Friday, December 31, 2010

The year's best

Tradition (or, as Arturo Toscanini would have it, bad habit) decrees that critics wrap up each year with a list of best performances. And who am I to defy tradition (or bad habit, for that matter)?

Among performances that I heard – an important qualifier: I didn’t hear them all – over the past year in Richmond, these
(in chronological, not qualitative, order) were the most memorable:

* The Shanghai Quartet with pianist Yuja Wang, Feb. 15 at the University of Richmond. Our town has had good fortune in following Wang, who turns 24 in February, on her rapid ascent. On this visit (her third since 2007), the pianist joined the Shanghai in fluent, large-scale readings of piano quintets by Dvořák and Franck.

* The Biava Quartet, Feb. 26 at the Ellen Glasgow House. In a rare "house concert," staged by James Wilson’s Richmond Festival of Music in the parlor of this 19th-century residence, the Biava carried its audience deep into the innards of works by Haydn, Brahms and Ginastera. Nothing like a chamber to bring out the best in chamber music.

* The Richmond Symphony, Steven Smith conducting, in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, Feb. 27-28 at the Carpenter Theatre. Among the very best performances of the year, and probably the most resonant, as they made the sale in Smith’s bid to become the orchestra’s fifth music director. The conductor has since shown himself gifted in a lot of Russian repertory, but this reading of Shostakovich had special weight and soul.

* The Virginia Opera, Joseph Walsh conducting, in Mozart’s "Don Giovanni," March 5 and 7 at the Carpenter Theatre. A triumphant homecoming for baritone Matthew Worth (University of Richmond, class of 2000) as the lecherous star of Mozart’s darkest opera.

* Pianist Jeremy Denk,

March 21 at the University of Richmond. Denk made a pretty convincing case for a highly pianistic treatment of Bach’s "Goldberg Variations," but an even better – and more surprising – case for playing Charles Ives’ Sonata No. 1 with high-romantic grand-piano tone production and rhetorical flourish. You don't get many reminders that Ives was a contemporary of Rachmaninoff and Busoni.

* The Jupiter Quartet, March 28 at Virginia Commonwealth University. These performances of Beethoven, Dvořák and Bartók showed the Jupiter to be one of the most high-powered yet stylistically attentive among the younger generation of American string quartets.

* The Richmond Symphony, Steven Smith conducting, with violinist Gil Shaham, April 24 at the Carpenter Theatre. Shaham sparkled, as expected, in showpieces of Pablo de Sarasate; but the musical peak of this program came as Smith led the symphony in stylish, vividly colorful readings of Ravel and Debussy.

* The Virginia Opera, Peter Mark conducting, in The Gershwins’ "Porgy and Bess," April 30 and May 1-2 at the Carpenter Theatre. Some found this scenically austere, highly choreographed production a startling departure from the usual, romanticized treatment; but its gritty evocations of street life and the Gullah culture of coastal South Carolina gave the show extra impact and a ring of authenticity.

* Tenor Tracey Welborn and oboist Gustav Highstein, Aug. 8 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church. In this opening concert of the Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude 2010 series, Welborn and Highstein performed Ralph Vaughan Williams’ "Ten Blake Songs" (1957) with extraordinary sensitivity to both the verses of William Blake and the composer’s pastoral-impressionist style, here reduced to its essence.

* eighth blackbird, with mezzo-soprano Katherine Calcamuggio, Sept. 15 at the University of Richmond. This program, called "Powerful," was highlighted by a performance of "Mr. Tambourine Man," John Corigliano’s decidedly un-Dylanesque but highly evocative song cycle on lyrics of Bob Dylan. The ’birds also reprised Frederic Rzewski’s "Coming Together," a stark memoir of the 1971 riot at New York’s Attica Prison, and reveled in the shimmering colors of John Luther Adams’ "The Light Within."

* Pianists Alexander Paley and Pei-Wen Chen, Sept. 24 at First English Lutheran Church. Paley’s fall festival in Richmond is a showcase of rarely heard music for solo and four-hands piano, and this year’s opening program featured four rewarding discoveries: The four-hands version of Tchaikovsky’s "Capriccio Italien" and the composer’s Suite No. 2 in C major, and the solo "Sonata tragica" and "Sonata reminisczena" of Nikolai Medtner.

* The Richmond Symphony, Steven Smith conducting, with pianist Dmitri Shteinberg, Oct. 16-17 at the Carpenter Theatre. The VCU-based Shteinberg usefully applied Chopinesque tone and phrasing to Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, making real music of a piece that’s all too often an exercise in noise and speed, while Smith and the orchestra brought out the energy and color of Stravinsky’s "Firebird" Suite.

* The Richmond Symphony, Steven Smith conducting, Nov. 5 at The Steward School, Nov. 7 at Randolph-Macon College. This was Smith's smartest and most stylistically diverse selection of music to date, a program that ranged from the classical (Haydn’s Symphony No. 82, known as "The Bear") to the post-modern (Michael Torke’s "Lucent Variations"), with Brahms and Copland in between, effectively showcasing the variety and scope of the chamber-orchestra repertory.

* Violinist Robert McDuffie and The Venice Baroque Orchestra, Nov. 15 at the University of Richmond. This "Seasons Project" program presented Vivaldi’s "The Four Seasons" alongside Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 2 ("The American Four Seasons"). The colorful and moody concerto proved to be Glass in cinematic mode, which sits better with those who can’t stand Glass in relentlessly minimalist mode; the Vivaldi chestnut was flavorfully roasted in a performance of high energy and vivid atmospheric effects.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Billy Taylor (1921-2010)

Billy Taylor, the jazz pianist, bandleader and educator who was instrumental in raising the stature of this American art form to parity with that of European classical music, has died at the age of 89.

Born in North Carolina, reared in Washington, educated at Virginia State College (now Virginia State University), Dr. Taylor performed with many of the jazz greats of the mid- and late-20th century, as well as teaching and advising and serving on cultural bodies, among them the National Endowment for the Arts and Washington's Kennedy Center. He was a longtime host of jazz programs on National Public Radio.

An obituary by Peter Keepnews in The New York Times:

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Built to last?

The New York Times' Allan Kozinn sounds out performers who specialize in new music, and hears that many or most contemporary works aren't built to last:

As Kozinn observes, this has been true of most compositions in most periods. What's more, audiences have been prone to dote on second-raters: "If the great masterpieces of the canon were determined entirely by the opinions of the musicians and listeners who first played them and heard them, J. C. Bach would be far more beloved than his father, Johann Sebastian. Salieri would be the star and Mozart the footnote, and Hummel would be the great virtuoso of the early 19th century." Today's masterpieces similarly may be misunderstood or underrated by today's musicians and audiences.

Music of the past has been filtered (or, as Kozinn puts it, beta-tested); vast bodies of forgettable music that was introduced alongside the works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Shostakovich has been duly forgotten. The filter is just beginning to separate the worthy from the disposable in music written over the past generation. Even contemporary specialists would be hesitant to predict which works of Elliott Carter or Steve Reich will endure, let alone works of younger fry such as Jennifer Higdon or David Lang. Mason Bates' mating of the orchestra and electronica may be the start of something big, or a passing phenomenon.

Playing and hearing new music works the filter in real time. This is not an experience that much of the traditional classical audience craves, but it can prove more satisfying than the traditionalist expects – if performers bring the same concentration and passion to the new work that they do to the established masterworks.

Younger musicians, and some established ones (Kozinn cites violinists Hilary Hahn and Christian Tetzlaff), are devoting more time to new and unfamiliar works, often delighting audiences on these treks into uncharted terrain. Brilliant technique and insightful musicianship can make a believer out of a listener regardless of the music being performed.

New music also has built a stable of virtuosos keen to collaborate with theatrical and visual artists. In these parts, we get regular exposure to the results of such collaborative multimedia ventures in the performances of eighth blackbird. The 'birds and other contemporary ensembles – the Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Can, Ethel, Brooklyn Rider – are valued as much for the show they put on as for the music they perform.

That's probably the least new characteristic of new music. Audiences of the past were electrified by virtuosos – Paganini, Liszt, Godowsky, Elman, Heifetz – playing music that we would now rate as mediocre, or even as junk. The Tetzlaffs and Hahns of today may be more discerning in their sampling of the new than the virtuosos of the past were.

Theatricality, multiculturism, instrumentation from and allusions to popular culture, have widened the playing field of new music. Listeners are constantly surprised and often find unexpected sensibilties and moods activated by what they see and hear. Much of new music is a show that appeals to more senses than the aural; it has as much in common with visual art as with any concert music of the past.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Wish list for the arts

Writing for The Huffington Post, Michael Kaiser, president of Washington's Kennedy Center and one of the leading voices cautioning against artistic retrenchment in recessionary times, pens a five-point wish list for arts institutions and the people who run them:

No. 4, sustaining arts instruction in school curricula, strikes me as the wish that, if fulfilled, offers the greatest rewards, for the arts, the economy and society in the U.S. and other advanced countries. "The majority of economic activity is no longer tied to manufacturing," Kaiser writes. "We need our children to be creative problem solvers if they are to be successful and if our nation is to thrive. The arts are a great and inexpensive way to help children exercise their creative muscles."

Until that message gets through, arts education and the arts in the public sphere are at continued risk of marginalization.

For it to get through, artists need to recruit the right messengers: New-economy corporate leaders whose success depends on building a talent pool of creative problem solvers. When they speak, politicians and educational authorities will listen.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Star crossing

The zebra-striped pedestrian crossing outside the Abbey Road studios in the St. John's Wood district of London, most widely known from the photo on the cover of The Beatles' 1969 album "Abbey Road" and a pilgrims' destination among Beatles fans over the past four decades, has been designated by the British government as a heritage site, to be preserved permanently, Sam Jones reports in The Guardian:

Preceding The Beatles on that road and into the studios were many of the leading classical musicians of the early and mid-20th century, among them Edward Elgar, Yehudi Menuhin, Artur Schnabel, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Thomas Beecham. John Barbirolli conducted the first recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fifth Symphony and Glenn Miller led his his last recording sessions, with singer Dinah Shore, at Abbey Road. Others working in the studios range from Noel Coward and Fats Waller to Pink Floyd and Radiohead.

The studio complex, built as a townhouse in the 1830s and converted to a recording venue in 1931, was declared a heritage site earlier in the year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Exodus from the orchestra?

Eight of the 49 full-time musicians of the Columbus (OH) Symphony, including the concertmaster, are going on leave after the first of the year. Since 2007, the orchestra's players have absorbed a 40 percent pay cut, its full-time roster has been reduced from 60 to its current level, and the season has been pared from 48 to 25 weeks, Jeffrey Sheban reports in The Columbus Dispatch:

Orchestral musicians, especially those not working in major ensembles, leave all the time to take up better-paying or more stable jobs, often outside music and the arts. What's happening in Columbus may be unique to that city and its long-troubled orchestra, or it may be a snapshot of a growing trend. More reporting like Sheban's from more places – e.g., Fort Worth, TX, and Charleston, SC, whose orchestra players have taken big pay cuts – would help clarify the situation.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Hough on recording

Stephen Hough, the English pianist, contemplates the art of recording on his blog for The Telegraph: "It’s not just sitting down and playing well in front of a microphone, it’s a different art form. I like the comparison between cinema and the theatre: if you put a camera in front of wonderful live play it won’t necessarily make a good movie, it’s a totally different way of working."

Hough’s ongoing series of posts on performing for the microphone – which, like the camera, never lies but may deceive with poor focus or ill-judged perspective – can be read here:

Some of the readers’ comments are as insightful as Hough’s, especially those regarding the roles of producers and engineers. As in film, the production staff often deserves to share top billing with performers, and, when things go wrong, often deserves more of the blame.


Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times reviews a performance by LA's Master Chorale of the 1789 arrangement of Handel's oratorio made by Mozart:

I don't share classical purists' aversion to arrangements. I think the canon is enhanced by Mahler's string orchestrations of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" and Beethoven's "Serioso" string quartets, Rudolf Barshai's orchestrations of Shostakovich quartets, orchestrations of Schubert's art-songs by Reger, Berlioz and others; I even like Schoenberg's symphonization of Brahms' Piano Quartet in G minor (although I'd never mistake it for a fifth symphony of Brahms).

Yes, the Handel-Mozart "Messiah" is "inauthentic;" but given Handel's history of repeatedly tinkering with the piece, and the baroque practice of freewheeling ornamentation and even improvisation by performers, in which Handel was an active practitioner, letter-of-the-score authenticity is a less important consideration. The original 1741 version of the oratorio was a template, not a finished product. Mozart was an expert finisher.

Practically speaking, Mozart's larger orchestration strikes me as a better balance for large choirs – performances with a Handel-scale chorus of two or three dozen voices are very rare, especially in the U.S.; and Mozart's "Messiah" produces a more room-filling sound in modern concert halls, which are much larger than any space Handel would have used.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Silent night (4'33" version)

This year's Christmas-music sensation may turn out to be "4'33"," John Cage's 1952 composition/contrived episode in which one or more performers make no intentional sound for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The idea is to induce the listener to focus on ambient or environmental sounds that ordinarily go unnoticed.

In Britain, a "Cage Against the Machine" campaign may make a "4'33" " session by leading pop musicians into the country's No. 1 Christmas single, and the movement is going viral online, the Los Angles Times' Mark Swed reports:,0,1948849.story?track=rss&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+latimes/entertainment/news/arts+(Los+Angeles+Times+-+The+Arts)

Sign me up.

The longer I've spent listening to music professionally, the more I've valued silence, both within a piece of music – as Artur Schnabel famously observed, "the spaces between the notes" are essential components in a piece of music – and in lieu of music. If musical sound is constant, music ceases to be special; it's no longer a work of art to be appreciated, but a background noise to be tolerated (or not).

A few years ago, I stumbled into an experiment in music deprivation. During a weekend of household chores, I spent 48 hours without exposure to music. After this unintentional fast, the first music I heard – keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, as it happened – absorbed and delighted me as no music had for a long time.

I subsequently tried to repeat the experiment with a music-appreciation class at the University of Richmond. It failed: None of us could escape musical sound for more than a few hours. Doing so, we concluded, would require sequestration in a soundproof room.

Still, even an unsuccessful effort to avoid exposure to music can enhance subsequent musical experience. You find yourself listening, rather than just hearing.

Four minutes and 33 seconds isn't a long enough stretch. But it's a start.

POSTSCRIPT: Composer and new-music maven Reinbert de Leeuw performs "4'33" " on a prime-time (!) Dutch telecast:

(via Norman Lebrecht)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Fiscally incorrect

A member of a British parliamentary committee studying cultural funding in these economically straitened times "drily suggested" that Gustav Mahler "shouldn't have written works that require so many musicians," The Observer's Fiona Maddocks reports as she surveys performances in 2010, the sesquicentennial of Mahler's birth, and anticipates programming in 2011, the centennial of the composer's death:

Scores for large forces were endemic in Mahler's time. Other offenders include Anton Bruckner (any of the symphonies from No. 2 onward), Richard Strauss ("Ein Heldenleben," "Alpine Symphony"), Maurice Ravel ("Daphnis et Chloë"), Claude Debussy ("La Mer"), Arnold Schoenberg ("Gurrelieder"), Igor Stravinsky ("The Rite of Spring") . . . the list goes on.

For a much shorter list, name the orchestral masterpieces from the late-19th and early 20th centuries that do not require what a number-cruncher would call excessive performing personnel.

Tough love for Christmas

Firing off what some would not doubt consider another salvo in the "war on Christmas," Soho the Dog (aka Matthew Guerrieri), who considers himself a great fan of Christmas music, nevertheless observes that the Anglo-American celebration of Christmas "was never that big a deal until the Victorians made it that big a deal. . . . [T]he modern Christmas emerged out of a nostalgia for something that never really was in the first place:"

On a more cheerful note, Christmas is the one time of year when people who ordinarily wouldn't go within a mile of a Renaissance motet or a baroque oratorio joyfully listen to, and even take part in singing, music from the same tradition.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

'Listen to This,' also to that

Alex Ross, classical music critic of The New Yorker and author of "The Rest Is Noise" and the recently published essay collection "Listen to This," discusses his evolution from narrowly focused highbrow to musical omnivore, with Paul Morley of The Guardian (UK):

Friday, December 10, 2010

Review: 'Baroque by Candlelight'

Dec. 9, First Unitarian Universalist Church, Richmond

The Richmond Festival of Music’s "Winter Baroque" mini-series concluded with a program of vocal and chamber works by George Frideric Handel. As the festival’s director, James Wilson, observed, Handel was a chronic recycler of melodies; so it was no great surprise for the audience to face a round of "Name That Tune."

Two choruses from "Messiah" turned up in a cantata for alto voice. Actually, it was the other way around: The principal tunes in "Quel fior che all’abba ride" ("The flower that smiles in the morning"), written in 1739, were recast in 1741 as "His yoke is easy" and "And He shall purify" in "Messiah." A tougher guessing game came in the finale of the Sonata in D major for violin and continuo (1750): This rhythmically herky-jerky quasi-march reappeared a couple of years later as the overture to Handel’s last oratorio, "Jephtha." (The last shall be first, literally.)

Countertenor Ian Howell applied his tonally woodsy, dramatically charged alto to winning effect in "Quel fior" and the earlier (c. 1710) romantic lament "Mi palpita il cor" ("My heart is restless") and the German arias "Süsse stille" ("Sweet quietness") and "Flammende Rose" ("Blazing rose"), with the chastely expressive, consistently complementary supporting voices of flutist Mary Boodell in "Quel fior" and violinist Martin Davids in "Flammende Rose" and the arias.

These and other selections sounded bigger than one might have expected from a small ensemble of baroque instruments, thanks to the rich, not to say voluptuous, continuo of cellist Wilson and harpsichordist Carsten Schmidt and to the clean, bright acoustics of the church sanctuary. (Candlelight contributed both to atmospherics and concentration.)

Boodell, best-known as the principal flutist of the Richmond Symphony, showed her fluency with the baroque-style wooden transverse flute as she partnered Davids, Wilson and Schmidt in Handel’s Trio Sonata in F major.

Anne Timberlake, playing alto recorder in the Sonata in D minor, demonstrated fine technique and stylishness in fast sections, although she was upstaged by Wilson’s fast-fingered virtuosity in the sonata’s furioso movement, and brought unexpectedly rich lyricism to the slow movements.

Davids made a low-cal feast of the violin sonata, compensating for the baroque violin’s relative lack of brilliance by emphasizing affectus, or stylized emotion, in slow sections and focused, quicksilver tone in the faster music. He brought a fine rhythmic lilt to the "Jephtha" finale.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Tuesday Evening Concerts 2011-12

The Tuesday Evening Concerts, Charlottesville's long-running chamber-music series, has unveiled its 2011-12 series.

The concerts, all at 8 p.m. in Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia:

* Oct. 4, 2011 – Vassily Primakov, piano. Schubert: 14 waltzes; Schumann: Sonata No. 3, Op. 14; Chopin: 24 preludes, Op. 28.

* Oct. 18, 2011 – Maxim Rysanov, viola, and Eldar Nebolsin, piano. Bach: Suite No. 2; Schubert: "Arpeggione" Sonata; Schumann: Adagio and Allegro; Dubugnon: Lied; Franck-Rysanov: Sonata in A major.

* Nov. 15, 2011 - Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Lully: "Phaeton" Suite; Bach: Concerto in D minor for three violins and orchestra (after BWV 1063), Suite in A minor for violin and orchestra (after BWV 1067); Fasch: Orchestral Suite in D minor; Vivaldi: Concerto in D minor for two oboes and orchestra, RV 535.

* Feb. 28, 2012 – Alexander String Quartet. Mozart: Quartet in B flat major, K. 458 ("Hunt"); Beethoven: Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 ("Serioso"); Schubert: Quartet in D minor ("Death and the Maiden").

* March 20, 2012 – Vadim Gluzman, violin, and Angela Yoffe, piano. Program TBA.

* April 3, 2012 – The Tallis Scholars. "The Field of the Cloth of Gold," sacred and secular works by Mouton, Cornysh and Browne.

* April 24, 2012 – Manasse/Nakamatsu Duo (Jon Manasse, clarinet, and Jon Nakamtsu, piano). Program TBA.

Subscription information: (434) 924-3376 (U.Va. Arts box office);

Uproar at La Scala

Tumult is not unknown at La Scala, the venerable Milanese opera house notorious for its demonstrative audiences. At this season's opening night, there was a different kind of uproar.

Outside the theater, violence broke out as police confronted a crowd protesting the Italian government's plan to cut state funding of the arts by 37 percent. Inside, conductor Daniel Barenboim read the riot act – in the form of a clause of the Italian constitution mandating support of cultural institutions – to the country's president.

John Hooper of The Guardian (UK) reports:

Hugues Cuénod (1902-2010)

The Swiss-born tenor Hugues Cuénod, best-known for his performances of French art-song and pioneering work in early music, has died at the age of 108. (He was still performing in his 90s.) He may have been the only musician to have counted among his mentors both Nadia Boulanger and Noël Coward.

An obituary in The Telegraph (UK):

On Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc blog, a remembrance of Cuénod from the American early music maestro Joël Cohen:

State of the art

The Denver Post's Kyle MacMillan notes some depressing statistics and finds hopeful signs in a
three-part series on the present and future of classical music. Part 1 is here:

Part 2 of the series:

And part 3:

Monday, December 6, 2010

Freeman reups with symphony

Erin R. Freeman, associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony and director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus, has renewed her contract with the orchestra through the
2012-13 season.

Freeman is the principal conductor of the symphony’s Pops and LolliPops series and is director of the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra. She also conducts several of the orchestra’s subscription classical concerts each season. She will lead performances of Beethoven’s "Missa Solemnis" in May.

A native of Atlanta who sang in choruses led by the late Robert Shaw, Freeman holds a doctorate in orchestral conducting from Peabody Conservatory. She joined the symphony in 2007 after serving as music director of the Richmond Philharmonic. She took over the Symphony Chorus in the 2007-08 season, following the retirement of its founding director, James Erb.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Dec. 3, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

This season’s Richmond Symphony performance of Handel’s "Messiah," led by Steven Smith, the orchestra’s new music director, was Smith’s local debut in baroque music. In Handel, at least, the conductor proved to be a middle-of-the-roader, cognizant of period-style ornamentation, note-shaping and phrasing, but neither fussy nor excessive about it.

This also was the first time since the reopening of the Carpenter Theatre that I’ve heard the Richmond Symphony Chorus sing with real warmth and proper presence, a welcome and overdue correction of the thin, sectionally uneven and distant sound that has afflicted choral performances since the acoustical refitting of the hall. Whatever mixture of projection, placement and sound enhancement was tried this time, it worked. Let’s hope everybody remembers how they did it – and that they can replicate the achievement with larger instrumental forces than a Handellian chamber orchestra.

The chorus made fine work of its showcase numbers – "For unto us a child is born," "Oh thou that tellest good tidings to Zion," "Worthy is the Lamb" and, of course, "Hallelujah" – but was even more impressive in choruses that require canonical part-singing and those with expressive effects. The sequence from "Surely He hath borne our griefs" through "All we like sheep" was, to my ears, the choral peak of the evening.

The quartet of soloists – soprano Katherine Jolly, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringle, tenor William Ferguson and Jason Hardy, billed as a baritone but sounding more like a bass – was reasonably well-matched (Jolly’s smallish and tightly focused voice was the outlier); and the singers showed generally good judgment on ornamentation and characterization (Hardy went a bit over the top in the climax of "The trumpet shall sound"). Ringle made a powerful impression in her austerely emotive treatment of "He was despised," and Ferguson consistently complemented text with tone and expression in the oratorio’s few but important tenor solos.

The orchestra, which might be forgiven for going on autopilot in this yearly Christmas staple, played alertly and stylishly. Trumpeter Rolla Durham gratifyingly balanced brilliance with restraint in "The trumpet shall sound."

While this was hardly a "Messiah" of Victorian heaviness or churchy solemnity, it needed more animation. Fast tempos in baroque music are dance tempos, and the dances are rustic, not genteel. (Like the Nativity, come to think of it.) Handel’s music is also theatrical, and not very subtle in its theatricality. That quality was not absent from this performance, but too often was under-realized.

NOTE: The symphony’s program book reversed the identities of the soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists. This review has been revised to correct that error.

Virginia Opera taps guest conductor

Joseph Rescigno, artistic advisor and principal conductor of Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera Company, has been engaged to conduct the Virginia Opera production of "The Valkyrie," a condensed version of Wagner’s "Die Walküre," to be staged in January and February in Norfolk, Fairfax and Richmond.

Rescigno replaces Peter Mark, the longtime artistic director of the Virginia Opera, who was dismissed last month.

In addition to the Milwaukee post, which he has held since 1981, Rescigno has been active as a guest conductor with the New York City Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Seattle Opera, Washington National Opera and companies in Canada, France and Hungary. He is former artistic director of l’Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The 12 days of Mozart

The BBC's Radio 3 will broadcast every work by Mozart in the Köchel catalogue over the first 12 days of January. Is this "a once-in-a-lifetime immersive opportunity, or the equivalent of eating too many Viennese Sachertorten in one sitting?" wonders The Guardian's Tom Service:

Pletnev charges dropped

Charges that the Russian pianist and conductor Mikhail Pletnev was involved with a child-prostitution ring in Thailand have been dropped. Pletnev has maintained that he was innocent since the allegations came to light in July, The Guardian's Charlotte Higgins reports:

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Off and on the critical list

The Charleston (SC) Symphony, one of the most visible casualties of recession-driven cutbacks and impasses between orchestra boards and musicians, will be revived with a smaller full-time core earning lower salaries, Adam Parker reports in The Post and Courier:

Meanwhile . . .

* The latest cancellations of December events brings to 34 the number of concerts called off since September by the Detroit Symphony, whose musicians have refused to accept a contract with lower pay and added non-concert duties, Mark Stryker reports in the Detroit Free Press:

* An anonymous donor has given an undisclosed sum that will enable the Louisville Orchestra to cut paychecks for its musicians, who are being asked to agree to pay cuts, reduction of the players' roster and a shorter season, Gabe Bullard reports for WFPL-FM:

* Cost controls have yielded a small surplus for the Minnesota Orchestra and a balanced budget for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Graydon Rice reports in the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

* The Cleveland Orchestra's deficit increased slightly in the past year, but the orchestra's management anticipates a more financially stable future, The Plain Dealer's Zachary Lewis reports:

* The Honolulu Symphony, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this year, is now considering moving to Chapter 7, meaning dissolution of the 110-year-old institution, James R. George of Pacific Business News reports:

UPDATE 1: The Louisville Orchestra has made a Chapter 11 filing. "In the request, the orchestra asked to break its collective bargaining agreement with its players," who have been asked to accept reductions in salaries and in the size of the full-time roster, Elizabeth Kramer reports in The Courier-Journal:

UPDATE 2: The Indiana Symphony Society, parent of the Indianapolis Symphony, reports a deficit of $2.7 million on a $25.8 million operating budget, Kathleen McLaughlin of the Indiana Business Journal reports:

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

December calendar

Classical performances in and around Richmond, with selected events elsewhere in Virginia and the Washington area. Program information, provided by presenters, is updated as details become available. Adult single-ticket prices are listed; senior, student/youth, group and other discounts may be offered.

* Tidings: In the sprit of the season, it’s all good.

Dec. 1 (7:30 p.m.)
Camp Concert Hall, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond
University Symphony Orchestra
Alexander Kordzaia conducting
program TBA
(804) 289-8980

Dec. 1 (8 p.m.)
Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, MD
The King's Singers
"Joy to the World"
(301) 581-5100

Dec. 2 (7 p.m.)
Dec. 3 (8 p.m.)
Dec. 4 (8 p.m.)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington
National Symphony Orchestra
Emmanuel Krivine conducting
Beethoven: "Egmont" Overture
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2
Louis Lortie, piano
Liszt: "Les Préludes"
Richard Strauss: "Don Juan"
(800) 444-1324

Dec. 3 (8 p.m.)
Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets
Richmond Symphony
Steven Smith conducting

Handel: "Messiah"
Rebecca Ringle, soprano
Katherine Jolly, mezzo-soprano
William Ferguson, tenor
Jason Hardy, baritone
Richmond Symphony Chorus
Erin R. Freeman directing
(800) 982-2787 (Ticketmaster)

Dec. 3 (8 p.m.)
Vlahcevic Concert Hall, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University, Park Avenue at Harrison Street, Richmond
Commonwealth Singers
John Guthmiller directing
program TBA
(804) 828-6776

Dec. 3 (8 p.m.)
Old Cabell Hall, University of Virginia, Charlottesville
Virginia Glee Club
Christmas program TBA
(434) 924-3376

Dec. 3 (8 p.m.)
Dec. 4 (5:30 p.m.)
Dec. 5 (2 p.m.)
University of Virginia Chapel, Charlottesville
Virginia Women’s Chorus
Christmas Candlelight Concert
(434) 924-3376

Dec. 3 (8 p.m.)
Dec. 5 (2 p.m.)
Center for the Arts, George Mason University, Fairfax
Virginia Opera
Joseph Walsh conducting
Mozart: "Così fan tutte"
Jan Cornelius (Fiordiligi)
Katharine Tier (Dorabella)
David Portillo (Ferrando)
Timothy Kuhn (Guglielmo)
Todd Robinson (Don Alfonso)
Camille Zamora (Despina)
Lillian Groag, stage director
in Italian, English captions
(888) 945-2468 (

Dec. 4 (2 p.m.)
Gellman Room, Richmond Public Library, First and Franklin streets
members of Richmond Alumnae Chapter, Sigma Alpha Iota
program TBA
(804) 646-7223

Dec. 4 (8 p.m.)
Vlahcevic Concert Hall, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University, Park Avenue at Harrison Street, Richmond
Rennolds Chamber Concerts:
Jon Nakamatsu, piano
Clementi: Sonata in F sharp minor, Op. 25
Schumann: "Papillons"
Beethoven: Sonata in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 ("Moonlight")
Lizst: three "Sonetti del Petrarca"
Chopin: "Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise brilliante"
(804) 828-6776

Dec. 4 (8 p.m.)
Dec. 5 (3 p.m.)
Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets
Richmond Symphony Pops
Richmond Symphony Chorus
Richmond Boys Choir
Erin R. Freeman conducting
"Let It Snow!" holiday program
(800) 982-2787 (Ticketmaster)

Dec. 4 (1:30 and 3 p.m.)
Dec. 5 (1:30 and 3 p.m.)
Kimball Theatre, Merchants Square, Williamsburg
Williamsburg Symphonia
Janna Hymes conducting
Branch Fields, Gayla Johnson & Vance Stalings, guest stars
Holiday pops concert
(800) 447-8679

Dec. 4 (8 p.m.)
Dec. 5 (3:30 p.m.)
Old Cabell Hall, University of Virginia, Charlottesville
Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra
U.Va. University Singers
Michael Slon conducting
"Family Holiday Concert"
Handel: "Messiah" (excerpts)
Pamela Beasley, soprano
Bach: "Dona nobis pacem" from Mass in B minor
Leroy Anderson: "Sleigh Ride"
Christmas carols
(434) 924-3376

Dec. 4 (2 p.m.)
Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center, Washington
Dejan Lazic, piano
Chopin: "Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise brilliante"
Chopin: Polonaise, Op. 22
Chopin: Ballade No. 3 in A flat major, Op. 47
Chopin: Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35
Chopin: Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 31
Schubert: Sonata in B flat major, D. 960
(202) 785-9727 (Washington Performing Arts Society)

Dec. 5 (3 p.m.)
St. Christopher’s Upper School Chapel, 711 St. Christopher’s Lane, Richmond
William Ferguson, tenor
David Leisner, guitar
Thomas Ford: "Since first I saw your face"
Thomas Campion: "Never weather-beaten sail"
Dowland: "Come again: Sweet love doth now invite"
Schubert: "Frühlingsglaube"
Schubert: "Nachtstück"
Schubert: "Der Wanderer"
Schubert: "Ständchen"
Ginastera: Guitar Sonata, Op. 47
Copland: "The Dodger"
Stephen Foster: "Beautiful Dreamer"
Gershwin: "They Can’t Take That Away from Me"
Gershwin: "Somebody Loves Me"
Cole Porter: "Sing to Me, Guitar"
(804) 282-3185

Dec. 5 (4 p.m.)
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 520 N. Boulevard, Richmond
Richmond Choral Society
Markus J. Compton directing
Virginia Girls Choir
Chris Martin, organ
Anastasia Jellison, harp
Keith Tan, piano
George Pavelis, oboe
Christmas program
$12 in advance, $15 at door
(804) 353-9582

Dec. 5 (4 p.m.)
Vlahcevic Concert Hall, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University, Park Avenue at Harrison Street, Richmond
VCU Guitar Ensemble
VCU Community Guitar Ensemble
John Patykula directing
program TBA
(804) 828-6776

Dec. 5 (5 and 8 p.m.)
Cannon Memorial Chapel, University of Richmond
UR Schola Cantorum & Women’s Chorale
Jeffrey Riehl & David Pedersen directing
Candlelight Festival of Lessons and Carols
(804) 289-8980

Dec. 6 (7 p.m.)
James Center Atrium, 1051 E. Cary St., Richmond
Richmond Philharmonic
Robert Mirakian conducting
"Home for the Holidays"
(804) 673-7400

Dec. 7 (8 p.m.)
Wilton House Museum, 215 S. Wilton Road, Richmond
Richmond Festival of Music:
Bach: "A Musical Offering"
Mary Boodell, traverse flute
Carsten Schmidt, harpsichord
Martin Davids, baroque violin
James Wilson, baroque cello
(804) 519-2098

Dec. 7 (8 p.m.)
Vlahcevic Concert Hall, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University, Park Avenue at Harrison Street, Richmond
VCU Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Myssyk conducting
program TBA
(804) 828-6776

Dec. 7 (8 p.m.)
Old Cabell Hall, University of Virginia, Charlottesville
Handel: "Messiah" (sing-along performance)
Donald Loach conducting
$8; proceeds benefit U.Va. choral ensembles
(434) 924-3376

Dec. 7 (7:30 p.m.)
Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center, Washington
Vocal Arts DC:
Stephen Costello, tenor
Elizabeth Futral, soprano
James Harp, piano
program TBA
(800) 444-1324

Dec. 7 (8 p.m.)
Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center, Washington
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
conductor TBA
Liang Chai, violin
Hongmei Yu, er hu
Liming Chi, tenor
Li Wang, soprano
program TBA
(800) 444-1324

Dec. 8 (5 p.m.)
Gellman Room, Richmond Public Library, First and Franklin streets
Richmond Festival of Music:
Master class, "Solo Bach: the Baroque Player’s Perspective"
Martin Davids, baroque violin
students from Virginia Commonwealth University Music Department
(804) 519-2098

Dec. 8 (7:30 p.m.)

Landmark Theater, Main and Laurel streets, Richmond
The Irish Tenors
Richmond Symphony
conductor TBA
Christmas carols, Irish ballads TBA
(800) 745-3000 (Ticketmaster)

Dec. 8 (8 p.m.)
Vlahcevic Concert Hall, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University, Park Avenue at Harrison Street, Richmond
VCU Choral Arts Society
Rebecca Tyree directing
program TBA
(804) 828-6776

Dec. 8 (7:30 p.m.)
Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center, Washington
Young Concert Artists:
Gleb Ivanov, piano
Rachmaninoff: three etudes-tableaux, Op. 39
Rachmaninoff: Melodie in E major, Op. 3, No. 3
Rachmaninoff: Humoresque, Op. 10, No. 5
Rachmaninoff: Sonata in G minor, Op. 19, for cello and piano
Carter Brey, cello
Prokofiev: "Romeo and Juliet Before Parting"
Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 6, Op. 82
(800) 444-1324

Dec. 9 (7:30 p.m.)
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, 1000 Blanton Ave. at the Carillon
Richmond Festival of Music:
Ian Howell, countertenor
Mary Boodell, traverse flute
Carsten Schmidt, harpsichord
Anne Timberlake, recorder
James Wilson, baroque cello
Handel: Trio Sonata in F major, Op. 2, No. 5
Handel: Violin Sonata in D major
Handel: Cantata, "Mi palpita il cor"
Handel: Cantata, "Quel fior che all'alba ride"
Handel: Recorder Sonata in D minor
Handel: German arias, "Süsse stille," "Flammende Rose"
(804) 519-2098

Dec. 9 (7 p.m.)
Dec. 10 (8 p.m.)
Dec. 11 (8 p.m.)
Dec. 12 (7 p.m.)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington
National Symphony Orchestra Pops
Marvin Hamlisch conducting
Christiane Noll & Mikaela Schneider, sopranos
Kristina Winiawski, cello
Niles Watson, flute
Karma Camp, choreographer
City Choir of Washington

"Happy Holidays!"
(800) 444-1324

Dec. 10 (7:30 p.m.)
Vlahcevic Concert Hall, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University, Park Avenue at Harrison Street, Richmond
VCU Music Department faculty and student performers
VCU Music Holday Gala
$10; proceeds benefit Hospital Hospitality House
(804) 828-6776

Dec. 10 (8 p.m.)
St. Bede Catholic Church, 3686 Ironbound Road, Williamsburg
Dec. 11 (8 p.m.)
Regent University Theater, Virginia Beach
Dec. 12 (2:30 p.m.)
Ferguson Arts Center, Christopher Newport University, Newport News
Virginia Symphony
JoAnn Falleta conducting
Handel: "Messiah"
Amy VanRoekel, soprano
Sarah Williams, mezzo-soprano
Jonathan Boyd, tenor
Lester Lynch, baritone

Virginia Symphony Chorus
Robert Shoup directing
(757) 892-6366

Dec. 10 (8 p.m.)
Paramount Theater, 215 E. Main St., Charlottesville
Virginia Glee Club
Christmas program
(434) 979-1333

Dec. 10 (7 p.m.)
Salem Civic Center, Boulevard Roanoke
Roanoke Symphony
David Stewart Wiley conducting
Roanoke Symphony Chorus
John Hugo directing
Jane Powell, vocalist
Roanoke College Children’s Choir
Kimberly Davidson directing
Salem Choral Society
Aaron Garber directing
"Holiday Pops Spectacular"
(540) 343-9127

Dec. 10 (8 p.m.)
Center for the Arts, George Mason University, Fairfax
Waverly Consort
"The Christmas Story"
(888) 945-2468 (

Dec. 11 (7 p.m.)
Chesterfield Towne Center, Huguenot Road at Midlothian Turnpike, Richmond
Dec. 12 (3 p.m.)
Virginia Center Commons, 10101 Brook Road, Glen Allen
Central Virginia Wind Symphony
Mike Goldberg directing
Vaughan Williams: "Flourish For Wind Band"
Stuart: "Three Ayers From Gloucester"
Erickson: "Air For Band"
Williams: "The Cowboys"
Anderson: "Sleigh Ride"
Anderson: "A Christmas Festival"
Christmas carol sing-along
(804) 342-8797

Dec. 11 (8 p.m.)
Center for the Arts, George Mason University, Fairfax
Synergy Brass Quintet
"Christmas in Brass"
(888) 945-2468 (

Dec. 11 (8 p.m.)
Dec. 12 (3 p.m.)
Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, MD
National Philharmonic
National Philharmonic Chorus
Stan Engebretson conducting
Handel: "Messiah"
Audrey Elizabeth Luna, soprano
Yvette Smith, mezzo-soprano
Don Bernardini, tenor
Christòpheren Nomura, baritone
(301) 581-5100

Dec. 12 (4 p.m.)
Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road, Richmond
Second Sunday South of the James:
Handel: "Messiah" (sing-along performance)
Karen Floyd Savage, soprano
Heather Jones, mezzo-soprano
Tracey Welborn, tenor
Colin Porter, bass
chamber orchestra, harpsichord & organ
Anne Carr Regan conducting
Donation requested
(804) 272-7514

Dec. 13 (7 p.m.)
Dec. 21 (7 p.m.)
Dec. 24 (1 p.m.)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington
Choral Arts Society of Washington
American Youth Philharmonic
Norman Scribner conducting
"The Treasured Holiday Tradition"
(800) 444-1324

Dec. 15 (7:30 p.m.)
Old Cabell Hall, University of Virginia, Charlottesville
Choirs of Jesus College, Cambridge
program TBA
$10; proceeds benefit Pacem
(434) 924-3376

Dec. 16 (7 p.m.)
Dec. 17 (8 p.m.)
Dec. 18 (8 p.m.)
Dec. 19 (1 p.m.)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington
National Symphony Orchestra
Rinaldo Alessandrini conducting
Handel: "Messiah"
Klara Ek, soprano
Alisa Kolosova, mezzo-soprano
Michele Angelini, tenor
John Martin Royo, bass-baritone
University of Maryland Concert Choir
Edward Maclary directing
(800) 444-1324

Dec. 16 (7:30 p.m.)
Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center, Washington
Anonymous 4
"Noël: Carols and Chants for Christmas"
(800) 444-1324

Dec. 17 (8 p.m.)
Harrison Opera House, 160 E. Virginia Beach Boulevard, Norfolk
Dec. 18 (8 p.m.)
Sandler Arts Center, 201 Market St., Virginia Beach
Virginia Symphony
Virginia Symphony Chorus
Robert Shoup conducting
Stephanie Joiner, soprano
David Krohn, baritone
Virginia Children’s Chorus
Holiday pops program
(757) 892-6366

Dec. 18 (3 and 8 p.m.)
Paramount Theater, 215 E. Main St., Charlottesville
Oratorio Society of Virginia
L. Thomas Vining directing
First Presbyterian Church Handbell Choir
Jeff LeDuc directing
Daniel Pinkham: "Christmas Cantata"
other works TBA
(434) 295-4385

Dec. 18 (8 p.m.)
Dec. 19 (4 p.m.)
Center for the Arts, George Mason University, Fairfax
Vienna Choir Boys
Christmas program
(888) 945-2468 (

Dec. 18 (1 p.m.)
Dec. 19 (7 p.m.)
Dec. 20 (7 p.m.)
Dec. 22 (7 p.m.)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington
The Washington Chorus
Julian Wachner directing
"A Candlelight Christmas"
(800) 444-1324

Dec. 18 (4 p.m.)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington
Choral Arts Society of Washington
Joseph Holt directing
Mary Hall Surface, playwright & director
"The Night Before Christmas"
(800) 444-1324

Dec. 18 (8 p.m.)
Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress, First and Independence streets SE, Washington
Dvořák: String Quintet in G major, Op. 77
Dan Visconti: "Black Bend"
Mozart: Divertimento in F major, K. 138
Piazzolla: three tangos
"Radiohead Remixed Project" (excerpts)
Free; tickets required
(703) 573-7328 (Ticketmaster)

Dec. 19 (3 and 7:30 p.m.)
Mansion at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, MD
Baltimore Consort
program TBA
(301) 581-5100

Dec. 20 (8 p.m.)
Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, MD
Cathedral Choral Society
J. Reilly Lewis directing
Maret School Concert Choir
James Erwin directing
Todd Fickley, organ
Washington Symphonic Brass
"The Joy of Christmas"
(301) 581-5100

Dec. 21 (7:30 p.m.)
Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, MD
The Washington Chorus
Julian Wachner directing
Select Vocal Ensemble, W.T. Woodson High School, Fairfax
Michael Ehrlich directing

"A Candlelight Christmas"
(301) 581-5100

Dec. 31 (8:30 p.m.)
Kennedy Center Concert Hall & Grand Foyer, Washington
National Symphony Orchestra members
Murry Sidlin conducting
"New Year’s Eve at the Kennedy Center"
(800) 444-1324

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

'Cultural untouchables'

Writing for The Guardian (UK), The New Yorker’s Alex Ross revives an old question: Why do so many people who appreciate modern art and architecture despise modern art-music?

His answer: "[M]odern composers have fallen victim to a
long-smouldering indifference that is intimately linked to classical music’s idolatrous relationship with the past" . . .

The Guardian’s Tom Service begs to differ, offering evidence that the classical audience has come to terms with modernism:

Seems to me that the correct answer hinges on performers: Audiences will tolerate, even enjoy, modern and contemporary music, and unfamiliar music in general, if it’s performed by soloists, chamber groups, conductors and orchestras whose artistry they already value.

’Twas ever thus, I'll bet.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Review: 'Così fan tutte'

Virginia Opera
Joseph Walsh conducting
Nov. 26, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

"Così fan tutte," last of the three great operatic collaborations of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte, is a comedy of manners, mores and mistaken identities. To pull it off, performers need an unerring sense of comic timing and gesture, and the ability to blend voices and instruments in tightly and subtly woven ensembles.

The Virginia Opera’s current production of "Così" gets it half right. Stage director Lillian Groag paces and garnishes the comedy very effectively; but, in the first of two Richmond performances, the slowish tempos set by conductor Joseph Walsh sapped much of the score of its vivacious energy, and the voices of six young singers too rarely combined agreeably in ensembles of more than two.

Soprano Jan Cornelius (Fiordiligi), mezzo-soprano Katharine Tier (Dorabella), tenor David Portillo (Ferrando), baritone Timothy Kuhn (Guglielmo), bass Todd Robinson (Don Alfonso) and soprano Camille Zamora (Despina) made fine work of some solo numbers – Portillo’s caressing treatment of the great love aria "Un’ aura amorosa," for example, or Zamora’s playfully wry rendition of "Di pasta simile."

In ensembles, however, none sounded much inclined to rein in tone or timbre to balance and complement other voices.

(Occasional raw tones and dropped notes suggested that several singers were suffering from the bronchial bug that had much of the audience coughing.)

The show delights the eye with a set (by Michael Yeargan) of elegant simplicity, as well as vivid costumes and sunny lighting (by Kenneth Steadman). Director Groag sprinkles every scene with broadly comic touches that enliven the show without bogging down its pace or interfering with characterization and interaction.

The orchestra, drawn from Hampton Roads’ Virginia Symphony, made fine work of Mozart’s score, especially his wind writing (oboist Sherie Lake-Aguirre was especially stellar), and played with more panache and sparkle than might have been expected, given the rather lumbering tempos.

The production repeats at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 28 at the Carpenter Theatre. Tickets: $29-$99. Details: (866) 673-7282;

Behind the furor

Teresa Annas of The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk) examines the artistry and personality of Peter Mark, the ousted maestro of the Virginia Opera:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Opera taps artistic advisor

The Virginia Opera has named Robin Thompson, former director of artistic administration at the New York City Opera, as its artistic advisor. Alan D. Albert, president-elect of the opera board, says Thompson will work with the company "for a limited time," Teresa Annas reports in The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk):

The Washington Post's Anne Midgette quotes a statement from Thompson, saying his role with the Virginia Opera will be "to offer a sense of stability to the casting and season planning process during the transition" following the dismissal of Peter Mark, the company's longtime artistic director:

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Having dismissed Peter Mark, its founding artistic director, a year and a half before his contract was to expire, the Virginia Opera has shortened the time frame for making some decisions that will profoundly affect its future.

Will it appoint a new artistic director who is expected to conduct most performances, or engage conductors production by production? Alan D. Albert, the opera board’s president-elect, has hinted that the company may take the latter course, as it already does with stage directors and designers.

Who, then, would cast the productions, and how?

Mark has been the selector, and has made a practice of auditioning and engaging young singers of high promise, as well as some artists who have built careers outside the Euro-American opera mainstream. Will that practice continue, and with one or several auditors? Would the conductors on a rotating roster cast his or her own shows, or would an administrative staffer or some other resident figure(s) take charge of casting?

Might a post-Mark Virginia Opera reconfigure itself as an ensemble company, with a roster of singers filling principal roles in all of a season’s productions? (Singers in the company’s existing resident-artists program already rotate through subsidiary roles.) Hiring a group of complementary voices for a season’s work could be logistically simpler, and could be an artistic plus in operas, such as Mozart’s, with many ensemble scenes. Versatility would be an issue: A fine Mozart singer may be a deficient Verdi singer, and vice versa. So would timing: Ensemble opera companies, in this country at least, tend to work intensively for shorter seasons (usually summers) rather than on fall-to-spring calendars.

Artistic directors generally select, or at least have dominant influence in selecting, directors, designers and other creative production staff. A company without an artistic director would have to apportion those hiring decisions – bearing in mind, one hopes, that the choices an opera company makes on production values are at least as important as its choices of voices.

The absence of a resident artistic chief could further empower stage directors. "Director's opera" (Regieoper, as the Europeans call it) has a very checkered history, some of which has played out at the Virginia Opera. I doubt that a steady diet of it would prove palatable to this company's patrons and audiences.

Companies with non-performing or infrequently performing artistic chiefs often partially fill that void with music directors, conductors who run the orchestra and maintain musical standards generally but don’t lead all productions. George Manahan plays such a role at the New York City Opera. That model, however, may be more suitable for companies that, like City Opera and the Washington National Opera, maintain their own orchestras. The Virginia Opera hires groups of musicians from the Virginia and Richmond symphonies.

All those questions coalesce into one: Who, singular or plural, will have the last word on artistic matters?

The answer to that one will in large part determine the answer to the other big question: How will the Virginia Opera restore its fiscal health? Its has been seriously stressed financially for several years, forcing it to cut its operating budget, reduce its performance schedule, recycle sets, cut staff and otherwise economize.

Opera companies are rarely flush – "the human mind has not yet conceived a way to spend money faster than sponsoring a season of opera," as Harold Schonberg remarked in "The Great Conductors" – and they have been especially hard hit in this economic downturn. Some big ones, with longer histories than the Virginia Opera’s, have gone under.

Whatever the future state of the economy, this and other regional companies still will have to cope with new competition: Movie-theater screenings of productions from the Metropolitan Opera and other first-tier houses; tickets for these shows are much cheaper than a good seat at a live performance. (This could be an over-hyped challenge, though. DVDs are generally cheaper, too, and they haven't killed live opera.)

Most of the money that sustains U.S. performing-arts troupes comes from fund-raising, which can be more difficult if the organization lacks a "face," an artistically authoritative, persuasive, ideally charismatic, figure who represents the company and its art form to the community. (Communities, in this case: The Virginia Opera performs and raises funds in Hampton Roads, Richmond and Northern Virginia.) Who will speak at club luncheons and public hearings, mingle and chat constructively at fund-raisers, interact with media, and so on?

Whether cutting the cost of an artistic director – Mark was paid about $185,000 in the Virginia Opera’s most recently disclosed accounting – would make an appreciable dent in expenditures, or whether as much or more would be parceled out to a roster of conductors, is one money consideration. Another is how the absence of a public artistic face would affect fund-raising, audience loyalty and other development and marketing issues.

Big questions, all of those – and especially challenging ones for a company that has looked to one man for artistic decision-making for its entire history. Having to pick one or more new decision-makers, sooner rather than later, compounds the challenge.

ADDENDUM: Virginia Opera CEO Gus Stuhlreyer says all options are on the table and will remain so for some time. The company’s deadline: May 31, 2012, when Mark’s contract would have expired.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Virginia Opera fires Peter Mark


Peter Mark’s 35-year tenure as artistic director of the Virginia Opera comes to an abrupt end, as the company announces his immediate termination, Teresa Annas reports in The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk):

The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette quotes Alan D. Albert, president-elect of the opera board, as saying the termination follows "violations of obligations arising under Peter Mark’s employment agreement and the Virginia Opera Association’s employment policies," which Albert declined to specify:

Midgette quotes a statement issued by Mark: "This termination is not justified either on moral or legal grounds – or by common sense. It is not in the best interests of Virginia Opera and its audiences. . . . If it is not promptly reversed then my attorneys will take the appropriate legal actions."

Mark was hired to run the Norfolk-based company in 1975, shortly after it was founded. He gave up non-artistic administrative duties after general director and CEO Paul A. "Gus" Stuhlreyer III was hired in 2003.

Mark’s firing follows a battle among opera board members that went public last month in a campaign, led by the company’s founding president, Edythe C. Harrison, to retain him. The board’s executive committee had already voted not to renew Mark's current contract, which was to expire at the end of the 2011-12 season.

In deciding not to renew the contract, the board’s leaders said the conductor had a "history of difficulties in working relations with staff, musicians and board leadership," an assertion that Mark denied.

A guest conductor will be brought in for January-February performances of "The Valkyrie" (a shortened version of Wagner’s "Die Walküre"), which Mark was to have led. Joseph Walsh, the company's associate artistic director, is leading the currently running production of Mozart’s "Così fan tutte" and will conduct Puccini’s "Madame Butterfly" in March and April.

Albert has said the company is considering engaging several conductors rather than hiring a single artistic director to replace Mark.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review: 'The Seasons Project'

Robert McDuffie, violin
Venice Baroque Orchestra
Nov. 15, University of Richmond

In recent years, instrumentalists inclined toward historically informed performance (HIP for short) of baroque music have produced a less thin, more robust sound, especially from fiddles, playing with greater expression, dynamism and spontaneity. These HIPsters haven’t discarded the rules on "authentic" performance practice devised in the 1960s and ’70s, but they have loosened some of the old constraints. They more freely employ vibrato, especially at slower tempos, and have become more flexible in phrasing and pacing, more attentive to emotional affect and representational effect, and altogether more vivid in their music-making.

Those tendencies came across thrillingly as violinist Robert McDuffie joined the period-instruments Venice Baroque Orchestra in an energized, expressively sizzling reading of Vivaldi’s "The Four Seasons." Their concert at the University of Richmond came in the final week of a month-long, 30-city tour of "The Seasons Project," in which the Vivaldi is paired with Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 2, subtitled "The American Four Seasons."

Vivaldi’s set of four violin concertos is among the most familiar of baroque works; frequent performances and airings of recordings have conditioned many listeners to hear the set, especially in its opening "Spring" Concerto, as decorous background music. That crowd must have gotten quite a shock hearing McDuffie and the Venetians pounce on accents, shift abruptly from loudness to quiet, play up representational and evocative sections (especially stormy ones) and paint with every tone color that fiddles can produce.

Their high energy, and the way they pushed against the limits of technique and expression, recalled the musicianship of "hot jazz" bands of the 1920s or the more intense bebop and post-bop jazz players. That jazz vibe was most pronounced in the interplay of McDuffie, cellist Daniele Bovo and lutenist Ivano Zanenghi.

The "hot baroque" of the Vivaldi didn't cool much in the Glass concerto, and that proved to be almost as stiff a jolt to some sensibilities.

Glass’ minimalist style – he prefers the description "music with repetitive structures" – tends to lock listeners onto one wavelength for a long time, sending some into a meditative or trance-like state, giving others a case of tedium-induced heebie-jeebies. This piece is characteristically "steady state" in rhythm and structure, but quite varied in dynamics, colors and sound textures – more eventful, at times even surprising, than one might expect from this composer.

Written for McDuffie and introduced last year, "The American Four Seasons" is in four movements; the season of each is left to the imagination. Glass writes that he and McDuffie hear different seasons in different places; he notes that "the mathematical possibilities, or permutations, of the puzzle are in the order of 24." For what it’s worth, I thought I heard
fall-winter-spring-summer, and thought I was experiencing the seasons in an urban setting, mostly in an overcast twilight or at night. (Vivaldi, by contrast, made his music mostly in daylight.)

The movements of the Glass concerto are connected by

solo-violin miniatures or detached cadenzas that echo the baroque (Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas sound to be the model). The orchestral writing is by no means quasi-baroque – some of it verges on the romantic – but it unexpectedly complements the style of the solos, in a kind of call-and-response between the early 18th and early 21st centuries.

McDuffie and the orchestra delivered an intensely concentrated, surging and nervy performance of the Glass, playing up the music’s cinematic colors and atmospherics, vividly upshifting as its energy levels accumulated.

The unbilled, easily overlooked co-star of the show was Camp Concert Hall. When UR converted the old Camp Theater into a music room in the construction of its Modlin Arts Center, the architects consulted members of the Shanghai Quartet (then in residence at the university) on acoustics. The result was a space that airs string sound with great presence, uncommon clarity and warm resonance; the acoustics and sound perspective are especially kind to period instruments. The room contributed almost as much as the musicians to the vividness and visceral impact of these performances.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Losing it

The Toronto Star's Cathal Kelly explores hard-to-understand episodes of string players forgetfully leaving their instruments in taxis and other public transport, likening the phenomenon to people mislaying their car keys:

I have a bad habit of leaving umbrellas under seats in concert halls; but I've never owned an umbrella that would cost thousands or millions to replace. So I still don't get it.

Preview of coming attraction

I avoid reviewing non-public events; but today’s recital by Richmond-born tenor William Ferguson and classical guitarist David Leisner at The Woman’s Club was in effect a preview of a full-length program that the duo will give here next month. What I heard at the invitational concert warrants an enthusiastic recommendation of their public recital on Dec. 5 in the Upper School Chapel of St. Christopher’s School.

I’ll post details in the December calendar.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Nov. 13, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

This month’s Richmond Symphony Masterworks concerts feature the last in a series of introductory performances of "Jefferson, In His Own Words" by Judith Shatin, a University of Virginia professor whose office overlooks the lawn and Rotunda designed by Thomas Jefferson. This 20-minute work is for orchestra with narrator, suggesting several similarities with Aaron Copland’s

"A Lincoln Portrait.”

In fact, it’s a very different kind of piece. The Jefferson texts selected by Shatin are not the great man’s greatest words, but passages from his letters and diaries, some intimate, some mundane (at least on the surface). More importantly, Shatin, unlike Copland, thoroughly integrates words and music.

In the work’s performances to date, the narrator has been a public speaker: the television journalist Bill Kurtis in the Illinois Symphony’s premiere last March, former Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles in subsequent performances by the Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra and again in these Richmond Symphony concerts. (They and the Virginia Symphony of Hampton Roads commissioned the work; it is dedicated to Gerald Morgan, a longtime patron of Richmond’s musicians.)

Baliles speaks with the Virginia cadence, in an accent we might imagine to be not unlike Jefferson’s. This score’s treatment of its texts, however, sounds to need a narrator with expertise in speech-song (Sprechstimme, in the parlance), able to use rhythm and inflection to connect fragmented phrases to the music around them. With a "straight" reader, words and music seem to interrupt rather than amplify each other.

Shatin’s large-scale, impressionistically colorful orchestration evokes misty Blue Ridge vistas in its quieter and more contemplative moments, but more often enlarges, with some turbulence, on the text’s suggestions of Jefferson’s inner emotional life. The portrait that Shatin paints is far from the usual picture of an enigmatic and cerebral man.

This performance by conductor Steven Smith and the Richmond Symphony played up the color and drama of Shatin’s score. Baliles’ straightforward reading inevitably sounded monochromatic in contrast.

In this program, the Shatin follows Copand’s "Fanfare for the Common Man," a sonorous and punchy exercise for the symphony’s brass and percussion musicians, and in turn is followed by two rarely heard romantic scores, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 2 in D minor and Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 in D major.

Neal Cary, the symphony’s principal cellist, played the Saint-Saëns with robust tone and high-romantic phrasing, to especially lyrical and loving effect in the andante sostenuto section concluding the concerto’s first movement. Cary, Smith and the orchestra nicely balanced the concerto’s romantic spirit and its almost Beethovenian classicism, rarely so neatly distilled.

Dvořák’s Sixth is the least played of his mature symphonies, probably because its treatment of classical structure tends toward the discursive. In its classicism and its warm string and brass tones, this is the most Brahmsian of the Dvořák symphonies; but in its tunes and rhythms, it is unmistakably Dvořák and idiomatically Czech. (Its scherzo may be the greatest of the composer’s Slavonic dances.)

Smith crafted a tonally luxuriant interpretation, with a gratifying balance of tautness and fluidity in its rhythms, deep lyricism in its adagio movement, energy and portent in its first movement and finale, and plenty of breathing room for solos, notably those of oboist Gustav Highstein, piccolo player Ann Choomack and French horn player Robert Johnson.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Carpenter Theatre. Tickets: $17-$72. Details: (800) 982-2787 (Ticketmaster);

Friday, November 12, 2010

Henryk Górecki (1933-2010)

Henryk Górecki, the Polish composer most widely known for his Third Symphony ("Symphony of Sorrowful Songs"), has died at the age of 76. He had been in poor health for several years.

The symphony, written in 1977 in remembrance of the Holocaust, was one of the works that marked Górecki's turn from avant-garde composition to a religiously influenced style that many likened to American minimalism. It was recorded in 1992 by conductor David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta with soprano Dawn Upshaw. The disc, on the Nonesuch label, ultimately sold more than 1 million copies.

A 1992 performance of the symphony by conductor Fred Cohen, the University of Richmond Orchestra and soprano Michelle Harman-Gulick was one of the first U.S. performances of the work.

An obituary by Maev Kennedy in The Guardian (UK):