Wednesday, October 31, 2007

'Noise' in progress

I'm one-third of the way through Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. I've read enough to say that it's the best book-form writing on modern music since Vol. 5 of Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music, and that Ross may be the first (in print, at least) to liken Stravinsky's rhythmic sensibility to Bo Diddley's.

But I'm not going to speed-read just to pile another hallelujah onto the chorus. Ross has given enough thought to the subject to warrant returning the favor.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Existential fix in Richmond

Jeremy Denk muses on life, love and art with Prabir, leader of Prabir and the Substitutes, his artist liaison for a date with the Richmond Symphony:

Note that it was raining during Denk's visit. Jack Kerouac also rolled through town in the rain in "On the Road," but Prabir wasn’t driving. Worse luck for Kerouac.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

'Meeting Venus' redux

News of a strike disrupting the schedule of the Paris Opera . . .

. . . brings to mind my favorite opera movie, István Szabó’s "Meeting Venus," the hilarious yet bittersweet tale of a Parisian troupe (where "you can be misunderstood in six different languages") coping with a black-leather Eurotrash staging of Wagner's "Tannhäuser" that's almost undone by labor strife. Among its endearing absurdities is the casting of Glenn Close as the production's diva.

It's available on DVD (via – a pricey German import, but well worth the bucks.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

with pianist Jeremy Denk
Oct. 26, University of Richmond

Since the Richmond Symphony moved into temporary venues pending renovation of the Carpenter Center, the orchestra has not presented a piano concerto in a mainstage concert. (Most of the church sanctuaries in which it now plays can accommodate a concert grand or an orchestra, but not both.) So, its 50th anniversary gala featuring Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 would have been a treat regardless of the soloist.

Fortunately, the soloist was Jeremy Denk, who is not just a first-rate pianist but an artist who values music-making over mere performance.

Technical mastery and an ear for the grand gesture may suffice (if not satisfy) in the "Emperor" Concerto, but the Fourth needs more. This is music that thinks aloud, ponders the implications of its material, tests extremes of dynamism and expression. Its nearest relations in the Beethoven canon are not the other concertos, but the sonatas that are too subtle and rife with ambiguity to be saddled with nicknames.

Denk is the ideal interpreter of music that defies glib characterization or facile execution. He has the chops to conceive an ideal reading of a score and make it happen, but he doesn’t settle for that. He probes a composition, leading an exploration in which the listener is not just a witness but a participant. Is that what the composer meant? he wonders, and so do you. And so what if the answer is no? Posing the question enriches the experience in a way that a predictably "correct" rendition never could.

His performance was not one for the ages, but of the moment. It was nervy and impetuous, imperfect in its rendering of this arpeggio or that accompanying passage; perhaps it sprinted when it should have jogged, or lingered when it might better have moved on. But it was palpably, insistently alive – and for that reason, compelling from first note to last.

Conductor Mark Russell Smith and the orchestra were alert, engaged partners in Denk’s odyssey, contributing full-blooded sonority, crisp articulation, whiplash accents and consistently singing tone. It’s hard to imagine a more telling realization of the contrast of tentative piano and emphatic orchestra that propels the concerto’s slow movement.

The program was a re-creation of the one devised by the symphony’s founding music director, the late Edgar Schenkman, for the orchestra’s 1957 debut. Schenkman’s selection of the Beethoven Fourth instead of a more crowd-pleasing concerto, and of the deeply musical but unglamorous Mieczyslaw Horszowski to play it, speaks eloquently to the grounding this orchestra received from the start.

Schenkman’s program (heard in this re-creation by three of his children) also featured Mendelssohn’s "Scottish" Symphony (No. 3), one of the great meldings of tune-spinning, orchestration and symphonic form, plus an appetizer in the early baroque Toccata of Girolamo Frescobaldi as arranged by Hans Kindler (austere compared with the Bach extravaganzas produced by Leopold Stokowski around the same time) and a dessert in Glinka’s giddily exuberant "Russlan and Ludmilla" Overture.

During the first half of the concert, the orchestra sounded to be adjusting on the fly to Camp Concert Hall in the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center; the room's bright, almost clinically detailed acoustic favors strings and challenges winds to maintain balance. The musicians were better attuned to the space in the Beethoven and Glinka.

The evening opened with a parade of public officials lauding the symphony’s anniversary. Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling credited his son’s academic success to the discipline of musical instruction as a trombonist in the Hanover High School Band and Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra – a connection that few public-policy makers understand, let alone acknowledge.

The most moving extramusical moment came in the recognition of – and ovation for – violinist Elizabeth Moore, the last charter member still performing in the orchestra.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Not so distant history

Most musicians and listeners would consider the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams a name from the distant past. His most frequently performed works, "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis" and "The Lark Ascending," date from 1910 and 1920, respectively. Yet his widow, biographer and sometime librettist, Ursula Vaughan Williams, died just this past Tuesday (Oct. 23).

Her obituary from The Globe and Mail of Toronto:

Granted, she was 40 years younger than her husband (they married in 1953 after their first spouses died), and she lived to the age of 87.

But it's not unusual to encounter intimates and acquaintances of long-dead figures and witnesses to long-ago events. In 1990 I interviewed a lady who accompanied Hugo von Hofmannstahl, the librettist of Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," to a performance of the opera at the first Salzburg Festival in 1925. I've known people who were close to such historically distant artists as Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, George Gershwin, Bohuslav Martinu, Bruno Walter and Albert Schweitzer. I learned "The Wreck of the Old 97" from my grandfather, who witnessed the train wreck in 1903 and knew the man who wrote the lyrics. And I'm still several years shy of 60.

"Old" is an elastic term, and as life spans grow longer it will stretch even further.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fischer tops Gramophone poll

Julia Fischer, the 24-year-old German violinist who joins Yuri Temikarnov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in tour appearances Oct. 23 at the Kennedy Center in Washington and Oct. 25 at the Ferguson Center in Newport News, has been named the 2007 Gramophone Artist of the Year, winning a poll of the British magazine's readers and the listeners of 14 classical radio stations worldwide.

In both the Washington and Newport News dates, Fischer will be the soloist in the Beethoven Violin Concerto. (See October 2007 calendar for details.)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Richmond Festival of Music dates

Cellist James Wilson and four other musicians will present "Baroque by Candlelight," a program previewing the 2008 Richmond Festival of Music, at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14 at Wilton House Museum, 215 S. Wilton Road.

Wilson, artistic director of the festival, will be joined by New York-based baroque violinists Claire Jolivet and Theresa Salomon, Richmond Symphony flutist Mary Boodell and harpsichordist Carsten Schmidt in chamber music that might have been heard in the homes of early Americans. The program includes works by Handel, J.S. and C.P.E. Bach, Corelli, John Antes and Raynor Taylor.

Admission, $25 for adults, $15 for students, covers the concert and a tour of Wilton, an 18th-century mansion overlooking the James River in Richmond’s West End.

The ensemble will play the same program in a fund-raiser for the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia, the festival’s presenting organization, at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13 at Wilton. Tickets for that event are $50.

The 2008 festival will run from April 8 to May 3, with five concerts at Second Presbyterian Church, Bon Air Presbyterian Church and the Virginia Holocaust Museum, as well as a chamber-music workshop for adults and secondary-school students.

The series, "Two Centuries of Music from America," will feature 14 musicians and groups in works by 29 composers at work in this country from the late-18th century through the present.

Series tickets are $110 for adults, $85 for seniors and $35 for students. Single tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and $10 for students.

Tickets for both the preview concerts and the festival will go on sale Nov. 1.

For more information, call (804) 519-2098 or visit:

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Denk thinks, about what to say and what to eat

Fittingly for an artist almost as well-known for writing as for music-making, Jeremy Denk was multi-tasking when we connected. While he was being interviewed by phone in Miami Beach, the concert pianist and author of the music blog "Think Denk" was scanning a restaurant menu and ordering a salad, fueling up for a performance of Beethoven’s "Emperor" Concerto with Ars Flores, a South Florida orchestra of professionals and advanced students.

"This was supposed to be my semi-secret chance for get Beethoven 5 back under my fingers," Denk said. "But now it turns out MTT is coming to the concert." MTT is Michael Tilson Thomas, who conducts Florida’s New World Symphony as well as the San Francisco Symphony, with whom the pianist performed earlier this month in Beethoven’s First Concerto.

"This is turning into a big Beethoven month for me," but not by some long-made plan. Denk was engaged as a substitute for an indisposed Itzhak Perlman in San Francisco, and was booked in place of Stephen Prutsman to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in the Richmond Symphony’s 50th anniversary gala.

The concert, Oct. 26 at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center, is a re-creation of the symphony’s 1957 debut program. Denk fills the role then played by Mieczyslaw Horszowski. ("I had no idea I was portraying Horszowski," he e-mailed. "I think I need to go practice!")

Like any capable artist following a familiar script, "I’m always looking for ways to make it fresh," Denk said. "But that’s not something I have to worry about too much. . . . Being free and improvisatory, alert to what’s happening in the next moment, is part of my personality."

He believes he naturally resists routine: "I’m not usually enmeshed in the way a piece is usually done."

This is a running theme in Denk’s blogging. One of his earliest posts, from March 2005, reads in part: "[H]ow IDIOTIC the ‘old ways’ of playing something seem (and by old I mean six months ago): how incredibly self-critical you become. And the idiocy is usually inattention . . . and so I force myself, bit by bit, to pay attention. This is painstaking work, measure by measure, repetitive (sometimes to no apparent result) – trying to truly ‘pay attention.’ It is weird to repeat paying attention; repetition tends to give way to tedium, and inattention. Practicing is straining towards the opposite of this natural tendency. But then, invariably, you run across another problem: mental attention translates inaccurately into muscular tension (this movement from intangible to tangible runs through piano playing, in every direction: printed score to evanescent sound, for example). Your perception of attention is misplaced; you confuse a hunched muscle for a sparking neuron."

Denk has not (so far) written professionally. He flirted with adding English to music and chemistry majors while he was a student at Oberlin College and its conservatory. His best tutelage in the written word, he recalls, came from the longtime Oberlin English professor David Walker, who was "very exacting about language and thought."

The pianist began blogging literally in mid-conversation. "One day a friend was on the phone with me, and said, ‘Why not write a blog?’ And as we continued to talk, I got online and set it up." (The current "Think Denk" is second-generation, integrated into a site with biography, schedule, audio samples, reviews, etc.)

Writing about music, he said, "I often make certain things about the music clear to myself . . . [make] connections I may not have made" while studying the score or rehearsing. Blogging does not supplant, or even supplement, normal practice, but is a channel for "free association" between the music he is addressing and the world he inhabits.

"There’s an unconscious quality" to many of his posts, thinks Denk.

More of his thoughts can be found at:

The Richmond Symphony's 50th anniversary re-creation of its 1957 debut concert begins at 8 p.m. Oct. 26 in Camp Concert Hall, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond. Tickets: $50-$65. Details: (804) 788-1212,

Review: Richmond Symphony

with Curtis Opera Ensemble
Oct. 21, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

In recent seasons, the the Richmond Symphony’s "core" (chamber) orchestra series has been centered on single composers – first Mozart, then Beethoven, now Bach – although with frequent digressions into contrasting repertory. The opening program of this season's Bach Festival, for instance, found Bach bracketed by Grieg and Mozart.

And while the program offered a nice bit of Bach in the "Wedding" Cantata, its highlight, hands down, was Act 4 of Mozart’s "The Marriage of Figaro."

The orchestra’s music director, Mark Russell Smith, will be conducting "Figaro" in a few weeks with the Curtis Opera Ensemble of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music (his alma mater), so the weekend’s performances in Central Virginia were an uncostumed out-of-town tryout. Judging by the Sunday matinee in Ashland, the production (Nov. 15-18) should be a winner, at least vocally.

The cast is young, ranging in age from 19 to 25, and as fresh and energetic as one would expect, but also emotionally authentic and technically polished. The 19-year-old Susanna, Sarah Shafer, and 20-year-old Count Almaviva, Elliot Madore, held their own alongside Evan Hughes (Figaro), Karen Jesse (Countess Almaviva), Tammy Coil (Cherubino) and Marquita Raley (Marcellina), all in their mid-20s; and their performance as an ensemble (bolstered by Jason Coffey as Basilio and Allen Boxer as Antonio) was well-balanced and expressive.

Another member of the troupe, the 23-year-old Israeli Rinnat Moriah, was the vocal soloist in the "Wedding" Cantata, blending beautifully with orchestral soloists Gustav Highstein (oboe), Neal Cary (cello) and Karen Johnson (violin). This account was tonally richer and more measured in tempo than the "historically informed," mainly European, performances that set the contemporary standard for Bach, but was convincing on its own stylistic terms.

One hopes, though, that Smith will pick up the tempo and give freer expressive rein to soloists in subsequent Bach performances in the next three programs of the festival.

To keep to this program’s "wedding" theme, Smith selected an orchestration of "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen" from Grieg’s piano set "Lyric Pieces" as the curtain-raiser.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Review: 'The Tales of Hoffmann'

Virginia Opera, Peter Mark conducting
Oct. 19, Landmark Theater, Richmond

Jacques Offenbach’s "The Tales of Hoffmann" drops a fleeting hint of what’s to come during its prologue, in a reference to Mozart’s "Don Giovanni" as the "opera of operas." Mozart styled his setting of the legend of Don Juan as a dramma giocoso (jocular drama) – high tragedy garnished with low comedy.

"The Tales of Hoffmann" follows a similar dramatic trajectory. Its title character, the romantic poet and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann (a real man, here portrayed fictionally), isn’t dragged off to hell; but he is damned to a lifetime of monogamy, not with a flesh-and-blood mate but with his poetic muse. How he came to this fruitful if frustrating fate is recounted in three tales of lost love and futile lust.

The Virginia Opera’s new production, concluding its run in two Richmond performances, realizes Offenbach’s remarkable cross-breeding of pathos and humor with compelling emotion, rollicking spectacle, outstanding vocalizations and canny character portrayals.

It is the most successful piece of musical theater that I’ve seen and heard from this company in years.

Manon Strauss Evrard, a French soprano lately based in Philadelphia, makes her debut with the Virginia Opera singing all four of Hoffmann’s romantic fixations, the fantasy humanoid Olympia, the consumptive songbird Antonia, the heartless courtesan Giulietta and the diva Stella. She displays awesome technical facility in the coloratura extravaganza that is Olympia and sustains that vocal standard in the subsequent roles, adding physical grace, commandingly alluring stage presence and considerable nuance in her characterizations.

(Evrard returns to the Virginia Opera in the title role of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," March 28-April 20 in Norfolk, Richmond and Fairfax.)

Burak Bilgili, the Turkish bass who sang Mephistophélès in the Virginia Opera’s 2005 production of Gounod’s "Faust," returns for still more devilry as the four villains of these tales: the smug lawyer Lindorf, the mad scientist Coppélius, the deadly quack Dr. Miracle and the jaded schemer Dapertutto. Bilgili is perversely blessed with classic bad-guy looks – dark, solid, scarier when he smiles than when he frowns. His voice is authoritative and embodies menace, yet also carresses a tune. (That may be the scariest of his smiles.)

Dan Snyder, the American tenor who has performed in many roles with this company, is a winning Hoffmann, with a soulful, mildly decadent look and a voice that is both robust and youthfully yearning.

Among the supporting cast, the standout is Dean Anthony, a tenor who is making a specialty of roles requiring athleticism and slapstick comic shtick. He revels in his four roles, and pulls off Spalanzani ("father" of the doll Olympia) and Pittichinaccio, Giulietta’s hunchback pet, with extra flair.

The production is directed by Lillian Groag, whose deft translation of period comedy into a modern idiom in last season’s Virginia Opera production of Handel’s "Agrippina" is matched, even exceded, here. (Her staging of "Agrippina" is now running at the New York City Opera; this "Tales of Hoffmann" surely has a future, too.)

Groag, scenic designer Erhard Rom and choreographer Jessica Page conceive "The Tales of Hoffmann" as a big, animated spectacle, liberally sprinkled with eye candy and comic asides. For all the activity, though, the director never lets the focus shift too far from the singers and the characters they bring so vividly to life.

The final performance of the production will be staged at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Landmark Theater, Main and Laurel streets. Tickets: $20-$85. Details: (804) 262-8003 (Ticketmaster),

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Denk called in for RSO anniversary

A change of casting for the Richmond Symphony’s 50th anniversary concert on Oct. 26: Jeremy Denk replaces Stephen Prutsman as the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major.

Besides being a highly regarded concert pianist and chamber musician, Denk is also one of the funniest and most insightful bloggers on classical music. "As a performer," he wrote earlier this week, "I would like to play Every Piece Ever Written with The Most Conviction Ever so that people run weeping from the hall and change their lives and poverty ends and rainbows and leprechauns come sprouting from the earth and rivers run pink with Cosmos that never give you hangovers." He went on to discuss motivic development.

We’re seeking clarification, not so much about motivic development (for what it's worth, we're for it), but about whether, after he plays the Beethoven, it will suffice for Glinka’s "Russlan and Ludmilla" Overture to come sprouting from the orchestra.

Meanwhile, visit his blog, and be prepared to linger:

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ga-ga for Gustav (con't.)

Gustav Mahler graffiti sprayed on walls in Toronto:

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Detroit taps Slatkin

Leonard Slatkin has been named music director of the Detroit Symphony, filling the vacancy left by the departure of Neeme Järvi in 2005.

The 63-year-old Los Angeles native, son of conductor Felix Slatkin and Hollywood String Quartet cellist Eleanor Aller, earned high marks for orchestra-building when he led the St. Louis Symphony (1979-96). His 12-year tenure with Washington's National Symphony concludes at the end of this season. He also led the BBC Symphony (2000-04) and served as music advisor of the Nashville Symphony after the death of Kenneth Schermerhorn.

Slatkin will conduct for five weeks in his first Detroit season, beginning next fall, and for 13 weeks in the 2009-10 season.

Complaints choirs

These have been around for a while, but I've just been introduced. Start with the Complaints Choir of Helsinki, then graze through the rest:

Naturally, there's an interest group:

Monday, October 8, 2007

Visions of sugar plums?

More than 200 arts groups in New York stand to lose some $7 million a year in grants with the departure from the city of Altria Group and its tobacco subsidiary, Philip Morris USA, The New York Times reports:

Philip Morris USA’s new headquarters is in Richmond, and the city’s artists and arts groups might be forgiven for reading the Times article with visions of sugar plums to come.

The company is already one of the major donors to some of the larger local arts groups – one of the four biggest corporate contributors to the Richmond Symphony, giving more than $50,000 this season, and among the highest-level donors ($1 million or more) to the Richmond CenterStage project. Philip Morris' support of independent and experimental groups in New York, if transplanted here, could be transformative.

But I doubt we can expect an infusion of dollars on anything like the New York scale.

One of the reasons corporations consolidate and relocate, as Philip Morris is doing, is to "maximize shareholder value," i.e., turn bigger profits faster. The level of giving to nonprofits is a factor in that bottom-line calculation.

Another, maybe more important, factor: Corporate grants and sponsorships are an indirect kind of advertising – in the case of a tobacco company, generating good will more than product sales. Being seen to do good by 19 million in greater New York – plus millions more who take their cultural cues from New York – presumably will outweigh the value of being seen to do good by 1 million in greater Richmond.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Review: Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

Oct. 1, University of Richmond

Cull the adjectives and adverbs from reviews of the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, and you’ll have a comprehensive lexicon of critical superlatives. Rather than try to come up with novel huzzahs, I'll just say that no such ensemble equals, let alone surpasses, the Berliners.

Flutist Michael Hasel, oboist Andreas Wittmann, clarinetist Walter Seyfarth, French horn player Fergus McWilliam and bassoonist Henning Trog are all veterans of 20 years or more with the Berlin Philharmonic. (Trog has been in the orchestra since 1965.) Performing as a quintet since 1988, they have mastered most every piece worth hearing for this instrumental configuration.

Their program at the University of Richmond centered on three of the worthiest 20th century works for wind quintet: György Ligeti’s "Six Bagatelles" (1953), Luciano Berio’s "opus number zoo" (1951) and Carl Nielsen’s Wind Quintet (1922).

The Ligeti set was the evening’s prime showcase for these musicians’ individual and collective techniques, from the comically frenetic, cartoon-chase-scene opening allegro, through several slow pieces evoking Magyar, Slavic and Jewish laments (including an elegy to Bartók, Ligeti’s early role model), to the capriccio finale. McWilliam and Trog produced especially appealing effects with mutes attached.

The group performed "opus number zoo" with players doubling as reciters of Rhoda Levine’s comic verses. The words didn’t always make it through Berio’s animated instrumental traffic – effectively amplified in the bright acoustic of the University of Richmond’s Camp Concert Hall – but the fun the performers were having was infectious nevertheless.

Nielsen’s Wind Quintet is one of the most concise and successful examples of the composer’s later style, which spikes his technique of "progressive tonality" with quirky, often wicked wit. The Berliners played up the piece’s startling qualities – maybe the most startling moment came in the huge, jagged sonority they produced in the prelude to the theme-and-variations finale – and made eloquent work of horn and bassoon solos and of the finale’s sturdy chorale.

The Berliners opened with Hasel’s arrangement of Mozart’s Fantasy in F minor, originally for mechanical organ, an instrumental curiosity of the late 18th century. The piece, dating from 1791, Mozart’s last year, is rooted in a fuguing tune clearly inspired by Bach, which the ensemble treated with appropriate austerity and gravity.

The program also included Franz Danzi’s Quintet in F major, a well-crafted if lightweight piece in the late-classical idiom of Mozart and Haydn.

As an encore, the quintet offered Kazimierz Machala’s "Folk Song Suite," a quick-time anthology of early Americana (heavy on Stephen Foster), spiced with jazzy accents and bluesy slides.