Friday, November 30, 2007

$1 million to get to know him

The Eugene McDermott Foundation has pledged $1 million to the Dallas Symphony "to underwrite a two-year artistic and promotional plan to introduce new music director Jaap van Zweden to concertgoers worldwide" and "brand the symphony to reflect Mr. van Zweden's artistic personality," The Dallas Morning News reports:

The 47-year-old Dutch conductor's name is pronounced: YOPP fahn SVAY-d'n. That might save his new friends a few hundred grand.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Q&A: Erin Freeman

Erin Freeman, a 34-year-old native of Atlanta and former music director of the Richmond Philharmonic, is in her first season as the Richmond Symphony’s associate conductor, leading the orchestra’s Pops and Kicked Back Classics series, directing its Young Performers Program, and directing the Richmond Symphony Chorus. We spoke earlier this month.

Q: With Handel’s "Messiah" and the holiday pops concert, you’re launching your first season as director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus. How’s the getting-acquainted process going?

A: So far, I’ve found the choristers dedicated and the experience of working with them very positive. It’s a pretty intense first season for us. Just a couple of months after "Messiah" we’ll be doing the Verdi Requiem and the Bach cantata "Christ lag in Todesbunden," so we’re already working on those pieces, too. I’m sure the singers find working with me different from working with James Erb [the chorus’ founder and longtime director]. It’s a great help, for continuity and other reasons, that Jim is now singing in the chorus.

Q: Your most important musical mentor was the late Robert Shaw, the great choral director and conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus when you were growing up. What are the big lessons you took away from working with Shaw?

A: I started singing for Mr. Shaw when I was 10, in a youth chorus, and later sang for him in the Atlanta Symphony Chorus. He was all about hard work, and all about the music, and that’s the attitude he expected from everyone who worked with him. Work hard, concentrate on the details, and then you can let the music unfold naturally and spontaneously in performance.

Q: The concert series you lead give many listeners their first taste of classical music, at least as a live experience. Is that an extra challenge for you? Does it give you less freedom, or more, in selecting music?

A: The biggest challenge, with experienced or inexperienced audiences, is to engage them. I think performers of all kinds of music agree on that. Music is all around us, all the time, so we tend to consign it to the background, or to absorb it passively. Live music-making is a contact sport – it takes active participation on the part of the audience. So we’re not just introducing people to classical music; we’re also teaching them to listen. You know how to tell whether people have been really listening? When, at the end of a performance, there’s silence before the applause begins.

Q: Another challenge you face is preparing programs without much rehearsal time . . .

A: Tell me about it. We did [last month’s] Pops concert on one rehearsal. To do that, the conductor and musicians need to prepare as much as possible beforehand. I need to be ready with answers to the questions the players may have about the music, and to anticipate what’s going to require extra attention and when I can assume things will gell without a lot of advance work.

Q: Conductors are authority figures – it’s assumed that they know more and are more experienced than the musicians they lead. Is it harder to exert that kind of authority when you’re no older than the musicians you conduct, and younger than many of them?

A: Not as hard as it used to be. Look at Alan Gilbert taking over the New York Philharmonic [at 42] or Gustavo Dudamel taking over the Los Angeles Philharmonic [at 28]. It certainly hasn’t been a problem for me with the Richmond Symphony’s musicians, who’ve been very supportive. I find it more of an internal struggle. I have very specific ideas about the music I’m conducting, and I know that the musicians have ideas, too. We have to accommodate one another to make the music bloom. So far, I think we’re doing very well at getting onto the same page.

Erin Freeman conducts the Richmond Symphony, Symphony Chorus and guest artists in Handel’s "Messiah" at 8 p.m. Nov. 30 at Second Baptist Church and 8 p.m. Dec. 3 at St. Michael Catholic Church (tickets: $25-$35) and the "Let It Snow!" holiday Pops concert at 8 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Landmark Theater (tickets: $35-$60). Details: 788-1212,

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Book review: 'The Rest Is Noise'

By Alex Ross (Farrar Straus Giroux, $30)

Ross, music critic of The New Yorker and the most influential writer on music in the blogosphere, has produced a much-needed primer on the main strains of modern and avant-garde composition. On his blog, he usefully adds a selection of representative audio files, which can be accessed here:

The book should reach readers beyond the classical-music orbit, however, because Ross surveys modern art-music in a sociopolitical context (thus its subtitle: "Listening to the Twentieth Century"). Pure or "absolute" musical expression was a stated aspiration of many moderns, but never a reality. Creative expression has always mirrored, or has been filtered through, politics and social trends, and never more so than in the ideologically riven and socially transformative "century of death" (as Leonard Bernstein called the 20th century).

"Although there is no point in trying to restore Schopenhauer’s separation of art and the state," Ross writes, "it is equally false to claim the opposite, that art can somehow be swallowed up in history or irreparably damaged by it. Music may not be inviolable, but it is infinitely variable, acquiring a new identity in the mind of every new listener. It is always in the world, neither guilty nor innocent, subject to the ever-changing human landscape in which it moves."

Shortly afterward, though, he writes: "In the thirties and forties, the entire Romantic tradition was effectively annexed by the totalitarian state." Romantic music’s guilt by association with fascism and communism was a major – perhaps the major – motivator in compositional trends of the mid-20th century, and of the anti-naturalist or expressionist movement in stagings of 19th-century operas. (In this context, Ross notes one of the century’s most peculiar artistic developments: the CIA’s role in promoting the budding European serial school of composition as anti-communist expression during the years immediately following World War II.)

He neatly accounts for serialism’s failure to connect with listeners: "The serialist principle, with its surfeit of ever-changing musical data, has the effect of erasing at any given moment whatever impressions the listener may have formed about previous passages in the piece. The present moment is all there is."

The book is studded with comparable perfectly formed nutshells of explanation and characterization:

– On art-musicians’ flirtation with jazz in the 1920s: Composers "were enjoying a one-night stand with a dark-skinned form, and they had no intention of striking up a conversation with it the next day."

– On American academic serialists: "Their theoretical essays could be interpreted as so much barbed wire to keep untrustworthy strangers at bay."

– On spirituality as a reaction to hedonism: "It seems no accident that both Stravinsky and Schoenberg responded to the decade of the twenties – the century’s first extended bout of mass consumption, youth rebellion, and sexual liberation – with, respectively, the Symphony of Psalms and Moses und Aron."

– On minimalism, "found-sounds" composition and other avant-garde manifestations: "Many radical American works of the sixties and seventies were created . . . with the composer setting up a musical situation and sitting back to observe the outcome."

As a survey of 20th-century music, "The Rest is Noise" is provocatively individualistic – more words devoted to Jean Sibelius and Benjamin Britten than to Bela Bartók or Anton Webern – and decidedly post-modern in its (selective) admission of jazz, pop and non-Western musics to the contemporary canon.

Critics hate to be accused of committing journalism, but how else to characterize Ross’ inclusion of telling or jolting details such as Webern’s embrace of Nazism (unreciprocated, of course); or Christmastime performances of Handel’s "Messiah" at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Paris, led by Olivier Messiaen; or Philip Glass installing a dishwasher in Robert Hughes’ apartment; or John Adams tripping on LSD while listening to Rudolf Serkin play Beethoven’s "Choral Fantasy;" or patients in a New York hospital ward asking to hear Arvo Pärt’s "Tabula Rasa" as they died of AIDS?

Or the author's ear for resonant quotes: "I am in a prison," says György Ligeti. "[O]ne wall is the avant-garde, the other wall is the past, and I want to escape." "[T]o hell with the public and with the performers too," says Eliott Carter. "[A] wasteland dominated by these maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everyone write this crazy creepy music," Glass says of the European avant-garde.

"The temptation is strong to see the overall trajectory [of composition] as one of steep decline," Ross writes. "From 1900 to 2000, the art experienced what can only be described as a fall from a great height."

His view of music’s future is more optimistic: "As the behemoth of mass culture breaks up into a melee of subcultures and niche markets, as the Internet weakens the media’s stranglehold on cultural distribution, there is reason to think that classical music, and with it new music, can find fresh audiences in far-flung places."

Review: Bruce Stevens

Nov. 26, University of Richmond

Bruce Stevens, who as organ instructor at the University of Richmond presides over the Beckerath organ in UR’s Cannon Memorial Chapel, put the instrument through its paces in an all-German program ranging from Buxtehude and Bach to Brahms and Rheinberger.

The two-manual, 26-rank tracker organ, installed in 1961 and restored in 2003, was modeled by Rudolf von Beckerath after baroque organs in northern Germany; its predominantly reedy sonority and bright tone colors deliniate contrapuntal scoring as few modern-style instruments can. Stevens demonstrated that capacity in Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, BWV 552 ("St. Anne") and Buxtehude’s more modestly scaled Passacaglia in D minor.

Stevens delivered his most fluent and idiomatic playing, though, in the Sonata No. 7 in F minor, Op. 127, of Josef Rheinberger, the late-19th century composer whose music Stevens has advocated for much of his career. (He has recorded four discs of Rheinberger’s organ works on the Raven label.)

Rheinberger, a native of Lichtenstein who spent his professional life in Germany (mainly in Munich), was a near-exact contemporary of Brahms; but his style might better be compared with that of Camille Saint-Saëns. Like the French composer (also a near-contemporary), Rheinberger was a fecund melodist who dressed up his tunes with displays of technique and explorations of instrumental atmospherics while adhering to conventional classical form. His Seventh Sonata (he wrote 20 in all) is a grandly stated representation of his work; Stevens’ performance made a very persuasive case for it.

The program also featured the Preludium in G minor and chorales on "Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist" and "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" by Buxtehude, Brahms’ Chorale Prelude on "Herzlich tut mich erfreuen" and Mozart’s Adagio and Allegro in F minor, K. 594, for mechanical organ.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Review: 'The Pirates of Penzance'

Virginia Opera, Joseph Walsh conducting
Nov. 23, Landmark Theater, Richmond

The operettas of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are an acquired taste, requiring an ear for preciously phrased sarcasm and sufficient knowledge of Victorian English history, manners and mores to get Gilbert’s jokes. Ill-equipped on those scores, you may find "The Pirates of Penzance" to be more cartoon than satire, and too prissy for comfort.

Virginians of a certain age and background are among the most hardcore of American Anglophiles, and they’re turning out in force for the Virginia Opera’s "Pirates."

Still, stage director William Theisen takes no chances on the show's not connecting with moderns. Theisen, vividly assisted by set designer Chris Clapp and costume designer Howard Tsvi Kaplan, has fashioned a bright, manic, thoroughly over-the-top production, seemingly cast with veterans of Phony British Accent Reader’s Theater and Talk Like a Pirate Day. The women cavort like college boys in drag, and the men act as if they’re in a Monty Python skit. Queen Victoria herself descends on the proceeedings in the finale, and even she would be amused.

William Ferguson, a Richmonder building an international career as an operatic and art-song tenor, is unquestionably the star of this show. He is the best singer and clearest speaker in the cast, and wears the proto-Dudley Doright role of Frederic like a second skin. Alcia Berneche is almost as persuasive as Mabel, the object of Frederic’s desire. Her bel canto is show-stoppingly vertiginous; she just needs a little more irony to go with her wide-eyed winsomeness.

In the first of two Richmond performances, Ferguson and Berneche received theatrically adept but vocally variable support from Dominic M. Aquillino (the Pirate King), Chris Mooney (Samuel) and Jonathan Kimple (the Sergeant of Police). In the two broadest comic roles, Gary Briggle (the Major General ) and Myrna Paris (Ruth) had all the right moves but were sorely taxed vocally. Choruses too often turned into tonal traffic jams.

Conductor Joseph Walsh obtained an alert, animated reading of Sullivan’s Mozartian-cum-Rossiniesque score from members of Norfolk’s Virginia Symphony.

Although "Pirates" is sung in English, the projected captions come in handier than usual. The show's dialogue and patter numbers are mostly unintelligible in the Landmark Theater, and probably won't be much clearer in the Fairfax venue.

The Virginia Opera’s "Pirates of Penzance" concludes its run with performances at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 25 at Richmond Landmark Theater, and 8 p.m. Nov. 30 and 2 p.m. Dec. 2 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax. Tickets: $20-$85 (Richmond), $44-$94 (Fairfax). Details: (804) 262-8100 (Richmond), (703) 218-6500 (Fairfax),

Friday, November 23, 2007

Counter-Reformation II

Pope Benedict XVI, in a recent address to clergy, signaled his intention to steer Catholic liturgical music away from folk masses and other contemporary (aka "happy clappy") material, and back to Gregorian chant and the polyphonic repertory of the Renaissance and baroque eras.

This follows the pope's restoration of the Tridentine (Latin) Mass, and is interpreted as another sign of his desire to return to traditional components of worship, Malcolm Moore reports in The Telegraph:

Moore quotes Monsignor Valentin Miserachs Grau, director of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music: "Due to general ignorance, especially in sectors of the clergy, there exists music which is devoid of sanctity, true art and universality."

During the 1990s chant craze, I sat in as a group of Catholic lay people learned to sing Gregorian chant. They got the hang of it fairly quickly. (Being traditionalists, they already had some command of Latin, which gave them a head start.) Later, more elaborate repertory is another matter: Imagine the local parish choir taking on Josquin, let alone Lassus or Palestrina.

A counter-reformation of Catholic (or, for that matter, Protestant) church music would take a generation – and would require seminaries and churches to put new emphasis on music education.

Then there's the question of universality. Can, and should, the Vatican impose antique European musical forms on congregations in non-Western societies? Would worshippers in, say, Mozambique or East Timor hear "true art" in Gregorian chant?

And closer to home, would Pope Benedict, reputedly a Mozart man, hear the works of two of the most devout European composers of his generation, Messiaen and Penderecki, as "true art?"

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

No Music Day

Today is No Music Day. Details, such as they are, at:

If you are observing No Music Day, you have not turned on your radio, television or sound system, failed to visit many Web sites, won't go shopping, and had better avoid contact with others, who are probably non-observant.

If, like John Cage, your definition of music includes noise, you will spend the day in a sound-proof enclosure; but even then, you cannot escape the sound of your pulse, which is musical.

Tomorrow is St. Cecilia's Day, saints day of the patron saint of music. Your mission will be to listen to saintly music. Bonus points for subtlety if you listen to something that doesn't end in "amen."

Monday, November 19, 2007

Tone roads

Japanese engineers develop road surfaces whose grooved asphalt produces musical tones when vehicles are driven over them, BBC Music Magazine reports:

"Optimal listening speed," it seems, is 28 mph. So much for using Larry Williams' "Slow Down" as a signature tune.

2008 and out

Alfred Brendel, the 76-year-old Austrian pianist, long rated as one of the most authoritative interpreters of Mozart and Beethoven, has decided to quit performing at the end of next year, John von Rhein reports in The Chicago Tribune:,1,6351799.story?track=rss

(No word on whether the introduction of musical asphalt figured in Brendel's decision.)

Levine and the lay listener

James Levine, who has treated Boston Symphony audiences to Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter and other tough stuff, talks modern music with a layman, The Boston Globe's Observer columnist Sam Allis:

"The BSO has never sounded better," Allis observes. (The experts agree.) But he doesn't make the connection between the orchestra's performances of difficult contemporary music and the improvements in its sound.

The higher one's performance level, the more essential it is to face challenges, to be forced to detour from the routine. The lay listener may not enjoy the detour, but should be made aware of the payoff: Babbitt builds better Beethoven.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Review: Baltimore Consort

Nov. 17, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond

The Baltimore Consort, one of the pioneer explorers of the common ground where European early music and Anglo-American folk song meet, returned to Richmond after an eight-year absence to present "Adew Dundee: Early and Traditional Music of Scotland."

The ensemble’s longtime members – viol players Mary Anne Ballard, Mark Cudek and Larry Lipkis and lutenist Ronn McFarlane – were joined by a guest soprano, Danielle Svonavec, filling the role formerly played by Staunton’s Custer LaRue, and by flutist Mindy Rosenfeld, rejoining the group after a hiatus of 17 years.

Ranging through two dozen songs and dance tunes, the consort steered well clear of the familiar or stereotypical. No one said or sang "Scots wa hae!" William Wallace and Robert Burns went unmentioned. Aside from "Gypsen Davy" (aka "Gypsy Davy") and "Lord Ronald" (aka "Lord Randal"), both well-known numbers from Francis James Childs’ ballad collection, none of the selections would rate as more than vaguely recognizable to those who haven’t closely studied Scottish traditional music.

Most of the pieces dated from the 17th century or earlier, and many resembled chants, ballads and consort works heard around the same time in England and France – a reminder that pre-British Scotland was more cosmopolitan than popular lore would have it. "Our Father God Celestial," a version of the Lord’s Prayer, was set to a French tune not far removed from medieval chant. "Remember me my deir," from Robert Edwards’ "Commonplace Book" of the 1630s, was audibly related to Elizabethan English song.

Scottish "snap" – the juxtaposition of short and long notes producing a lilting kind of swing – was more pronounced in dance pieces such as "Whip my toudie" and "Remember me at evening."

Cudek, playing cittern (a mandolinish ancestor of the guitar), injected some markedly modern-sounding rhythms to several numbers. Rosenfeld’s flute and recorder often decorated folk tunes with baroque-style ornamentation. Authentic? Who knows?

Svonavec’s light tone and precise diction may not have been the qualities one immediately associates with Scottish folk vocalization – her unaccompanied rendition of "Lord Ronald," for example, cried out for more pathos; but her straightforwardness and clarity proved helpful in projecting lyrics such as, "Disdaine my desyris, so strangeness me feir is, deceir out of weir is, adew I fare."

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

Nov. 16, Second Baptist Church

Jacques Houtmann, a former music director (1971-86) revisiting the Richmond Symphony during its 50th-anniversary season, is a conductor the likes of whom few of the orchestra’s present members have encountered: a practitioner of the nearly lost art of old-style romantic symphonic interpretation.

In the manner of now-distant historical figures such as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Vaclav Talich and Jascha Horenstein, Houtmann favors broadly paced, highly rhetorical, temperamentally high-strung music-making. He doesn't craft crisply articulated, briskly metrical readings (which he likens to “slicing salami”), but strives to make every melody, turn of phrase, dynamic shift and silence integral to the larger context or "long arc" of a work.

His beat is often imprecise, his cues abrupt, his gestures intense and wild. He’ll stretch a tempo close to the breaking point if that creates the desired expressive effect. He gives orchestral soloists unusually wide latitude. He inspires ensemble playing rather than whipping it into shape.

The result can be unruly at times, but ultimately transcendent, especially in the 19th-century Austro-German repertory that is closest to this conductor's heart. (Houtmann is French, but from Lorraine, an eastern border province with historical and cultural ties to Germany.)

Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” the main course of the program he serves on this visit, receives the kind of interpretation that listeners would have heard 100 years ago. Houtmann paces the symphony almost as if it were one of Bruckner’s. (Nowadays the “Eroica” normally runs about 50 minutes; last night’s performance lasted nearly an hour, and that was without the first-movement repeat.)

Very broad tempos brought a yearning quality to the immense first movement, which sounded more like a tone poem than an exercise in sonata form, and darkened the brooding of the second-movement funeral march. Deep silences framed solo passages (oboist Gustav Highstein exploited these to great effect). Houtmann freely stretched phrases and manipulated dynamics, and the orchestra responded with emotionally charged, seemingly improvisatory playing.

Last night’s audience was as sensitized as the musicians to this extraordinary conception of a familiar score. Nearly 800 listened in the kind of silence that comes with concentration.

Houtmann uncorks two vintages of champagne in the first half of his program, leading measured but sparklingly detailed readings of Mozart’s “Cosí fan tutte” Overture and Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.”

The symphony’s winds paced the Mozart, which sounded blithely songful rather than skittishly energetic. Houtmann mined a deeper, darker lyrical vein in the Ravel, whose brightness and animation were tempered with an especially bittersweet nostalgia.

This Masterworks series program repeats at 8 p.m. Nov. 17 at First Baptist Church, Boulevard at Monument Avenue in Richmond, and 8 p.m. Nov. 19 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $20-$50. Details: (804) 788-1212,

Friday, November 16, 2007

Richmonder wins art-song prize

Richmond-bred composer Zachary Wadsworth has taken first place in the ASCAP-Lotte Lehmann Foundation Art Song Competition for Young Composers.

Wadsworth will receive $3,500 and a commission to write a song cycle for voice and piano to be published by E.C. Schirmer and performed in three three major American cities.

The 24-year-old composer is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music and Yale University; he is now in doctoral studies at Cornell University. He has received a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, two Morton Gould Young Composers Awards from ASCAP and other prizes. His chamber opera "Venus and Adonis" was premiered last summer.

The ASCAP-Lehmann competition, whose second round was this year, was organized to encourage composers under 30 to write art-music for the voice. It is named for Lotte Lehmann, a famed opera and Lieder singer of the early and mid-20th century.

Second-place winner in the competition was Allen McCullough, 29, of Landsdowne, PA. Third place went to Ryan Gee, 29, of Austin. Isaac Shankler, 28, of Los Angeles, won the Damien Top Prize. All will receive cash prizes and commissions to write vocal works.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Kids today

Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and its 26-year-old conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, have garnered rapturous reviews from recent concerts in Britain and this country. Critics also have been hemorhaging superlatives in the wake of performances by the 20-year-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang (see previous post for a representative example). Jay Greenberg, a composer who turns 16 next month, had five symphonies under his belt by the time he was 14; a Sony-BMG recording of the Fifth has gotten rave reviews, and Joshua Bell premiered Greenberg’s Violin Concerto on Oct. 28 at Carnegie Hall.

Graze through classical Web sites and blogs, and you’ll read of more leaps into the big league by musicians yet to reach legal drinking age.

Musical prodigies are nothing new – Mozart was knocking wigs askew when he was 5; but it seems today that prodigious talents are maturing more rapidly, thus earning more respectful recognition sooner.

In recent dates, Wang has played the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Boston Symphony. In 2003 she played Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto with the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zürich. The Tchaikovsky is standard young-virtuoso fare. Beethoven 4, on the other hand, has been assumed to be music for a long-seasoned pianist. For a European orchestra of stature to engage a teenager (she was 16 at the time), however acclaimed, as the soloist in this concerto is a pretty radical departure from past practice.

Dudamel and the Bolívar, meanwhile, have been touring with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. This is the sort of repertory normally taken on tour by mature conductors and major orchestras. Not surprisingly, critics have picked nits with Dudamel’s reading; but none of the reviews I’ve read suggested that a 20-something conductor and an orchestra of teenagers were too young and inexperienced to give a convincing performance of it.

When will some authority – teacher, psychologist, anthropologist – weigh in on the accelerated maturation of young artists? Is the same thing happening in other fields that spawn prodigies? Math? Chess? Gymnastics? Is some 12-year-old about to sort out chaos theory and win a Nobel at 15?

And how do we account for it? Is it nature (self-selective breeding by overachievers?), or nurture (infant brain food? Suzuki? Mozart-for-babies tapes of the '90s worked after all?), or what?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Review: Yuja Wang, Shanghai Quartet

Nov. 12, University of Richmond

The Shanghai Quartet doesn’t usually play as an opening act and backup band, but the group may have to reconcile itself to those roles when performing with the young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang.

Wang is the most spectacularly and comprehensively gifted pianist since . . . God knows who and when. Her technique is both awesome and flawless, her ear for piano sonority and color unerring. She projects a pianissimo as forcefully as a fortissimo, and everything in between, and doesn’t exaggerate or misplace any dynamic level. When she plays at speed, her fingers literally blur. Her phrasing is as natural as breathing. She has produced a tasteful arrangement from Gluck’s "Dance of the Blessed Spirits," improving on Wilhelm Kempff’s. Even her posture is beyond reproach. She is 20, and looks maybe 14.

Appearing with the Shanghai during a two-day window between trips to Latin America, Wang played Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2 in G sharp minor, Ravel’s "La Valse" and four encore pieces, including her Gluck arrangement, Vladimir Horowitz’s " ‘Carmen’ Variations" from the Bizet opera, György Cziffra’s arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s "Flight of the Bumblebee" and Mozart’s "Rondo alla Turca" as "paraphrased" by the pianist Volodos. Then she joined the Shanghai in Schumann’s Piano Quintet.

Those selections embrace most every sound a pianist would be expected to make, short of tinkering with its innards or playing cluster chords, and I didn’t hear a sound to fault, an imbalance to correct or, more importantly, a lapse in musicality. (Other than choosing to play the Mozart mosh – let’s chalk that up to Wang being 20 and not reading five stars on YouTube as a warning sign.)

Scriabin’s "Sonata-Fantasy" is an homage to Chopin; a crossbreeding of those two musical personalities is a highly volatile mix. Wang did justice to both in a performance that sustained dreamy lyricism through a succession of expressive outbursts and jagged harmonizations.

The enormous bass sonorities she produced in the Scriabin returned in the Ravel, but the most striking feature of her reading of "La Valse" was its clarity. In the hands of most pianists, this piece is marked by splashes of notes and smears of tone color. Wang played it with the fine articulation and careful proportion that pianists strive for in Mozart, yet she did so without sacrificing any of this music’s ominously surging power or woozy humor.

Schumann, of course, was a pianist – some accuse him of writing piano music regardless of his scores’ instrumentation – and his Piano Quintet can be a precarious balancing act between keyboard and strings. Wang played her part emphatically, but never crowded the Shanghai. The string players, in turn, were at their most expressively assertive and tonally voluptuous.

The foursome opened the program with Beethoven’s "Harp" Quartet (No. 10 in E flat major, Op. 74), perhaps the most quirkily adventurous of his middle-period quartets. The Shanghai emphasized its tonal surprises, sudden twists and dynamic contrasts while maintaining a generally plummy tone and high but not hyper energy level. Solo voices rising from the ensemble, which are plentiful in this piece, were rendered with special sensitivity.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Critic slapped

Tim Page, the Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic of The Washington Post, has been subjected to "disciplinary action" – placed on leave, apparently – after firing off an intemperate (albeit dead-on-target) response to an e-mail from the "media consultant" of ex-mayor, now DC Councilman Marion Barry:

Page already was due to take a sabbatical from the paper to teach next semester at the University of Southern California. Anne Midgette, now at The New York Times, will join the Post on Jan. 1 as interim classical music critic. (Still interim? Stay tuned.)

Bending my self-imposed rule against public comment about life in daily journalism, I’ll observe that newspapers increasingly compartmentalize expressions of opinion. Critics venture outside their designated enclosures – or even too close to the borders of their boxes – at their peril. (Page broke out of the box completely, although not in print, and has apologized for doing so.)

Ionarts blogger Charles T. Downey comments:

Comfort maestro

Itzhak Perlman, violin superstar and sometime conductor, has been named artistic director of the Westchester Philharmonic in Purchase, N.Y., PlaybillArts reports:

Perlman signed up for three years, beginning in 2008-09. He will conduct three of the orchestra's five concerts per season.

Asked about his plans, Perlman sounded less like an artistic director, more like a visiting virtuoso on a lark: "I like to do my Brahmses, my Mozarts, my Tchaikovskys. It’s fun. Here’s a term for you: Call it ‘comfort music.’ "

Sunday, November 11, 2007

'Industry perspective'

Anthony Tommasini profiles Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, in The New York Times:

The title of the article, "A One-Woman Vanguard," reinforces the meme on Alsop as the first female conductor in the international front rank. (A "really silly epithet," Alsop says of her professional gender distinction.)

When she secured the Baltimore appointment, Alsop was widely described as the first woman to lead a major American orchestra. Whereupon, Tommasini writes, "there were howls of protest from loyal supporters of JoAnn Falletta, the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic" – and, he fails to mention, music director of the Virginia Symphony of Norfolk.

"But with all due respect to Ms. Falletta and her adventurous orchestra, from an industry perspective — in terms of budget, location, schedule, touring, recording and other factors — the Baltimore Symphony is generally viewed as a major American orchestra while the Buffalo Philharmonic, however fine, is not quite."

The "industry perspective" reflected in the article brings to mind Saul Steinberg’s "View of the World from 9th Avenue":

In Virginia (under the H in "Washington, DC" on Steinberg's map), Norfolk's Falletta is one of three female music directors of orchestras. The others are Kate Tamarkin of the Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra and Janna Hymes of the Williamsburg Symphonia. Victoria Bond is the former music director of the Roanoke Symphony. The Richmond Symphony has had three female associate conductors: Alsop, Sarah Hatsuko Hicks and the currently serving Erin Freeman.

However . . . as they say in the industry.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Review: Richmond Symphony

Nov. 9, Bon Air Baptist Church

The Richmond Symphony’s Bach Festival series, like its predecessors spotlighting Mozart and Beethoven, both samples the composer’s music and examines his influence on subsequent generations. The links may be explicit (the Mozart homages of the 19th and 20th centuries, for example), but more often the connections have been inferential.

Some of both filled the second Bach Festival program. Alongside the "Brandenburg" Concerto No. 3, conductor Mark Russell Smith led Stravinsky’s similarly scaled and comparably spirited "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto and Webern’s orchestral arrangement of the Ricercare from Bach’s chamber collection "The Musical Offering."

Then there was Richard Strauss’ suite drawn from incidental music that he wrote for two productions of Molière’s "Le bourgeois gentilhomme," staged in 1912 and 1918 by Max Reinhardt’s Kleine Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Strauss’ template was not Bach, but a musician of the previous generation: Jean-Baptiste Lully, court composer of Louis XIV, king of France in the late 17th century.

Smith and the orchestra made a very persuasive case for reviving this fairly obscure bit of Strauss, which cannily balances echoes of "ancient" music – especially in "Entrance of Cléonte," a theme of Lully’s that Strauss barely modernized – with original music that is unmistakably Straussian but still complements a baroque-period comedy of manners. (Strauss, a bourgeois gent himself, treats the arriviste subject of the play more sympathetically than Lully did.)

The symphony’s chamber orchestra was idiomatically Straussian in its vivid colorations and voluptuous tone, and the score’s numerous solos and cameos for violin, cello, woodwinds and piano received polished and characterful treatment.

The same stylishness and exuberance propelled this performance of "Dumbarton Oaks," a 1938 opus that is among the wittiest, and may be the most cheerful, music that Stravinsky produced.

The third "Brandenburg," played without a conductor by trios of violinists, violists and cellists and a single double-bass from the symphony’s front stands, joined by continuo harpsichordist Joanne Kong, was nicely animated but not consistently focused intonationally.

The Bach-Webern Ricercare suffered from imbalance between strings and winds (especially brass), a problem the orchestra often has in the Bon Air Baptist Church sanctuary.

This program is the only installment of the Bach Festival that won’t get a Sunday-matinee repeat at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland. The Strauss, an attractive piece and a very effective showcase for the orchestra’s leading players, deserves further airing.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Bubble music

Spanish violinist-composer Patricia Argüelles spends a week in a glass bubble in a Madrid plaza, giving the public a round-the-clock view of offstage music-making:

Review: eighth blackbird

Nov. 7, University of Richmond

It’s not uncommon for composers to create imaginary worlds in sound, but not many go as far as Stephen Hartke in detailing the scenery and inhabitants.

In eighth blackbird’s sampling of three Hartke compositions, listeners were guided through a set of four surrealistic and/or cartoonish episodes in "The Horse with the Lavendar Eye," scenes from Asian musical theater in "Meanwhile," and artifacts of Italy long before the caesars in "Tituli."

"Meanwhile: Incidental Music to Imaginary Puppet Plays," written for eighth blackbird and given its premiere in this concert, imagines a "court orchestra of my own unspecified non-Western tradition, of which I am the master and know all the rules," as the composer puts it. The set of six pieces evokes Indonesian gamelan and comparable ensembles of strings, winds and resonant percussion played in Japan, Vietnam, Burma and Turkey.

For this piece, Hartke invented at least one instrument – a "flexatone gamelan" approximating the sound and tone-bending quality of Javanese gongs – and adapted several others, placing soft mutes on piano strings to mimick the Vietnamese hammered dulcimer, and tuning a viola a half-step flat so that it, in combination with cello and muted piano, produces a mist of low-frequency harmonics. His score employs more than two dozen percussion instruments, from wood blocks and cymbals to water gong and bongos.

"Meanwhile" may be consciously multicultural, but unlike many such undertakings it doesn’t sound self-consciously exotic. Like Debussy in the late-19th century, Hartke translates his fascination with the timbres and sound textures of Asian orchestras into a colorful, intricately nuanced idiom of his own making.

In a post-concert discussion, the ’birds said they hadn’t yet fully settled into Hartke’s imagined Orient – they’d gotten 40 percent here, 70 percent there in producing sounds and tonal combinations, they reckoned; but this first performance never sounded tentative or awkward.

"The Horse with the Lavendar Eye" (1997), scored for violin, clarinet and piano, is a set of instrumental exchanges, manic to maniacal in energy level and spirit, growing out of Hartke’s fascination with "non-sequiturs and the way that sense can suddenly appear out of nonsense." The four pieces are rooted in rhythmic figures and snatches of melody that might sound like asides in a more conventional composition.

In the opening movement, "Music of the Left," inspired by the Imperial court music of ancient China and Japan, the three musicians play with left hands only, with the pianist producing thick bass chords and the violinist plucking on the bridge. In "The Servant of Two Masters," piano frenetically aims to please violin and clarinet like a short-order cook with meal orders piling up. "Waltzing at the Abyss," suggested by a scene in a novel by the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, is deceptively sanguine; while "Cancel My Rhumba Lesson," evoking a frame from one of R. Crumb’s comic books, is a high-stepping chase scene going nowhere in particular. The listener comes out of the piece as if awakening from a night of fascinating but exhausting dreams.

"Tituli" (1999), written for the Hilliard Ensemble, is Hartke’s effort to "create a musical ruin." The piece sets seven texts in Etruscan, Old Latin and Greek found inscribed on various artifacts from archaeological digs in Italy. A violinist and two percussionists accompany five male voices. The more ancient the language, the more austere the music becomes. (Hartke is a onetime singer of early music, and it shows.)

Nicholas Photinos, eighth blackbird’s cellist, conducted violinist Matt Albert, percussionists Matthew Duvall and Kris Keeton and the vocal ensemble of countertenor Jeffrey Riehl, tenors Geoffrey Williams, Olinda Marseglia and Mike Kotrady and baritone Jim Weaver along this tightrope of tonalities and voicings.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Review: Lionheart

Nov. 5, University of Richmond

Lionheart, the a cappella sextet of countertenor Lawrence Lipnik, tenors John Olund and Michael Ryan-Wenger, baritones Jeffrey Johnson and Richard Porterfield and bass Kurt-Owen Richards, sang perhaps its most historically wide-ranging touring program, "Wayfaring Stranger," in its visit to Richmond.

This set of medieval, Renaissance and contemporary pieces is titled after the familiar Anglo-American folk hymn, sung as a unison introit and reprised in shape-note-style and modern harmonizations.

"Wayfaring Stranger" keeps unexpected company: 13th- and 14th-century liturgical and troubadour songs for three and four voices, the polyphony of 16th-century masters Cipriano de Rore ("Calami sonum") and Giovanni Palestrina ("Litaniae de Beata Virgine Maria"), Marc-André Dalbavie’s setting of Ezra Pound ("Chants") and gospel-inflected American pop (Laura Nyro’s "When I Die").

That last one, in this context, could easily sound like bling draped on a madonna – and the arrangement’s segue in and out of the Dies Irae, like a rose window in a double-wide – but the group makes it work by emphasizing the refrain’s spiritual continuity: "And when I die, and when I’m gone, there’ll be one child born in this world to carry on."

Lionheart lavished tone and feeling on the Dalbavie and Palestrina, the program’s artistic summits; but the singers were just as musically scrupulous and communicative in lighter selections.

The barbershop-quartet staple "Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland," which the group frequently sings as an encore, is a conscious bit of highbrow self-deprecation. For some listeners, though, it must be an unwelcome return to earth from the heights of the Renaissance.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Tipping the chef

Bernard Holland’s Nov. 4 column in The New York Times . . .

. . . revisits the familiar issue of the relationship between composers and audiences. What responsibility does the composer have to speak intelligibly to an audience? What is the listener’s responsibility? Who sets the terms of this transaction?

"In classical music," Holland observes, "the onus of responsibility has been shifted from creator to receptor." In the past century, compositional techniques have advanced more rapidly than the capacity of most listeners to absorb them. If listeners can’t or won’t keep up with new developments, that’s their problem. Creativity shouldn’t be retarded by public incomprehension.

The classic summation of this argument (in music, at least) is Milton Babbitt's (in)famous 1958 article "Who Cares if You Listen?" You can read it here:

Holland asks, "Do I owe the waiter a good tip, or does he owe me good service?" Babbitt would answer that he’s not a waiter. He’s not even a chef serving paying customers. He’s cooking in his own kitchen, and if the guests at his table don’t like the food they can go home hungry. Babbitt rejects the idea that art-music is a transaction in which the creator is obliged to please the consumer.

Babbitt spent most of his career as an academic, on the faculties of Princeton University and the Juilliard School; he could afford not to care whether the public liked his music. So could Charles Ives, who made a comfortable living as an insurance executive. Read the biographies of trailblazing or contrarian composers, from the Renaissance to the current day, and you’ll find very few who weren’t independently wealthy, or subsidized by a wealthy patron, or employed by an institution, or earning the bulk of their incomes either in nonmusical pursuits or as performing artists (and not just performing their own compositions).

The performer is the key intermediary in the composer-public transaction, certainly in modern times. Audiences generally are induced to listen to unfamiliar or challenging music by proselytizing re-creative performing artists, whose virtuosity and cachet sell the tickets.

If Yo-Yo Ma hadn’t organized his Silk Road Project, how many listeners would pay to hear music from Central Asia? If Esa-Pekka Salonen, Neeme Järvi and Osmo Vänskä weren’t leading conductors, what music from the Baltic states, other than Sibelius, would be heard outside Eastern Europe? Would Chinese composers be heard as widely in the West if there weren’t so many performers of Chinese descent in Western classical music? (Imagine works by Zhou Long or Bright Sheng being played in Richmond absent the Shanghai Quartet.)

More historically distant art-music is no less dependent on the advocacy of performers. Where would Hummel be today without Stephen Hough, or Alkan without Marc-André Hamelin, or Charpentier without William Christie, or Zelenka without Heinz Holliger? Would Washington National Opera patrons have paid big bucks to hear Gomes’ "Il guarany" or Giordano’s "Fedora" without Plácido Domingo in the starring roles?

The more arcane or challenging the music, the more dependent it is on re-creative advocates – or, to put it another way, the more the composer enjoys creative freedom via celebrity endorsement.

When a contemporary composer gets a piece played by the Kronos Quartet or Ethel or eighth blackbird, most of the audience shows up not for the composition but for the performers. They are the waiters getting patrons in the door and earning tips. The composer is the chef getting a split of the proceeds, whether or not the diners find the dish tasty or digestible.

ADDENDUM: Check out this ongoing conversation at NewMusicBox about how composers make money (or don't):

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Review: eighth blackbird

Nov. 2, art6, Richmond

Most cities are divided by perceptual boundaries, which inhabitants on either side are disinclined to cross. In Richmond, one of the most durable is the Beltline, a rail line and commuter highway separating older central districts from more upscale neighborhoods to the west. Central-city gentrification has blurred the line, but it remains a sturdy cultural barrier. It has separated eighth blackbird, the contemporary music sextet now in its third year of residency on the West End campus of the University of Richmond, from much of its natural local constituency.

Last night, eighth blackbird crossed the line, performing at the art6 gallery, one of the venues for the downtown First Fridays Art Walk, which has become Richmond’s most popular showcase for contemporary visual art and alternative music – and one of the prime occasions to see and be seen for the city’s young, hip and artsy.

The YH&A's responded enthusiastically, at times uproariously, to the ’birds. These musicians know how to play to a downtown crowd – that’s what they do in many of their tour engagements – and their repertory is unmistakably on the alt-side of the generational divide: upbeat, physical, quirky, whimsical, spicily sauced brain food.

In the first of two sets, pianist Lisa Kaplan, violinist Matt Albert, cellist Nicholas Photinos, flutist Tim Munro, clarinetist Michael Maccaferri and percussionist Matthew Duvall played Frederic Rzewski’s "Pocket Symphony" (2000), whose percolating energy and droll expressive touches mask a complex and fine-grained neoclassical discourse, and the movement of "Thirteen Ways" (1987) by Thomas Albert (Matt’s father) that spins variations on the theme of the Beatles’ "Blackbird."

For the late show, played before a larger and younger crowd, Kaplan, Duvall and Albert opened with the Belgian composer-filmmaker Thierry De Mey’s "Musique de Tables" (1987), a choreographed fantasia for percussive sounds hand-clapped and rubbed, patted and thumped on a tabletop (a Costco fold-up, which the ’birds favor for its subtly pebbled surface.)

Next came "The Servant of Two Masters," a frenzied, virtuosic movement for piano, violin and clarinet from Stephen Hartke’s "The Horse with the Lavendar Eye," which the ensemble will play in its entirety on Nov. 7 at the University of Richmond.

The finale was Martin Bresnik’s setting of the wry but deeply moving poem "My 20th Century" by the late Tom Andrews. Andrews’ autobiography of one-liners, which the musicians take turns delivering, unfolds over a telegraphic rhythmic figure garnished with vaguely nostalgic snippets of melody recalling the scores of Aaron Copland or Samuel Barber. (The piece could be heard as a postmodern analog to Barber’s "Knoxville, Summer of 1915.")

Richmond's downtowners audibly relished their taste of eighth blackbird. Now let’s see how many cross the Beltline for seconds.

eighth blackbird performs music of Stephen Hartke at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7 in Camp Concert Hall of the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center. Tickets: $20. Details: (804) 289-8980,

Friday, November 2, 2007

A ? of character(s)

You can find virtually everything (or everything virtually?) online, but electronic publishing routinely stumbles over little things: accent marks.

In a previous professional incarnation, I made a chronic pest of myself to get accents grave and acute, umlauts, tildes and other alphabetic doodads into print. The effort finally succeeded – but only in print, not online.

I’m often reminded of that struggle when I run across the name of the Cleveland Orchestra’s music director, Franz Welser-Möst. On the Web site of his hometown paper, The Plain Dealer, the name used to appear as “Welser-M?st.” Nowadays, it's “Welser-MÖst.” A link to the paper on the ArtsJournal Web site renders it as “Welser-MÄ–st.” The online version of a review in The Washington Post dodged the bullet with "Welser-Moest," only to be felled by Tchaikovsky's "Path¿tique" Symphony.

Really, now: If a relic from the manual-typewriter age can coax accented characters out of Microsoft Word and post them on Blogspot, the high-tech pros of high-class Web publishers can manage it.

Review: Richmond Symphony

Nov. 1, Toad’s Place, Richmond

Erin Freeman, the Richmond Symphony’s new associate conductor, has inherited the Kicked Back Classics casual concert series from a string of maestros with highly varied inclinations; but she seems well on her way to making it her own.

Garbed in red and black, accessorizing with a demon’s tail, leading a post-Halloween show in Toad’s Place, a downtown nightclub that generally throbs to rock bands, Freeman proved to be both a genially energetic host and a concert programmer who garnishes fun with substance and subtlety.

Her program of musical "creatures" avoided the obvious, or touched on it unpredictably. Yes, we heard the Dies Irae, the medieval chant for the dead, but as set to the "Night Train" bass line in "Dead Elvis," Michael Daugherty’s wildly inventive homage to the King. Bassoonist Jonathan Friedman, costumed as the Vegas-vintage Presley, fronted an ensemble of violin, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, double-bass and percussion, skittering and sliding through quotations from the Elvis songbook and evocations of the Elvis persona.

The symphony’s strings were both vivid and refined in a suite from Bernard Herrmann’s score for the Alfred Hitchcock classic "Psycho" – complete with a strategic scream, provided by none other than Freeman’s mother – and in François Dompierre’s suavely diabolic tango "Les Beautes du Diable."

Beethoven’s "The Creatures of Prometheus" Overture, a movement from Boccherini’s "La Casa del Diavolo," the "Beauty and the Beast" movement from Ravel’s "Mother Goose" Suite, featuring clarinetist Ralph Skiano and contrabassoonist Matthew Harvell, and Rimsky-Kordakov’s "Flight of the Bumblebee" rounded out the program.

Toad’s Place is a surprisingly agreeable symphonic venue, although its acoustic is on the dry side. Quieter orchestral passages face a pretty formidable obstacle in the blowers of its ventilation system.

The program repeats at 5 p.m. Nov. 4 in the Pavilion of the Science Museum of Virginia, 2500 W. Broad St. in Richmond. Tickets: $17. Details: (804) 788-1212,