Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Whatcha got on? Your mind?

– Brother Dave Gardner

The comments component is operational. See "Cue the harp" (January archive) for an explanation of how comments will be addressed.

Potentially frequently asked questions, preemptively answered

Q: How will you decide which concerts to review?

A: The same way, I imagine, that you decide which concerts to attend.

That’s a change for me. When I was a newspaper critic, part of my job was to provide a running account of the artistic trajectory of the community’s leading musical institutions. Gavel-to-gavel coverage, so to speak. That is no longer my job.

I will skip many performances of warhorse repertory, including some by prominent and/or worthy artists. I’m sure to be told, "You should have heard it," to which my response is, "I have, repeatedly."

I will gravitate toward music that isn’t overplayed, to artists with distinctive interpretive styles or unique insights, to performances that promise to be special.

I will avoid overload. Attending three or four concerts a week is a great way to get sick of music. Attend no more than one or two a week, and each can be the singular experience that a live performance should be.

Q: How do I get publicity for my event?

A: Other than calendar listings, this space traffics in earned publicity. Do something noteworthy, or attractively novel.

Q: Will you cover jazz, folk and world music?

A: Occasionally, but the focus here is on classical music.

The Richmond Jazz Society posts news and calendars of jazz and jazz-related events throughout Virginia, at

Q: Will your list of recommended recordings migrate to this space?

A: Not the whole herd.

The recording and record-selling industries are in seismic flux. We read that CDs are on the way out, to be replaced by music downloads. This won’t happen suddenly – it took CDs the better part of a decade to displace LPs, and nearly 20 years before pre-recorded cassettes disappeared. However . . .

A new Martha Argerich-Riccardo Chailly recording (Schumann Piano Concerto and Fourth Symphony) is the first Decca Concerts "download-only album," Gramophone reports/enthuses. The ongoing Osmo Vänskä-Minnesota Orchestra Beethoven symphony cycle, issued on BIS discs, is now available from Internet download services; future installments will be released simultaneously in both media. Independently produced recordings, such as the Michael Tilson Thomas-San Francisco Symphony Mahler symphony cycle, seem likely to be issued as downloads (only?) in the future.

(John Kieser, general manager of the San Francisco Symphony, responds: "[W]e will always issue hard copies of our premier recordings as we think there will always be a market for discs. The sound (especially on SACD) is superior and multi-channel – which is not possible yet on downloads, the packaging has been designed to be a collectable and classical consumers have a low adoption rate of downloading music. That being said, the advantage of downloads is to be able to keep something in the catalogue without carrying physical inventory.")

(Another addendum: The Argerich-Chailly Schumann set circulates in the U.S. on DVD, Euroarts 2055498.)

We are, or soon will be, in a period when many CDs go out of circulation and their contents reappear, byte by byte, as downloads.

Classical record collectors don’t find many stores left worth browsing in, at least not for new recordings. Most collectors I know do their serious shopping online.

The best online retailer, for my money, is ArkivMusic – – which specializes in classics, organizes its site with collectors in mind and is competitive in pricing and shipping charges. The bargain hunter’s paradise is Berkshire Record Outlet – – which sells cutouts at deep discounts.

Instead of mega-listing, I plan to survey recordings of canonical repertory such as Beethoven or Brahms symphonies, or recordings that best profile a composer’s work (such as the discs recommended in "Master Z" – see January archive), or five or ten (or 15 or 20) recordings that hit the high points of a musical period such as the baroque or a genre such as the string quartet. I’ll keep these posted, updated as need be.

If only an exhaustive list will do, try The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs and DVDs. Updated annually, it covers virtually every work you’re likely to look for. The authors are British, and tilt noticeably toward British performers and fixtures of the UK concert scene. They also rate Toscanini and Karajan more highly than I do.

Q: What about the new plan for Richmond theater renovations?

A: Sigh.

I’ve written a lot about the proposed performing arts center in downtown Richmond, especially about proscenium theaters pressed into service as concert halls. Brief recap: Even the best sound enhancements yield acoustics that are markedly inferior to those of halls designed expressly for music.

That said, if the Carpenter Theater (formerly Carpenter Center) isn’t reopened in the next few years, the Richmond Symphony and the Virginia Opera's Richmond operation will hit the wall financially. (I'm surprised the opera hasn't already moved to the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville.)

So arts groups and their backers will go along. And we’ll see if they’ve learned a lesson about hitching artistic aspirations to civic-development interests and getting caught in political power plays.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Forward, into the past

Reading a blog is like reading an early 19th-century newspaper. Each item reflects the publisher’s point of view and is more or less identically displayed. One thing follows another, and halfway down the third column you learn the country is at war.

Templates, user options, etc., limit what the technically unsavvy blogger can do about the look of the page or the ordering of written matter. Initiates in HTML coding can do all sorts of tinkering; but I am not among the elect.

One way a non-geek blogger can enliven the proceedings is to write attention-getting headlines. "Lang Lang Has Lesbian Hair," for instance.

Clearly, this space has some growing to do in the frisky headline department. My inclination is to play it straight with news items and reviews, and save creative come-hithers for essays and commentary. Newspaper habits die hard. Some of them are good habits.


Given our outdated but lingering presumptions about where "sophisticated" audiences gather for classical music, it’s still considered noteworthy when noisy concertgoers disrupt big-ticket events in major cultural centers.

Shocking revelation: There are rude people in big cities.

(I can claim some expertise on disruptive behavior, having been expelled from nursery school for disrupting nap time. The teacher warned my mother I could become a juvenile delinquent. Instead, I became a journalist.)

Virginia audiences, in my experience, are polite but bronchial. The politeness comes from years of pretending to listen attentively to sermons in church and to people repeating themselves. The most ill-mannered thing people do is fail to finish conversations before the performance begins. If you start a concert in Virginia with soft music, you should assume that it will accompany snatches of half-whispered gossip.

Our bronchiality can be blamed partly on smokers (default culprits du jour, and this is still tobacco country). Mostly, though, the blame lies with a verdant environment in which allergens thrive and immune systems are jolted by sudden changes in temperature. Consequently, throat-clearing, coughing and sneezing are normal components of public discourse in these parts.

(In my radio days, I engineered a program by a Virginia lady who would succumb to the vapors at the very thought of being inconsiderate or disruptive. She routinely cleared her throat while the microphone was on. To me, under headphones, it sounded like a schoolteacher’s lecture with intermittent volcanic eruptions. It sounded perfectly normal to her. Listeners didn’t complain.)

There’s more to concert noisemaking than environment and mores. Slow, minor-key music generates phlegm. C minor impels its expulsion. I don’t believe that’s just a local phenomenon.

Bronchiality aside, people here seem loth to break the spell of somber music. (Church conditioning, again.) After a performance of Britten’s "War Requiem" a few years ago, the silence went on for so long the conductor finally turned and announced, "That’s all, folks."

I don’t count applauding between movements as disuptive behavior. I’m less put off by the applause than by the people who complain about the applause. It happens everywhere, and always has, so . . . chill.

I don’t know whether we have proportionally more or fewer people who take an agonizingly long time to unwrap cellophane from candy or neglect to turn off their electronic devices. They should be frog-marched from the room, but that will never happen. We’re too polite.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Master Z

Let us now praise Jan Dismas Zelenka. But let’s not misstate his case.

Zelenka (1679-1745), a Bohemian contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach, is heard today as an enticingly quirky voice in baroque music – a composer prone to lob little grenades of dissonance, disrupt rhythmic and harmonic continuity and otherwise knock off-kilter the musical conventions of his time. He has been described, hyperbolically, as the Charles Ives of the baroque.

The rebel persona feeds off the mystery of the man. No image of Zelenka survives. We know little of his life, other than that he spent his last 35 years in the musical establishment of the Saxon court in Dresden, playing bass fiddle in the orchestra and holding lesser directorships. He was most active as a composer of church music. His instrumental works made little impression in his lifetime, and remained virtually unknown until the 1970s.

Did Bach and Zelenka, church musicians living 60 miles apart in Leipzig and Dresden (but on either side of the Protestant-Catholic divide), know each other? Another mystery.

The perception of Zelenka as an odd duck is reinforced by his most frequently revived orchestral work, "Hipocondrie," perhaps the only piece of Western music addressing the subject of hypochondria. It sounds borderline-hallucinogenic to modern ears.

To ears of his time, Zelenka might not have sounded so weird.

Musicians of the 17th and 18th centuries considered affect (affectus) – strong emotion or state of mind conveyed through pitch, tempo, rhythm and dynamics – an essential attribute of music. Baroque emotionalism was stylized and typecast, brushing but not embracing the passions subsequently voiced in romantic and early modern music. "Buss und Reu," the alto aria from Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion," is an example of affective baroque composition at its zenith.

Affective music coexisted with, and borrowed techniques from, the atmospheric or illustrative works produced in quantity by composers of the time. The most familiar bits of baroque atmospherics, in Vivaldi’s "The Four Seasons," are fairly tame samples of the genre. The set lacks parts for winds and percussion, which were used to produce some of the most vivid sound effects (tempests, battles) in baroque music.

Zelenka’s most striking, and seemingly most "modern," music is his set of six trio sonatas, apparently dating from the early 1720s. In these sonatas, we find contrapuntal writing of a sophistication approaching Bach’s, but driven by a markedly different temperament. Zelenka’s minor-key music evokes the grinning skeleton of the danse macabre or Totentanz. His exuberance is more giddy than robust. His more emotive phrases sigh and swoon. A wicked sense of humor is always poised to strike.

Maybe we can’t help hearing Zelenka as Bach's kinky cousin. His oddities, though, were as likely products of artifice as they were expressions of an eccentric.

Zelenka on disc:

* Six trio sonatas – Heinz Holliger & Maurice Bourgue, oboes; Klaus Thunemann, bassoon; Thomas Zehetmair, violin; Christiane Jaccottet, harpsichord (ECM 1671/72, two discs).

* "Hipocondrie," other orchestral works – Das Neu-Eröffnete Orchester/Jürgen Sonnentheil (cpo 999897).

* "The Lamentations of Jeremiah" – Michael Chance, countertenor; John Mark Ainsley, tenor; Michael George, bass; Chandos Baroque Players (Helios 55106).

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The key instrument . . .

. . . is the room in which all the other instruments are played. Any experienced musician or concertgoer can attest to that, maybe adding a horror story about some room with especially bad acoustics. You might be astonished to learn how many times you’ve heard performers who couldn’t properly hear one another.

Once a hall is built, there’s only so much that can be done to improve its acoustics. Orchestra shells, sound baffles/ reflectors and amplification cannot alter the shape of an auditorium or the materials used in its construction. No enhancement will make a stone or masonry wall (with or without some added interior surface) reflect sound like a wall made of plaster or wood.

Musicians adjust to a sound environment in their articulation and phrasing, and in the quality and mass of tone they produce. In a room with a dull or diffuse acoustic, they try to compensate with brighter, more forward tone production. In a more reverberant space, they rein in instruments such as flute, trumpet and cymbals, whose high-frequency tones can leap out of an ensemble, and they try to bring more warmth to their playing to offset the sonic chill that typically comes with reverberance.

Concertgoers can affect a room’s acoustic, first by showing up or staying away – the more empty seats, the greater the resonance – and, when they do show up, by the clothes they wear. In the concourses around Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, you find rows of lockers for storage of coats. Minnesotans, by necessity, wear serious winter coats; if they brought them into concerts, that would seriously damphen the room’s acoustic.

The outerwear effect is less pronounced in the more temperate Mid-Atlantic, but you can still detect a difference in a hall’s acoustic in February compared with September or May.

Reasoning that every little bit helps, I try to wear a vest and hat instead of an overcoat when attending concerts in cold weather. If outerwear is a must, quilted jackets of synthetic fibers absorb less sound than wool, flannel or fur coats.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Virginia Opera 2007-08

The Virginia Opera will stage Tchaikovsky’s "Eugene Onegin," its first production of the work and its first Russian opera, next season. Also scheduled are Offenbach’s "The Tales of Hoffmann," Donizetti’s "Lucia di Lammermoor" and the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta "The Pirates of Penzance."

"The Tales of Hoffmann," starring the French soprano Manon Strauss Evrard and the Turkish bass Burak Bilgili and directed by Lillian Groag, runs Sept. 28-Oct. 7 (five performances) at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, Oct. 12 and 14 at the Center for the Arts, George Mason University, in Fairfax, and Oct. 19 and 21 at the Landmark Theater in Richmond.

"The Pirates of Penzance," directed by William Theisen with a cast to be announced, runs Nov. 9-18 in Norfolk, Nov. 23 and 25 in Richmond and Nov. 30 and Dec. 2 in Fairfax.

"Eugene Onegin," starring the Russian soprano Veronica Mitina and the American baritone Michael Todd Simpson and directed by Julia Pevzner, runs Feb. 8-17 in Norfolk, Feb. 22 and 24 in Fairfax and Feb. 29 and March 2 in Richmond.

"Lucia di Lammermoor," starring Evrard and the Spanish tenor Israel Lozano and directed by Dorothy Danner, runs March 28-April 6 in Norfolk, April 11 and 13 in Richmond and April 18 and 20 in Fairfax.

Peter Mark, the Virginia Opera’s artistic director, will conduct all but "Pirates," which will be led by Joseph Walsh, the company’s associate conductor.

Subscriptions are $99-$351 in Norfolk, $81-$297 in Richmond.

(866) 673-7282

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Cue the harp

After 36 years of newspaper work, I'm ascending to the blogosphere, now the most welcoming and flexible medium for substantive discussion of "niche" interests such as classical music.

If you’re reading this, I assume you enjoy, maybe even need, classical music. If you don't, thanks for dropping by, surf on.

About the name of the blog: "Letter V" (as in "Virginia," not the Roman numeral) is the nickname sometimes attached to Haydn's Symphony No. 88 in G major.

Here’s what I propose to do in this space:

I will post reviews of classical concerts and opera performances in the Richmond area and selected events elsewhere in Virginia and Washington. As a rule, they will be online by the morning after the event. Occasionally I'll review performances from more distant points, posting those as soon as I can.

I will post monthly calendars of classical performances in Virginia and Washington. Listings will include detailed program information, how to order tickets by phone or online and links to presenters’ websites. I'll also post scouting reports (recommendations and comments) on the month's events.

Having been a reporter as well as a critic, I will probably "commit journalism" in this space. Breaking news, however, is not this blog's primary mission. I'm a semi-retired guy, not a news organization, and I don’t plan to spend all my waking hours at this desk.

As a blogger, I’m free to rant – some say I’m obliged to, or the blog won’t be sufficiently "edgy." I’m told I should provide readers a way to rant back. I’m not keen on doing either. I’m especially not keen on getting into keyboards-at-10-paces duels with other bloggers and axe-grinders. Life's too short.

So here’s the deal: I’ll say my piece. If you’re moved to respond, e-mail me. If your comment informs or enlarges the discussion, I’ll post it, with my response when appropriate.

Thanks for reading. More soon.