Sunday, September 30, 2007

Review: Alexander Paley Music Festival

Sept. 29-30, Virginia Commonwealth University

Pianist Alexander Paley closed the 10th season of his Richmond music festival with onstage remarks suggesting that this event has run its course. He spoke of differing philosophies with local supporters on "what a music festival should be" and a financial situation he termed "a catastrophe." The festival, started on his own initiative, has never had institutional backing, other than what a couple of local churches could provide; it never drew consistent support from the patrons who sustain other arts ventures, and it rarely played to large audiences.

Paley has publicly aired such frustrations before, only to come back for more. But unless the festival is put on a firmer footing organizationally and financially, it appears we’ve seen and heard the last of it.

If so, it ended splendidly. The Sept. 30 finale, an all-French program, featured two high-powered guest pianists, Marie-Catherine Girod and Bertrand Chamayou, and Paley and violinist Amiram Ganz, with violinists Laura Leigh Roelofs and Susy Yim, violist Rolandas Romoslauskas and cellist Clyde Thomas Shaw, in an energized yet idiomatic account of Ernest Chausson’s Concerto in D major for violin, piano and string quartet. The program concluded with a real novelty, Albert Lavignac’s "Gallop-Marche" for piano eight-hands – four pianists at one keyboard, a comically tight fit.

Girod wasn’t quite note-perfect in the original piano version of Ravel’s "La Valse," but was utterly persuasive in conveying its tipsy humor and apocalyptic waves of sonority while keeping the timing and spirit of the waltz in the soundscape. In Bizet’s "Jeux d’enfants" Suite for four hands, Girod and Chamayou played up humor and evocative sound effects, but their reading was a bit too brisk and literal in dreamier sections such as the nocturne.

Ganz, who performed with Paley in the bookstore debut of the festival in 1998, barely made this edition because of delays in a flight from Italy. He arrived (minus his luggage) barely an hour before the evening concert of Sept. 29. Ganz and Paley played Richard Strauss’ Sonata in E flat major, Op. 18, on the strength of their long association, which proved both technically and musically sufficient. They were to have been joined by other string players in Dvořák’s Piano Quintet, but that was dropped from the program for lack of rehearsal time.

Chamayou opened the Sept. 29 evening concert with Mendelssohn’s "Variations sérieuses," Op. 54, played with brilliance but lacking something in moodiness. Paley, Roelofs, Romoslaukas and Shaw followed with a more romantically inflected reading of Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op. 47.

Paley has made a point of presenting rarely heard works in his festival programs, and this time chose two very challenging departures from mainstream programming: Alexander Dargomizhsky’s chamber opera "The Stone Guest," in the apparent U.S. premiere of its original version with piano, and Strauss’ setting of Tennyson’s "Enoch Arden" for narrator and piano.

"The Stone Guest," set to Pushkin’s text on the downfall of Don Juan (the denouement of "Don Giovanni" with slight differences), is an intense hour of dramatic vocalizing in Russian – the text is set exactly, so it’s basically all-recitative – with high-powered but unrefined piano accompaniment. Paley handled the latter with characteristic energy. A cast of young singers – tenor Darren Chase, soprano Victoria Cannizzo, baritones Eric Keller and Jin Heo and mezzo-soprano Hanna Shen – were in good character and vocal form, although only Heo sounds to have the natural weightiness of a Russian voice.

Following the opera in the Sept. 29 matinee, Paley, Girod and Chamayou played two pieces for piano six-hands by Rachmaninoff, and Paley, Roelofs and Shaw played Rachmaninoff's "Trio Elegiaque."

"Enoch Arden," performed in the Sept. 29 evening program, is a chamber melodrama, already an antique form when Strauss prepared this setting in 1897, and an endurance test for modern listeners. Aaron Anderson’s narration closely followed the composer’s musical cues, fashioned for a German translation of Tennyson; that leaves awkward spaces between words or within phrases when the text is recited in English. Pei-wen Chen (Paley’s wife and regular four-hands partner) played Strauss’ piano part with an ear towards its pre-echoes of the composer’s subsequent music of love and loss, as a kind of germinal "Rosenkavalier."

Saturday, September 29, 2007

'Ga-ga for Gustav'

So read buttons being handed out this weekend for performances of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony by the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Choral Society. The musicians are wearing the buttons during the concerts. We're not making this up.

Review: Alexander Paley Music Festival

Sept. 28, Virginia Commonwealth University

Alexander Paley, the Russian-American pianist who quixotically launched a music festival in a Richmond bookstore 10 years ago, is celebrating the anniversary with a lot of onstage company – so many collaborators, in fact, that in four concerts he has not programmed a single solo-piano work for himself.

On opening night, Paley joined his wife, Pei-wen Chen, in Mozart’s Sonata in F major, K. 497, for piano four-hands, and played the composer’s Trio in C major, K. 548, with the Estonian violinist Andres Mustonen and Audubon Quartet cellist Clyde Thomas Shaw. Paley left the rest of a substantial program to others.

The evening’s instrumental stars were Mustonen, whose immersion in early music strongly inflected his treatment of Mozart, and Charles West, the VCU-based clarinetist who has performed in each year of Paley’s festival.

This time, West was on familiar turf musically, joining Mustonen, former Richmond Symphony violinist Laura Leigh Roelofs (now at Wayne State University in Michigan) and Shaw in Mozart’s Quintet in A major, K. 581. West also was playing on his home court, Vlahcevic Concert Hall at VCU’s Singleton Arts Center. His knowledge of the hall’s acoustics was evident in a performance of clarity and smooth sonority, and his exchanges with Mustonen greatly enlivened the reading.

The second half of the program was devoted to the first of two chamber operas to be semi-staged in the festival, Gian-Carlo Menotti’s "The Telephone." Chen, who is active as a rehearsal pianist and accompanist with several opera troupes in New York, showed a sure grasp of Menotti’s sparkling and evocative piano line, and nicely framed the voices of soprano Victoria Cannizzo and baritone Eric Keller.

Cannizzo and Keller were well-cast as the young lovers Lucy and Ben, whose budding courtship must cope with a deadline (Ben has a train to catch) and constant interruptions by a ringing phone. Their youthful voices and animated stage personas proved just right for this light comedy.

The Alexander Paley Music Festival continues with performances at 12:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29 and 2 p.m. Sept. 30 at VCU’s Singleton Center, Park Avenue at Harrison Street, in Richmond. Tickets: $20. Information: (804) 647-3398 or

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Oliver Sacks on music

Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and scholar of human behavior, offers his thoughts on how and why people make music:

Review: Shanghai Quartet

Sept. 26, University of Richmond

Camp Concert Hall in the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center was built around the Shanghai Quartet. The group, then in residence at UR, gave architects and acousticians a sound reference during the 1995-96 conversion of the old theater into a music hall. It is a great room for strings, and these are the strings that made it so.

So, when the Shanghai play in "their" hall, string sound of clear focus and rich, even voluptuous, tone may be taken as a given. Assessing the quartet's performance in the space becomes a question of how it exploits the beautiful sound. Especially in music that doesn’t conform to conventional notions of sonic beauty – a category that, broadly, covers all three pieces on the Shanghai’s first UR program of the new season.

The obvious outlier was György Ligeti’s assertively modern "Metamorphoses Nocturnes;" but the works that bracketed it, Mozart’s Quartet in F major, K. 590, and Dvořák’s Quartet in A flat major, Op. 105, also upset the settled harmonic order and structural grammar of their times.

Ligeti’s multipart but single-movement quartet, written in 1954 under the spell of Bartók and amid the serial traumas of living and making music in Central Europe in the mid-20th century, is a headlong plunge into a sound world of violence, nebulous dreaminess and coarse humor. Its challenges to string technique, individual and collective, are ferocious. When played with concentration, clarity and intensity, as the Shanghai played it, the Ligeti is a consuming listening experience.

So, in quite different ways, are the Mozart and Dvořák. Both were produced late in the composers’ careers and represent their most advanced thinking about what a string quartet can say and should do. Mozart, in 1790, achieved his ultimate mastery in the weaving of discrete yet complementary voices – “Cosí fan tutte” is one product of that mastery; K. 590 is another. Dvořák's 14th and final string quartet, begun at the end of his American interlude in 1895, is one of the most sophisticated examples of the composer’s accommodation of Czech melodies and folk-dance rhythms in Brahmsian classical structures.

The Shanghai’s tonal richness was jolting at first in the Mozart, whose music is rarely heard these days with such high calorie content. Once acclimated to the sound, though, it proved easy to forget that Mozart isn’t always played this way. The more substantial "bottom" (not merely bass presence) the ensemble brought to the piece widened the soundscape, opening it to more shades of color and sharper contrast between high and low strings, an essential part of this musical discourse. The musicians played with the scope and intensity they normally display in Beethoven or Schubert – or, indeed, Dvořák.

The Dvořák didn’t sound to me as focused or tonally polished as the Mozart. Part of that we may chalk up to the post-traumatic effects of playing the Ligeti. The larger reason is that Mozart was a superior craftsman, weaving complex structures without the loose ends or collateral awkwardness that crop up even in the mature Dvořák. The Mozart sounded better because it was better composed.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


My profile of pianist Alexander Paley and the 10th anniversary of his Richmond festival is in print in Style Weekly, online at:

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Review: Brentano String Quartet

Sept. 15, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond

Haydn, Bartók and Beethoven are pretty mainstream names for a string-quartet program, so the patrons of VCU’s Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Concerts' opening night might have thought they were in for an evening of relatively easy listening.

In fact, the Brentano String Quartet’s menu was a feast of brain food and high fiber: Haydn’s Quartet in D major, Op. 76, No. 5, Bartók’s Quartet No. 6 and Beethoven’s Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127. The Haydn, the least challenging of the three, is an extraordinarily sophisticated musical discourse. The Bartók and Beethoven are epics of the quartet genre, in both length and content.

The Brentano – violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Maria Lee – perform with the clarity and transparency of a period-instruments ensemble (although on modern instruments and without adherence to "historically informed" techniques). Their lean, focused sound draws the listener deep into what they’re playing, without the distractions of overly sensuous fiddle tone or overtly portentous expression.

The most consistent impression made by this quartet is one of thoughtful musicality and concentration. Their absorption of these pieces was so thorough, so deep, that they made "difficult" music make perfect sense in real time – and made it live and breathe.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

with David Bilger, trumpet
Sept. 14, Second Baptist Church, Richmond

The Richmond Symphony launches its 50th anniversary season with "Don Juan" by Richard Strauss, one of the signature numbers of the orchestra’s fourth and current music director, Mark Russell Smith.

In the opening-night concert, Smith led an extrovered, dramatically charged account of the tone poem, with fine articulation from the strings, rich sonority from the horns and fine solos from oboist Gustav Highstein and horn player Paul LaFollette.

David Bilger, principal trumpeter of the Philadelphia Orchestra, is the weekend’s guest soloist, playing the Trumpet Concerto (1949) by the Armenian-Soviet composer Alexander Arutiunian. The concerto, cut from the same Russo-Oriental cloth as Borodin’s "Polovtsian Dances" and Rimsky-Korsakov’s "Scheherazade," is a tuneful showcase for virtuoso trumpeter.

Bilger displayed both the requisite chops – the more notes per minute, the more he thrived – and a helpful sensitivity to passages requiring coloration darker than that usually given to this instrument. His phrasing and colors were especially satisfying in the concerto’s central slow section, played with a mute.

In an encore, Bilger pranced merrily through "Carnival of Venice," the greatest hit of cornet virtuosos at the turn of the 20th century.

The program concludes with the Seventh Symphony of Dvořák. Brahms was both a mentor and an inspiration to Dvořák; but, even when working from a Brahmsian template, as he was in this symphony, Dvořák speaks with an entirely different rhythmic, melodic, coloristic and spiritual vocabulary.

The difference, especially the rhythmic difference, was muddled in the Sept. 14 performance. Dvořák’s dance rhythms really need to swing, but didn’t; and several of the finale’s syncopated passages were trainwrecks. Imbalance between strings and brass, a constant hazard in the acoustics of Second Baptist Church, were pronounced.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. Sept. 15 at First Baptist Church, Monument Avenue at Boulevard in Richmond, and 8 p.m. Sept. 17 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $20-$50. Information: (804) 788-1212;

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


My look at the Richmond Symphony in its 50th anniversary season is in print in Style Weekly and online at:

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007)

Whether Luciano Pavarotti was the greatest tenor of all time (vs. Enrico Caruso) or the greatest tenor of his time (vs. Plácido Domingo) will be argued for years to come. But there’s no doubt that Pavarotti, "king of the high Cs" turned emperor of classical-pop crossover, will be remembered as the embodiment of the opera singer in the popular imagination.

Pavarotti, who died of pancreatic cancer on Sept. 6 (he would have been 72 on Oct. 12), was an immensely gifted singer and an outsized personality; both fascinated every segment of his audience. His voice was recognized by more people than any other classical vocalist's.

He joins Horowitz, Heifetz, Toscanini and Segovia in bequeathing a surname that serves as a synonym for what he did: Every great, or potentially great, Italian or Italianate singer will be called "another Pavarotti."

Thanks to video, his personality will survive alongside his artistry; that will affect posterity’s assessment of him. No one will hear his pure, ringing, achingly emotive voice without visualizing his handkerchief, his girth, the look on his face.

Many will view him much in the way people have come to view Babe Ruth, to cite a premodern media persona comparable with Pavarotti’s in virtuosity, appetite and mass appeal. Like Ruth, Pavarotti didn’t invent his game. He mastered its moves. He very publicly enjoyed the rewards of that mastery, feeding the fantasies of both fans and aspiring singers.

Bernard Holland’s obituary in The New York Times:

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


My thumbnail preview of Richmond's coming classical season is in print in Style Weekly and online at: