alternating as Zerlina, Trevor Scheunemann and James Shaffran alternating as Masetto, Erin Wall as Donna Anna, Anja Kampe as Donna Elvira and Morris Robinson as the Commendatore; conducted by Plácido Domingo; stage direction by John Pascoe. (New production.)

Nov. 3-17 – William Bolcom’s "A View from the Bridge," starring Jim Josephson as Eddie, Christine Brandes as Catherine, Catherine Malifitano as Beatrice, Gregory Turay as Rodolpho, John Del Carlo as Alfieri and Richard Bernstein as Marco; comnducted by John DeMain; stage direction by Frank Galati. (Production from Lyric Opera of Chicago.)

March 15-April 10 – Wagner’s "The Flying Dutchman," starring Alan Held as the Dutchman, Gidon Saks as Daland, Ian Storey as Erik, Andreas Conrad as the Steersman; conducted by Heinz Fricke; stage direction by Stephen Lawless. (Production from New York City Opera.)

March 29-April 13 – Verdi’s "Rigoletto," starring Carlos Álvarez and Gordon Hawkins alternating in title role, Lyubov Petrova and JiYoung Lee alternating as Gilda, Joseph Calleja as the Duke of Mantua, Andrea Silvestrelli as Sparafucile, Malgorzata Walewska as Maddalena and James Shaffran as Marullo; conducted by Giovanni Reggioli.

April 30-May 22 – Handel’s "Tamerlano," starring David Daniels in title role, Plácido Domingo as Bajazet, Sarah Coburn as Asteria, Patricia Bardon as Andronico and Andrew Foster-Williams as Leone; conducted by William Lacey; stage direction by Chas Rader-Shieber. (New production.)

May 10-27 – Richard Strauss’ "Elektra," starring Susan Bullock in title role, Christine Goerke as Chrysothemis, Irina Mishura as Klytemnästra, Daniel Sumegi as Orest and Alan Woodrow as Aegisth; conducted by Heinz Fricke. (Revival.)

Tickets: $48-$300 ($50-$600 on season-opening night). Information: (202) 295-2400 or (800) 876-7372;

Sunday, May 13, 2007

VCU Rennolds Concerts 2007-08

The Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Concerts at Virginia Commonwealth University will present six programs in the 2007-08 season. Dates and artists include:

Sept. 15 – Brentano String Quartet.

Oct. 13 – Flutist Carol Wincenc.

Nov. 17 – The Baltimore Consort.

Feb. 2 – Violist Roberto Diaz.

March 1 – Pianist Pascal Rogé.

April 5 – Beaux Arts Trio.

All begin at 8 p.m. in Vlahcevic Concert Hall of VCU’s Singleton Arts Center in Richmond. No programming has been announced.

Subscriptions: $105-$125; single tickets: $28-$32. Information: (804) 828-6776.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Review: VSO & RSO

Virginia Symphony & Richmond Symphony
May 11, Jamestown Festival

One of the joys of occasional music – written for a specific, usually ceremonial event – is the sometimes comically disconnected afterlife of occasional pieces that outlast their occasions.

In most American cities, for example, the music of choice to celebrate Independence Day is Tchaikovsky’s tonal depiction of Napoleon’s ill-fated campaign to conquer Russia. The "1812 Overture" overcomes its irrelevance to the occasion with good tunes and sufficient loudness to stand up to the accompaniment of fireworks and artillery.

The same can be said of "The American Dream" by James A. Beckel Jr., the fireworks-garnished finale of a joint concert by the Virginia Symphony of Norfolk and the Richmond Symphony, launching a weekend of performances in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement.

Beckel did not write this earnestly tuneful, cinematically colorful piece for this occasion. "The American Dream" is from "Night Visions," a suite written in 1992 in tribute to Mr. and Mrs. Charles O’Drobinak; "The American Dream," the composer writes, "was meant to pay particular tribute to Mr. O’Drobinak in his success as CEO of Price Waterhouse."

Next to celebrating the Fourth of July with "La Marseillaise" and "God Save the Tsar," celebrating "America’s 400th Anniversary" with a paean to an accounting executive seems almost topical.

The combined orchestras introduced four pieces that were written for this occasion. The one that sounds likeliest to endure, at least in symphonic programs, is "Settlements" by the Virginia-based composer Adolphus Hailstork. Beginning in a long flute solo echoing American Indian song, nicely phrased and inflected by the Richmond Symphony’s Mary Boodell, this compact tone poem grows into a rhythmically intricate and exuberantly brassy showpiece.

John Duffy draws more explicitly on American Indian themes in "Indian Spirits," which builds a tom-tom beat into a percussive array, à la Stravinsky, sweetened by melodies and touches of orchestration evoking misty dawns and broad horizons.

Jennifer Higdon’s "Spirit," a shortish fanfare for brass and percussion, is skeletal in texture and bluntly ceremonial in expression. John Corigliano’s "Jamestown Hymn" juxtaposes a chorale-like tune with fanfares, briefly and forgettably.

The program was fleshed out with Wagner’s "Flying Dutchman" Overture, John Adams’ "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" and the march finale from Hindemith’s "Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber," conducted by Mark Russell Smith, the Richmond Symphony’s music director. Smith also led the Corigliano and Hailstork premieres. JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Virginia Symphony, conducted the Duffy, Higdon and Beckel pieces, as well as Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony.

This was the first time the orchestras have collaborated in a concert. Whatever rapport and collective sonority they may have developed were offset by their placement deep under a sound-deadening tent and a wildly imbalanced sound mix that buried strings under winds and percussion.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Review: 'Jenufa'

Washington National Opera
May 5, Kennedy Center, Washington

Leos Janáček’s “Jenufa,” introduced in 1904, waited the better part of a century to be recognized as a masterpiece outside its Czech homeland. Its breakthrough came with Charles Mackerras’ 1983 Decca recording; but even now, American productions are infrequent.

The current Washington National Opera production, staged in 2004 by the Houston Grand Opera and last year by the English National Opera, will make believers of many who are new to "Jenufa;" but it may do so entirely on the strength of its voices.

Patricia Racette, as Jenufa, a Moravian village girl jilted by her lover after she has borne their son, and Catherine Malfitano, as Jenufa’s mother, the domineering Kostelnička Buryjovka, who kills the infant to erase the family’s shame, are vocally intense, dramatically taut presences. Their extended exchange, consuming most of Act 2, is the most compelling dramatic vocalizing I’ve experienced in years.

Kim Begley, as Laca, a laborer nursing an unreciprocated passion for Jenufa, and Raymond Very, as Števa, the handsome rake who debauches and abandons her, admirably fill their more physically animated roles while serving as near-ideal vocal foils for the leading women. Judith Christin (Grandmother Buryjovka), Elizabeth Andrews Roberts (the boy Jano), Charles Robert Austin (the village mayor), Jeffrey Wells (the mill foreman) and the company’s excellent chorus, prepared by Steven Gathman, are reliably musical and know their way around a stage.

You’ll have noticed the lack of Czech names among the cast. These singers have mastered the sound of the language, even making music of its densest consonants. That’s essential, because the music of "Jenufa" is not just deeply integrated with language but often sounds to be a byproduct of speech.

The voices received tepid, chronically scrappy orchestral support on opening night. The orchestra is led by Jiři Belohlávek, a veteran Czech conductor who presumably knows this music intimately – and so, presumably, will redress imbalances and flabby attacks, and perhaps raise the tonal-emotional temperature, as the run continues.

Stage director David Alden gives Jenufa and her mother time and space to convey their emotional claustrophobia and the unremitting tension between them. Alden’s blocking is nicely complemented by some of the shadows cast by lighting designer Jon Clark (other parts of his shadow play appear random, though).

Charles Edwards’ sets – a factory yard and a vast, empty interior space, both on a fairly steeply raked stage – jab you in the ribs with the symbolism of the triangle and glaringly amplify with empty space the aloneness of the characters. Edwards’ décor and Jon Morrell’s costumes place the story in the mid-20th century, on the glum and crumbling side of the Iron Curtain.

This production, which won the Society of London Theatre’s 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for best new opera production, is deliberately, bluntly grim. It looks and feels as if a layer of soot had been applied to every surface.

Repeat performances are at 7:30 p.m. May 10, 16 and 24, 2 p.m. May 13 and 7 p.m. May 19 and 21 in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets: $50-$300. Information: (202) 295-2400 or

Thursday, May 3, 2007

'I consider laughter preferable to tears'

John Cage performs his composition "Water Walk" on a 1960 telecast of the game show "I've Got a Secret" (via The Rest Is Noise, via WFMU-Jersey City ["Helping listeners like you become less like you"]):