Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Review: William Ferguson

Tenor William Ferguson & pianist Kenneth Merrill
March 26, University of Richmond

William Ferguson is a singing actor by trade. While he’s better than most theatrical singers in the quite different realm of art-song, he really thrives when there’s a character to portray. The Richmond-born tenor’s latest homecoming recital reinforced that perception.

Ferguson titled his program "Gods and Monsters." This collection of songs – one-half Schubert Lieder, one half American art-songs and hymns – came from the corner of the human psyche and creative spirit where prayer meets nightmare. The program turned some pretty sharp corners, from "Ave Maria" to "Erlkönig," from "Zion’s Walls" to "The Vatican Rag."

The singer’s most striking performances came in dialogues, such as Schubert’s "Der Tod und das Mädchen" ("Death and the Maiden"), "Der Zweig" ("The Dwarf") and "Erlkönig" and two pieces from Mason Bates’ settings of Kenneth Koch’s "Songs from the Plays," calling for vividly contrasting characterizations. Ferguson’s shadings of vocal color, volume and physical stance were quite effective in these pieces. He needs to work on his German, though.

Bates (a classmate of Ferguson’s, both at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond and the Juilliard School in New York) gives vent to wild theatricality in "This Dancing Man Was Once the Pope" and "When I Was a Young Woman," overlapping songs that weirdly picture Pope Pius XII and Israeli premier Golda Meir as ballroom dancing partners. Ferguson, who introduced Bates’ song cycle here in 2002, reprised this excerpt in wryly rollicking form.

He sang with dramatic intensity and palpably deep feeling in "Even Now . . .," Ned Rorem’s setting of Paul Monette’s poetry (from Rorem’s epic cycle "Evidence of Things Not Seen"), and in John Musto’s "Litany," a setting of Langston Hughes’ prayer for the downtrodden – more timely today than when Hughes composed it half a century ago. This pairing of songs was the program’s emotional and spiritual summit – arguably its musical summit, too.

Youthful earnestness got the better of real fervor in more overtly religious selections such as Schubert’s "Ellens Gesang III" (his version of "Ave Maria," via Walter Scott), the Negro spiritual "E’vry Time I Feel the Spirit," Aaron Copland’s settings of "Zion’s Walls" and "At the River" (from "Old American Songs") and "The Lord’s Prayer," sung as an encore.

Merrill, a veteran accompanist and conductor of voices, was a keenly responsive partner, and a technically polished and engagingly musical presence, throughout the program.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Paging Mel Brooks

"Two Polish skinheads fall in love in high school and later discover they're Jewish."
– Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, on two members of his flock (The Washington Post, March 26)

Review: Charles Staples

Pianist Charles Staples
March 25, Trinity United Methodist Church, Richmond

Charles Staples is a handy pianist to have around. When the Richmond Symphony wants to do a little Liszt, or the Richmond Philharmonic wants to do a little more Rachmaninoff, they call Staples. When musicians want a recital or rehearsal partner, they call Staples. And when he presents a recital of his own, it isn’t some platter of dainties but big, meaty slabs of repertory.

Staples first got my undivided attention 10 years ago, when he played Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 959. This late sample of Schubert at "heavenly length" can easily send the listener into a reverie of cozy unease, as if you were spending a long afternoon in a parlor full of great-aunts. Staples made it an engrossing monologue, tapping its deepest passions and using its overt and implied dance rhythms to keep it moving.

He makes much the same impression in the program he has prepared for a visit to Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall: Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor, Beethoven’s "Moonlight" Sonata and Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5.

In the first of two Richmond previews, Staples looked and sounded to be fueled by nervous energy – not a bad way to approach the Busoni Chaconne, whose blizzard of notes and surging dynamics require both nerve and energy to bring off.

His temperament settled, but his energy remained undiminished, in the Beethoven. The opening adagio was suitably nocturnal; Staples departed from the sostenuto (sustained) tempo marking for expressive purposes, but not to excess. His treatment of the presto finale again was nervy, but constructively so in music that needs to feel unrestrained.

Brahms’ youthful sonata (he was 20 when it was introduced) showcased Staples at his best, taking on a large musical essay and clarifying its long lines while voicing its widely varied moods. Although not technically flawless – there was some smudging in the densest passages, and the occasional dropped note – it was a robust, lyrical reading that rose to Brahms’ lofty rhetorical heights and conveyed the inner turbulence that propels this music.

Staples repeats the program at 8 p.m. March 26 at Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University, Park Avenue at Harrison Street, Richmond. Admission is free. Information: (804) 828-6776. He presents the same program at 5:30 p.m. March 31 at Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall in New York. Tickets: $20. Information: (212) 247-7800 or www.carnegiehall.org

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Review: Finckel & Han

Cellist David Finckel & pianist Wu Han
March 24, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond

David Finckel, cellist of the Emerson Quartet, and his wife and duo partner, pianist Wu Han, titled their program "The Unfolding of Music." It might better have been called "The Unmasking of the Cello."

The duo opened with Bach’s Sonata in G major, BWV 1027, and Beethoven’s Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69, works in which the keyboard is the leading voice – a dominent one when the keyboard is a Steinway in the hands of an assertive, temperamental musician such as Han.

The cello climbs to near-parity with the piano in Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70, and reaches it in Debussy’s Sonata and Britten’s Sonata in C major. In these works, the pianist reined in her tone sufficiently for the cello to be heard clearly.

Finckel is a cellist worth hearing. He's not flashy and doesn’t ooze with expressivity; he makes the instrument sing with unaffected sentiment, makes child’s play of the most ferocious technical challenges, and does so with utter clarity and dead-center pitch. He makes you wish Mozart had written solo cello music.

The two musicians were at their best in the quicktime give-and-take of the opening movement ("Dialogo") of the Britten and the off-kilter rhythms of the scherzo of the Beethoven sonata and the "Marcia" movement of the Britten sonata. (Britten wrote the sonata for Mstislav Rostropovich, who was Finckel’s teacher.)

The humor of Beethoven’s scherzo and much of the Debussy eluded them, but they made jocular work of the "Scherzo-pizzicato" finale of the Britten.

For an encore, they played the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata, hearts not on sleeve.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Symphony gets challenge grant

The Richmond Symphony has received a series of gifts, four collected into a $250,000 challenge grant to raise a matching sum in new ticket sales and new or increased contributions to the orchestra for its 50th anniversary.

The grant is financed by the Commonwealth of Virginia and three corporate donors – Wachovia Foundation, Philip Morris USA and Bank of America – working through the ArtsFund, a consortium that channels contributions from corporations and their employees to local arts groups.

The symphony also has received leadership gifts from the Community Foundation, Carpenter Foundation and other Richmond-based charitable foundations to support its operations while it performs in temporary venues. It has been without a home hall since 2004, when the Carpenter Center closed for renovation.

The downtown theater is projected to reopen in fall 2009 as part of the Richmond CenterStage development.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


My profile of Charles Staples, the Richmond pianist with a March 31 date at Carnegie Hall, is in print in Style Weekly and online at:

In the same issue, my review of Angela Hewitt's recording of Beethoven piano sonatas, online at:

Monday, March 19, 2007

Review: Richmond Festival (4)

Richmond Festival of Music
March 18, Virginia Holocaust Museum

James Wilson’s Richmond Festival of Music concluded its 2007 edition with works by Gideon Klein and Erwin Schulhoff, Czech Jewish composers who died in the Holocaust, alongside contemporary pieces recalling klezmer, the vernacular Jewish music of Eastern Europe.

The setting for the performances was one of the most striking the city has to offer: a replica of a baroque Lithuanian synagogue, built inside an old tobacco warehouse converted a few years ago into the Virginia Holocaust Museum.

Laura DeLuca, principal clarinetist of the Seattle Symphony, used the space most effectively in "T’Filat Nish Mati" ("My Soul’s Prayer"), an improvisatory soliloquy by the Israeli composer Ora Bat Chaim, which DeLuca played, unseen, from the balcony.

Betty Olivero’s "Four Yiddish Dances," from the Israeli-born composer’s score for the Paul Wegener’s 1920 silent film "Der Golem," featured DeLuca on clarinets, with violinists Frank Huang and Adela Peña, violist Mark Holloway and cellist Michelle Djokic. The string players buttressed DeLuca’s klezmer-style clarinet leads with accordion-like tones and swirling, high-register effects.

The program opened with "Lullaby and Doina" by Osvaldo Golijov, the Argentine-American composer celebrated for his blending of Jewish and gypsy music, tango and neoclassical styles. The piece, another adaptation of music originally for a film (Sally Potter’s "The Man Who Cried"), was propelled by darkly expressive exchanges between DeLuca and Peña and/or Holloway, the latter producing especially fibrous sonorities.

Those contemporary works bracketed Klein’s String Trio and Schulhoff’s Concertino for flute, viola and double-bass, which filter Czech and other Central European folk and vernacular song and dance through mainstream mid-20th century styles, echoing composers such as Janácek and Bartók.

Huang, Holloway and Djokic were tightly woven voices in the Klein trio, riding the exuberant, improvisatory sounding dance movements that open and close the work and exploiting both the virtuosic opportunities and moody expressiveness of a set of variations on a chorale tune in its central movement.

Flutist and piccolo player Mary Boodell, violist Holloway and double-bassist Fred Dole gave an animated, playful account of Schulhoff’s concertino, nicely contrasting its "oriental" harmonic effects within its generally neoclassical style. Holloway’s two-handed pizzicato in the closing rondino movement was a highlight of the performance.

* * *

Wilson, a popular cellist and chamber player during his 14 years in Richmond (10 of them in the Shanghai Quartet), has proven to be a master presenter in the three years he has staged this late-winter festival. This year's concerts, studded with musical discoveries such as the Klein and Schulhoff pieces and the previously unknown string-quintet arrangement of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata, and showcasing such formidable talents as Peña, the founding violinist of the Eroica Trio, and Djokic, associate principal cellist of the San Francisco Symphony, set a standard for programming and performance that few other classical events in these parts will come close to matching.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Review: Richmond Festival (3)

Richmond Festival of Music
March 15, Second Presbyterian Church

A string-quintet arrangement of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata was the wild card of “Vienna,” the Richmond Festival of Music’s third program. As wild cards will do, it trumped everything else in play.

The arrangement, author unknown, was published in 1832 by Simrock. Most such scores were intended for amateurs to play at home. This one requires about as much virtuosity as the original work for piano and violin, and the arranger apportions technical demands pretty evenly among the five players; there’s a great deal of give and take, ascending to real high-wire stuff at high speed and at high intensity. The piece almost certainly was meant for professionals and/or advanced students.

Violinists Adela Peña and Frank Huang, violist Mark Holloway and cellists Michelle Djokic and James Wilson made energetic, and finely nuanced, work of it, with special attention to making their voices complementary in the arrangement’s many exchanges and mid-phrase pass-offs.

The violins, especially the first, retain most of the brilliant bits from Beethoven’s original, which Peña and Huang clearly relished – as compensation, maybe, for all the arranger takes away from the violin and gives to viola or cello. Djokic was a strong presence in the many ornamental touches and key rhythmic role given to the first cello (which I take as hints that the mystery arranger was a cellist).

The Beethoven was preceded by the least often heard of Mozart’s flute quartets, the A major, K. 298, played with good humor and glossy polish by flutist Mary Boodell, Peña, Holloway and Djokic.

Wilson, clarinetist Laura DeLuca and pianist Carsten Schmidt played Brahms’ Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, with less dark moodiness than one normally hears in performances of this work. Wilson’s cello was the most overtly impassioned of the three instruments; DeLuca voiced her clarinet more straightforwardly, emphasizing its low-register sonority.

The program closed with the “Emperor” Waltz of Johann Strauss II in another arrangement – that of a not anonymous but not very intrusive Arnold Schoenberg. In this version for flute, clarinet, string quartet and piano, the first violin and piano are the essential melodic and rhythmic drivers, respectively; Peña and Schmidt led a fluent, cheerful account.

I’m reliably informed that the piano that has been used in these concerts is not a baby grand, as I said in previous reviews, but a somewhat larger Bösendorfer instrument, still several feet shy of concert-grand size. So, not a baby but not fully grown – an adolescent grand? In any case, Schmidt used it well.

The Richmond Festival of Music stages its final concert at 5 p.m. March 18 at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, 2000 E. Cary St. Tickets: $22. Information: (804) 519-2098 or www.richmondfestivalofmusic.org

A free Ear Project informance on Gideon Klein’s String Trio will be presented at 11 a.m. March 17 at the Richmond Public Library, First and Franklin streets.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Review: Richmond Festival (2)

Richmond Festival of Music
March 11, Second Presbyterian Church

How much constrast in musical style and expression can be packed into a two-hour recital? Quite a lot, James Wilson and four colleagues demonstrated in the second program of the Richmond Festival of Music.

Violinist Carmit Zori, violist Mark Holloway and cellist Wilson opened with a pleasant surprise: the String Trio in D by Sergei Taneyev. A composition pupil of Tchaikovsky and a highly regarded pianist, Taneyev sought "a compromise between Russian melos and Germanic contrapuntal writing," Nicolas Slonimsky writes in Baker’s. His trio echoes Schubert more it does any Russian model; it is tuneful and warm, but carries itself with gravitas. (Germanic counterpoint builds gravitas 12 ways.)

The three string players produced a big, round collective tone and dug into the counterpoint with unerring balance and with ears cocked for expressive opportunities. Zori, especially, was ready to the pounce on such opportunities, and found a perfect vehicle in the adagio, the most passionately "Russian" music in the piece.

Wendy Chen and Carsten Schmidt played four of six pieces from Rachmaninoff’s "Morceaux," Op. 11, for piano four-hands. There is more perfumed impressionism than high passion or big rhetoric in this music – at least until Rachmaninoff takes on the familiar Russian anthem "Slava" ("Glory"). Schmidt, the bass of the pair, reined in the heavy chords and maintained stready tempos; Chen coaxed an array of colors and sonorities from the baby grand.

Wilson opened the second half with Bright Sheng’s "Seven Tunes Heard in China," which the Chinese-American composer wrote for cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Sheng, in the manner of Bartók, collects folk and popular tunes and adapts and enlarges upon them in his compositions. This set calls upon the cellist to impersonate Chinese instruments, such as the two-stringed er hu and the ch’in, the Chinese zither, producing many slides, sound effects and percussive effects.

This keeps the cellist very busy, and Wilson seemed to thrive on the activity, especially on the varied plucking of "The Drunken Fisherman" and the locomotive-in-party-frock sound effects of "Diu Diu Dong."

The program closed on the more familiar turf of Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor, K. 478, played by Chen, Zori, Holloway and Wilson in what could be called New York Standard style – brisk and assertive, with an emphasis on tonal brilliance, and without much reference to "historically informed" performance practices.

The Richmond Festival of Music continues with concerts at 8 p.m. March 15 in the chapel of Second Presbyterian Church, 5 N. Fifth St., and 5 p.m. March 18 at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, 2000 E. Cary St. Tickets: $22. Information: (804) 519-2098 or www.richmondfestivalofmusic.org

A free Ear Project informance on Gideon Klein’s String Trio will be presented at 11 a.m. March 17 at the Richmond Public Library, First and Franklin streets.

Friday, March 9, 2007

'Just you and the music'

Why can't classical concerts be less formal and stuffy and more visually stimulating or theatrical? Soho the Dog (Matthew Guerrieri) explains:

"[T]he clothes and the etiquette and the distance of the performers aren't what's intimidating, it's that none of those things give any clear instruction as to what you're supposed to think of the experience. It ends up being just you and the music. And if you've spent your life having marketers and mass media telling you what to think, that freedom can be disquieting indeed. . . .

"[O]ne of the indispensible and vital pleasures of art music (classical and jazz . . . ) is the immersion in the sound on its own terms — not just rhythm and harmony, but the actual sound of the music. And a lot of the logistics of traditional classical performance — the uniform attire, the comparative silence of the audience, the lack of patter and superfluous stage business — have the salutary effect of not diverting your attention from that sound."

The post, "The Wrong Trousers," is a must-read for performers and presenters thinking of rug-concerteering or tarting up their presentation: http://sohothedog.blogspot.com/

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Review: Richmond Festival (1)

Richmond Festival of Music
March 8, Second Presbyterian Church

The first concert of James Wilson’s Richmond Festival of Music was a demonstration of how intimate, and how sweeping and virtuosic, chamber music can be.

On the intimate side: violinist Carmit Zori and pianist Carsten Schmidt in Dvořák’s “Four Romantic Pieces,” flutist Mary Boodell and pianist Wendy Chen in the Fantasie of Gabriel Fauré, and soprano Amanda Balestrieri with Schmidt in Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und -leben."

At higher amplitude and intensity level, Chen, Zori and cellist Wilson in Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C minor – which, in the Chapel of Second Presbyterian Church came across with the sonority and punch of an orchestral score.

Balestrieri, returning from previous appearances in this festival, proved to be an ideal voice for "Frauenliebe." Written in the first year of Schumann’s marriage to Clara Wieck, this set of eight songs needs a voice that’s womanly, but still driven by youthful wonder and ardor. Balestrieri had those qualities, plus focused pitch and idiomatic German. She might have taken better advantage of the intimacy of the space to produce the quieter, darker voice that some verses invite. Schmidt was an able accompanist, and richly Schumannesque in the set’s piano cameos.

Boodell, principal flutist of the Richmond Symphony, and Chen, a Leon Fleisher pupil with a thriving solo and chamber career, were slow to mesh in the Fauré – the slow introduction was out of sync and precariously balanced; but they found their groove in the body of the piece and produced a gratifying blend of warmth and insouciance.

Zori, an Israeli-born violinist active in New York chamber-music circles, played the Dvořák with throaty brilliance and high expressiveness, effectively producing a quartet of parlor melodramas. Her treatment proved especially attuned to the almost mournful larghetto that closes the set.

Chen, Zori and Wilson tore into the big, dramatic first movement of the Mendelssohn and never let up through the balance of the work. Taut as need be, richly emotive, playful and earnest when called for, it was an electrifying and engrossing experience – and a classic example of the concentration and immediacy that makes chamber music like no other kind.

The festival’s pianists are playing a baby grand that produces enough sound for the room but turns woolly in heavy chords and glassy and twangy at high volume. Proceed with caution.

The Richmond Festival of Music continues with concerts at 4 p.m. March 11 and 8 p.m. March 15 in the chapel of Second Presbyterian Church, 5 N. Fifth St., and 5 p.m. March 18 at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, 2000 E. Cary St. Tickets: $22. Information: (804) 519-2098 or www.richmondfestivalofmusic.org

Free "Ear Project" informances will feature Mendelssohn’s Trio in C minor, 11 a.m. March 10 at The Hermitage at Cedarfield, 2300 Cedarfield Parkway, and Gideon Klein’s String Trio, 11 a.m. March 17 at the Richmond Public Library, First and Franklin streets.

NEA grant to Richmond Philharmonic

The Richmond Philharmonic, the city's principal community orchestra, has received a $10,000 Challenge America grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The grant will support "Celebrating Spanish Culture Through Music" concerts, intended to increase knowledge of Spanish orchestral music and other cultural traditions.

Orchestra seasons

Aside from the returns of Jacques Houtmann and George Manahan and a re-creation of the 1957 opening-night program, the Richmond Symphony’s 50th anniversary season looks much like the others the orchestra has presented during its migratory years.

Since the closure of its downtown hall, the Carpenter Center, the symphony has staged most of its classical concerts in church sanctuaries. These spaces can physically and sonically accommodate an ensemble not much larger than the 65-piece Meinigen Orchestra that introduced Brahms’ Fourth Symphony in 1885.

That conductor Mark Russell Smith and the symphony musicians have overcome this constraint to do justice to larger, lusher orchestral music – the Bruckner Eighth and Sibelius Second symphonies, for example – usually with reduced string forces, testifies to their musicianship and moxie.

They are performing under a microscope, playing in 800-seat rooms (Meinigen-scale, again) at distances of 20 feet or less from most listeners. Such an in-your-face perspective makes miscues and lapses of ensemble and intonation glaringly obvious. I’ve heard remarkably little of that in the past three seasons. Mostly, I’ve heard alert, assertive musicians listening closely to one another and devoting extra care to balance and timbre.

In other words, I’ve heard Bruckner and Sibelius and Tchaikovsky and Wagner played as chamber music. Not many symphony-goers, outside of Cleveland in the Szell and Dohnányi eras, can make that claim.

These remarkable experiences, however, come at a price. The Richmond Symphony is struggling financially because its ticket revenue is diminished. It’s not for lack of butts in seats – the orchestra is playing to more people than it has in years, at least in classical subscription concerts. But the seat that cost $70 in the Carpenter Center now costs $35 in a suburban church. The orchestra set those prices to attract new customers, successfully, and to compensate for what it could not offer.

Large swathes of symphonic repertory are off-limits: No "Rites of Spring" or "Resurrections" for the duration. No piano concertos in the mainstage series, due to space constraints and the nightmare logistics of moving a grand piano in and out of some of these rooms. Even orchestrations with organ are problematical – two of the churches used for Masterworks concerts have pipe organs, but the third doesn’t.

Guest soloists are a luxury the orchestra can afford only occasionally, and big names are out of the question. Guests have included fine young artists, such as violinist Frank Huang, and principals of major orchestras, such as Chicago Symphony flutist Mathieu Dufour and Boston Symphony violinist Halden Martinson; but none has been a box-office draw. The orchestra has had to sell itself, and what it plays, rather than guest stars.

The symphony, in fact, made that choice long before it moved into churches. For the past 15 years, aside from a few galas, the Richmond Symphony has not engaged stellar, or even semi-stellar, soloists, because experience showed they didn't attract significantly larger audiences and because their fees are budget-busters. (The mounting deficits of many orchestras can be traced directly to the high, sometimes exorbitant, fees that celebrity soloists command.)

The best-known guest soloist of the coming season (other than Bugs Bunny) is Edgar Meyer, the double-bass virtuoso and composer, playing his own concerto for the instrument as well as the Second Concerto of Bottesini. The same May 2008 program features Richmond-bred Mason Bates, manning electronica (computer- and drum pad-generated sounds) in "Rusty Air in Carolina," a work he introduced in 2006 with the Winston-Salem Symphony.

Otherwise, for its 50th anniversary the symphony has hitched its wagon to the stars of its current and former conductors, and to repertory.

The highlight of Houtmann’s return will be Beethoven’s "Eroica" Symphony, which these days rarely gets the full-blown romantic treatment this conductor is likely to give it. Manahan will play to his strength in early 20th-century music, conducting Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Debussy’s "La Mer" and Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, with Karen Johnson, the symphony’s concertmaster, as soloist. (With that program, Manahan will need to draw on another of his strengths, using rehearsal time efficiently.)

Mark Russell Smith, the orchestra’s current music director, will revisit favored composers (Bruckner, Dvořák, Wagner, Brahms, Sibelius, Richard Strauss) in mainstage Masterworks concerts, and has devised some meaty programs of vocal and orchestral music for a four-part Bach Festival with the symphony’s core chamber orchestra.

Erin R. Freeman, in her first season as associate conductor and director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus, will prepare the chorus for Verdi’s Requiem and Bach’s "Christ lag im Todesbanden," as well as the usual Christmas fare, and has sprinkled some surprises ("Peter and the Werewolf?") in four Kicked Back Classics casual concerts.

The orchestra will return, briefly, to the city’s best space for music, Camp Concert Hall at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center, for its 50th anniversary gala, highlighted by Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with the pianist-composer Stephen Prutsman as soloist.

Details in the previous blog entry Richmond Symphony 2007-08 (March archive). Subscription information: (804) 788-1212.

* * *

Other orchestra seasons recently unveiled in the region:

* Marin Alsop’s first season at the helm of the Baltimore Symphony may be the most venturesome that an American orchestra will stage in 2007-08. Eleven contemporary composers – John Adams, Tan Dun, HK Gruber, Aaron Jay Kernis, Mark O’Connor, Steven Mackey, Christopher Rouse, James MacMillan, John Corigliano, Thomas Adès and Joan Tower – will be featured in major works. Mackey’s "Time Release" will receive its U.S. premiere; four other composers will conduct their music alongside their interpretations of Beethoven’s symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 (Adès), No. 2 (MacMillan), No. 7 (Adams) and No. 8 (Gruber). (Alsop will conduct Nos. 3, 5, 6 and 9.)

The new maestra also will sample 20th-century Americana, the rep for which she is most widely lauded: Gershwin (including "Rhapsody in Blue" as it was introduced by the Paul Whiteman Band), Copland ("Appalachian Spring"), Barber (the Piano Concerto with Garrick Ohlsson), Ellington ("Harlem") and Charlie Chaplin ("City Lights," with the film).

Other major repertory: Mahler’s Fifth, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth and Dvořák’s Sixth and Eighth symphonies and Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” all conducted by Alsop; and guests in Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” (former BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov), Schubert’s Ninth Symphony (Günther Herbig), Mendelssohn’s "Scottish" Symphony (Hans Graf) and Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony (Thomas Dausgaard).

Soloists include Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1), André Watts (Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2), Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Gershwin’s rhapsody and Concerto in F) and Barry Douglas (Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3).

Tickets may be hard to come by. The BSO is offering deeply discounted subscriptions, and there have been lots of takers.

Details: www.baltimoresymphony.org

* Leonard Slatkin’s final season as music director of Washington’s National Symphony boasts few real surprises. Highlights of his programs are a concert version of "Eugene Onegin" with Sergei Leiferkus in the title role, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (seemingly obligatory for music directors’ comings and goings), and some American music with which he has a history: Copland’s Third Symphony, David Del Tredici’s "Final Alice," Corigliano’s Symphony No. 2, Rouse’s Symphony No. 2. Slatkin’s farewell concert in June 2008 features Gershwin’s "An American in Paris" and Bloch’s "Schelomo" with Yo-Yo Ma as cello soloist.

Guest conductors include Vladimir Ashkenazy (Sibelius, Grieg), Manfred Honeck (Richard Strauss), Lorin Maazel (Fauré, Saint-Saëns), Hans Graf (Rachmaninoff) and Hugh Wolff (Debussy, Dutilleux). The orchestra’s principal guest conductor, Iván Fischer, leads Mahler’s "Resurrection" Symphony and an all-Beethoven program.

Heading the guest-soloist roster are Stephen Hough (Saint-Saëns’ "Egyptian" Piano Concerto), Midori (Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2), Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2), Thomas Hampson (Mahler’s "Kindertotenlieder"), Sarah Chang (Brahms’ Violin Concerto) and Hilary Hahn (Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1).

Details: http://kennedy-center.org/programs/newseason/#NCL

* The Virginia Symphony, which performs in Norfolk, Newport News and elsewhere in Hampton Roads, bases its 2007-08 season – as it does most seasons – in comfort-food rep, celebrity guest stars and the cachet of its music director, JoAnn Falletta, who is featured in the March issue of Gramophone.

The celebs are Joshua Bell (Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1), Christopher O’Riley (Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G), the Eroica Trio (Beethoven’s Triple Concerto) and James Galway (Corigliano’s "Pied Piper" Fantasy and a Mozart potpourri).

The comfort food includes Tchaikovsky’s "Pathètique" Symphony and "1812 Overture,” Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony and “Paganini Rhapsody,” Ravel’s “Bolero,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio espagnol” and the Mendelssohn violin and Dvořák cello concertos – fortified by Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, Ravel’s “La Valse,” Shostakovich’s First Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s "The Bells" and John Adams’ Violin Concerto.

The orchestra’s Newport News venue, the Ferguson Center at Christopher Newport University, is much more accessible from points west and north than Chrysler Hall in Norfolk. (Bell and the Eroica Trio perform only in Norfolk.)

Details: www.virginiasymphony.org

Wednesday, March 7, 2007


My profile of cellist James Wilson and his Richmond Festival of Music, March 8-18 (see March 2007 Calendar for details), is in print in Style Weekly, and online at:

Monday, March 5, 2007

Richmond Symphony 2007-08

Two of the Richmond Symphony’s past music directors, Jacques Houtmann and George Manahan, will return as guest conductors in the 2007-08 season, the orchestra’s 50th. The symphony’s founding conductor, the late Edgar Schenkman, will be remembered in a re-creation of the inaugural program he led in 1957.

Mark Russell Smith, the symphony’s fourth and current music director, will conduct the 50th anniversary gala on Oct. 26, a program including Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with Stephen Prutsman as soloist (Mieczyslaw Horszowski played the work in 1957), and the "Scottish" Symphony by Mendelssohn.

Karen Johnson, the orchestra’s concertmaster, will continue her string of performances of concertos by 20th-century Russian composers, playing Stravinsky's Violin Concerto with Manahan conducting. Johnson also will play Bach with teenaged violinist Madison Vest.

Other guest soloists include double-bassist Edgar Meyer in concertos by Bottesini and himself, trumpeter David Bilger in Alexander Arutiunian’s Trumpet Concerto, and the Curtis Opera Ensemble from Smith’s alma mater, Curtis Institute of Music, in Bach’s "Wedding" Cantata and Act 4 of Mozart’s "The Marriage of Figaro."

Major orchestral repertory for the season includes Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, Brahms’ First Symphony, Sibelius’ First Symphony, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and Richard Strauss’ "Don Juan" and "Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks," all conducted by Smith; Beethoven’s "Eroica" Symphony, conducted by Houtmann; and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Debussy’s "La Mer," conducted by Manahan.

Erin R. Freeman, the symphony’s associate conductor, will mark her first season as director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus with performances of Bach’s Cantata 4 ("Christ lag im Todesbanden"), Handel’s "Messiah," Verdi’s Requiem and various shorter choral works. She also will take over the Kicked Back Classics casual concerts and the Symphony Pops series, as well as conducting one of four programs in a Bach Festival with the symphony's core chamber orchestra.

Two former Richmonders – both graduates of St. Christopher’s School who subsequently studied at the Juilliard School – will return for the symphony anniversary: Composer and electronica artist Mason Bates with his tone poem "Rusty Air in Carolina," and tenor William Ferguson in "Messiah."

The Symphony Pops series will feature two Richmond-based groups: Page Wilson & Reckless Abandon in folk and acoustic music, and Doug Richards' Great American Music Ensemble (GAME) in a big-band jazz program.

The Richmond Symphony’s 2007-08 dates, artists and programs:

8 p.m. Fridays at Second Baptist Church, 8 p.m. Saturdays at First Baptist Church, 8 p.m. Mondays at St. Michael Catholic Church.
Subscriptions: $80-$252 (Second Baptist); $80-$360 (First Baptist); $80-$202 (St. Michael).

Sept. 14, 15, 17 – Mark Russell Smith conducting. Richard Strauss: "Don Juan;" Alexander Arutiunian: Trumpet Concerto (David Bilger, trumpet); Dvořák: Symphony No. 7.

Oct. 12, 13, 15 – Mark Russell Smith conducting. Sibelius: Symphony No. 1; Wagner: Act 1 Prelude from "Lohengrin," "Forest Murmurs" from "Siegfried," "Siegfried’s Rhine Journey" from Götterdämmerung," excerpts from Act 3 of "Die Meistersinger."

Nov. 16, 17, 19 – Jacques Houtmann conducting. Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"); Ravel: "Le Tombeau de Couperin;" Mozart: "Cosí fan tutte" Overture.

Jan. 18, 19, 21 – Mark Russell Smith conducting. Bruckner: Symphony No. 9; Schubert: Symphony No. 8 ("Unfinished"); Mozart: German dances.

Feb. 22, 23, 25 – Mark Russell Smith conducting. Prokofiev: "Romeo and Juliet" (excerpts); Richard Strauss: "Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks;" Ravel: "Mother Goose" Suite.

March 14, 15, 17 – Mark Russell Smith conducting. Verdi: Requiem (Soloists TBA, Richmond Symphony Chorus, Erin R. Freeman directing).

April 25, 26, 28 – George Manahan conducting. Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra; Stravinsky: Violin Concerto (Karen Johnson, violin); Debussy: "La Mer."

May 16, 17, 19 – Mark Russell Smith conducting. Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Bates: "Rusty Air in Carolina" (Mason Bates, electronica); Bottesini: Double-bass Concerto No. 2 (Edgar Meyer, double-bass); Meyer: Double-bass Concerto (Meyer, double-bass).

8 p.m. Fridays at Bon Air Baptist Church, 3 p.m. Sundays at Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

Oct. 19, 21 – Mark Russell Smith conducting. J.S. Bach: Cantata 202 ("Wedding") (Curtis Opera Ensemble); Mozart: Act IV from "The Marriage of Figaro" (excerpts) (Curtis Opera Ensemble); Grieg: "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen."

Nov. 9 – Mark Russell Smith conducting. J.S. Bach: "Brandenburg" Concerto No. 3, Ricercare from "A Musical Offering;" Stravinsky: "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto; Richard Strauss: "Le bourgeois gentilhomme" Suite.

Feb. 29, March 2 – Erin R. Freeman conducting. J.S. Bach: Cantata 4 ("Christ lag im Todesbanden") (Soloist TBA, Richmond Symphony Chorus); J.C. Bach: Sinfonia No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 2; Arvo Pärt: "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten;" Haydn: Symphony No. 101 ("Clock").

May 9, 11 – Mark Russell Smith conducting. J.S. Bach: Concerto for two violins (Karen Johnson & Madison Vest, violins); J.S. Bach: Suite No. 3; Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1; Villa-Lobos: "Bachianas Brasilieras" No. 9.

5 p.m. Sundays at Thalhimer Pavilion, Science Museum of Virginia

Oct. 7 – Erin R. Freeman conducting. Falla: "Ritual Fire Dance" from "El amor brujo;" Vivaldi: "Winter" (excerpt) from "The Four Seasons;" Gershwin: Lullaby; Elgar: "Chanson de Matin;" Biber: "Battalia;" Chris Theophanidis: "Peace, Love, Light, YOUMEONE;" Haydn: "Chaos" from "The Creation," Symphony No. 45 ("Farewell") (excerpt).

Nov. 4 – Erin R. Freeman conducting. Ravel: "Beauty and the Beast" from "Mother Goose" Suite; Prokofiev-Tobin: "Peter and the Werewolf;" Beethoven: "The Creatures of Prometheus" Overture; Gluck: "Dance of the Furies" from "Orfeo & Eurydice;" Rimsky-Korsakov: "Flight of the Bumblebee."

Feb. 27 – Erin R. Freeman conducting. Mozart: "The Marriage of Figaro" Overture; Diamind: "Romeo and Juliet;" Glinka: "Kamarinskaya;" Massenet: "Méditation" from "Thaïs;" Reznicek: "Donna Diana" Overture; Wagner: "Bridal Chorus" from "Lohengrin" (men of Richmond Symphony Chorus); tavern songs (men of Richmond Symphony Chorus).

May 4 – Erin R. Freeman conducting. Mozart: Symphony No. 39 (excerpt); Bartók: "Romanian Folk Dances;" Johann Strauss II: "Pizzicato Polka;" Copland: "Hoedown" from "Rodeo;" Tchaikovsky: Serenade for strings (excerpt); Debussy: "Danses sacrée et profane;" Still: "Panamanian Dances" (excerpt); Piazzolla: "Cantengue;" Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 (excerpt).

8 p.m. Saturdays at Landmark Theater

Sept. 29 – Mark Russell Smith conducting, with Page Wilson & Reckless Abandon, in "Out o’ the Blue Orchestral Revue."

Oct. 27 – Erin R. Freeman conducting. "50 Years of Pops," including Bernstein’s "West Side Story" Symphonic Dances.

Dec. 8 – Erin R. Freeman conducting. "Let It Snow" holiday program with Richmond Symphony Chorus, others TBA.

Jan. 12 – Great American Music Ensemble, Doug Richards directing, in big-band jazz.


Oct. 26 (8 p.m., Camp Concert Hall, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond) – Mark Russell Smith conducting, in re-creation of Richmond Symphony’s 1957 inaugural concert. Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 ("Scottish"); Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 (Stephen Prutsman, piano); Frescobaldi-Kindler: Toccata; Glinka: "Russlan and Ludmilla" Overture.

Nov. 30 (8 p.m., Second Baptist Church), Dec. 3 (8 p.m., St. Michael Catholic Church) – Erin R. Freeman conducting. Handel: "Messiah" (Jennifer Ellis Kampani, soprano; Tracy Watson, mezzo-soprano; William Ferguson, tenor; Sumner Thompson, baritone; Richmond Symphony Chorus).

May 3 (8 p.m., Landmark Theater) – George Daugherty conducting. "Bugs Bunny on Broadway," Looney Tunes animations with symphonic and opera themes.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Freeman to lead Symphony Chorus

Erin R. Freeman, currently the Richmond Symphony's assistant conductor, will succeed James Erb as director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus next season. She also will succeed Sarah Hatsuko Hicks as the orchestra's associate conductor.

Erb is retiring as director of the chorus, which he founded in 1971. Hicks is leaving after two seasons as the symphony's No. 2 conductor. She was named associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra last fall, and is one of seven finalists for the music directorship of the (Columbia) South Carolina Philharmonic.

Freeman joined the symphony this season after serving as music director of the Richmond Philharmonic (2004-2006). She sang in the Atlanta Symphony Chorus under Robert Shaw, and studied vocal performance at Northwestern University and conducting at Peabody Conservatory.

Michael Simpson, the chorus' accompanist, also will serve as its assistant director, substituting for Freeman when she has commitments with the orchestra.

Freeman was selected by Richmond Symphony Music Director Mark Russell Smith and a search committee including Erb and three members of the Symphony Chorus, Duke Gosnell, Laura C. Miles and Christine Smith.