Saturday, April 19, 2014

Feeling groovy

Today is Record Store Day.

How retro, you say? You may be surprised to learn that this is a very hipster occasion. Records – grooved discs played on a turntable (aka record player) with a stylus (aka needle) – are quite fashionable among the young. Especially the young with no money, as many used records are cheaper than a small latte. (New vinyl discs, on the other hand, can be outrageously expensive.)

WDCE at the University of Richmond, where I produce Letter V Classical Radio, festoons its studio wall with vinyl LPs and has two turntables, actually used by some of the station’s teen-age and 20-something DJs. A number of them dote on music that I was listening to when I was in my teens and 20s, back in the previous millennium. This makes me feel less elderly as I play music from the 1780s.

Checking the Yellow Pages (speaking of retro), I find eight record stores listed in the Richmond area. That’s not counting Goodwill stores, “antique” shops, flea markets and other places where you can find LPs, 45s, even 78s. (Also cassette tapes, which reportedly are becoming cool again. What’s next? Eight-tracks?)

A surprising number of these places stock classical records. I’ve even found mint-condition, sealed copies on occasion.

As you pursue other Saturday chores, take time to go record shopping. How many chances do folks like us get to be über-hip?

Akira Endo (1938-2014)

Akira Endo, former music director of the American Ballet Theatre and a frequent guest conductor of Richmond Ballet productions in the 1980s and ’90s, has died at 75 in Boulder, CO.

The Japanese-born Endo, who came to this country in 1954 and earned degrees from the University of Southern California, was a two-time prizewinner in the Dmitri Mitropoulos International Competition for Conductors. At the competition, he came to the attention of Leonard Bernstein, who recommended the young conductor to the ABT.

Endo served as music director of the Austin Symphony (1975-82) and Louisville Orchestra (1980-83), and was a candidate for music director of the Richmond Symphony in 1986-87. He also was music director of ballet companies in Pittsburgh, Miami and Denver, and taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder until his retirement in 2008.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Letter V Classical Radio this week

April 17
noon-3 p.m. EDT
1600-1900 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Baroque music for Passover and Easter . . .

J.S. Bach: Concerto in D major, after BWV 249 (“Easter Oratorio”)
Musica Antiqua Köln/Reinhard Goebel (DG Archiv)

Salomone Rossi: “Sinfonia decima;” Psalm 100: “Mizmór letodá;” “Gagliarda disperata;” “Correnta sesta;” Psalm 146: “Haleluyáh”
Profeti Della Quinta (Linn)

Heinrich Schütz: “Feget den alten Sauerteig aus” from “Symphoniae sacrae III”
Cantus Cölln, Concerto Palatino/Konrad Junghänel (Harmonia Mundi France)

Louis Saladin: “Canticum hebraicum”
Boston Camerata/Joel Cohen (Harmonia Mundi France)

J.S. Bach: “Erbarme dich” from “St. Matthew Passion”
Andreas Scholl, alto
Orchestra of Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi France)

J.S. Bach: Partita in D minor, BWV 1004, with related chorales and Chaconne for violin & voices (“Morimur”)
(arranged by Christoph Poppen and Hilliard Ensemble, based on research by Helga Thoene)
Christoph Poppen, violin; Hilliard Ensemble (ECM)

Handel: “Messiah” (Part 2)
Lynne Dawson, soprano; Hilary Summers, contralto; John Mark Ainsley, tenor; Alastair Miles, bass; Choir of King’s College, Cambridge;
Brandenburg Consort/Stephen Cleobury (Argo)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Shankar concert canceled

“Musical Crossroads,” an April 26 concert by sitarist Anoushka Shankar with the Richmond Symphony, has been canceled “due to health concerns” on Shankar’s part, the orchestra has announced.

Ticket refunds or exchanges for tickets to other symphony concerts may be arranged by calling the orchestra’s patron services desk at (804) 788-1212.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review: Leila Josefowicz

with John Novacek, piano
April 12, Virginia Commonwealth University

Juxtaposing works of Franz Schubert and Igor Stravinsky is pretty radical programming. Which composer, one wonders, would be more rattled or put off by the company he’s keeping? Stravinsky, I’d guess, and I don’t think I’m just being contrary.

Hearing violinist Leila Josefowicz and pianist John Novacek play Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 574 (known as the “Duo”), followed by Stravinsky’s “Duo concertant” and “Chanson russe,” followed by Schubert’s Rondo in B minor, D. 895, I was struck repeatedly by the questing, explorative character of Schubert’s writing, contrasting sharply with the sense that all issues are settled in Stravinsky’s pieces.

The “Duo concertant” (1931-32) is a highly polished exemplar of Stravinsky’s middle-period neo-classical style. Not a note or gesture is out of place or in need of amplification; proportions are as symmetrical and sensible to the ear as those of a Greek temple are to the eye. The piece is witty, akin to time spent with a clever conversationalist who needs neither an interlocutor nor a straight man, just a willing listener.

The “Chanson russe,” originally an aria from the opera “Marva” (1922), subsequently arranged for violin and piano by Stravinsky and Samuel Dushkin, conveys a different, earthier and more sly kind of wit, at least to ears that have had some exposure to klezmer and other Jewish/Slavic/gypsy dance music of Eastern Europe.

The Schubert sonata and rondo, by contrast, are about the lyrical and emotional stretching of classical form, an often garrulous and sometimes unruly process that resulted in hits and misses throughout the composer’s instrumental canon. The sonata, written in 1817 when Schubert turned 20, hits in details and misses in totality; the rondo, written in 1826 when he was 29, is better organized, structurally and expressively, but like many of his later works may be longer than its contents warrant. (The “heavenly” aspect of Schubert’s “heavenly length” is definitely in the ear of the beholder.)

Josefowicz did not play up the contrast between these two composers as much as she might have, largely because her sound did not vary greatly from one to the other. The lean, focused tone she produces – with and without muting the strings – is ideal for Stravinsky, and her rather chaste brand of lyricism suited the “Chanson russe” especially well. In Schubert, however, such fiddle tone sounded rather undernourished, at least in combination with a modern piano. (Has she ever done these pieces with a fortepiano?)

“Tre pezzi” (“Three Piece”), a 1979 opus by the Hungarian composer György Kurtág, came across as a detour of dubious relevance. Josefowicz and Novacek exphasized these short pieces’ rarified fiddle and keyboard effects, which recall those of Anton Webern but lack the implied line without which such music sounds like a succession of unrelated gestures.

Novacek’s performances amounted to a clinic in the art of accompaniment. His presence was in ideally proportional in all but the Schubert “Duo” and his style was unerring throughout the program. He even managed to coax some expressiveness out of the sometimes skeletal piano lines Stravinsky wrote for the “Chanson russe” and “Cantilene” of the “Duo concertant.”

For an encore, the violinist and pianist played Charles Chaplin’s “Smile,” a haunting musical postscript both in the context of the program and in its rather austere arrangement.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Letter V Classical Radio this week

April 10
1-3 p.m. EDT
1700-1900 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Beethoven: Sonata in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (“Moonlight”)
Fazil Say, piano (Naïve)

Schubert: Fantasy in C major, D. 934
Jennifer Koh, violin; Reiko Uchida, piano (Cedille)

Mozart: Rondo in A minor, K. 511
Richard Goode, piano (Nonesuch)

Dag Wirén: Serenade for strings
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Montgomery (EMI Classics)

Past Masters:
Delibes: “Le Roi s’amuse”
Royal Philharmonic/ Thomas Beecham (EMI Classics)
(recorded 1958)

Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 4 in C minor
Stephen Hough, piano
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo (Hyperion)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: Takács Quartet

April 7, University of Richmond

A few years ago, Gramophone, the British classical-music magazine, polled a panel of experts to pick the world’s greatest symphony orchestra. The Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam came in first. A similar poll on string quartets quite likely would place the Takács, the Hungarian-bred ensemble now based at the University of Colorado, at the top of the heap.

I’m inclined to avoid such rankings – “greatest [whoever] I’ve heard lately” is tough enough in this era of musical over-achievers. I would say that an ensemble that tours with a program opening with Beethoven’s Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127, followed by Anton Webern’s “Six Bagatelles,” must feel reasonably secure about drawing a crowd on the strength of its reputation. And that it pays its audience the compliment of taking listeners’ discernment for granted.

(The Takács also tours with the six Bartók quartets in pairs of concerts, presented last season at the University of Richmond and reprised in January at Washington’s Kennedy Center. Compared with that, this may be its easy listening show.)

Violinists Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther and cellist András Fejér may be the ideal foursome for Op. 127 and the Webern bagatelles. Both require painstakingly exact balances among string voices – especially inner voices – and close attention to the finest details of articulation, dynamics and tone color.

Beyond technical considerations, both need performers who are deeply immersed in the distinctive styles and spirits of these works. Op. 127 is the first – and, some say, the knottiest – of the six quartets that Beethoven wrote in his last years. Like the other late quartets, it calls for voicings and balances that teeter between the elusive and the barely possible. (Webern’s employment of some of the same sounds nearly a century later was considered “experimental.”)

Even more challenging, perhaps, is Beethoven’s juxtaposition of highly sophisticated classical structure with folkish tunes and rustic dance rhythms. Does any other music ask players to think algebraically while clog-dancing?

In this performance, the Takács managed those technical and interpretive challenges expertly. The differentiation of fiddle tones in the first movement and earthy groove of the finale were just two of many highlights in a reading whose spontaneity was as striking as its exposition of fine points.

Spontaneity, remarkably, was the most distinguishing feature in the group’s performance of the Webern. This highly concentrated work – six movements in barely four minutes – often sounds to be all detail, with little or no sense of linear flow. The Takács conveyed linearity through careful treatment of dynamics and pacing of silence, the black (but textured, not flat) surface on which the composer paints his little starbursts and shafts of light.

Smetana’s Quartet No. 1 (“From My Life”), which closed the program, could easily have sounded anticlimactic after the Beethoven and Webern. Like Beethoven, Smetana was deaf when he wrote this music (although Smetana’s recollection of hearing was much fresher); and like Beethoven, Smetana freely and challengingly juxtaposed classical form with folk-dance rhythms, notably the polka. “From My Life,” however, proceeds along a pretty explicit story and time line, and an emotional trajectory from light to dark.

The Takács traced the work’s narrative and darkening of spirit quite effectively, and treated its folkish elements with appropriate verve. The ensemble’s sound was a bit too rich, to my ears, thickening musical textures as an idiomatically Czech interpretation would not. A few slurred notes and imbalances also detracted from the performance.