Saturday, December 19, 2009

A decade's best

Many music critics are assembling tops-of-the-decade lists of performances, so I thought I should do the same.

Revisiting live performances of classical music in and around Richmond during the aughts – the weirdly esoteric moniker with which the decade of 2000-09 has been saddled – was a pleasant diversion on a snowy night. It also proved to be a nostalgic and contemplative exercise for me, as it covered my last seven years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch and my first three as an independent blogger.

Most of the decade lists I’ve seen are top tens, a venerable format – and a usefully economical one in a time of shrinking space in print media. Space constraints not being much of a concern in this digital realm, however, I saw no reason to limit myself to 10, or even 20, performances. As it turns out, my list runs to 57.

The decade has coincided with Mark Russell Smith’s tenure at the Richmond Symphony, so this also turned into a compilation of the most memorable performances led by the orchestra’s fourth music director.

It was a banner decade for pianists: Ivan Moravec, Sonia Rubinsky, Stephen Hough, André Watts, Alexander Paley, Krystian Zimerman, Angela Hewitt, Leon Fleisher, Marc-André Hamelin, Yuja Wang, Jeremy Denk and Pascal Rogé headed the most impressive lineup of keyboard talent Richmond has heard since the 1930s and '40s, when the likes of Rachmaninoff and Moiseiwitsch frequently performed here. Making this keyboard feast even more remarkable, much of it occurred during years in which the logistics of performing in church sanctuaries prevented the symphony from engaging more than a handful of piano soloists. That void was filled very nicely by the University of Richmond's Modlin Center, Virginia Commonwealth University's Rennolds Concerts and Paley's annual festival.

These are performances that I attended. One thing or another kept me away from a number of concerts that I had anticipated with high hopes, and that probably should be counted among the decade’s best musical events.

Like all such lists, this one is affected by personal preferences and aversions, no matter how hard the list-maker tries to be "objective." (I didn’t try very hard.)

My timeline of classical-music events to remember in Central Virginia over the past decade:

Nov. 18, 2000 – Mark Russell Smith, the symphony’s recently arrived maestro, demonstrates his mettle in large-scale choral music as he leads the orchestra and Richmond Symphony Chorus in one of the most challenging examples of the genre, Benjamin Britten’s "War Requiem," at the Carpenter Center.

Dec. 16, 2000 – Anonymous 4 makes its Richmond debut in its popular medieval-Christmas program "On Yoolis Night," at St. Giles Presbyterian Church.

Feb. 2, 2001 – German chanteuse Ute Lemper idiomatically, and very sensually, guides her audience through Weill & Brecht and other vintage Berlin cabaret music, at the University of Richmond.

April 27, 2001 – Brazilian pianist Sonia Rubinsky makes a sparkling local debut with Smith and the symphony in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, at the University of Richmond.

May 26, 2001 – the Hampden-Sydney Music Festival marks its 20th anniversary with Olivier Messiaen’s "Quartet for the End of Time," played by pianist Edward Auer, clarinetist Ethan Sloane, violinist Charles Castleman and cellist Peter Rejto.

June 12, 2001 – Arnold Steinhardt, first violinist of the Guarneri Quartet, and pianist Reiko Aizawa join the Shanghai Quartet in Chausson’s voluptuous Concert for violin, piano and string quartet, at the University of Richmond.

Sept. 14, 2001 – In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Richmond Symphony and Symphony Chorus, with pianist Joanne Kong and mezzo-soprano Martha Slay, present a program, including Beethoven’s "Choral Fantasy" and Brahms’ "Alto Rhapsody," that powerfully affirms the Western culture targeted by the terrorists. As post-9/11 flight restrictions leave Mark Russell Smith stranded in Minnesota, Eckart Preu, in his third week as the symphony’s associate conductor, leads the concert, at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Sept. 22, 2001 – More affirmation in a tragic month, as Smith leads the symphony and its chorus in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in a benefit for the American Red Cross, at the Carpenter Center.

Oct. 20, 2001 – Smith and the symphony present the first in a decade-long survey of the late Bruckner symphonies in a Wagnerian reading of the Seventh, at the Carpenter Center.

Nov. 9, 2001 – Smith and the symphony contrast Mozart’s "Linz" Symphony (No. 36) with more compact and knottier symphonies of Schoenberg and Webern, at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Nov. 10, 2001 – The great Czech pianist Ivan Moravec returns to Virginia Commonwealth University for a program of Chopin, Debussy and Janáček, composers in which he has no living interpretive peer.

Jan. 18, 2002 – Linda Maguire ably negotiates the most tongue-twisting narrating gig in classical music, reciting Edith Sitwell’s text for William Walton’s "Façade" with Preu and the symphony, at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Feb. 15, 2002 – Violinist Joseph Silverstein leads the symphony, with Smith in a cameo role as cellist, in Schoenberg’s "Transfigured Night" and works by Mozart, at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Feb. 8, 2003 – James Wilson’s short-lived ChamberFest at Virginia Commonwealth University hits a high note as Michael Friedmann narrates Schoenberg’s "Ode to Napoleon," alongside works of Beethoven and Zelenka.

Feb. 24, 2003 – Smith and the symphony perform Dvořák’s "New World" Symphony at the Carpenter Center with rich sonority and plenty of soul, rivaling a Washington performance a week later by the Vienna Philharmonic. Really.

Sept. 13, 2003 – André Watts delivers an unusually crystalline, almost Mozartian, performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Smith and the symphony, at the Carpenter Center.

Nov. 7, 2003 – Smith and the symphony play the arguably greatest of the Mozart symphonies, the “Prague” (No. 38), and the Oboe Concerto of Bohuslav Martinů, with Michael Lisicky as the soloist, at Randolph-Macon College.

Nov. 15, 2003 – English pianist Stephen Hough gives thoughtful yet stunning performances of Lizst, Hummel and Chopin, at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Feb. 13, 2004 – Symphony musicians, grouped into chamber ensembles, deliver deeply satisfying readings of Brahms, Varèse, Villa-Lobos and Zelenka, at Randolph-Macon College.

Feb. 14, 2004 – The Paris Piano Trio and Ysaÿe Quartet conduct a clinic in French string-playing and interpretive styles in a program of Beethoven, Ravel and Chausson, at Virginia Commonwealth University.

March 22, 2004 – Peter Phillips leads his vocal ensemble, the Tallis Scholars, with members of the James River Singers and University of Richmond choristers, in Thomas Tallis’ 40-part (!) motet "Spem in Alium," twice in a single concert, at the University of Richmond.

March 30, 2004 – Olivier Latry, titular organist of Notre Dame in Paris, wraps up a largely French program with masterful demonstrations of organ improvisation, at River Road Church, Baptist.

May 22, 2004 – Smith leads the symphony in a deeply resonant Mahler Fifth Symphony, at the Carpenter Center.

Aug. 15, 2004 – The Richmond Chamber Players revel in wind-powered chamber works of Mozart, Poulenc, Nielsen and Paul Schoenfield, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Sept. 18, 2004 – Smith and the symphony, with pianist Norman Krieger, accentuate the French accents of Gershwin, Barber, Copland and Bernstein, at the Carpenter Center.

Sept. 24, 2004 – Liszt’s Sonata in B minor proves to be just a warmup for pianist Alexander Paley, who goes on to play a set of encores that amount to a third half of a program, at First English Lutheran Church.

Nov. 8, 2004 – Polish-born pianist Krystian Zimerman gives exemplary and exploratory performances of Mozart, Chopin and Ravel, at the University of Richmond.

Feb. 20, 2005 – Christopher Falzone, the onetime piano prodigy from Chesterfield County, comes home to play Mozart’s "Coronation" Concerto (No. 26) with Smith and the symphony, while Jonathan Friedman, the orchestra’s principal bassoonist, gives the first of several drolly costumed performances of Michael Daugherty’s "Dead Elvis," at the University of Richmond.

Oct. 28, 2005 – Smith and the symphony plumb the spiritual depths of Bruckner’s epic Eighth Symphony, at Second Baptist Church.

Nov. 29, 2005 – Tenor William Ferguson returns to his old school, St. Christopher’s, for a program of French and American songs (including one by his old classmate, Mason Bates) that crackles with personality.

Dec. 13, 2005 – Near-darkness intensifies the musical experience as James Wilson plays three of Bach’s suites for solo cello in a room lit only by candlelight, at Second Presbyterian Church.

April 5, 2006 – Leon Fleisher, the great American pianist sidelined from two-hands performances through what would have been his peak performing years, gives an inspiring program of Schubert, Bach and Stravinsky, at the University of Richmond.

April 8, 2006 – French-Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin lives up to his virtuoso reputation, and then some, in a program devoted largely to Liszt’s finger-busting opera paraphrases, at Virginia Commonwealth University.

April 21, 2006 – Smith and the symphony gives Sibelius’ Second Symphony almost Brucknerian treatment, in a program also featuring violinist Jennifer Koh playing Bruch, at Second Baptist Church.

Dec. 1, 2006 – Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt brings unusual clarity and color to a program of Bach, Rameau, Mozart and Beethoven, at the University of Richmond.

Feb. 23, 2007 – To mark the retirement of James Erb, founder of the Richmond Symphony Chorus, Smith leads a richly reverent Brahms "German Requiem," further distinguished by the contributions of baritone Richard Zeller, at Second Baptist Church.

April 20, 2007 – Violinist Jessica Lee, another onetime hometown prodigy, returns to play Vaughan Williams’ "The Lark Ascending" with Smith and the symphony at Bon Air Baptist Church; that and Copland’s "Appalachian Spring" prove to be fitting elegies for the victims of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech a few days earlier.

April 24, 2007 – Jos van Veldhoven leads the Netherlands Bach Society in an austere and profound performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor, at the University of Richmond.

May 18, 2007 – Karen Johnson, the symphony’s concertmaster, delivers one of the best of her annual concerto performances in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1, while Smith leads the orchestra in a deliciously high-calorie account of Richard Strauss’ orchestral suite from "Der Rosenkavalier," at Second Baptist Church.

Oct. 19, 2007 – The Virginia Opera stages the most theatrically persuasive production of its challenging five-year exile in the cavernous Landmark Theater, as Peter Mark conducts Offenbach’s "The Tales of Hoffmann."

Oct. 26, 2007 – To mark the symphony’s 50th anniversary, Smith, the orchestra and pianist Jeremy Denk re-create the 1957 opening night program, highlighted by Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 and Mendelssohn’s "Scottish" Symphony (No. 3), at the University of Richmond. The sole remaining veteran of that debut concert, violinist Elizabeth Moore, plays one of her last dates with the orchestra.

Nov. 7, 2007 – eighth blackbird, the new-music sextet in residence at the University of Richmond, plays the atmospheric, culture-crossing music of Stephen Hartke, including the premiere of "Meanwhile: Incidental Music to Imaginary Puppet Plays."

Nov. 12, 2007 – In what’s likely to be remembered as the most impressive local debut by a young musician in living memory, Chinese-born pianist Yuja Wang joins the Shanghai Quartet in Schumann’s Piano Quintet and plays solo works by Ravel, Scriabin and Gluck, at the University of Richmond.

Jan. 19, 2008 – Smith and the symphony take to heart the passions of the two greatest unfinished symphonies, Schubert’s Eighth and Bruckner’s Ninth, at First Baptist Church.

March 1, 2008 – French pianist Pascal Rogé explores Chopin and his music’s resonations in works by Fauré, Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc, at Virginia Commonwealth University.

March 15, 2008 – Smith leads the symphony and Symphony Chorus in a dramatic yet deeply spiritual Verdi Requiem, at First Baptist Church.

March 26, 2008 – eighth blackbird premieres the Double Sextet of Steve Reich and "singing in the dead of night" by Julia Wolfe, David Lang and Michael Gordon, at the University of Richmond; the Reich subsequently is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music.

March 27, 2008 – Sonia Rubinsky, following a couple of Mozart concerto performances with the symphony, returns for a Virginia Commonwealth University festival of music by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, playing his knotty but thrilling piano piece "Rudepoema."

April 12, 2008 – James Wilson’s Richmond Festival of Music introduces Richmonders to Amy Beach’s too-rarely-heard Theme and Variations for flute and string quartet, with Richmond Symphony flutist Mary Boodell leading the ensemble, at Second Presbyterian Church.

April 25, 2008 – George Manahan, who preceded Smith as music director of the symphony, plays to his interpretive strong suit in a program of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Debussy’s "La Mer" and, with Karen Johnson, Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, at Second Baptist Church.

April 29, 2008 – The Richmond Festival of Music’s American series hits another peak as pianist Carsten Schmidt, violinist Diane Pascal and cellist James Wilson give a rip-roaring account of Charles Ives’ Piano Trio, at Second Presbyterian Church.

May 16, 2008 – Richmond-bred composer Mason Bates introduces his old hometown to orchestral electronica in his "Rusty Air in Carolina," played with Smith and the symphony, at Second Baptist Church.

April 19, 2009 – Wilson’s festival turns to the baroque, and in a program of Telemann, Frederick the Great, Leclair and Couperin, introduces us to the German violinist Florian Deuter, perhaps the most fluent and passionate practitioner of "historically informed" fiddling this town has ever heard, at First Unitarian Universalist Church.

May 16, 2009 – Smith concludes his nine-year tenure as the symphony’s music director with a majestically austere performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, at First Baptist Church.

Aug. 23, 2009 – Pianists George Manahan and John Walter and percussionists James Jacobson and Montgomery Hatch shake the earth, or at least the Bon Air Presbyterian Church Sanctuary, with Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion.

Oct. 19, 2009 – Veteran cellist Lynn Harrell joins the Shanghai Quartet in a darkly lyrical, heartfelt account of Schubert’s Quintet in C major, at the University of Richmond.