Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Opera in the Park(s)

Virginia Opera will bring its Opera in the Park program to Richmond for the first time at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 31 at the Dogwood Dell amphitheater in Byrd Park.

In this free concert, Adam Turner, the company’s resident conductor, will lead members of the Richmond Symphony and the cast from Virginia Opera’s season-opening production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” in a program of favorites from the opera, including the “Toreador’s Song” from Bizet’s “Carmen,” “Ride of the Valkyries” from Wagner’s “Die Walküre” and “Summertime” from The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.”

Glenn Winters, longtime lecturer for Virginia Opera, will be master of ceremonies for the Dogwood Dell concert.

Those who pre-register for the event will be entered in a drawing for admission to the Wells Fargo Private Bank VIP Tent, with food and beverages, and other prizes. To register, call the Virginia Opera box office at (866) 673-7282 (10 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays) or visit

Turner, Winters and the “Falstaff” cast, joined by members of the Virginia Symphony, will present the same program at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 7 at Town Point Park in Norfolk. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 11 & 25, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

In their first season under the artistic direction of Stephen Schmidt, the Richmond Chamber Players’ summer Interlude series branched out in several new or unexpected directions – an all-Poulenc program, the first appearance in the series by an organist (Bon Air Presbyterian’s Stephen Henley), chamber music of Bruckner and Mahler.

The ensemble also offered continuity and rekindling of old friendships, with the premiere of the Piano Quartet of Allan Blank, the Richmond composer who has introduced a number of pieces in the series over the years, and with the return of Karen Johnson, the former Richmond Symphony concertmaster, now a violinist in the chamber orchestra of the U.S. Marine Band (“the President’s Own”).

Blank’s quartet, completed in 2008, is intended to “refresh the ear” constantly, positioning “many smaller [musical] units next to one another” to produce “sounds in unexpected ways,” the composer said in introducing the work, the finale of the Aug. 11 program.

The most immediate challenge in any chamber work for piano and strings is to prevent the piano from over-balancing the strings. That issue never really arises, thanks to Blank’s “small units” approach and tight (at times, dense) integration of parts – the piano never plays a truly dominant role. Its principal contributions are to enrich the color pallette (pretty substantially) and to undergird rhythmic passages.

On first hearing, Blank’s Piano Quartet often reminded me of the music of Bohuslav Martinů, the early 20th-century Czech composer who combined brilliant colors with motor rhythms. That combination is most evident in the fast second subject of the central movement, but also in the medium-fast first and third movements.

The third (and final) movement is the most audible evidence of Blank’s small-units construct, producing something like a sonic mosaic.

Johnson, also featured in the Aug. 11 program, played Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata in D minor, Op. 27, No. 3 (“Ballade”), for solo violin, and with pianist John Walter, Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” one of the best-known works by the contemporary Estonian composer.

The Ysaÿe, in addition to providing a showcase for the rich lyricism and sonic brilliance of Johnson’s violin technique, was an acknowledgment of the violinist’s pedagogic heritage: Her principal teacher, Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster William Preucil, was a student of a student of Ysaÿe.

Johnson and Walter nicely captured the chant-driven meditative moodiness and skeletal sound profile of the Pärt. The piece served as a useful ear-cleanser prior to the premiere of the Blank Piano Quartet.

Offsetting the contemporary second half of the Aug. 11 program was Brahms’ Horn Trio, Op. 40, given warmly autumnal treatment by French horn player James Ferree, violinist Catherine Cary and pianist Walter. Brisker tempos were needed, especially in the adagio, where the melodic thread seemed in danger of unraveling.

* * *

The Aug. 25 finale of this year’s Interlude series was titled “Famous Last Wor(k)s,” a cute play on words if not an entirely accurate description of the music presented.

Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, the composer’s last major work, certainly qualifies as famous. So, to a lesser degree, do at least a couple of pieces in Brahms’ Op. 119 set of Intermezzi and Rhapsody. Much less so Brahms’ Op. 122 chorale preludes on “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” (aka “Lo, how a Rose e’re Blooming”) and “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen” (“O World, I Now Must Leave Thee”), or the String Quartet in E minor of Gabriel Fauré.

The musical mix was engaging, at times challenging. The Fauré and Brahms pieces reflected the tendency of composers in old age to adopt a more austere and technically sophisticated musical language; and, especially with Brahms’ late piano music, to echo enthusiasms and passions of his youth.

The Fauré quartet, alas, is not one of the French composer’s better works. Much of it sounds like a patchwork of small figures put through predictable developments. Its final movement shows the influence of Ravel, but without Ravel’s inventiveness or lyrical sensibility. Violinists Catherine Cary and Suzy Yim, violist Stephen Schmidt and cellist Neal Cary played the piece with attention to detail and a good sense of forward momentum. Tempo was an issue: The first movement (allegro moderato) was not much faster than the andante that followed.

Pianist John Walter, who has often displayed his mastery of Brahms’ style and rhetorical qualities in these concerts, did so again in the Op. 119 pieces. Stephen Henley played up the tonal contrasts between the two chorale preludes on the Bon Air Presbyterian organ, which was refurbished in the spring.

For the Aug. 25 concert, the string ensemble moved back to where the church altar is normally placed. The relocation produced more “live” or resonant string sound, at the cost of some brittleness in upper-string sound. That didn’t have much negative effect on the Fauré (which is rather brittle-sounding anyway), but gave an unwelcome hard edge to louder passages of the Schubert.

Yim, Schmidt, the Carys and second cellist Ryan Lannan gave a stylish, if at times overly blunt, account of the Schubert. The harmonium effect created by second violin, viola and first cello brought unusually atmospheric depth to the great adagio.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 4, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

All-anybody programs – those devoted to music of a single composer – should be approached with caution, in my experience. Most composers have a style, tone of voice and bag of technical and expressive tricks that didn’t change radically over their creative lives; two hours’ exposure to that one voice, even in works with varied formats and performance configurations, all too often becomes monotonous.

Under the new management of violist Stephen Schmidt and his wife, Holly Rose Schmidt, the Richmond Chamber Players took that chance with a program devoted entirely to music of the French composer Francis Poulenc in the opening concert of the ensemble’s Interlude 2013 series. (This year marks the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death.)

Poulenc, actually, is a safer bet than most for all-in treatment. He was one of the most versatile composers of the 20th century – brilliant in theatrical music and song, cogent and craftsmanlike in more abstract forms – and one of the most appealing in the wit and playfulness that pervades his music. He had good taste in role models (Mozart and Stravinsky, mainly), and a classical sensibility that served as a brake on excess. Not much of Poulenc sounds to have been wrenched from the soul, and not much goes on for too long.

The Chamber Players’ program centered on Poulenc’s works for winds: the sonatas for flute (1956) and clarinet (1962), and the irresistible Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano, written in 1926 when the composer was a mainstay of Les Six, the up-and-comers of new music in Paris.

Added to this mix were the “Suite française” for cello and piano, a 1950s reworking of a 1935 piece for wind ensemble; “The Story of Babar the Little Elephant” (1940-46) for narrator with piano; and a sampling of Poulenc’s solo-piano music.

Carl B. Schmidt, a leading scholar and editor of the composer and his music (and father of Stephen Schmidt), narrated “Babar” and provided spoken introductions to the program. Sandrine Erdely-Sayo, a French pianist based in Philadelphia, accompanied the narrator, flutist Mary Boodell, clarinetist Jared L. Davis and cellist Neal Cary, and played the solo piano pieces. John Walter, the pianist who formerly led the Chamber Players, joined oboist Gustav Highstein and bassoonist Martin Gordon in the Trio.

Walter, Highstein and Gordon handled the Trio with refinement, balance and, most gratifyingly, the timing and expressive sensibility of gifted comedians. Erdely-Sayo played one of Poulenc’s last works, an improvisation in memory of the great chanteuse Edith Piaf, with an uncanny balance of witstfulness and solemnity, and stressed animation and color in “Three Pastorales,” one of the composer’s earliest works (and maybe the spikiest-sounding nature evocations I’ve ever heard).

Flutist Boodell and clarinetist Davis audibly savored the technical challenges and expressive opportunities of the sonatas; Cary coped sonorously and tunefully with the often low-riding cello part of the “Suite française.” Carl Schmidt was an avuncular storyteller in “Babar,” and informative without getting too deeply into scholarly weeds in his introductions.

The Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude 2013 series continues with concerts at 3 p.m. Aug. 11, 18 and 25 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road. Tickets: $20. Details: (804) 217-1705;