Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Review: Richmond Festival of Music

April 29, Second Presbyterian Church

Charles Ives commonly is described as a "maverick" American composer, but in truth he was an even more American character: a cuss. Not just an old cuss, either – he started young as a contrarian who made a study of going against the grain, complicating the issue for the joy of it or the hell of it. His cussedness can be fascinating or endearing, but sometimes he just tests your limits.

Ives’ Piano Trio (1904-11) see-saws between endearment and aggravation. He wrote it as a reminiscence of his student years at Yale; the listener can hear it as a riotous memoir or as a dense jumble of memories. A spoof of earnest Socratic dialogue is followed by "Tsiaj" – "this scherzo is a joke" – a medley-in-bedlam of 19th-century folk songs and popular tunes, which is followed by an outrageously florid prelude leading into a harmonically warped rendition of "Rock of Ages."

This fiendishly difficult score demands a go-for-broke performance, and that’s what it got from pianist Carsten Schmidt, violinist Diane Pascal and cellist James Wilson in the third installment of this year’s Richmond Festival of Music.

The three musicians projected Brahmsian expression and rhetorical effect, but with a crazed urgency, as if Brahms had ingested amphetamines. Their idiomatic singing of the old tunes sounded like miraculous outgrowths from Ives’ thicket of harmonies and sonorities. Against the odds, they usually managed to keep their voices in balance. Schmidt even cut through the fog of the piano part – no mean feat.

A less manic but no less eventful Ives emerged in a set of songs from mezzo-soprano Leslie Mutchler and pianist Gabriel Dobner. Mutchler’s rich, operatic voice was best employed in the bittersweet reverie of "Tom Sails Away" and the shimmering impressionism of "The Housatonic at Stockbridge." She had the enthusiasm, but not the boyish voice, for "The Circus Parade," and allowed tone to overcome style and diction in Ives’ wistful early ballad "Waltz."

In a set of five songs by Stephen Foster, Mutchler sounded most attuned to the Celtic-styled "Hard Times Come Again No More" and "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair."

Dobner, an accompanist of long experience, supported the singer admirably and was masterful in conveying Ives’ energy and reproducing the composer’s tone-painting.

Flutist Mary Boodell, clarinetist Laura DeLuca and Schmidt were tightly integrated and highly animated in "Barn Dances" (2004) by Libby Larsen. These updatings of hoedown and fiddle tunes frequently recall the treatments of American style produced by European composers of the 1920s – imagine Poulenc strolling along the Chisholm Trail. Boodell made especially fine work of the fluttering effects in "Rattlesnake Twist."

Pianist Lori Piitz opened the program with a brittle rendition of Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s showpiece "The Banjo." She was in more fluent form by the time she joined Pascal and DeLuca in the evening’s finale, four pieces from "Afternoon Cakewalk," a suite that William Bolcom arranged from ragtime tunes by Scott Joplin, Louis Chauvin and himself, highlighted by Bolcom’s best-known rag, "Graceful Ghost."

The Richmond Festival of Music continues with concerts at 8 p.m. May 2 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church and 8 p.m. May 3 at the Virginia Holocaust Museum. Tickets: $25. A free "Ear Project" lecture-recital will be staged at 11 a.m. May 3 at the Richmond Public Library’s downtown Main Branch. Details: (804) 519-2098;

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Arts and smarts (con't.)

Researchers now suggest that correlations between arts education and improved academic performance are off the mark, Ann Hulbert writes in The New York Times Magazine:


My interview with George Daugherty, the conductor leading the Richmond Symphony on May 3 in "Bugs Bunny on Broadway," classic Looney Tunes animations with classic(al) scores of Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn, in print in Style Weekly, online at:

Monday, April 28, 2008

Henry Brant (1913-2008)

Henry Brant, the composer best known as a pioneer of "spatial" music, has died at the age of 94 at his home in Santa Barbara, CA.

Brant, who was born in Montreal and moved to New York in 1929, decided in the 1950s that “single-style music . . . could no longer evoke the new stresses, layered insanities, and multi-directional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit.”

His 1953 work "Antiphony I," for five groups of instruments placed at a distance from one another onstage and in the auditorium, was the first of many pieces in which Brant treated space as music's "fourth dimension," the other three being pitch, time and timbre.

After teaching at Columbia University and the Juilliard School, Brant taught composition at Bennington College (1957-80). His orchestral work "Ice Field" won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2002.

More on Henry Brant and his music:

Rattle retained

The Berlin Philharmonic has voted to keep Simon Rattle as its chief conductor beyond the expiration of his current contract in 2012. Details of the extension are still in negotiation.

The orchestra's musicians, who elect their conductor, chose Rattle to succeed Claudio Abbado in 2002. A few seasons into his tenure, though, the British conductor's progressive ideas reportedly generated dissension between musicians wedded to traditional repertory and those receptive to Rattle's programming of modern and contemporary music and performances in uncoventional venues.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Boulez the optimist

Pierre Boulez on the classical audience's receptivity to modern and contemporary music: "20% are very interested in new things, 50% can be persuaded and 30% are in their coffins before their time."

The 83-year-old enfant terrible-turned-patriarch, profiled by Nicholas Wroe in The Guardian:,,2276332,00.html

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Review: Richmond Symphony

George Manahan conducting
April 25, Second Baptist Church, Richmond

Give George Manahan a complex, colorful modern score and he will give you a performance to remember. Multiply that by three and you have the program Manahan conducts in his first dates with the Richmond Symphony since he left the orchestra 10 years ago to become music director of the New York City Opera.

In what he drolly calls "a nostalgic look back at the good old days of the 20th century," Manahan brings extraordinary vividness and vitality to Debussy’s "La Mer," Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, with Karen Johnson, the symphony’s concertmaster, as soloist.

Johnson, performing on a high stool as she mends a broken foot, plays a highly collaborative role in the Stravinsky, which casts the violin as an interlocutor more than as a conventional solo voice. The composer harks back to – at times virtually quotes – his "L’histoire du Soldat" ("The Soldier’s Tale"), in which the violin carries on running dialogues with trumpet and other instruments in a chamber ensemble. Here, the solo violin’s exchanges are with orchestral soloists, most prominently bassoon and trumpet, as well as each section of the orchestra.

The violinist, with bassoonist Jonathan Friedman, trumpeter Rolla Durham and other partners, sustained a lively, largely good-humored discourse in the first of three weekend performances. She tone was brightly projected and focused but not loud, and expressively austere, even in the relatively lyrical showcase Stravinsky gives the soloist in the second aria movement.

The alert, rhythmically pointed and color-sensitive playing that Manahan obtained in the Stravinsky was matched, although on far broader soundscapes, in the Debussy and Bartók.

"La Mer," of course, bathes in tone color (both subtle and garish) and generates great waves of sonority; but this music’s impact is compounded in a reading that attends to details of rhythm, dynamics and balance. Manahan and the orchestra clearly had seen to those details in rehearsal, and so were able to deliver a performance of crystalline clarity that did not stint on spontaneity.

The Bartók was, in a word, amazing. The score calls for every soloist and section of the orchestra to play virtuosically, and everyone played up to that standard. (The strings' figurations in a quite briskly paced finale were especially impressive.) Normally precarious balances in the orchestration sounded naturally even-keeled; treacherous rhythmic currents were negotiated faultlessly, seemingly effortlessly; every color and accent was in its place and packed its intended punch.

Great care obviously went into preparing this work, but it sounded like play – music as extreme sport, you could say. I have never heard the wit of this piece better expressed, or its colors more vividly rendered, or its varied strains of energy more powerfully harnessed. This belongs on the short list of greatest performances in the orchestra's half-century history.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. April 26 at First Baptist Church in Richmond and 8 p.m. April 28 at St. Michael Catholic Church in Glen Allen. Tickets: $20-$50. Details: (804) 788-1212;

Friday, April 25, 2008

Fermented with Bach

The Japanese food company Marujyu has introduced Bahha no Yuraku Kyoichiraku, a miso bean paste fermented for 150 days while music of Johann Sebastian Bach was piped into the fermentation chamber:

"Listening to Bach makes both people and miso better," said Tomoaki Sato, the company's president.

(via Soho the Dog)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Game changers

Many orchestras and classical radio stations have invited their audiences to vote for favorite pieces of classical music. A novel twist on that comes from the Chicago Sinfonietta, whose music director is the Richmond-born conductor Paul Freeman.

The orchestra, in league with the Chicago Humanities Festival, invites listeners to select "the most transformative classical music compositions ever written." A panel of seven experts selected nominees in classical, romantic and modern categories. Listeners are asked to vote for one work from each grouping, and may nominate a fourth composition as a write-in.

Two of the winners will be played in concert on Nov. 10. The Chicago Sinfonietta hopes to present a live streaming broadcast or post a downloadable video file on its website.

The deadline for voting is July 31. Here's the ballot:

Monday, April 21, 2008

ASCAP awards to Wadsworth, Falletta

The Richmond-bred composer Zachary Wadsworth, now a doctoral student at Cornell University in Ithica, NY, has won an ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Award. He will share about $45,000 in prize money with 31 other winners for 2008.

Wadsworth, who is 24, won the ASCAP-Lotte Lehmann Foundation Art Song Competition for Young Composers in November 2007. In December, he won the Boston Choral Ensemble Commission Competition.

Here's my Jan. 2 Style Weekly profile of Wadsworth:

JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Virginia Symphony of Hampton Roads and the Buffalo Philharmonic, will receive an ASCAP Concert Music Award for her work "as [a] conductor, communicator, recording artist, audience builder, champion of American composers and distinguished musical citizen, whose career-long advocacy for American composers has made her a leading force for the music of our time."

Falletta is one of four recipients of the award. The others are composers John Corigliano and David Lang (recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music) and Joseph Jennings, music director of Chanticleer, the San Francisco-based men’s choral ensemble marking its 30th anniversary.

The awards will be presented at a ceremony on May 22 in New York.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Premature elegy

The New York Times' Bernard Holland waxes elegaic on atonal music and one of its second-generation masters, the 92-year-old composer George Perle.

"I admire Mr. Perle’s music, although I can’t say I like it very much," Holland admits. "He speaks a language he and his contemporaries made up. I can speak only the languages I was born to. Sometimes I feel guilty. Maybe I should work harder at his grammar and vocabulary. With age I feel guilty less and less."

Here's the whole essay:

Meanwhile, young musicians and listeners, grazing through computer audio files and music videos, are migrating from alt-rock and world music to John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and from there some of them are venturing into "classic" atonalism.

The top classical album this week on the Billboard chart: Hilary Hahn playing Schoenberg's Violin Concerto.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Neglected music (1)

In my review of the April 12 Richmond Festival of Music performance of Amy Beach’s Theme and Variations, Op. 80, for flute and string quartet, I mentioned an eventual post on compositions whose neglect defies rational explanation.

No fair teasing if you aren’t prepared to deliver.

Here’s a start at an occasional series on pieces that deserve much more exposure than they receive, with my best guesses as to why they are neglected, plus a recommended recording.

Bear in mind that I’m writing from the east coast of the United States, a pretty cosmopolitan part of the classical-music world but one whose musical diet differs from that of other places. Some pieces that I call "neglected" may be standard repertory where you live.

I’ll begin with five orchestral pieces:

* Ralph Vaughan Williams: "Job: a Masque for Dancing"

Based on William Blake’s "Illustrations of the Book of Job," composed in the late 1920s, introduced as a concert work in 1930 and first staged with dancers a year later, "Job" is rated by many Vaughan Williams aficionados as his greatest orchestral score. While much of the music is in the composer’s familiar pastoral vein, several dramatic sequences anticipate the turbulence and more advanced harmonic language of the Fourth Symphony (1935).

"Job" is scored for a large orchestra with a prominent part for pipe organ, which makes performances impractical in many concert halls. Revivals of the piece by dance troupes have been rare. More likely reasons for its neglect are the composer’s nationality – English music is chronically underplayed outside Britain – and that the musical style of "Job" is conservative by the standards of better-known works of the time (e.g., Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Stravinsky’s "Symphony of Psalms," Berg’s "Three Pieces for Orchestra").

Recording: English Northern Philharmonia/David Lloyd-Jones (Naxos 8.553955).

* Joaquin Rodrigo: "Concierto in modo galante" for cello and orchestra

Introduced in 1949, this is one of the loveliest examples of modern orchestrations in antique style. The piece is a late example of the genre, written three decades after Stravinsky’s "Pulcinella" and the first of Respighi’s "Ancient Airs and Dances" suites. Rodrigo’s only cello concerto, it predates his best-known antiquing job, "Fantasia para un gentilhombre," the 1954 guitar concerto based on music of Gaspar Sanz, popularized by Andrés Segovia.

Rodrigo’s "Concierto de Aranjuez" is the default guitar concerto in orchestral programming ("Fantasia para un gentilhombre," its usual disc-mate, runs a very distant second), and all other music by this long-lived, versatile and prolific Spanish composer is neglected. No celebrity cellist has recorded or regularly performed this piece. "Concierto in modo galante" sounds tame alongside some works of its time (Stravinsky’s "Orpheus," Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, Boulez’s "Livre pour cordes"), but not especially retrograde alongside some others (Richard Strauss’ "Four Last Songs," Copland’s "Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson").

Recording: Asier Polo (cello), Castille and Leon Symphony/Max Bragado-Darman (Naxos 8.555840).

* Bohuslav Martinů: Symphony No. 3

Martinů’s Third Symphony, written in the summer of 1944 and introduced by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony in October 1945, is the most concise and arguably the most intense of the Czech composer’s first four symphonies, all produced in the United States during World War II, all reflecting an exiled European’s anxiety over the war. Martinů was active in the modernist scene in 1920s Paris; you can hear echoes of that time and place in his harmonic language and wind writing, but pre-war Parisian insouciance is scarce in this austere, explosive work. Dvořák is an obvious reference for any Czech symphonist – especially one working in America – but the symphonic model that Martinů cited for his Third was Beethoven’s Third, the "Eroica."

Martinů’s music generally is underexposed outside his Czech homeland. The only one of his symphonies played with any frequency is his Sixth and last, the “Fantasies symphoniques,” written for Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony and introduced by them in January 1955. The composer’s modernized diatonic language is hardly avant-garde but sounds too rarified to rate as conservative. While it lacks the sophistication of the contemporaneous Concerto for Orchestra by Bartók and "Symphony in Three Movements" by Stravinsky, Martinů’s Third stands up to comparison with the most popular World War II-vintage symphony, Prokofiev’s Fifth.

Recording: Bamberg Symphony/Neeme Järvi (BIS 363).

* Max Bruch: Serenade in A minor for violin and orchestra

Alongside Bruch’s popular Violin Concerto in G minor, "Scottish Fantasy" for violin and orchestra and "Kol Nidrei" for cello and orchestra, the Serenade, introduced in 1900, is a mellow postscript. It is couched in traditional Germanic late-romantic style and showcases the violin’s lyrical voice without much opportunity for virtuosic display.

Most composers rated as "derivative" or "imitative" (of Mendelssohn and Brahms, in Bruch’s case) are known, if at all, for one or a handful of works. Bruch is represented by three and that seems to be deemed a generous quota. Too bad, for the Serenade is at least the equal of the G minor Concerto and superior to the "Scottish Fantasy," albeit much longer than either. Salvatore Accardo was the only major violinist to take up this piece, for 1970s recordings of all of Bruch’s works for violin and orchestra.

Recording: Salvatore Accardo (violin), Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Kurt Masur (Philips 462 167).

* William Grant Still: Symphony No. 2 in G minor ("Song of a New Race")

Still was the pioneer African-American symphonist and is customarily (predictably?) represented in the orchestral repertory by his First ("Afro-American") Symphony of 1930. His Second Symphony, introduced by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1937, is less "folkish" in style, more abstract in content. Still got his start as a professional musician working with W.C. Handy, the master of blues and early jazz; and the Second Symphony, unlike the First, reflects the composer’s fluency in jazz.

Chalk up this symphony’s neglect to lack of curiosity on the part of orchestra programmers, and perhaps a preference for the work of living black composers. The practice of cramming most performances of art-music by African-American composers into a "ghetto," from Jan. 15 (birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.) through February (Black History Month), is surely another factor.

Recording: Detroit Symphony/Neeme Järvi (Chandos 9226).

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Agnus Dei redux

As Pope Benedict XVI visits the U.S., Thomas Day, author of "Why Catholics Can't Sing: the Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste" (1990), revisits the ongoing controversy over musical style in modern worship.

Day's prescription: "Pick plain, simple music. Plain, square hymns with reasonable accompaniment. And listen to silence occasionally." (Sounds good to me, especially the last part.)

More on American Catholics' struggle to settle on the right musical tone for the Mass, and a surprising generational divide, from Hank Stuever in The Washington Post:

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Review: Dmitri Shteinberg

April 13, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond

The Russian-born pianist Dmitri Shteinberg, who in recent years has taught at Virginia Commonwealth University, is a musician of abundant technique, considerable rhetorical flair and nervy temperament. Among the pianists now at work in Richmond, Shteinberg is probably the most vivid, fiery artistic personality. His technical gifts and musical qualities received a thorough airing in a program that explored Robert Schumann's influence on the young Johannes Brahms.

The best-known selection was the Op. 10 set of four ballades by Brahms, who was also represented in the Scherzo, Op. 4, and "Variations on a Theme by Schumann," Op. 9. The Schumann pieces were the six intermezzi, Op. 4, and "Gesänge der Frühe" ("Five Morning Songs"), Op. 133.

Much of this music veers between downcast or emotionally ambivalent reverie and manic excitement, and Shteinberg’s interpretations emphasized those extremes of expression and tempo.

Not until the central variations of Brahms’ Op. 9, more than halfway through the program, did he play at a true moderato tempo; and throughout the recital he seemed most engaged when scores called for whiplash accents and expressive volatility, as in the first and third of the Schumann intermezzi and the third of the Brahms ballades.

Shteinberg’s lyrical voice found its best outlets in the fourth of the Schumann intermezzi and fourth of the "Morning Songs."

Review: Richmond Festival of Music

April 12, Second Presbyterian Church

Most "neglected" compositions don’t get heard for sound qualitative or practical reasons. Occasionally, though, you encounter a little-known piece so worthy that its neglect defies rational explanation. I have a list (an occupational hazard of music critics), and when I get around to posting it, Amy Beach’s Theme and Variations, Op. 80, for flute and string quartet will be near the top.

Beach (1867-1944), who in her less liberated times publicly styled herself as Mrs. H.H.A. Beach, was the earliest female composer of first rank in this country. A pianist, largely self-taught in composition, she wrote in a late-romantic style that accommodated some early modern developments, especially impressionism.

Her Theme and Variations, dating from 1916, is rooted in an elegaic theme recalling that of Elgar’s "Enigma" Variations; but Beach’s variations go in directions – a North African or "Moorish" flute motif, an evocation of the "Liebestod" from Wagner’s "Tristan und Isolde" – that Elgar wouldn’t have imagined, let alone attempted. In addition to a substantial, often intoxicating, flute part, the piece features substantial solos for cello and violin, and ensemble writing of great sophistication and expressiveness. Why it hasn’t been taken up by more flutists and string quartets is a mystery.

Flutist Mary Boodell, violinists Jessica Lee and Carmit Zori, violist David Cerutti and cellist James Wilson concluded the second concrert of this spring’s Richmond Festival of Music with a performance of the Beach that was both affectionate – those who hadn’t known it pretty clearly fell in love with it as they rehearsed it – and keenly focused.

The festival, which Wilson directs, usually boasts at least one surprising musical discovery. The Beach Theme and Variations may be that one this time – although, in a series devoted to little-known American chamber music, with three programs to go, it may turn out to be one of several discoveries.

George Whitefield Chadwick’s String Quartet in E minor (1896) sounded to be another case of "why haven’t I heard this before?” at least in its first two movements, built around rustic dances and hymn-like themes, clearly modeled after the American works that Dvořák produced shortly before the writing of this quartet. Chadwick, however, seems to have run out of inspirational steam, or at least compositional discipline, in a disjointed polka scherzo and a final movement that weirdly subjects an old-English-style modal tune to Brahmsian development.

Zori, Lee, Cerutti and Wilson, playing the Chadwick for second time in nine hours (it was the subject of a lecture-recital earlier in the day at the Chester Library), made as persuasive a case for the piece as any musicians could.

Richmond’s James River Singers, directed by Jeffrey Riehl, sampled a wide range of American vocal music, from William Billings’ comic "Modern Music" (1781) to William Bradley Roberts’ introspective, soulful "I Am in Need of Music" (a new setting of Elizabeth Bishop’s "Sonnet," commissioned for this ensemble in memory of Sharon Peebles Manson), but sounded most attuned to a set of golden-age pop tunes by Cole Porter and Jerome Kern.

The chamber chorus was at its best in an a cappella rendition of Porter’s "Night and Day" and, with pianist Russell Wilson, in Kern’s "All the Things You Are" (maybe the best song ever produced by an American composer).

Boodell, in excellent and highly versatile form on a very busy weekend (her festival date was bracketed by Virginia Opera performances of "Lucia di Lammermoor," in which she accompanies Manon Strauss Evrard in Lucia’s mad scene), joined pianist Carsten Schmidt to open this concert with another rarity of American chamber music, the Sarabande and Rigaudon (1921) of Arthur Foote, an attractive example of modernized "ancient" music of the same vintage and in the same vein as Ravel’s "Le Tombeau de Couperin" and Stravinsky’s "Pulcinella."

The Richmond Festival of Music continues with concerts at 8 p.m. April 29 at Second Presbyterian Church, May 2 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church and May 3 at the Virginia Holocaust Museum. Tickets: $25. A free "Ear Project" lecture-recital will be staged at 11 a.m. May 3 at the Richmond Public Library’s downtown main branch. Details: (804) 519-2098;

Friday, April 11, 2008

Review: 'Lucia di Lammermoor'

Virginia Opera, Peter Mark conducting
April 11, Landmark Theater, Richmond

Manon Strauss Evrard, the soprano who dazzled Virginia Opera audiences last fall in "The Tales of Hoffmann," returned to the company for her debut in the title role of Donizetti’s "Lucia di Lammermoor." Judging by her performance in the first of two stagings in Richmond (midway through a three-city run), Evrard promises to be one of the leading Lucias of her generation.

She has the range, flexibility and stamina for this notoriously demanding bel canto role. She negotiated the showpiece arias, from "Regnava nel silenzio" in Act 1 to the great mad scene of Act 3, securely and without audible strain, and showed remarkable tonal consistency throughout the evening.

Vocal equipment, however, is not her only asset – or even her principal one. Evrard projects Lucia’s psychic fragility from the start, and intensifies it step by step, scene to scene. Every facial expression, every gesture, as well as every quaver of the voice, anticipate the character’s ultimate breakdown.

One wonders, though, whether Evrard was a bit too systematic in her emotional deconstruction of Lucia. The mad scene, riveting as it was – sung to a dead-silent house – somehow lacked the full measure of pathos and shock. Perhaps we saw it coming too clearly too soon.

"Lucia di Lammermoor" always risks becoming "The Soprano," with Lucia completely overshadowing the rest of the cast. This, happily, is no such production. The three principal male roles are strongly cast, and at least two of the men actually rival Evrard in making a vocal impression.

They are baritone Sebastian Catana, as Enrico, Lucia’s villanous brother – here as ominously forceful as a Scarpia or Iago – and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, as Raimondo, the family chaplain who not altogether willingly goes along with Enrico’s plan for the politically advantageous marriage of Lucia and the Lord Arturo.

Tenor Israel Lozano, as Edgardo, the dispossessed master of the estate Enrico has seized and Lucia’s partner in a secret betrothal, did not summon the tone to go with his passion in Act 1, but grew in voice and presence as the drama progresssed. His death scene in Act 3 – following the Lucia’s mad scene, the toughest of acts to follow – packed a satisfyingly tragic punch.

Tenor Gregario González was suitably suave as Arturo. Tenor Brandon Wood and mezzo-soprano Amanda Ingram were vocally underpowered in the supporting roles of Normanno and Alisa, although Ingram held her own in a nicely balanced rendition of the famous Act 2 sextet.

The Virginia Opera Chorus, prepared by Joseph Walsh, was in unusually robust form, and Peter Mark, the Virginia Opera's artistic director, obtained a solid, warmly sonorous performance from members of the Richmond Symphony. Flutist Mary Boodell ably partnered Evrard in the mad scene, and the horn section enhanced the somber atmospherics of Edgardo’s death scene.

Stage director Dorothy Danner aimed for and achieved a darkly natural mode of romantic melodrama. Michael Yeargan’s set is monumental and moodily evocative, although getting it into place on the Landmark Theater stage proved to be aggravatingly noisy business.

Further performances are at 2:30 p.m. April 13 at Richmond’s Landmark Theater (tickets: $20-$85); 8 p.m. April 18 and 2 p.m. April 20 at the Center for the Arts, George Mason University, Fairfax (tickets: $44-$94). Information: (804) 262-8003 (Ticketmaster, Richmond); (888) 945-2468 (, Fairfax);

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Surround sound

The Bavarian Radio Symphony calls off its premiere of Dror Feiler's "Halat Hisar" ("State of Siege") for fear that performing it would be "adverse to the health" of the musicians. "The 20-minute composition starts with the rattle of machine-gun fire and gets louder," The Guardian reports:,,2271922,00.html

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


My review of a new DVD of Carl Nielsen's comic opera "Maskarade," now in print in Style Weekly, online at:

(The rating should be four stars, by the way.)

Review: Richmond Festival of Music

April 8, Second Presbyterian Church

The opening night of this spring’s Richmond Festival of Music closed with a loud, lengthy ovation for an ensemble that had just played the very dickens out of the String Quintet in E flat major, Op. 97, of Antonin Dvořák.

The piece, known as Dvorák’s Viola Quintet and also as the “American” (confusingly sharing that nickname with his String Quartet in F major, Op. 96), was the composer’s favorite work from his three-year interlude (1892-95) in the United States. If Dvořák had bothered to nickname it, he might have called it his "apotheosis of American dance."

Just about every dance tempo, rhythmic lilt and accent heard in this country’s music, from American Indian ritual and Protestant hymn-singing to the hoedown and cakewalk, find their way into this quintet. So do melodies garnished soulfully with flatted notes, as in Negro spirituals and the blues style that was just taking shape as Dvořák was getting his earful of Americana.

Violinists Carmit Zori and Jessica Lee, violists Molly Sharp and David Cerutti and cellist James Wilson (artistic director of the festival) neglected none of those ingredients, and gave due attention on the composer’s patina of romantic style and classical technique. Sharp made eloquent work of the larghetto's stoically heartfelt main theme. But this performance was mostly driven by infectious rhythmic energy and go-for-broke expressivity – even at the cost of occasionally shaky intonation.

The Dvořák capped an evening of rarities from native and émigré composers in the first of five programs that will be devoted entirely to American chamber music. In this opening program, Dvořák and Aaron Copland shared the bill with Thea Musgrave, Arthur Farwell and Anthony Philip Heinrich.

Heinrich was the joker in the hand, an early 19th-century immigrant from Bohemia and self-taught composer of blowsy showpieces. His "Yankee Doodliad – a National Divertimento" (1820), runs "Yankee Doodle" through a set of increasingly, verging on preposterously, florid variations, with a cockeyed yet stately march tune ("Huzzah for Washington!") plopped in the middle. Lee, Zori, Wilson, pianist Carsten Schmidt and flutist Mary Boodell (playing a part originally for fiddle, rearranged by Wilson) played up its serio-comic flourishes and played down its near-chaotic internal dynamics.

The riotous Heinrich was followed by Musgrave’s Elegy (1970) for viola and cello, a rigorous and eventful miniature that doesn’t feel elegaic in the usual manner – rather, like an accumulation of fragmentary or fleeting memories. (The fragmentation is induced, sort of, as the score lacks bar lines.) Cerutti and Wilson played it alertly and with an expressive reserve that suited the piece.

Boodell and Schmidt delivered a bright, animated account of Copland’s Duo (1971) for flute and piano, the composer’s last major work, a well-crafted, concise piece that manages to be nostalgic (with clear echoes of "Fanfare for the Common Man" and "Appalachian Spring") without being sentimental.

Playing four of Farwell’s "American Indian Melodies" (1900) and his "Ichibuzzhi" (1903), Schmidt brought out the Chopinesque qualities of these treatments of American Indian chant and dance. Alas, unlike Chopin, Farwell didn’t put his material through any real development, simply giving it a European harmonic gloss.

The Richmond Festival of Music continues with concerts on April 12 in the chapel of Second Presbyterian Church, April 29 at Second Presbyterian, May 2 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church and May 3 at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, all at 8 p.m. Tickets: $25. Free "Ear Project" mini-concerts will be staged on April 12 at the Chester Library and May 3 at the Richmond Public Library’s downtown main branch, both at 11 a.m. Details: (804) 519-2098;

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Cream of Rice and instrument maintenance

Weird tales from Jan Swafford on building and caring for musical instruments:

Monday, April 7, 2008

Pulitzers close to home (sort of)

Stephen Hartke's "Meanwhile, Incidental Music to Imaginary Puppet Plays," premiered by eighth blackbird on Nov. 7 and reprised on Feb. 22 at the University of Richmond, was a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize for music.

The Pulitzer winner was "The Little Match Girl Passion" by David Lang, one of the Bang on a Can composers whose "singing in the dead of night" was introduced by the 'birds on March 26 at UR.

Revisionist history

* Norman Lebrecht marks the Herbert von Karajan centennial. Read with protective glasses; acid may splash:

* Luciano Pavarotti lip-synced his final performance, The Guardian reports:,,2271470,00.html

* Justin Davidson concisely but comprehensively disses the Franco Zeffirelli legacy at the Metropolitan Opera:

* Jeremy Denk discusses Stravinsky's, uh, self-esteem:

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Review: Beaux Arts Trio

April 5, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond

The Beaux Arts Trio is calling it quits after 53 years – Tanglewood recitals on Aug. 20 and 21 will be the group’s last; and if the trio’s performance at Virginia Commonwealth University was representative, this last season is very much a victory lap for Menahem Pressler.

The 84-year-old pianist, the sole remaining founding member of the ensemble, was visibly and audibly the guiding musical spirit of this concert. Violinist Daniel Hope and cellist Antonio Meneses deferred to Pressler, not just on larger issues such as tempo and dynamics but on even the subtlest gestures. And most gestures were quite subtle.

According to James Oestreich's April 5 profile of the Beaux Arts in The New York Times – – Hope's burgeoning solo career led him to quit the trio after six years; in doing so, he prompted Pressler and Meneses to shut down the group. In this concert, the violinist was an especially reticent presence in an uncommonly measured and muted reading of Beethoven’s "Archduke" Trio (in B flat major, Op. 97).

From the start, Pressler set a slow pace and established a tone of quiet, often profoundly quiet, interaction among complementary but quite distinct instrumental voices. The musicians’ intonation was spot-on, their playing highly refined but expressively understated. Only in the scherzo was there more than a hint of volatility.

The group’s performance of Schubert’s Piano Trio in E flat major (not the B flat Trio listed in the program) was somewhat more brisk and gave off some sparks, notably in the opening movement. Still, the prevailing tone was one of intimate, unhurried conversation, with Pressler’s crystalline piano the aural and musical focal point.

Hope and Meneses made finely spun work of the string harmonizations in the third movement, and the cellist’s treatment of the finale’s lyrical theme was straightforwardly eloquent.

Between the Beethoven and Schubert, the group played and repeated the brief "Work for Piano Trio" written for the Beaux Arts by the Hungarian composer György Kurtág. The music is very much in character for this late vintage of the Beaux Arts: piano-centric, with rarified string voicings, and a role for resonant silence that effectively constitutes a fourth instrument.

Virginia Symphony 2008-09

The Hampton Roads-based Virginia Symphony will stage 17 classical programs next season, with performances of the Verdi Requiem, Holst’s "The Planets," Beethoven’s "Eroica" Symphony, Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique," Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra and "The Ring without Words," Lorin Maazel’s orchestral arrangement of themes from Wagner’s "Ring" cycle of music dramas.

Soloists for the season include Awadagin Pratt in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, Elmar Oliveira in Brahms’ Violin Concerto, Jennifer Koh in Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto No. 3, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet in Rodrigo’s "Concierto andaluz," Michael Ludwig in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Susan Starr in Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Franck's Symphonic Variations and Vahn Armstrong, the Virginia Symphony's concertmaster, in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1.

JoAnn Falletta, the orchestra’s music director, will conduct 10 of the programs and share performances of Handel's "Messiah" with Robert Shoup, director of the Virginia Symphony Chorus. Guest conductors include Robert Moody, music director of the Winston-Salem (NC) Symphony; Larry Rachleff, music director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic, Symphony II in Chicago and the orchestral program at Rice University in Houston; and David Amado, music director of the Delaware Symphony.

Falletta will conduct two pieces she has recorded in recent years, Paul Schoenfield's "Four Parables," with pianist Andrew Russo, and Kenneth Fuchs' "Canticle to the Sun," with French horn player David Wick. Other contemporary works on next season's schedule are "Rusty Air in Carolina" by the Richmond-bred composer and electronica artist Mason Bates, "Musica Celestis" by Aaron Jay Kernis and "Commedia" by William Bolcom.

Venues for the orchestra’s concerts are Chrysler Hall in Norfolk, the Ferguson Arts Center at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, St. Bede Catholic Church in Williamsburg and Regent University Theatre and the Sandler Arts Center, both in Virginia Beach.

Subscription and single ticket information: (757) 892-6366.

The Virginia Symphony’s 2008-09 classical programs:

* Sept. 13 (8 p.m., Chrysler Hall), Sept. 14 (2:30 p.m., Sandler Center), Sept. 19 (8 p.m., Ferguson Center) – JoAnn Falletta conducting. Copland: "El Salón Mexico;" Dohnanyi: Suite in F sharp minor; Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (Ian Parker, piano).

* Sept. 18 (8 p.m., St. Bede Catholic Church), Sept. 20 (8 p.m., Regent University Theatre) – JoAnn Falletta conducting. Rossini: "The Barber of Seville" Overture; Kenneth Fuchs: "Canticle to the Sun" (David Wick, French horn); Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 ("Italian").

* Sept. 27 (8 p.m., Chrysler Hall), Sept. 28 (2:30 p.m., Ferguson Center) – Robert Moody conducting. Mason Bates: "Rusty Air in Carolina" (Mason Bates, electronica); Saint-Saëns: Violin Concerto No. 3 (Jennifer Koh, violin); Berlioz: "Symphonie fantastique."

* Oct. 25 (8 p.m., Chrysler Hall) – JoAnn Falletta conducting. Morton Gould: "Spirituals for Orchestra;" Paul Schoenfield: "Four Parables" (Andrew Russo, piano); Brahms: Symphony No. 2.

* Nov. 1 (8 p.m., Chrysler Hall), Nov. 2 (2:30 p.m., Sandler Center) – Larry Rachleff conducting. Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 (Awadagin Pratt, piano); Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica").

* Nov. 13 (8 p.m., St. Bede Catholic Church), Nov. 15 (8 p.m., Sandler Center) – Matthew Kraemer conducting. Schumann: Symphony No. 2; works by Mozart and Beethoven.

* Nov. 22 (8 p.m., Chrysler Hall) – David Amado conducting. Mendelssohn: "Hebrides" Overture; Debussy: Nocturnes (women of Virginia Symphony Chorus); Holst: "The Planets" (women of Virginia Symphony Chorus).

* Dec. 7 (2:30 p.m., Ferguson Center) – JoAnn Falletta conducting. Handel: "Messiah" (soloists TBA, Virginia Symphony Chorus).

* Dec. 10 (8 p.m., St. Bede Catholic Church), Dec. 16 (8 p.m., Regent University Theatre) – Robert Shoup conducting. Handel: "Messiah" (soloists TBA, Virginia Symphony Chorus).

* Dec. 18 (8 p.m., Chrysler Hall), Dec. 19 (8 p.m., Ferguson Center) – JoAnn Falletta conducting. Holiday program, featuring Todd Rosenlieb Dance.

* Jan. 9 (8 p.m., Ferguson Center), Jan. 10 (8 p.m., Chrysler Hall), Jan. 11 (2:30 p.m., Sandler Center) – JoAnn Falletta conducting. "The Ring without Words," Lorin Maazel’s orchestral arrangement of themes from Wagner’s "Ring" cycle.

* Feb. 27 (8 p.m., Ferguson Center), Feb. 28 (8 p.m., Chrysler Hall), March 1 (2:30 p.m., Sandler Center) – JoAnn Falletta conducting. Verdi: Requiem (Jonita Lattimore, soprano; Charlotte Paulsen, mezzo-soprano; Fernando del Valle, tenor; Kevin Deas, bass; Virginia Symphony Chorus).

* March 7 (8 p.m., Chrysler Hall), March 8 (2:30 p.m., Ferguson Center) – Matthew Kraemer conducting. Ravel: "Rapsodie espagnole;" Rodrigo: "Concierto andaluz" (Los Angeles Guitar Quartet); Falla: "The Three-Cornered Hat."

* March 19 (8 p.m., St. Bede Catholic Church), March 20 (8 p.m., Regent University Theatre) – Wes Kenney conducting. Mozart: "The Magic Flute" Overture; Haydn: Symphony No. 94 ("Surprise"); William Bolcom: "Commedia for 18th Century Orchestra;" Beethoven: Symphony No. 2.

* March 27 (8 p.m., Ferguson Center), March 28 (8 p.m., Chrysler Hall) – JoAnn Falletta conducting. Kodály: "Morosszek Dances;" Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra; Brahms: Violin Concerto (Elmar Oliveira, violin).

* April 3 (8 p.m., Sandler Center), April 4 (8 p.m., Chrysler Hall), April 5 (2:30 p.m., Ferguson Center) – JoAnn Falletta conducting. Berlioz: "Roman Carnival" Overture; Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto No. 1 (Susan Starr, piano); Franck: Symphonic Variations (Susan Starr, piano); Puccini: "Preludio Sinfonico;" Respighi: "Feste Romane."

* April 24 (8 p.m., Ferguson Center), April 26 (2:30 p.m., Sandler Center) – JoAnn Falletta conducting. Schumann: “Manfred” Overture; Dvořák: Romance for violin and orchestra (Michael Ludwig, violin); Dvořák: “Czech Suite;” Beethoven: Violin Concerto (Michael Ludwig, violin).

* May 14 (8 p.m., St. Bede Catholic Church), May 15 (8 p.m., Regent University Theatre), May 17 (7:30 p.m., Ferguson Center) – JoAnn Falletta conducting. Mozart: Symphony No. 31 ("Paris"); Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 (Vahn Armstrong, violin); Aaron Jay Kernis: "Musica Celestis;" Poulenc: Gloria (Virginia Symphony Chorus).

Friday, April 4, 2008

Tuesday Evening Concerts 2008-09

Radu Lupu, the Romanian-born pianist who next year marks the 40th anniversary of the Leeds Piano Competition victory that launched his international career, will perform on Jan. 20 in the Tuesday Evening Concert Series in Charlottesville.

The 2008-09 series also will feature the Leipzig String Quartet, the Salzburg Chamber Soloists, cellist Daniel Mueller-Schott, violinist Arabella Steinbacher, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and the trio of violinist Renaud Capuçon, cellist Gautier Capuçon and pianist Nicholas Angelich.

All concerts are at 8 p.m. in Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia.

Season subscriptions are $65-$175. Single tickets, if available, will be $10-$25.

Information: (434) 244-9505;

The 2008-09 Tuesday Evening Concerts schedule:

* Oct. 21 – Daniel Mueller-Schott, cello. Schubert: "Arpeggione" Sonata; works by Brahms and Shostakovich.

* Oct. 28 – Isabel Bayrakdarian, soprano. Program TBA.

* Nov. 18 – Capuçon-Angelich Trio. Works by Haydn, Shostakovich and Mendelssohn.

* Jan. 20 – Radu Lupu, piano. Works by Beethoven and Schumann.

* Feb. 3 – Arabella Steinbacher, violin. Works by Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev and Ravel.

* March 10 – Leipzig String Quartet. Works by Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Isaac.

* March 31 – Salzburg Chamber Soloists. Mozart: Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, K. 364; Villa-Lobos: "Bachianas Brasileira" No. 9; Astor Piazzolla: "Five Tangos."

Legal news

Matthew Fisher, onetime organist of the rock band Procol Harum, will not get a share of the royalties as co-composer, with singer Gary Brooker, of the band’s 1967 chart-topper "A Whiter Shade of Pale," a British appeals court has ruled.

"Despite Mr. Brooker’s counter-arguments that the song was written before Mr. Fisher joined the band and that anyway the organ line was cribbed from Bach’s ‘Air on a G String,’ Mr. Fisher won his point at trial in 2006, when a court ruled that he was indeed a co-composer of the hit song’s music," Patrick J. Lyons reports in The New York Times.

"Matthew Fisher is guilty of excessive and inexcusable delay in his claim to assert joint title to a joint interest in the work. He silently stood by and acquiesced in the defendant’s commercial exploitation of the work for 38 years," Judge John Mummery said.

Bach, who has been in the hereafter for 258 years, could not be reached for comment.

'Leave my violin to rest'

Maxim Vengerov, the 33-year-old Russian rated among the world's leading violinists, has decided to lay aside his instrument indefinitely following a string of canceled performances due to a shoulder injury. Vengerov will concentrate on conducting, The Times of London reports:

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Opera bugs

The Metropolitan Opera's constantly revolving casts for "Tristan und Isolde" aren't the only, or even the weirdest, casualties of this flu-infected opera season.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Andrew Druckenbrod reports on a Pittsburgh Opera production of "Aida," in which Radames loses his voice and the conductor sings the part from the pit while the tenor stays onstage and lip-syncs: