Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Richmond Philharmonic's new conductor and season

Robert Mirakian, a Chicago-based conductor, has been named the new music director of the Richmond Philharmonic, the city's principal community orchestra.

A Connecticut native and graduate of Indiana University, the University of Illinois and Dartmouth College, Mirakian this summer became general manager and conductor of the Janiec Opera Company at the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina.

He will lead the philharmonic in four concerts at J.R. Tucker High School auditorium, 2910 Parham Road in Henrico County, and a holiday program at the James Center, Ninth and Cary streets in downtown Richmond:

* Oct. 28 (4 p.m., J.R. Tucker) – Sibelius: "Finlandia"; Weber: Clarinet Concerto No. 1 (Michael Goldberg, clarinet); Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"). (Pre-concert talk at 3 p.m.)

* Dec. 3 (7 p.m., James Center) – "Home for the Holidays."

* March 9 (4 p.m., J.R. Tucker) – Fauré: "Pelléas et Mélisande"; Barber: "Knoxville, Summer of 1915" (Lisa Edwards-Burrs, soprano); Mussorgsky-Ravel: "Pictures at an Exhibition." (Pre-concert talk at 3 p.m.)

* May 4 (4 p.m., J.R. Tucker) – Rossini: "L'Italiana in Algeri" Overture; Richard Strauss: Horn Concerto No. 1 (Melissa Musulin, French horn); Rimsky-Korsakov: "Scheherazade." (Pre-concert talk at 3 p.m.)

* June 16 (time TBA, J.R. Tucker) – "Everday Classics" pops concert, with Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture."

Admission is by donation ($5 per person, $10 per family suggested).

Information: (804) 673-7400.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Falletta reups in Norfolk

JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Norfolk-based Virginia Symphony since 1991, has renewed her contract with the orchestra through 2011.

Falletta also is music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, a well-traveled guest conductor and a classical guitarist.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Review: Trio la Milpa

Aug. 22, Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Richmond

The oboists of the Baltimore Symphony, who perform in a chamber trio named after a Mexican restaurant in South Richmond, just returned from a tour of Greenland.

For a full explanation, which I would want if I were you, follow this link:

Katherine Needleman, Michael Lisicky and Sandra Gerster Lisicky made their debut as Trio la Milpa four years ago in the August Musicales series at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church; so this concert was a return to the ensemble’s roots. Also a reunion, as many of their former colleagues in the Richmond Symphony were in the audience.

The oboe trio – usually, two oboes and an English horn – occupies a pretty obscure corner of chamber music. The nearest to "standard" repertory for this instrumentation is a pair of pieces written in 1795 by the 25-year-old Beethoven, the Trio in C major, Op. 87, and a set of variations on "La ci darem la mano," the aria from Mozart’s "Don Giovanni."

In this program, the "La ci darem" variations followed two arrangements, Needleman’s of the Concerto in G minor by Handel and David Bussick’s of Bartók’s piano suite "Nine Old Dance Tunes from ‘Tizenot magyar parasztdal’," and the Danish composer Jan Koetsier’s Variations and Fugue on "Buss und Reu," the great alto aria from Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion." An arrangement of "Song of the Greenland Whale Fisheries," prepared by Michael Lisicky for the tour, was played as an encore.

Those selections revealed both the attributes of and challenges to this instrumental configuration. These high winds – the vocal equivalent would be two sopranos and a tenor – sound with great clarity and a prismatic quality in combination. Expressively, they are at their best in a bittersweet melody, which Beethoven and Koetsier recognized in the tunes they selected for their variations. The Koetsier set is arguably the tougher of the two, because these bright instrumental voices essay a darkly brooding tune.

Michael Lisicky’s richly soulful – and unusually bassy – English horn carried the expressive and coloristic weight of the "Buss und Reu" variations, and contributed robust bass lines to the Beethoven and Bartók. The crisp and complementary voices of Needleman and Sandra Lisicky were best displayed in the Bartók, with its extroverted dance rhythms and blizzards of short notes. Bussick’s arrangement combines oboe tones into a remarkably true echo of the Magyar bagpipe often employed in Hungarian folk dances.

Needleman’s Handel arrangement is about as close to orchestral as it could be, scored for oboe, oboe d’amore (played by Sandra Lisicky) and English horn – i.e., soprano, alto and tenor voices. Apparently, it’s the first of a series: Needleman is now at work on a suite from Handel’s "Water Music," and Michael Lisicky presumably is figuring out how to make an English horn impersonate a French horn. (He’s more than halfway there, judging by his work in the Koetsier-Bach variations.)

The group’s sparkling musicianship came with a side order of Greenland travelogue. The audience learned that the territory is three times the size of Texas but populated by only 56,000. Trio la Milpa knew beforehand that the native language, Inupik, doesn’t have a word for oboe. (The term for "birdsong" suffices.) Once on the ground (or ice, which covers 80 percent of the territory), the oboists found they weren’t the first visitors to have to make linguistic adjustments. A Danish missionary, translating the Lord’s Prayer, found that Inupik has no word for "bread." So in Greenland they pray, "Give us this day our daily seal."

The August Musicales series concludes with pianist Paul Hanson at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 29 at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, 1627 Monument Ave. Donation requested. Information: (804) 359-2463.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 19, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

Here’s a good threshold test of cultural sophistication: Does your town have musicians capable of playing, and an audience capable of absorbing, Olivier Messiaen’s "Quartet for the End of Time?"

The quartet, introduced by Messiaen and fellow prisoners of war in a German internment camp in 1941, stands alongside Igor Stravinsky’s "The Rite of Spring" among the epochal works of 20th-century music, observed John Walter, the pianist and director of the Richmond Chamber Players, before he performed the work with clarinetist David Niethamer, violinist Catherine Cary and cellist Neal Cary.

Nearly a lifetime after its composition, the piece still presents great demands on performers and listeners. It is long and technically challenging, veering between the visceral and the ethereal in expression, with long stretches of musical sound in a seeming state of suspension. Although a story line – the Apocalypse as recounted in the Revelation of St. John – offers some clarification of its sonic mysteries, Messiaen's work is much more mystical contemplation than sonic dramatization.

This ensemble’s account of the quartet was measured and straightforward, emphasizing its rarified tonality and extremes of instrumental register and expression. Walter was especially vivid in the "blocks of purple fury" (Messiaen’s words) representing the angelic announcement of the end of time; Niethamer and the Carys were more engaged in the subtleties of tone production and phrasing of their parts. The audience took it in with much the same "rapt silence" that Messiaen noted after the premiere.

The Messiaen was preceded by another major chamber work of the mid-20th century, Béla Bartók’s "Contrasts," written in 1938 for violinist Joseph Szigeti and clarinetist Benny Goodman, and one of the earliest works of the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, "Impresiones de la Puna" (1934).

Pianist Walter, clarinetist Niethamer and violinist Susy Yim smoothed the angularity of Bartók’s phrases and deadpanned much of his humor in the opening "Recruiting Dance," and sounded more languid than relaxed in "Relaxation." The fiery exchanges between violin and clarinet, and a brilliant violin cadenza by Yim, in the concluding "Fast Dance" highlighted the performance.

Boodell and the string players made cheerful, colorful work of the Ginastera.

The Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude series concludes with a program of Roussel, Stravinsky and Bartók at 3 p.m. Aug. 26 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road. Tickets: $16. Information: (804) 340-1405 (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts events desk).

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Happy birthday (P.S., R.I.P.)

The compact disc was introduced 25 years ago. The format is now fading, with new digital media widely predicted to render silver discs commercially obsolete within a few years.

Assuming that CDs cease to be the dominant platform for recorded music by, say, 2010, how will this format compare with its predecessors in marketplace longevity?

The original recordings were wax cylinders, invented by Thomas Edison in 1876. Edison continued to manufacture cylinders into the second decade of the 20th century; but when Emile Berliner introduced the gramophone record in 1895, cylinders were doomed.

The gramophone record – rotation speed soon settled on 78 revolutions per minute – was the prevalent format from c. 1900 until the introduction of vinyl records (45-rpm singles and 33 1/3-rpm long-playing albums) in 1948.

Magnetic tape recordings were developed in Germany in the 1930s, but tape was not employed as a home-playback format until the ’50s. Record companies did marginal trade in pre-recorded open-reel tapes and generated higher sales of 4-track and 8-track tape cartridges in the early ’60s; but tapes really hit the mass market with the introduction of the cassette in 1963.

Vinyl records and pre-recorded tapes shared market dominance through the early ’80s. Vinyl quickly faded after CDs began to circulate in quantity, c. 1985. Cassettes continued to be marketed, in gradually declining numbers, until the first years of this century.

[Major proviso to head off outpouring of outraged-reader comments: Every "obsolete" format continued to be made and enjoyed long after its supposed demise. New vinyl continues to be pressed. You can even buy a new turntable that plays 78s.]

Proviso notwithstanding, the commercial reigns of successive recording formats look roughly like this:
* Cylinder recordings – 1876-1900 (24 years).
* Gramophone records – 1895-1950 (55 years).
* Vinyl records – 1948-1985 (37 years).
* Cassettes – 1963-2000 (37 years).
* Compact discs – 1982-2010 (28 years).

Those numbers suggest that the next dominant format (mp3 or whatever) will prevail for about a generation – unless we’ve lurched into permanent technological hyperdrive, in which case no format will last more than a few years, and households and landfills will be littered with digital-age equivalents to the Victrola.

For durability, the grooved disc still rules. Records can be played even in seriously defective condition. Not so worn or damaged cassettes or CDs or corrupted software.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


My profile of Trio la Milpa, the oboe ensemble performing Aug. 22 in Richmond, is in print in Style Weekly, online at:

Monday, August 6, 2007

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

with tenor Tracey Welborn
Aug. 5, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

Some musicologists and cultural historians suggest that much of what went wrong with modern Europe could be traced to 19th-century romanticism, with its cult of the individual and its celebration of largely fatalistic emotion. Whatever this notion’s merits on the historical grand scale (Wagner + Nietzsche = Hitler?), moderns certainly seem to have inherited their emotional fragility from the romantics.

Consider the precarious love triangle of Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, which produced a great deal of sexual tension and about as much music saturated with yearning, nostalgia and unrealized fantasy.

Three potent samples of this creative output formed the first program of the Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude 2007 series.

Violinist Suzy Yim and pianist John Walter started with Clara Schumann’s "Three Romances," a set of bittersweet reveries written in 1855, as her husband was committed to an asylum and his 22-year-old protégé, Brahms, was developing a romantic fixation with her. These pieces don’t need a hard sell interpretively – their passions are on the page; but they do require warmer tone and more sensitive phrasing than Yim provided.

The Richmond-based tenor Tracey Welborn was far more engaged in "Dichterliebe," Robert Schumann’s cycle of 16 songs on poems of Heinrich Heine. Welborn summoned a usefully dark tone for Lieder that dwell on darker emotions and fatalistic sentiments. Emotionally, though, he was unmasked, almost operatic in expressiveness and dynamism. Walter was comparably assertive in Schumann’s highly pianistic accompaniment.

The program concluded with Brahms’ Clarinet Trio, a product of the composer’s last years, when his expression became more subtle, often quizzical, and his musical structures became more skeletal. Clarinetist David Niethamer, cellist Neal Cary and pianist Walter gave a carefully measured reading of the piece, Niethamer especially playing with introverted sensitivity.

The Interlude series is sponsored by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, lacking a venue during its expansion. This summer's site, the sanctuary of Bon Air Presbyterian Church, is an airy but intimate setting for chamber music, with a clear acoustic, comfortable chairs and – what Richmonders really yearn for in August – well-tuned climate control.

The Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude series continues with concerts at 3 p.m. Aug. 12, 19 and 26 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Hugunot Road. Tickets: $16. Information: (804) 340-1405 (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts events desk).

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


My preview of the Richmond Chamber Players' August Interlude series is in print in Style Weekly, online at: