Thursday, February 28, 2008

Review: Oberon Quartet

Feb. 27, Bannard Chapel, St. Catherine’s School

Richmond’s belated adoption of its native daughter, the composer and pianist Mary Howe, continued as the Oberon Quartet revived two of Howe’s chamber pieces, "Canción Romanesca" (1930) and "Three Emily Dickinson Pieces" (1941).

Howe (1882-1964), who spent most of her life in Washington, worked on the borderline between romantic and modern musical style. Her harmonic language and color sensitivity were informed by the French impressionists, while her thematic material and use of rhapsodic forms mark her as a late romantic.

"Three Emily Dickinson Pieces," an instrumental work inspired by the Dickinson poems "The Summers of Hesperides," "Birds, by the snow" and "God for a frontier," is a relatively long-form work – effectively a three-movement string quartet – in which literary evocations and representations of bird-song are shrouded in complex, occasionally dense harmonizations.

"Canción Romanesca" is a shorter, lighter work recalling the chamber-cum-parlor pieces of Edward Elgar, although it’s hard to imagine Elgar inserting a tango into the proceedings, as Howe does.

The Oberon – violinists Alana Carithers and Susy Yim, violist Molly Sharp and cellist William Comita – played the Howe works with concentration, tonal warmth and sensitivity to her subtle harmonies and colors.

The group was joined by John Winn, a Richmonder best known as a jazz musician, in performances of his "Songs for Modern Times" (2005) and "Adirondack Suite" (2003) for strings, harp (played by Lynette Wardle) and clarinet and soprano saxophone (played by the composer).

Winn’s set of five songs, which he sang in a whispery croon, are in a jazz-inflected pop style. "Silent Mode" or "A Tree That Leans" recall the more wistful John Lennon; "Busy" invites the theatrical delivery of a Broadway vocalist; "What You Eat," with its Bartókian instrumental effects, hovers between art-song and operatic recitative.

Winn’s "Adirondack Suite" is a soundtrack-in-waiting for a travelogue of New York’s north country. Its best moments come in the central piece, "On the Lake – The Big Fish," with its swimming tonal effects and burst of animation as the fish is hooked. Winn’s jazz grounding is evident in the piece’s frequent use of syncopated rhythms and employment of blue notes.

The program opened with the Polonaise (1999) by Jonathan Mott, former concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony. This attractive miniature is essentially a solo-violin showcase with string-trio accompaniment; Yim, the lead violinist, played stylishly but leaned too woozily into sliding effects.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Richmond Symphony names music director finalists

The Richmond Symphony has named nine finalists from nearly 250 applicants to succeed Mark Russell Smith as the orchestra’s music director.

William H. Schwarzschild III, secretary of the symphony board and chairman of the 10-member conductor search committee, described the candidates as "competitive, accomplished, international in scope and full of connections to the wider musical world."

The candidates, dates of their Richmond appearances and selected career highlights:

* Mikhail Agrest (September 2008): A native of St. Petersburg, Russia, Agrest joined the conducting staff of that city’s Mariinsky Theatre in 2001 and has toured internationally with the company. He also has conducted the English National Opera and BBC Symphony in Britain, as well as the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig in Germany, other orchestras in France, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Hungary and the United States, and opera companies in France, Sweden and Australia.

* Daniel Meyer (October 2008): Resident conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and music director of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony, Asheville (NC) Symphony and Erie (PA) Philharmonic, Meyer won the 2002 Aspen Conducting Prize at the Colorado music festival. He formerly was assistant conductor of the Knoxville (TN) Symphony and its Youth Sinfonia and was assistant conductor of the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati. He has conducted the Cleveland Orchestra, Utah Symphony and other ensembles.

* Steven Smith (November 2008): Now in his seventh season as music director of the Santa Fe (NM) Symphony & Chorus, Smith also is music director of the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, an ensemble specializing in contemporary music. He was assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and music director of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, associate conductor of the Kansas City Symphony, assistant conductor of the Colorado Springs Symphony and concertmaster of the Grand Rapids (MI) Symphony. He has guest conducted orchestras in the U.S., Mexico, New Zealand and Asia.

* Marc Taddei (January 2009): Named last year as music director of the Vector Wellington Orchestra in New Zealand’s capital, Taddei formerly led the Christchurch Symphony in New Zealand. He also has conducted orchestras in the U.S., Australia and Hong Kong, and has led numerous recordings, including works of several New Zealand composers and the soundtrack of a British television film based on Wagner’s "Ring" cycle.

* Arthur Post (February 2009): Now in his sixth season as music director of the San Juan Symphony of Durango, CO, and Farmington, NM, Post was resident conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and New World Symphony in Florida and associate conductor of the Israel Philharmonic. He has conducted orchestras throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas. His "Music on the Inside," an educational program in improvisation and composition, has been used in classrooms in four states.

* Dorian Wilson (March 2009): Music director of the Belgrade Philharmonic in Serbia since 2006, Wilson formerly was music director of the Theater Vorpommern opera company in Germany, second conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic and first guest conductor of the Russian National Orchestra. Winner of nine international conducting competitions between 1989 and 1996, he has conducted orchestras and opera companies in Russia, Germany, Sweden, France, Denmark and the Netherlands.

* Alastair Willis (September 2009): Formerly assistant conductor and resident conductor of the Seattle Symphony, assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Pops and music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra, Willis has performed with the Chicago Symphony, San Francisco Symphony and other orchestras in the U.S., China, France and Austria.

* Christian Knapp (October 2009): Formerly associate conductor of the Seattle Symphony and Broomhill Opera in London, Knapp has led several contemporary music ensembles in the U.S. and Britain and has conducted orchestras in the U.S., Russia, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Mexico.

* Arthur Fagen (November 2009): Music director of the Dortmund Philharmonic and Dortmund Opera in Germany since 2002, Fagen has conducted at the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera and other opera companies in the U.S., Germany, France, Israel and Argentina, and orchestras in U.S., Europe, Israel and Japan.

Each finalist will conduct a program in the mainstage Masterwork series and another concert in classical, pops or outreach series. Programs for the first six candidates in 2008-09 season will be announced in several weeks.

The first six will perform in the church sanctuaries and other venues the symphony is now using, while the last three candidates are to appear after the scheduled reopening of the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, the orchestra’s renovated downtown venue.

The new music director, the symphony’s fifth since its founding in 1957, is expected to be named by the end of 2009, said David Fisk, the orchestra’s executive director and a member of the search committee.

The committee’s members, in addition to Schwarzschild and Fisk, are symphony board members O. Christian Bedrup Jr., Margaret W. Swartz and Mary Denny Wray and five orchestra musicians: flutist-piccolo player Ann Choomack, clarinetist Jared Davis, principal oboist Gustav Highstein, principal timpanist James Jacobson and cellist Ryan Lannan.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Music that lives dangerously

Alex Ross, in The New Yorker, revisits the music of the Danish late romantic/early modern Carl Nielsen, arguably the most underrated composer of the past 100 years:

"Given the blazing individuality of Nielsen’s voice, it’s puzzling that he has yet to find a firm place in the international repertory," Ross writes.

The solution to the puzzle comes later in the essay: "Players need to believe fervently in this music if they are to bring it fully to life." That's true of any music, of course, but especially so of Nielsen's, which cannot be played convincingly with the detached refinement that is the default mode of most classical performers today.

Musicians – and listeners – who aren't prepared to live dangerously, to harness the energy of primal forces, aren't ready for Carl Nielsen.

* * *

Among the Nielsen discs that Ross cites, the one I would start with is an incandescent Fourth Symphony ("Inextinguishable") recorded in 1966 by the Chicago Symphony, Jean Martinon conducting (RCA 76237), which also includes fine performances of the Second Symphony ("The Four Temperaments") and "Helios" Overture, recorded in Chicago around the same time with Martinon and Morton Gould conducting, and a 1980s performance of the miniature "The Fog Is Lifting" by flutist James Galway and harpist Sioned Williams.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


My profile of composer Osvaldo Golijov, whose "Ayre" will be performed by soprano Dawn Upshaw, members of eighth blackbird and friends on Feb. 22 at the University of Richmond's Modlin Center, is in print in Style Weekly, online at:

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Review: Yuja Wang

Feb. 13, University of Richmond

Yuja Wang is mortal after all.

The 20-year-old Chinese pianist, who performed in Richmond with the Shanghai Quartet in November and stunned the audience with her virtuosity and musicianship, showed some flaws – not grievous, but significant ones – in a return engagement.

Wang, booked on short notice to replace an indisposed Piotr Anderszewski, played the most demanding parts (on herself and on listeners) of the solo repertory she has presented in recent tour performances – fibrously complex etudes by György Ligeti, the massive Liszt Sonata in B minor and the abruptly expressive, sonically jangling Bartók Sonata (1926), with lyrical but still energized interludes in Chopin’s Waltz in C sharp minor and Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s "Midsummer Night’s Dream" music, topped off by the Prokofiev Toccata.

Not surprisingly, given the scope of that program, the sheer quantity of notes and often colossal demands on technique, Wang sounded thoroughly juiced on nervous energy. Outside the Chopin, she rarely produced a truly singing tone; and, except in the Mendelssohn, didn’t offer much range of dynamic contrast. It was a brilliant display of pianisim. It was also a feeding frenzy.

The Liszt suffered the most from Wang’s evident inability to relax and go with the musical flow. She pounced on the sonata’s big chords and grand gestures, but seemed impatient and emotionally detached in its lyrical passages, especially in the central section of the piece. Only toward the end did she connect with the heart, as well as the stormy rhetoric, of this music.

Nervy propulsiveness similarly intruded on her readings of Ligeti’s Etude No. 10 ("The Sorcerer’s Apprentice"), whose whimsical character was lost in the rush, and the middle movement of the Bartók, in which she emphasized pesante (heavy) over sostenuto (sustained, smooth), coming across as brittle.

Wang was most fully engaged, and showed the most engaging side of her musical personality, in dance-inspired pieces – the Chopin and Mendelssohn, the first movement of the Bartók – and in the rhythmically driven Prokofiev and Ligeti Etude No. 4 ("Fanfares").

In her November appearance, Wang seemed to have it all. This time, she showed she has a great deal, but still has some growing to do.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

eighth blackbird wins Grammy

"Strange Imaginary Animals," the Cedille album by eighth blackbird, the new-music sextet in residence at the University of Richmond, has won a Grammy Award for best chamber music performance.

Judith Sherman won the classical producer of the year Grammy for "Strange Imaginary Animals" and four other recordings.

The big classical Grammy winner was Joan Tower's "Made in America," recorded for Naxos by Leonard Slatkin and the Nashville Symphony, which won best classical album, best orchestral performance and best classical contemporary composition. In the latter category, Tower won over Jennifer Higdon's "Zaka," included on the eighth blackbird album, and Peter Lieberson's "Neruda Songs," which was the critical favorite for the award.

"Neruda Songs," recorded for Nonesuch by the composer's late wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, won best classical vocal performance.

* * *

Sen. Barack Obama won a spoken-word recording Grammy for his reading of his book "The Audacity of Hope." This and a previous Grammy for his recording of his first book, "Dreams from My Father," puts Obama up 2-to-1 over his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who won a Grammy for her reading of "It Takes a Village." Former president Bill Clinton has two Grammys to his credit. (via The New York Times)

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Honor, with misgivings

Pianist Leon Fleisher, one of the recipients of the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors, recounts his reluctant appearance at the White House ceremony:

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Wang returns to UR; Dinnerstein in Bach at U.Va.

Yuja Wang, the acclaimed young Chinese pianist who performed in November with the Shanghai Quartet at the University of Richmond, will return to UR’s Modlin Arts Center for a solo recital at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 13. She replaces Piotr Anderszewski, who canceled because of illness.

Wang will play Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, Bartók’s Piano Sonata, György Ligeti’s etudes No. 4 ("Fanfares") and No. 10 ("The Sorcerer’s Apprentice"), Chopin’s Waltz in C sharp minor, Prokofiev’s Toccata and Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s incidental music for "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."

Tickets issued for the Anderszewski recital will be honored for Wang’s performance. About 200 tickets ($30) remained available when the substitution was announced.

To order tickets, call the Modlin Center box office at (804) 289-8980;

* * *

The American pianist Simone Dinnerstein is Anderszewski's replacement in a Tuesday Evening Concerts Series date at 8 p.m. Feb. 12 in Old Cabell Hall, University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. She will play Bach's "Goldberg" Variations.

Tickets are $21-$25 (waiting list). Details: (434) 924-3984;

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Delight us, dammit

In a post on NewMusicBox, Jeremy Denk, the pianist and musical über-blogger, engagingly harrumphs about excessively calculated, soul-numbing contemporary composition; and in the process, issues a manifesto for a contemporary music that, well . . . take over, Jeremy:

"I would like to propose 'delight' as a value, as a frequent ingredient of the durably new — the delightful as opposed to the agreeable, as opposed even perhaps (but not often) to the enjoyable. Delight is more muted than joy, it is not quite ecstasy (thank God, I can only take so much ecstasy). I'll take a stab at defining it: a combination of discovery with pleasure, a kind of mental activity brought to bear upon pleasure, running into it as if in a traffic accident where no one gets hurt. It's the brain slamming into the obstacle of beauty, waking up, rubbing its eyes."

Read "A Subtle Analysis of Composer-Performer Resentment," divining of Haydn's harmonic entrails and all: