Sunday, March 30, 2008

Review: Cuarteto Latinoamericano

March 29, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond

In "Experiencing Villa-Lobos," the three-day festival just concluded at Virginia Commonwealth University, at least two sides of Heitor Villa-Lobos came through: The romantic sensualist, a kind of Brazilian Chausson; and the modern formalist, whose materials keep breaking out of their formal confines for soulful song and uninhibited dance.

Cuarteto Latinoamericano, an ensemble that specializes in Latin American music generally and Villa-Lobos especially (having recorded his 17 string quartets for Dorian), essayed those two sides of the composer in his First and Seventh quartets, along with the Second Quartet of Villa-Lobos’ compatriot Francisco Mignone.

The musicians – violinists Saúl Bitrán and Arón Britrán, violist Javier Montiel and cellist Alvaro Bitrán – sensibly hoarded the bulk of their intensity and concentration for Villa-Lobos’ Seventh Quartet (1943), one of his largest and most rigorous compositions. The foursome has mastered the piece’s considerable technical challenges, and so can bring a welcome measure of spontaneity to music that otherwise could be an effortful slog.

Villa-Lobos looms audibly over Mignone’s 1957 quartet, although Mignone expresses himself more concisely and gives way more freely to dance rhythms. This performance reached its peak in the Bartókian finale, "Desafio."

Villa-Lobos’ First Quartet (1915) is rooted more explicitly in song and dance and is far more sensual in tone. The ensemble, perhaps anticipating the rigors to come, seemed slow to warm to this more accessible and expressive music. Wayward intonation didn’t help, either.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Record books revised

Audio researchers retrieve 10 seconds of melody from an 1860 phonautogram, a device invented by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville "to create a paper record of human speech that could later be deciphered," The New York Times reports:

Other Scott phonautograms, dating from as early as 1853, were found in a Paris archive; but once converted to sound, "we got the early phonautograms to squawk, that's about it," said David Giovannoni, leader of a team from California's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. A snippet of the French folk song "Au Clair de la Lune," recorded on April 9, 1860, is the oldest found so far that yields identifiably musical sound.

Thomas A. Edison's recitation of "Mary had a little lamb," long thought to be the oldest audio recording, dates from 1876.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Review: Villa-Lobos festival

March 27, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond

If someone were to tell me that Heitor Villa-Lobos’ "Rudepoema," a 22-minute-long hunk of early modern uneasy listening solo-piano music comparable to a similar stretch of, say, Bartók or Janáček, would utterly transfix a crowd of not especially highbrow members of the iTunes generation, my reflexive response would be, "No way."

That’s what happened, though, at the end of the opening-night concert of "Experiencing Villa-Lobos," Virginia Commonwealth University's festival devoted to Brazil’s preeminent composer. Pianist Sonia Rubinsky performed before about 300 students and perhaps a third as many older listeners; she had them, all of them, engrossed, as few performers of any music can accomplish with any crowd.

Rubinsky, a formidable artist last heard in these parts playing Mozart, spent her formative years in Brazil and knows Villa-Lobos’ piano works as well as any musician. (She’s recording a complete edition for Naxos.)

"Rudepoema" may be the toughest nut of the canon. Villa-Lobos wrote it as a showpiece for and quasi-character sketch of Arthur Rubinstein in the 1920s, when that long-lived pianist was at his most flamboyantly virtuosic. The piece’s technical challenges are comparable to those of Ravel’s "Gaspard de la Nuit." Its musical language suggests some sort of culture-crossing "Fitzcarraldo" scenario – Scriabin on the Amazon, maybe.

Rubinsky worked her way up to "Rudepoema" with fluent, idiomatic performances of "A Lenda do Caboclo" (1920), Villa-Lobos’ lyrical, swaying evocation of Brazilian peasant dance, and two excerpts from "Ciclo Brasileira" (1936), the audibly Latin but somehow Chopinesque "Impressões Seresteiras" ("Impressions of a Serenade Musician") and percolatingly energetic "Dansa do Índio Branco" ("Dance of the White Indian"). She encored with the "Choros" No. 5 ("Alma brasileira").

The opening half of the concert was highlighted by Lisa Edwards-Burrs, a soprano based at Virginia State University, performing "Poema da Criança e sua Mama" ("Poem of the Child and its Mother") with flutist Kristen Kean, clarinetist Roland Karnatz and cellist Nathan Jasinski and, with pianist Dmitri Shteinberg, six pieces from "Modinhas e Canções," a cycle from the 1930s based on folk and popular songs.

Although not fluent in Portuguese, Edwards-Burrs showed she had the stylistic grasp and, more essentially, the emotional measure of these songs. She made a dramatic soliloquy of "Poema da Criança" and a joyous exercise in coloratura of "Manda tiro, tiro, lã" ("I Send for It"). And one might have thought that Villa-Lobos wrote the more soulful "Canção do Marinheiro" ("Sailor’s Song") and "Vida Formosa" ("Beautiful Life") with her voice in mind.

The program opened with Kean and Jasinski playing one of the composer’s best-known miniatures, "Assobio a Jato" ("The Jet Whistle"). Kean and Karnatz made fine work of another miniature, the samba-inflected "Choros" No. 2.

"Experiencing Villa-Lobos" continues on March 28 with simultaneous concerts of chamber and vocal music at 11:30 a.m. in Vlahcevic Concert Hall of VCU’s Singleton Arts Center and Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church; a young performers’ concert at 3:30 p.m., choral-vocal concert at 5 p.m. and orchestral-choral concert at 8 p.m., all in Vlahcevic Hall. March 29 events include a guitar concert at 3:30 p.m., a chamber-music program at 5:30 p.m., a concert by Cuarteto Latinoamericano at 8 p.m., and a screening of the 1959 film "Green Mansions," scored by Villa-Lobos, at 10 p.m., all in Vlahcevic Hall. Ticket information: (804) 828-6776,

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Review: eighth blackbird

March 26, University of Richmond

Whoever said first impressions are the truest doesn’t know some of my best friends, and wouldn’t stand a chance of getting to the nub of "singing in the dead of night," a wildly eventful, 45-minute-long work by composers David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe and choreographer Susan Marshall, given its first performance by eighth blackbird.

Lang, Gordon and Wolfe write for and perform in Bang on a Can, the New York new-music ensemble. Their energy levels are complementary and they seem to share certain traits – notably, similar senses of humor; but their contributions to this piece stand off from one another.

Lang’s two episodes and epilogue, titled "these broken wings" one, two and three, sound to be inspired by baroque contrapuntal exercises. The second episode, subtitled passacaille, effectively hides its form behind slapstick visual effect – the piling up and dropping of metal objects on a resonating surface.

Gordon’s episode, "the light of the dark," contrasts low-register slides on cello with brilliant, virtuosic violin figures, punctuated by percussive downbeats and running interference through jarring chords and tone clusters from winds, accordion, harmonica, acoustic and amplified guitar and piano, whose keyboard is played by two to six hands with a seventh finally strumming its strings.

Wolfe’s episode, from which the whole piece takes its name, centers on the sound effects of sand slowly pushed around a tabletop by one or two performers, with the conventional instruments providing a Greek chorus to the grittily resonant protagonist(s).

Its length, scope, contrast of musical and physical materials, combination of sound, movement and lighting, suggest that "singing in the dead of night" might harbor Gesamtkunstwerk aspirations. But its titles are so open-ended and its content so varied (and variable) that I wouldn’t attempt to guess what it’s "about," certainly not on one hearing. (In a post-concert Q&A, Wolfe didn’t rise to Marshall’s bait when the choreographer strung together the words "obsessive, desperate, sad" to characterize her episode. Lang and Gordon said nothing about theirs.)

It’s unquestionably a pentathlon for the performers. Pianist Lisa Kaplan, percussionist Matthew Duvall, violinist Matt Albert, cellist Nicholas Photionos, flutist Tim Munro and clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri, playing much of the work from memory, played up to and beyond the composers’ numerous technical challenges and the logistical ones posed by both score and choreography. I’ve never seen these musicians work harder at a piece, and rarely to better effect.

The program, called "The Only Moving Thing," opened with another premiere, of the Double Sextet by Steve Reich, the percussionist and composer commonly identified as one of the founders of minimalism. (Nicolas Slonimsky more alluringly termed Reich’s music "hypnopompic.") Written for 12 instruments, the piece is being introduced by eighth blackbird with six instruments pre-recorded and six played live.

Reich’s sextet opens and closes with emphatic, layered ostinato played off against sighing long notes from strings and winds, which gradually pick up the insistent rhythmic figure. The central section is lyrical, gently rocking like a barcarolle. Nervy syncopation and chorale-like melody rub against each other, as in jazz and blues.

The piece is more for executants than interpreters – aside from some issues of dynamics and whether to play long notes straight or messa di voce, it’s mostly timing and balance.
In the first performance, the recorded tracks (laid down by the ’birds two months ago) sounded more mellow and mid-rangy, while the live (and amplified) instruments were more (at times much more) edgy. That contrast may have been more pronounced in the acoustically bright Camp Concert Hall at the University of Richmond than it will be in the venues for subsequent dates.

"The Only Moving Thing" will receive six more performances through May, including a May 13 date at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Details:

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

VCU Rennolds series 2008-09

The Guarneri String Quartet will play one of the last dates in a 45-year career in next season’s Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Concerts at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The Guarneri, organized in 1964 and a regular presence in the VCU chamber-music series since the early 1980s, will perform at the university in February. Last summer, the group announced its intention to retire in 2009.

In addition to the Guarneri, the 2008-09 Rennolds series will feature the Richmond debut of one of the most prominent of the younger American string ensembles, the Daedalus Quartet, which recently concluded residencies at the Juilliard School and Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and is now quartet-in-residence at Columbia University.

Other artists booked for Rennolds Chamber Concerts next season are pianist Awadagin Pratt, violinist Rachel Barton Pine and, in first Richmond performances, the Hungarian Virtuosi chamber orchestra and the Imani Winds.

Pratt, Pine and the Imani Winds will present master classes in conjunction with their visits.

Performances will be staged at 8 p.m. in Vlahcevic Concert Hall of VCU’s Singleton Arts Center, Park Avenue at Harrison Street.

The 2008-09 Rennolds Chamber Concerts schedule:

* Daedalus Quartet, Sept. 13.

* Awadagin Pratt, Oct. 25. (Master class, 4 p.m. Oct. 24.)

* Hungarian Virtuosi, Nov. 15.

* Rachel Barton Pine, Jan. 31. (Master class, 4 p.m. Jan. 30.)

* Guarneri Quartet, Feb. 28.

* Imani Winds, April 4. (Master class, 4 p.m. April 3.)

Season subscriptions are $125, $105 for seniors 60 and older, $50 for full-time students. Single tickets are $32, $28 for seniors, $10 for students.

Details at the VCU Music Department box office: (804) 828-6776.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Keltonic scores again

Richmond's John Keltonic, a prolific composer of scores for television documentaries (among other things), has two more set to air on PBS. Locally, on WCVE (Channel 23), "The Power of Forgiveness" is scheduled for 11:30 p.m. March 24, and the first installment of "Retirement Revolution" begins at 11 p.m. March 31.

More of Keltonic's music at:

Street music

In Birmingham, England, 15 pianos are placed along the streets, and passersby invited to stop and play them:,,2265308,00.html

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


My profile of eighth blackbird, the new-music sextet in residence at the University of Richmond, is in print in Style Weekly, online at:

Monday, March 17, 2008

Maestro right

As orchestras from Chicago and Philadelphia to Richmond and Fairfax search for new music directors, the Chicago Tribune's Alan G. Artner reminds us that snarling martinets often produce better music than congenial colleagues:,0,5934068.story

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Richmond Symphony 2008-09

Six of the nine finalists to succeed Mark Russell Smith as music director of the Richmond Symphony – Mikhail Agrest, Daniel Meyer, Steven Smith, Marc Taddei, Arthur Post and Dorian Wilson – will conduct the bulk of the orchestra’s 2008-09 season.

Each will lead a program in the mainstage Masterworks series, as well as dates in other series: Agrest in Kicked Back Classics casual concerts; Meyer and Wilson in the chamber-orchestra festival; Steven Smith, Taddei and Post in Pops concerts.

Mark Russell Smith will conduct three programs, including Christmas-season performances of Handel’s "Messiah," Easter-season performances of Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion," and in May, in his final concerts as music director, the orchestra’s first performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

Three other finalists for music director – Alastair Wills, Christian Knapp and Arthur Fagen – are scheduled for performances in fall 2009. The orchestra expects to name its fifth music director by the end of next year.

In 2008-09, the symphony’s four-program festival series will focus on music of Joseph Haydn, with the composer represented by three symphonies, the "Little Organ" Mass, the Violin Concerto in C major and String Quartet No. 30 ("Joke"), prerformed alongside works by contemporaries of Haydn and two living American composers, John Corigliano and Bright Sheng. Meyer will conduct concerts in October, Wilson in February, and Erin Freeman, the symphony's associate conductor, in November and May.

The Kicked Back Classics series of four casual concerts will move to The National, the recently restored movie and vaudeville house known in the last century as the National Theatre, in downtown Richmond. Agrest will conduct the opening concerts in September, Freeman the subsequent three programs.

The Richmond Symphony Chorus, directed by Freeman, will sing in November performances of Stravinsky’s "Symphony of Psalms," conducted by Steven Smith; the Christmas-season "Messiah" and "Let It Snow" pops concerts; the Easter-season "St. Matthew Passion;" a chamber contingent of the chorus will perform in the opening of the Haydn Festival, conducted by Meyer.

Major orchestral repertory, in addition to the Mahler Ninth, includes Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony (conducted by Agrest), Brahms' Second Symphony (Meyer), Schubert's Ninth Symphony (Steven Smith), Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony (Taddei), Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" (Wilson), the first symphonies of Beethoven and Shostakovich (Post), Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony (Wilson), and Haydn's "London" and Beethoven's Eighth symphonies (Freeman).

Programs also will feature first Richmond Symphony performances of Britten's song cycle "Les Illuminations," sung by tenor Robert Breault with Wilson conducting; Christopher Rouse's Trombone Concerto, conducted by Agrest with a soloist to be announced; Michael Torke's "Javelin," conducted by Meyer; and Sheng's "Postcards," with Molly Sharp, the orchestra's principal violist, and Freeman conducting.

Violinist Karen Johnson, the orchestra’s concertmaster, will be featured in Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto and John Williams' "Schindler's List" film score. Three other principal players, cellist Neal Cary, flutist Mary Boodell and clarinetist Ralph Skiano, also will perform as soloists.

For a season brochure and other information, call the symphony box office at (804) 788-1212 or visit

(Current subscribers will receive a discount on renewed subscriptions through March 31.)

The symphony's 2008-09 season programs:

8 p.m. Fridays, Second Baptist Church, Richmond
8 p.m. Saturdays, First Baptist Church, Richmond
8 p.m. Mondays, St. Michael Catholic Church, Glen Allen
Full-season subscription (eight concerts): $80-$252 (Second Baptist), $80-360 (First Baptist), $80-$202 (St. Michael)
Half-season subscription (four concerts): $40-$126 (Second Baptist, First Baptist), $40-$101 (St. Michael)

SEPT. 19, 20, 22 – Mikhail Agrest conducting. Verdi: "La Forza del Destino" Overture; Christopher Rouse: Trombone Concerto (soloist TBA); Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4.

OCT. 10, 11, 13 – Daniel Meyer conducting. Michael Torke: "Javelin;" Barber: Violin Concerto (Karen Johnson, violin); Brahms: Symphony No. 2.

NOV. 14, 15, 17 – Steven Smith conducting. Barber: "Second Essay" for orchestra; Stravinsky: "Symphony of Psalms" (Richmond Symphony Chorus); Schubert: Symphony No. 9 ("Great").

JAN. 16, 17, 19 – Marc Taddei conducting. Strauss: "Four Last Songs" (soloist TBA); Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2.

FEB. 20, 21, 23 – Arthur Post conducting. Beethoven: Symphony No. 1; Boccherini: Cello Concerto in B flat major (Neal Cary, cello); Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1.

MARCH 6, 7, 9 – Dorian Wilson conducting. Ives: "The Unanswered Question;" Britten: "Les Illuminations" (Robert Breault, tenor); Rimsky-Korsakov: "Scheherazade."

APRIL 17, 18, 20 – Mark Russell Smith conducting. Bach: "St. Matthew Passion" (soloists TBA, Richmond Symphony Chorus, Greater Richmond Children's Choir).

MAY 15, 16, 18 – Mark Russell Smith conducting. Mahler: Symphony No. 9.

8 p.m. Fridays, Bon Air Baptist Church, Richmond

3 p.m. Sundays, Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland
Subscription: $40-$137 (Bon Air), $40-$90 (Randolph-Macon)

OCT. 3, 5 – Daniel Meyer conducting. All-Haydn program: "L’isola disabitata" Overture, aria (soloist TBA); Violin Concerto in C major (soloist TBA); Quartet in E flat major ("Joke") (Richmond Symphony String Quartet); "Little Organ" Mass in B flat major (Richmond Symphony Chamber Chorus); Symphony No. 85 ("La reine").

NOV. 21, 23 – Erin Freeman conducting. Fux: Sinfonia from "Il Fonte della Salute;" C.P.E. Bach: Sinfonia No. 3 in C major; Haydn: Symphony No. 7 ("Le Midi"); Beethoven: Symphony No. 8.

FEB. 6, 8 – Dorian Wilson conducting. Haydn: "Andromeda and Persus" Overture, Symphony No. 43 ("Mercury"); Mozart: Symphony No. 41 ("Jupiter").

MAY 8, 10 – Erin Freeman conducting. John Corigliano: "Voyage" for flute and string orchestra (Mary Boodell, flute); Wolf: "Italian Serenade;" Bright Sheng: "Postcards" (Molly Sharp, viola); Haydn: Symphony No. 104 ("London").

Club concerts at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays, Family concerts at 4 p.m. Sundays, The National, Richmond
Subscription: $36 (Club), $61 (Family)

SEPT. 25, 28 – Mikhail Agrest conducting. "The Music Effect."

OCT. 23, 26 – Erin Freeman conducting. "Music for a Theater."

JAN. 22, 25 – Erin Freeman conducting. "Music for Poe."

APRIL 30, MAY 3 – Erin Freeman conducting. "Jazz-o-Matic."

8 p.m. Saturdays, Landmark Theater, Richmond
Subscription: $126-$216

NOV. 8 – Steven Smith conducting. "Gershwin’s Greatest," with "Rhapsody in Blue" (pianist TBA).

DEC. 6 – Erin Freeman conducting. "Let It Snow" holiday program (Richmond Symphony Chorus, Greater Richmond Children’s Choir).

JAN. 10 – Marc Taddei conducting. "Sinfonia del Fuego" tango program (Raul Jaurena, bandoneon).

FEB. 28 – Arthur Post conducting. "Hollywood Nights," with John Williams’ "Schindler’s List" (Karen Johnson, violin; Ralph Skiano, clarinet).


DEC. 5 (8 p.m., Second Baptist Church), DEC. 8 (8 p.m. St. Michael Catholic Church) – Mark Russell Smith conducting. Handel: "Messiah" (soloists TBA, Richmond Symphony Chorus). Tickets: $25-$35 (Second Baptist), $30 (St. Michael).

APRIL 25 (8 p.m., Landmark Theater) – Conductor TBA. "Video Games Live," produced by video game composers Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall, with Richmond Symphony Chorus. Tickets: $20-$60.

Review: Richmond Symphony

with soloists, Richmond Symphony Chorus
Mark Russell Smith conducting
March 15, First Baptist Church, Richmond

Verdi’s Requiem is the most operatic of the well-known settings of the Catholic Mass for the dead, both in vocal demands and dramatic punch. It’s the be-good-or-else version, Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Judgment Day fresco in sound – terrifying, woeful, desperately pleading.

Not the sort of piece in which you’d expect to hear much subtlety. Yet subtleties abound, in string figurations, wind ensembles, vocal duets and trios, and in much of the choral writing.

Mark Russell Smith, conducting the Richmond Symphony, Symphony Chorus and an unusual quartet of soloists, emphasizes many of Verdi’s finer details, to such effect that the tumult of the Dies Irae is not the strongest impression the listener carries out of the performance.

The second of three performances was at First Baptist Church, a venue whose stage is too small to accommodate the full orchestra and chorus. Basses sang on the stage, other sections in the balconies on either side of the orchestra. The chorus, prepared by Erin Freeman, sounded generally unified, robust and/or blood-curdling when appropriate; but in quieter sections its sound seemed to float over the room. Whether Verdi had such a literally angelic quality in mind we’ll leave for musicologists to ponder, but the effect was unexpected, striking and often quite moving.

Among the soloists, tenor Dan Snyder had the bright projection and expressive sob one expects from an Italianate tenor. Soprano Kerri Marcinko’s voice was brilliant but lighter than optimal. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Hines and bass-baritone Michael Dean sang darkly and with great weight (Hines' low notes were enormous). Dean sang with little vibrato and Hines with virtually none.

Mismatched as their voices were, they sounded fine, and usefully transparent, in ensembles. Their different vocal characters brought more than the usual musical contrast to solo numbers, and expressively enhanced the most emotive passages of the text.

Dean’s stage-whispered "Mort stupebit et natura" in the Tuba mirum, his ominous delivery of the Confutatis, Hines’ exceptionally stark reading of the Liber scriptus (thin high register aside) and her duet with Marcinko in the Agnus Dei were the soloists’ best moments.

Bassoonist Martin Gordon was as no less expressive an instrumental voice in his accompaniment of the soprano, mezzo and tenor in the Quid sum miser.

The Verdi Requiem will be repeated at 8 p.m. March 17 at St. Michael Catholic Church, 4491 Springfield Road, in Glen Allen. Tickets: $28. Details: (804) 788-1212;

Friday, March 14, 2008

Face time

* Newly unearthed portraits from life give us better ideas of what Mozart looked like in youth and adulthood. In his Vienna years, he looked like a composite of youngish British actors in period-dress dramas:

* The Centre for Forensic and Medical Art at Dundee University in Scotland, meanwhile, has reconstructed the face of Johann Sebastian Bach. I'm reminded of Rod Steiger as Mr. Joyboy in "The Loved One":

* What did Beethoven look like when he wasn't sullen?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

'Carmina Burana,' translated

Betcha can't watch it just once. Hit the refresh button after it loads so sound and pictures are in sync:

(Via Alex Ross)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Arts and smarts

"Learning, Arts and the Brain," a Dana Arts and Cognition Consortium study by neuroscientists at seven U.S. universities, suggests that "[c]hildren motivated in the arts develop attention skills and strategies for memory retrieval that also apply to other subject areas," Science Daily reports:

"We now have further reasons to believe that training in the arts has positive benefits for more general cognitive mechanisms," says Dr. Michael S. Gazzaniga of the University of California at Santa Barbara, who led the research.

Gazzaniga's summary from the Dana Foundation website:

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Fred blogs

Fred Child, host of American Public Media's "Performance Today" (heard locally from 9-11 a.m. on WCVE, 88.9 FM, and its sister stations), has launched a blog, "Today's Fredlines," at:

Fairfax Symphony conductor search

The Fairfax Symphony has named six finalists to succeed William Hudson, who has conducted the orchestra since 1971.

The finalists, one of whom will become music director in the 2009-10 season, are:

* Paul Haas, former music director of the New York Youth Symphony.

* Marcelo Lehninger, music advisor of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas.

* Laura Jackson, a native of Roanoke, former assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony.

* Daniel Meyer, resident conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and music director of the Asheville (NC) Symphony and Erie (PA) Philharmonic. (Meyer is also one of the nine finalists for music director of the Richmond Symphony.)

* Gregory Vajda, resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony.

* Christopher Zimmerman, music director of the Hartt (CN) Symphony.

VCU winds at Carnegie Hall

Virginia Commonwealth University's Symphonic Wind Ensemble, directed by Terry Austin, will perform in the finale of the New York Wind Band Festival at 8 p.m. March 18 at Carnegie Hall. The concert, also featuring the Furman University Wind Ensemble, will conclude a three-day event drawing student wind musicians from across the country.

Tickets are $20, and may be ordered by calling the Carnegie Hall box office at (212) 247-7800, or at

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Review: Richmond Symphony

March 2, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

Erin Freeman, the Richmond Symphony’s associate conductor, led chamber contingents of the orchestra and Richmond Symphony Chorus in a darkly expressive, rhythmically taut reading of Johann Sebastian Bach’s early cantata "Christ lag in Todesbanden" ("Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death"), BWV 4, sure to be remembered as one of the highlights of this season’s Bach Festival series.

Freeman paired the cantata with the comparably austere "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, a brief, proto-minimalist work for strings and bells that, although separated from the Bach by two and a half centuries, proved to be a striking introduction to the cantata.

The chorus, whose direction Freeman assumed this season, was trimmed to two dozen voices (among them, founding chorusmaster James Erb, singing in the tenor section), providing the right balance for the small string orchestra. The singers’ ensemble was generally unified and their diction good, but they could not compensate for the dry acoustic of Randolph-Macon College’s Blackwell Auditorium.

Dry sound also affected the more cheerful second half of the program, devoted to Johann Christian Bach’s Sinfonia in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 2, and Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 101 in D major, known as "the Clock" for the tick-tock tempo of its andante.

Gustav Highstein’s gracefully lyrical oboe solo in the andante was the high point of the Bach sinfonia, a fine example of the early classical or rococo style of the mid-18th century.

Haydn’s meatier symphony, one of the best-known of the symphonies he wrote for performances in London in the 1790s, received a solid "big-band" treatment, emphatic in its gestures and blunt in its accents. Like many conductors, Freeman has yet to master the peculiar rhythmic character – the musical equivalent of hydroplaning wheels on a wet surface – of Haydn’s string writing at the speediest tempos.

Review: Pascal Rogé

March 1, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond

Pascal Rogé, the eminent French pianist, turned what might have been a didactic exercise – a survey of the forms of piano music that Chopin bequeathed to subsequent generations of French composers – into two long suites of exquisite pianism and well-judged stylistic contrast.

Rogé began with three examples of the nocturne, with Chopin’s unusually stark, even severe Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1, bracketed by the more sensuous first nocturnes of Fauré and Poulenc. He went on to contrast three waltzes from Ravel’s "Valses Nobles et Sentimentales" with the familiar Chopin Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2; and three Chopin etudes, Op. 25, Nos. 1 and 10, and Op. 10, No. 12, with the great "Etude pour les arpèges composées" of Debussy. All that flowed with pauses of no more than two seconds between pieces.

The less crowded but no less formidable second half featured Chopin’s preludes in D flat major, Op. 28, No. 15, and B minor, Op. 28, No. 6 and six Debussy preludes, including the familiar "La Fille aux Cheveux de lin" and "La terrasse des audiences au clair de lune," between the little-known Ballade of Debussy and much-loved Ballade in F minor, Op. 52, of Chopin.

The most lingering impressions Rogé left were of clarity and moderation. He showed few flashes of temperament, even in Chopin’s fiery B minor Etude and the tempestuous measures of Op. 52, and adhered strictly – not quite pedantically – to the tempos and ritards of the dance pieces.

Compensating for this seeming lack of spontaneity, the pianist exposed every strand and faithfully rendered every subtlety of harmony and color in this music. He let it speak for itself, which it did with memorable eloquence.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Review: 'Eugene Onegin'

Virginia Opera
Feb. 29, Landmark Theater, Richmond

Tchaikovsky’s opera "Eugene Onegin," like most of his instrumental music, is a deeply internalized drama. Its storyline, from Pushkin’s verse-novel, is a straightfoward romantic tragedy of manners; its scenic elements, in the Russian countryside and a palace in St. Petersburg, are sightly, glitteringly so in a pair of ball scenes, but no more than decorative. The drama hinges almost entirely on the singers’ projections of their characters’ emotional lives.

The Virginia Opera’s production (its first of a Russian opera) boasts a vocally capable but dramatically variable cast. Soprano Veronica Mitina, as Tatiana, is quite credible as a naïve young girl smitten but spurned by Onegin, a suave, jaded houseguest – she is passionate but suitably girlish in the lengthy "letter" aria – and matures convincingly into the regal beauty who swallows her regrets and turns away Onegin a few years later.

Tenor Patrick Miller is comparably characterful and in similarly excellent voice as the romantic poet Lensky, who introduces Onegin to Tatiana, then falls in a duel with Onegin in a rivalry over the attention of her sister, Olga.

Baritone Jason Detwiler has the voice for Onegin, but doesn’t really bring off the character’s self-absorption and arrogance. He improves as the hopeless suitor of the last act.

Mezzo-soprano Oksana Sitnitska’s is an attractive Olga, if slightly too hefty in voice for the role. Mezzos Susan Shafer, as Larina, the girls’ mother, and Barbara Dever, the nurse Filippievna, make fine work of their nostalgic duet in Act 1. Tenor Omar Salam, as the mincingly comic Monsieur Triquet, and bass Todd Robinson, as Tatiana’s husband, Prince Gremin, stand out in their cameos.The cast’s Russian sounds pretty consistent – that is, the Americans sound about as fluent as Mitina, who is Russian, and Sitnitska, who is Ukrainian.

Julia Pevzner’s stage direction is unfussily effective. Alexander Lisiyansky’s scenic design is minimal but evocative, although the great revolving arm of an unseen windmill seems more distracting than symbolic (assuming it was intended to be symbolic).

The company’s chorus and dancers make the most of their offstage folk choruses and ball scenes. The orchestra, conducted by Peter Mark, is warmly expressive but rather underpowered, and decidedly under-accented in the dance numbers.

The production's final performance, with Joseph Walsh conducting, is at 2:30 p.m. March 2 at Richmond's Landmark Theater. Tickets: $20-$85. Details: (804) 262-8003 (Ticketmaster);