Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Putin and artists

The Washington Post's Philip Kennicott comments on Valery Gergiev, the Russian superstar conductor, leading a performance of Shostakovich's World War II-vintage "Leningrad" Symphony in a "victory" concert in Tskhinvali, the Georgian city now under Russian occupation:


"Dressed in black and performing on the steps of the bombed-out parliament building," Kennicott writes, "Gergiev has also engraved himself into history – wading brazenly not just into politics, but politics by other means, in a way that few other classical musicians would dare today."

Gergiev (a native of Ossetia, the disputed region on the Russian-Georgia border) is not the only artist drawn in by Vladimir Putin's reassertion of Great Russian nationalism and expansionism. Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Mstislav Rostropovich allowed themselves to be celebrated by Putin, effectively lending him their moral authority, in their last days; and we shouldn't be surprised to see other Russian cultural figures do so.

In time, we'll see how Gergiev squares his patriotism with the autocracy Putin is reimposing on his homeland.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Herreweghe on Bruckner

Philippe Herreweghe, the Flemish conductor and chorusmaster, contemplates Anton Bruckner, in whose works he hears "the search in music for a realm in which the mind is free to confront the mystery of its creation:"


Wednesday, August 20, 2008


My reviews of new discs of Mozart piano concertos by Maurizio Pollini and Leif Ove Andsnes, in print in Style Weekly, online at:


White at the Met

Steven White, artistic director of Opera Roanoke, has been tapped as cover conductor of the Metropolitan Opera production of Bellini's "La Somnambula" in February and March, The Roanoke Times reports:


Monday, August 18, 2008

Another off-brand instrument revival (kazoos, too)

The accordion is making a comeback, according to the Los Angeles Times:


And, in a spirited attempt to kick-start a kazoo revival, the memorably big-haired Temple City Kazoo Orchestra in a 1970s Merv Griffin Show appearance, playing "Kazoo sprach Zarathustra:"


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Alexander Slobodyanik (1943-2008)

Alexander Slobodyanik, the Ukrainian-born pianist whose fiery virtuosity and matinee-idol looks created a sensation when he first performed in the West in the 1960s, has died at the age of 65 after contracting infectious meningitis. Slobodyanik emigrated to the United States in 1989, and pursued both performing and teaching careers. His son, Alex Slobodyanik, is a concert pianist.

Alexander Slobodyanik's obituary in The New York Times:


Donald Erb (1927-2008)

Donald Erb, a prominent American avant-garde composer, known for his mixtures of standard instrumentation with electronics and the sounds of "found objects," has died at the age of 81. His obituary in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Vibrato kerfuffle

Roger Norrington, the British maestro and longtime advocate of "historically informed" orchestral performance, conducts Elgar with minimal vibrato. At the Proms, no less. Musicological-patriotic uproar ensues, The New York Times reports:


A somewhat less detached view from The Guardian:


As it happens, Elgar was the earliest prominent composer to conduct his major orchestral works on recordings, several of which remain in circulation: the Violin Concerto (with the 12-year-old Yehudi Menuhin) and "Enigma" Variations (EMI Classics 66994); the Cello Concerto (with Beatrice Harrison) and Symphony No. 2 (Classica d'Oro 1054).

Under Elgar's direction, London orchestras played with near-modern levels of string vibrato, albeit inconsistently applied. Also, notably in the 1926 "Enigma" recording, with plenty of portamento, the technique of sliding from note to note, which commonly induces something akin to motion sickness among musicians and listeners today.

Norrington dismisses vibrato as musical "central heating." No word yet on his use or not of portamento, and if not, his preferred plumbing analogy.

Melissa Musulin (1958-2008)

Melissa Musulin, the principal French horn player of the Richmond Philharmonic, has died of cancer. She also was a member of the Williamsburg Sinfonia and a substitute player in the Richmond Symphony, and had been a member of the Basque National Orchestra in Spain. Mrs. Musulin also was a celebrated pastry chef.

Her obituary in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lip-syncing 'in the national interest'

Chinese authorities liked the voice of 7-year-old Yang Peiyi, but considered her appearance "not suitable" for a featured role in the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. They liked the looks of 9-year-old Lin Miaoke, but decided her voice "must change." So Yang sang, and Lin lip-synced, "Ode to the Motherland."

"We combined the perfect voice and the perfect performance," said Chen Qigang of the Chinese Politburo. "The audience will understand that it's in the national interest."

Oh, and part of the fireworks display shown on TV was prerecorded, The Washington Post reports:


On with the sh– . . . uh, games.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Next up: kazoos?

"All of those places I go to, the ukulele is huge," says Jake Shimabukuro, the reigning virtuoso of the instrument who recently played at the Newport Jazz Festival. "All these teenagers coming to the show with their ukuleles, asking me to sign them," he tells The New York Times:


(You'll notice that The Times placed the story in its fashion, not arts, section.)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Scandalous news

Jody Rosen, a pop-music writer posting on Slate, uncovers chronic plagiarism in articles by a stringer for the Montgomery County Bulletin, a weekly in suburban Houston:


Whereupon the publisher-editor of the paper pleads ignorance and ceases publication, and the offending writer offers an impassioned but utterly lame defense:


Plagiarism is stealing. When some clown lifts quotes from publicity packets without bothering to check their provenance – not too onerous a task in the age of Google – he queers things for those of us who strive to do journalism honorably. (The offender says he's gone from this gig. I say: Good. Stay gone.)

But before succumbing to terminal shock and awe over what Rosen suggests may be "the greatest plagiarism scandal in the annals of American journalism," note that this scandal is about writing on music, whose composers have been plagiarizing one another – and every folk musician they can cop a lick from – for all of recorded history.

The moral of this story: Music writers need a healthy set of antibodies to avoid catching the musicians' bug.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Veteran chorusmaster dies

Lou Sawyer, a longtime music educator and director of the Virginia Beach Chorale from 1980 until he was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year, has died. His obituary in The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk:


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Sony buying out label partner

Sony Corp. of America is buying out the half-interest of its partner in the Sony-BMG recording combine, the German firm Bertelsmann AG, for $1.2 billion, The New York Times reports:


Sony-BMG, formed in 2004, controls the catalogues of the former Columbia and RCA Victor labels and, through them, most of the music recorded in the U.S. prior to 1950.

The record company, once sold, will be renamed Sony Music Entertainment. Its roster is dominated by pop artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Celine Dion and Alicia Keys, but also includes Yo-Yo Ma, Murray Perahia, Emanuel Ax and Joshua Bell, as well as extrensive back catalogues of recordings by most of the major American orchestras, ensembles such as the Guarneri and Juilliard quartets, and soloists ranging from Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubinstein to Leon Fleisher and Isaac Stern.

Kudos for Ferguson, Bates

William Ferguson, the Richmond-born tenor, has spent the summer starring as Brian Cohen in "Not the Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy," Eric Idle's musical spinoff from the 1979 Monty Python film "Life of Brian."

Ferguson's getting good reviews. "[A] clean-cut tenor with a clean-cut sound," opines Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times:


Mixed reviews for the show itself: The Washington Post's Stephen Brookes found it "hysterically funny" . . .


. . . while David Mermelstein on MusicalAmerica.com (subscription only) dissed it as "crude vaudeville."

To hear Ferguson in Handel's "Messiah," as well as other non-naughty repertory, go here (click on his name, then click on "media"):


* * *

Richmond-bred composer Mason Bates' "Liquid Interface," introduced in February 2007 by the National Symphony in Washington, rated as the "triumphant high point" of the opening weekend of California's Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, writes Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle:


Monday, August 4, 2008

Win and loss in Gwinnett; rain delay in Bayreuth

Gwinnett County, GA, the Atlanta suburb that snared the Braves' Triple-A baseball team from Richmond – the team is due to move in 2009 – has lost its local orchestra. A projected 20 percent increase in costs led the Gwinnett Philharmonic to shut down after 13 seasons, Pierre Ruhe reports in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:


* * *

At the Bayreuth Festival, meanwhile, a downpour and subsequent flooding delayed a July 31 performance of "Siegfried," the third installment of Wagner's "Ring" cycle. The washout is supposed to come at the end of the fourth and final installment, "Götterdämmerung." Mother Nature evidently misplaced her libretto:


Sunday, August 3, 2008

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 3, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

The Richmond Chamber Players launched their 2008 Interlude series with a program of French early modern works that didn’t always conform to the usual notions of their time and place.

The best-known offering was Claude Debussy’s last major composition, the Sonata in G minor (1917) for violin and piano, a piece in which impressionistic tone colors serve mainly to underline emotional and expressive ambivalence. The sonata requires substantial technique on the part of the violinist, but also demands an important interpretive decision: Whether to show off technique or delve into its musicality.

Violinist Susy Yim chose the latter course. While her technical command was never in doubt, her qualities that stood out in her performance were introspection and exploration. Each gesture, each venture into rarified tonality, sounded within a deeper context. She played the sonata not as a musical argument or essay, but as an act of contemplation.

Pianist John Walter, artistic director of the ensemble’s summer series, stayed expressively in tune with Yim – as he would with other collaborators throughout the program.

Bracketing the Debussy were lesser-known works from two composers of "Les Six," leading lights of the generation that followed Debussy: Darius Milhaud’s Suite (1936) for violin, clarinet and piano and Francis Poulenc’s Sextet (1939) for winds and piano.

Yim, Walter and clarinetist David Niethamer played the Milhaud with a collective ear cocked for its jazzy and Brazilian undertones, but made more of its neoclassicism à la Stravinsky, a quality most pronounced in its "Jeu: Vif" movement. Niethamer’s clarinet overbalanced Yim’s violin in the early going, but they achieved better sonic balance as the performance progressed.

If Poulenc was the most Mozartian of French moderns – "content to follow the gentle neoclassical formation of Ravel’s piano music and songs," as Nicolas Slonimsky put it – then this sextet is one of the gaudiest outliers of his output. The piece is densely scored, often aggressive in its rhythmic language and abrupt in its dynamism, and largely romantic, even Wagnerian, in its melodies and the way they are expressed. It’s also notably short on Poulenc’s trademark humor, unless you hear the piece as a sendup of romantic style.

Flutist Mary Boodell, oboist Sandra Lisicky, bassoonist Jonathan Friedman, French horn player Paul LaFollette, clarinetist Niethamer and pianist Walter gave an outsized performance of the Poulenc. In louder passages, they came close to producing more sound than the Bon Air Presbyterian Church sanctuary could comfortably accommodate.

The ensemble maintained good balance within the music’s thick textures, and solos – notably by Lisicky, LaFollette and Friedman – were sensitively played. Walter reveled in the work’s assertive piano part.

The six musicians were on more characteristically light-hearted French woodwind turf in an encore, Jean Françaix’s "The Little Nervous One."

The Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude series continues with concerts at 3 p.m. Aug. 10, 17 and 24 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road. Tickets: $14-$16. Details: (804) 340-1405 (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts ticket desk).

Friday, August 1, 2008

Symphony in the black, expects downtown return in fall 2009

The Richmond Symphony finished its 50th anniversary 2007-08 season $25,715 in the black on a $4.75 million budget, reports David Fisk, the orchestra's executive director.

The symphony, heading into its fifth season of playing subscription concerts in church sanctuaries and other alternative venues, expects to know by the end of this month whether the renovated Carpenter Theatre (formerly the Carpenter Center) in Richmond CenterStage, the new downtown performing-arts complex, will be ready for orchestra concerts in fall 2009.

As of this week, Fisk said, CenterStage construction is on schedule.

The Virginia Opera, which has been staging its productions in the Landmark Theater, also is scheduled to move into the Carpenter Theatre for its 2009-10 season.

Now hear this (or not)

Up to 40 percent of musicians suffer from hearing loss, according to some recent studies. In classical music, orchestral string players seated downwind of brass sections are especially at risk:


Sound compression leaves out 10/11ths of the audio information in a "good" quality MP3 file, Rhodri Marsden reports in The Independent:


Unfortunately, the article does not compare or relate MP3 sound compression with that commonly employed in commercial recordings and broadcast-radio signals. Was some of that 10/11ths of audio gone long before it got to the new playback media? Or are we talking about compounded compression – i.e., fractions of fractions of the original sound?

2008-09 season overview

Prepping for the coming fall-to-spring season, Here’s the collective schedule of Richmond’s major classical presenters. Besides being a quickie overview of the season, it's also an alert to subscribers on pileups of musical activity during some weekends, especially dates with conflicting events.

Not many of the latter, for a change: Nov. 15 (Richmond Symphony vs. Hungarian Virtuosi); Feb. 20 (Virginia Opera vs. Richmond Symphony); Feb. 22 (Virginia Opera vs. Shanghai Quartet).

March 29 is a near-conflict: a Virginia Opera matinee and an evening performance by Chanticleer. You conceivably could attend both, with time for a quick supper in between.

You’ll notice several other seeming conflicts, but I doubt there’s much overlap between prospective audiences for the events. How many Guarneri Quartet aficionados, for example, will regret missing the Richmond Symphony Pops’ "Hollywood Nights," or vice versa, on Feb. 28?

At the end of the calendar, I’ve appended links to my postings of presenters' season announcements, where you’ll find program information (where available), curtain times, ticket prices, etc.

13…Daedalus Quartet (VCU Singleton Center)
17…eighth blackbird (UR Modlin Center)
19…Richmond Symphony/Mikhail Agrest; Michael Mulcahy, trombone (Second Baptist Church)
20…Richmond Symphony/Mikhail Agrest; Michael Mulcahy, trombone (First Baptist Church)
22…Richmond Symphony/Mikhail Agrest; Michael Mulcahy, trombone (St. Michael Catholic Church)
25…Richmond Symphony Kicked Back Classics/Mikhail Agrest (The National)
26…Alexander Paley Music Festival (First English Lutheran Church)
27…Alexander Paley Music Festival (First English Lutheran Church)
28…Alexander Paley Music Festival (First English Lutheran Church)
28…Richmond Symphony Kicked Back Classics/Mikhail Agrest (The National)

1…Shanghai Quartet (UR Modlin Center)
3…Richmond Symphony/Daniel Meyer; Richmond Symphony String Quartet; Richmond Symphony Chorus (Bon Air Baptist Church)
5… Richmond Symphony/Daniel Meyer; Richmond Symphony String Quartet; Richmond Symphony Chorus (Randolph-Macon College)
10…Richmond Symphony/Daniel Meyer; Karen Johnson, violin (Second Baptist Church)
11…Richmond Symphony/Daniel Meyer; Karen Johnson, violin (First Baptist Church)
13…Richmond Symphony/Daniel Meyer; Karen Johnson, violin (St. Michael Catholic Church)
20…East Village Opera Company (UR Modlin Center)
23…Richmond Symphony Kicked Back Classics/Erin Freeman (The National)
24…Virginia Opera "Il Trovatore" (Landmark Theater)
25…Awadagin Pratt, piano (VCU Singleton Center)
26…Virginia Opera "Il Trovatore" (Landmark Theater)
26…Richmond Symphony Kicked Back Classics/Erin Freeman (The National)

3…Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir & Tallinn Chamber Orchestra (UR Modlin Center)
7-8…Third Practice Electroacoustic Music Festival; eighth blackbird (UR Modlin Center)
8…Richmond Symphony Pops/Steven Smith; pianist TBA (Landmark Theater)
14…Richmond Symphony/Steven Smith; Richmond Symphony Chorus (Second Baptist Church)
15…Richmond Symphony/Steven Smith; Richmond Symphony Chorus (First Baptist Church)
15…Hungarian Virtuosi chamber orchestra (VCU Singleton Center)
17…Richmond Symphony/Steven Smith; Richmond Symphony Chorus (St. Michael Catholic Church)
21…Richmond Symphony/Erin Freeman (Bon Air Baptist Church)
23…Richmond Symphony/Erin Freeman (Randolph-Macon College)
28…Virginia Opera "Elixir of Love" (landmark Theater)
30…Virginia Opera "Elixir of Love" (Landmark Theater)

5…Richmond Symphony/Mark Russell Smith; Richmond Symphony Chorus "Messiah" (Second Baptist Church)
6…Richmond Symphony Pops/Erin Freeman; Richmond Symphony Chorus; Greater Richmond Children’s Choir (Landmark Theater)
8… Richmond Symphony/Mark Russell Smith; Richmond Symphony Chorus "Messiah" (St. Michael Catholic Church)

10…Richmond Symphony Pops/Marc Taddei; Raul Jaurena, bandoneon (Landmark Theater)
16…Richmond Symphony/Marc Taddei; Melissa Citro, soprano (Second Baptist Church)
17…Richmond Symphony/Marc Taddei; Melissa Citro, soprano (First Baptist Church)
19…Richmond Symphony/Marc Taddei; Melissa Citro, soprano (St. Michael Catholic Church)
22…Richmond Symphony Kicked Back Classics/Erin Freeman (The National)
25…Richmond Symphony Kicked Back Classics/Erin Freeman (The National)
30…Richmond Symphony/Erin Freeman; UR Schola Cantorum; James River Singers (UR Modlin Center)
31…Rachel Barton Pine, violin (VCU Singleton Center)

6…Richmond Symphony/Dorian Wilson (Bon Air Baptist Church)
7…The 5 Browns, pianos (UR Modlin Center)
8…Richmond Symphony/Dorian Wilson (Randolph-Macon College)
16…Jennifer Larmore, mezzo-soprano (UR Modlin Center)
20…Richmond Symphony/Arthur Post; Neal Cary, cello (Second Baptist Church)
20…Virginia Opera "Tosca" (Landmark Theater)
21…Richmond Symphony/Arthur Post; Neal Cary, cello (First Baptist Church)
22…Virginia Opera "Tosca" (Landmark Theater)
22…Shanghai Quartet (UR Modlin Center)
23…Richmond Symphony/Arthur Post; Neal Cary, cello (St. Michael Catholic Church)
23…eighth blackbird members; Paul Hanson & Joanne Kong, pianos (UR Modlin Center)
28…Guarneri Quartet (VCU Singleton Center)
28…Richmond Symphony Pops/Arthur Post; Karen Johnson, violin; Ralph Skiano, clarinet (Landmark Theater)

6…Richmond Symphony/Dorian Wilson; Robert Breault, tenor (Second Baptist Church)
7…Richmond Symphony/Dorian Wilson; Robert Breault, tenor (First Baptist Church)
9…Richmond Symphony/Dorian Wilson; Robert Breault, tenor (St. Michael Catholic Church)
25…eighth blackbird (UR Modlin Center)
27…Virginia Opera "Barber of Seville" (Landmark Theater)
29…Chanticleer (UR Modlin Center)
29…Virginia Opera "Barber of Seville" (Landmark Theater)
30…Peter Serkin, piano (UR Modlin Center)

4…Imani Winds (VCU Singleton Center)
17…Richmond Symphony/Mark Russell Smith; Richmond Symphony Chorus "St. Matthew Passion" (Second Baptist Church)
18…Richmond Symphony/Mark Russell Smith/Richmond Symphony Chorus "St. Matthew Passion" (First Baptist Church)
20…Richmond Symphony/Mark Russell Smith; Richmond Symphony Chorus "St. Matthew Passion" (St. Michael Catholic Church)
25…Richmond Symphony "Video Games Live" (Landmark Theater)
30…Richmond Symphony Kicked Back Classics/Erin Freeman (The National)

3…Richmond Symphony Kicked Back Classics/Erin Freeman (The National)
8…Richmond Symphony/Erin Freeman; Mary Boodell, flute; Molly Sharp, viola (Bon Air Baptist Church)
10… Richmond Symphony/Erin Freeman; Mary Boodell, flute; Molly Sharp, viola (Randolph-Macon College)
15…Richmond Symphony/Mark Russell Smith (Second Baptist Church)
16…Richmond Symphony/Mark Russell Smith (First Baptist Church)
18…Richmond Symphony/Mark Russell Smith (St. Michael Catholic Church)

Richmond Symphony:

Virginia Opera:

UR Modlin Center:

VCU Rennolds Chamber Concerts: