Sunday, December 30, 2007


That’s a newspaper expression for columns that aren’t relevant to the day’s news, pieces that would have been as timely, or not, six months ago or six months hence. Hardcore journalists like to deride such pieces as lazy (you didn’t go out and find something new to report) or self-indulgently "writerly."

Columnists, however, would be hard-pressed to meet their quotas without thumbsucking, especially in down times such as the week after Christmas, and after already having had their year-end wrap-ups printed. Coping with that circumstance, two of The New York Times’ music writers, Anthony Tommasini and Bernard Holland, deliver engaging examples of the genre:



Thursday, December 27, 2007


My choices of best classical recordings and most memorable concerts in Richmond in 2007, along with other critics' picks in jazz, pop and rock, now in print in Style Weekly, online at:

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Wordsworth rap't, relocated

The classic video of William Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," as rendered by rapper mc nuts, has disappeared from its original home, the Lake District tourism Web site. Happily, it can still be found on YouTube, where, one hopes, it will reign forever and ever:

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Crashing stereotypes

Researchers at Oxford University find that socioeconomic status is not a predictor of cultural interests. "Billy Elliott – the fictional working-class boy from a northern mining village with a passion for ballet – is not the social freak he might seem to be. Equally, someone with an impressive ancestry and blue blood coursing through his veins is not necessarily any more cultured than the rest of us," Andy McSmith reports in The Independent:

A Zogby International survey, conducted in June for the Norman Lear Center of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School, found that its sample of 3,939 American adults expressed roughly equal preferences for classical music and rock:

(via Alex Ross, via Jody Rosen)

This research, signaling the collapse of the old highbrow/lowbrow divide, complements my contention that notions of "mainstream" and "niche" musical interests are obsolete. "Each listener's preferences differ, at least incrementally, from everyone else's. Each of us is a subatomic particle, darting between dissimilar and often distant points in an expanding universe of musical ideas," I wrote in a February essay for NewMusicBox:

Friday, December 14, 2007

A wish for the season

Give good gifts one to another,
Peace, joy, and comfort gladly bestow;
Harbor no ill ’gainst sister or brother,
Smooth life’s journey as you onward go.

Broad as the sunshine, free as the showers,
So shed an influence blessing to prove;
Give for the noblest of efforts your pow’rs;
Blest and be blest is the law of love.

– Mount Lebanon Hymnal (1893)

Christmas playlist

"An American Christmas"
Boston Camerata/Joel Cohen (Erato 92874)

"Carols from King’s"
King’s College Choir, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury (BBC/Opus Arte 822, DVD)

"Christmas Vespers: Music of Michael Praetorius"
Apollo’s Fire/Jeanette Sorrell (Koch 7673)

Joan Baez, Peter Schickele (Vanguard B000000EJ5)

"Bright Day Star"
Baltimore Consort (Dorian 90198)

"Christmas Carols"
Taverner Consort, Choir & Players/Andrew Parrott (Virgin Classics 503680)

"A New Joy"
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Paul Hillier (Harmonia Mundi 907410)

"On Yoolis Night"
Anonymous 4 (Harmonia Mundi 907099)

Britten: "A Ceremony of Carols"
Poulenc: "Motets pour le temps de Noël"
Respighi: "Lauda per la Natività del Signore"
Philadelphia Singers, Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia/Michael Korn (RCA Victor 7787) [Archiv CD reissue, from]

Vaughan Williams: "Hodie," "Fantasia on Christmas Carols"
Bach Choir, Westminster Abbey Choristers, London Symphony/David Willcocks (EMI Classics 67427)

Handel: "Messiah"
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields & Choir/Neville Marriner (London/Decca 444824)

Review: 'Baroque by Candlelight'

James Wilson & friends
Dec. 13, Wilton House Museum, Richmond

One of Richmond’s most appealing holiday musical events is the evening of baroque music staged by cellist James Wilson as a benefit for his springtime Richmond Festival of Music. This season Wilson plays a mostly supportive role, joining violinists Claire Jolivet and Theresa Salomon, flutist Mary Boodell and harpsichordist Carsten Schmidt in chamber works that might have been played in musicales in the homes of colonial and early national America.

The ensemble performs on period-style instruments in such a home, Wilton, an 18th-century mansion-turned-museum overlooking the James River in Richmond’s West End.

At least one work on the program, Corelli’s "Sonata da Camera a tre," Op. 2, No. 4, is known to have been heard in 18th-century Virginia; Thomas Jefferson acquired the score in France and played it at Monticello. Other pieces by Bach, Handel and Telemann were familiar to some early Americans. The String Trio No. 2 in D minor by John Antes circulated in Moravian communities from his native Bethelehem, PA, south to Salem (now Winston-Salem), NC. And the English-born Raynor Taylor would have aired his Cello Sonata in G major after he settled in Maryland in the 1760s.

Authenticity has its limits: Musicians visiting Wilton 200 years ago would not have played to 60 guests packed into the house’s "upper passage," or second-story hallway, as they were in the first of two concerts. A repeat of the program will be staged in the more spacious reception room of Wilton's Dependency Building.

On a damp and (for December) balmy night, early fiddles were intonationally finnicky; and making tonally complementary voices of two baroque violins proved to be as difficult as matching the tones of two operatic sopranos.

Jolivet fared better through most of the program, producing especially fine affectus, or stylized expressive effect, in the adagio of Bach’s Sonata in C minor, BWV 1017, and, with Boodell’s baroque flute, in the grave movement of Telemann’s Concerto in A major.

Wilson, who spent most of the program playing continuo with Schmidt, exploited his cameo in Taylor’s baroque-cum-classical sonata. Introducing the work, Wilson noted that Taylor, as a boy chorister singing at Handel’s funeral, dropped his hat into the composer’s grave; and that a musicale in colonial Maryland was called an "olio," an antique synonym for "hodgepodge." The work didn’t quite live up to such an introduction – but what music would?

"Baroque by Candlelight" repeats at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14 at Wilton House Museum, 215 S. Wilton Road. Tickets: $25. Details: (804) 519-2098,

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

From the New World, officially

The New York Philharmonic, after much backing and forthing, has accepted the invitation of the North Korean Ministry of Culture to perform in the country’s capital, Pyongyang. Its program, predictably, will include Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”).

Four of the last five concert performances I’ve heard of the "New World" Symphony were ceremonial or quasi-official in timing or circumstance. The combined Richmond and Virginia symphonies played the piece on the inaugural weekend of the Jamestown 400th anniversary celebration last spring. The Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic played it on tour dates in Washington, where appearances by foreign orchestras tend to be diplomatic as well as cultural events. The National Symphony of Washington played it on the weekend after the 9/11 attacks. (The "unofficial" performance was by the Richmond Symphony in February 2003.)

The NY Phil’s "New World" in North Korea is a throwback to the days when this symphony was almost obligatory for American orchestras’ foreign tours. As was something by Gershwin – and what do you know, the Pyongyang gig also features "An American in Paris."

Some music historians have made the case that Dvořák conceived of his Ninth Symphony as a template for an American school of composition built on the country’s folk and vernacular music. (As it turned out, Charles Ives provided more durable models of this kind.)

But the “New World” as the default musical representation of the U.S.A.? Would Dvořák be flattered or bewildered?

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Richmond's Grammy hopefuls

eighth blackbird, the new-music sextet in residence at the University of Richmond, has snagged a Grammy Award nomination in the best chamber music performance category for its Cedille album "strange imaginary animals."

One piece on the disc, Jennifer Higdon's "Zaka," is a best classical contemporary composition nominee. The possibly prohibitive favorite in the category is Peter Lieberson's "Neruda Songs," recorded by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the composer's late wife, with the Boston Symphony for Nonesuch. "Neruda Songs" also was nominated for best classical vocal performance and best classical album. The composer recently won the University of Louisville's prestigious and lucrative ($200,000) Grawemeyer Award for the song cycle.

Andrew Imbrie (1921-2007)

Imbrie, the veteran American composer and teacher (principally at Berkeley, where he taught for more than 40 years), is remembered for "the clarity of his thinking, as well as a plain spoken eloquence that infused even the most intricate scores," Joshua Kosman writes in an obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle:

One of Imbrie's last works, the Concertino for violin and chamber orchestra, was introduced in January 2005 by violinist Ariana Kim and the Richmond Symphony, Mark Russell Smith conducting.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007)

Stockhausen, the German composer who was among the leaders of the European avant-garde in the decades following World War II, was a pioneer of what's now known as electroacoustic music, combining live voices and instruments with electronic and recorded sounds.

In later life, Stockhausen gained notoriety for his eccentricity and verbal provocations such as describing the 9/11 attacks as "the greatest work of art one can imagine."

Ivan Hewitt's obituary of the composer in The Guardian:,,2224081,00.html

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Lost my job, lost my truck, lost my wife, and then . . .

The more country music, the higher the suicide rate:

(via Andrew Sullivan, via

The right and the arts

William F. Buckley Jr. endorses music education in Gramophone, the British classical-music magazine. GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee says the arts should figure more prominently in school curricula. Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, one of the state’s leading conservative Republicans, links his son’s academic success to playing trombone in the Hanover High School Band and Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Their ideological kindred spirits spent the 1980s and ’90s attacking the National Endowment for the Arts, belittling the fine arts as "elitist" and promoting a back-to-basics curriculum that marginalized or eliminated arts instruction in public schools.

The points that arts education might push back against an increasingly coarse and brain-dead popular culture, and that the discipline of learning to play an instrument, or paint a picture, or write a poem, pays off academically – tangibly, too, in an information economy propelled by creative thinking – were brushed off or ignored.

Do the comments of Buckley, Huckabee and Bolling represent a shift in conservatives’ view of the educational and social value of the arts? Do three celebrants make a party, or just some jaw music in the foyer?

Symphony of 400

More than 300 local musicians have signed up to perform with the Richmond Symphony in "Come and Play," a benefit for the Richmond Public Schools' music education program, at 6 p.m. Dec. 9 at Virginia Commonwealth University's Siegel Center, Broad and Harrison streets in Richmond.

Erin Freeman will conduct at the event, cosponsored by VCU and the Bryan and Kathryn Harvey Family Memorial Endowment. Admission is free; donations may be made at the door or by mail to:

Bryan and Kathryn Harvey Family Memorial Endowment
The Community Foundation
7501 Boulders View Drive, Suite 101
Richmond, VA 23225

Proceeds will be used for instrument purchase and repair in the city schools.

Details: (804) 788-1212,

Musicians exit NoVa orchestra

Thirty-two members of the Prince William Symphony resign over the dismissal of a veteran player and other differences with the orchestra's administrator-turned-music director and board of directors, the Manassas Journal Messenger reports:

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Review: 'Messiah'

Richmond Symphony & Symphony Chorus,
Erin Freeman conducting
Nov. 30, Second Baptist Church, Richmond

Erin Freeman, associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony, made her public debut as director of the Symphony Chorus in the first of two Christmas-season performances of Handel’s "Messiah." Although she was facing James Erb, the chorus’ founding director, now singing in the tenor section, she showed no hesitation in crafting her own choral sound and putting her own interpretative stamp on this all-too-familiar work.

Freeman, one of the younger protégés of the late Robert Shaw, audibly works from the old master’s template. She obtains assertive, rhythmically precise ensemble singing with focused intonation and unusually clear diction. In this performance, she exploited every opportunity to draw dynamic variety from the choristers – most strikingly, building a crescendo in the phrase "he was bruised for our iniquities," the second section of the chorus "Surely He hath borne our griefs."

That effect, and sharp contrasts in tempo, phrasing and dramatic effect in the number’s four sections, made this sequence, normally overshadowed by "Hallelujah," "For unto us a child is born," "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion" and "Worthy is the Lamb," the choral highlight of the performance.

Conducting an orchestra of mid-18th century scale – 21 strings and two oboes with continuo in most numbers – Freeman maintained better than usual balance between instruments and a relatively oversized chorus of about 80 voices. ("Messiah" choruses of Handel’s time were half this size or smaller.) String ensemble and articulation were unusually fine, cellos and double-basses unusually hefty.

Harpsichordist Jonathan Moyer – uncredited in the program book, despite having more notes to play than any other instrumentalist – gave stylish, at times richly atmospheric, support to recitatives. The lute tone he produced in "He was despised" was especially noteworthy. Organist Michael Simpson made the most of his elaborative cameo in the chorus "All we like sheep."

Freeman has selected 39 of the 54 numbers of "Messiah," restoring the chronically omitted chorus "The Lord gave the word" and the alto-tenor duet "O death, where is thy sting?" (This is the season's most generous sampling by a professional orchestra in Virginia. The Virginia Symphony of Norfolk and Roanoke Symphony are offering the so-called "Christmas portion," Part 1 plus the "Hallelujah" Chorus. Washington's National Symphony is staging a complete performance.)

Handel's solo vocal numbers pose special challenges. Many are highly theatrical, but they are not operatic arias. In modern librettos, they are called "airs;" early texts of the oratorio termed them "songs." Singers of Handel's time ornamented or elaborated on melodies, and especially on words or phrases – "shake," "crooked," "mountain and hill made low," "lift up thy voice" – that invite illustrative vocal effects.

Several generations of scholar-performers have labored to re-create the kind of voice and performance style appropriate for Handel, but that work is still in progress. European singers seem to have developed a more or less settled Handel style; that’s decidedly not the case in this country. (The Juilliard School recently engaged William Christie, the American-in-Paris guru of baroque vocalization, for its early music program. If anyone can sort things out, Christie can.)

Issues of baroque performance practice can be safely ignored by most concertgoers – that is, until they attend a performance of "Messiah" that aspires to a higher than church-choir standard, encounter soloists who aren't attuned to baroque ornamentation but feel obliged to give it a try, and hear the vocal equivalent of driving with bald tires on a slick road.

This year’s "Messiah" cast features one soloist, soprano Jennifer Ellis Kampani, who specializes in early music and has the straight tone, flexibility and rhythmic acuity to show for it; another, Sumner Thompson, who has sung enough baroque repertory to reconcile its demands with his soft-hued baritone; and two opera singers, mezzo-soprano Tracy Watson and Richmond-based tenor Tracey Welborn (a late substitute for Omar Crook, who pulled out of the first performance due to illness – no word yet on his status for the repeat). Their contributions varied predictably.

More than once, one could imagine Shaw saying: "Look, this isn’t working. Just sing the tune."

The Richmond Symphony's "Messiah" repeats at 8 p.m. Dec. 3 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road in Glen Allen. Tickets: $30. Details: (804) 788-1212,