May 18, Richmond Public Library
May 20, Bon Air Presbyterian Church
May 22, Bon Air Presbyterian Church
The Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia, whose programs are devised and rotating casts recruited by cellist James Wilson, ventured chronologically and stylistically throughout the repertory in this spring's outing, "Revolutionary and Banned."
The banned mostly were works suppressed by the Nazis in Central Europe because their composers were Jewish or politically or aesthetically "degenerate." The revolutionary ranged from proto-operatic works by Handel to Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony (No. 3) and "Great Fugue" to John Cage's "4'33"."
Some of the performances were rough – notably, of the "Eroica" arranged as a piano quartet by Beethoven's not very gifted pupil, Ferdinand Ries; others were ready. Most were played with an urgency and sonic punch that one craves in live performances of any music, but especially chamber music.
In the three (of six) programs that I sampled, the standout performance was the closing selection of the festival, Mendelssohn's Octet (precocious, written at age 16, if not revolutionary), which had the very dickens played out of it by violinists Diane Pascal, Jesse Mills, June Huang and Nurit Pacht; violists Mark Holloway and Max Mandel; and cellists Wilson and Raman Ramakrishnan.
In the same final program, mezzo-soprano Tracy Cowart was the voice of a fiery rendition of Handel's cantata "Il Delirio amoroso," supported by the dramatically charged mini-orchestra of Huang, Pacht, Holloway, Wilson, recorder player Anne Timberlake and harpsichordist Carsten Schmidt.
Pascal, Mills, Holloway and Ramakrishnan gave a memorably angular and energertic account of the "Great Fugue," and flutist Mary Boodell was an atmospherically attuned and technically sophisticated protagonist in Benjamin Broening's "Twilight Shift," an electro-acoustic piece in which Boodell played along with manipulated recordings of her flute.
The potentially most crowd-pleasing of the programs – if only there had been more of a crowd to please – was "Renegades," the first half of which positioned 1920s and '30s Berlin German cabaret tunes alongside contemporaneous instrumental works, most notably the Concertino for piano (Reiko Aizawa), flute (Boodell), viola (Holloway) and double-bass (Anthony Manzo).
Singing Kurt Weill's "Berlin im Licht," Friedrich Hollaender's "Falling in Love Again," Alexander von Zemlinsky's "Herr Bombardil" and Stepan Wolpe's "Hitler," Cowart was under some strain to maingtain balance with Aizawa's piano accompaniment.
Pascal, Aizawa, Manzo and three wind players from the Richmond Symphony – clarinetist Jared Davis, bassoonist Thomas Schneider and French horn player James Ferree – gave a spirited and sonorous account of a reduction of truncation of Richard Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," arranged by Franz Hasenohrl.
In the first of a pair of free "Ear Concerts" in the Gellman Room of the Richmond Public Library, Pacht played the Saraband from Bach's Partita in D minor, BWV 1004, with fine technique and style on a pereiod fiddle, while Mills dug into a quasi-minimalist Partita for solo violin by the contemporary Russian Valentin Martynovc.
Schmidt presided over the piano for "4'33"," Cage's (in)famous play on silence and ambient sound, and the trio of Pascal, Wilson and Aizawa got in the listener's face with "Revolucionario" from Astor Piazzolla's "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires."
Thursday, May 23, 2013
May 18, Richmond Public Library
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Andris Nelsons, the Latvian-born conductor who has led Britain’s City of Birmingham Symphony since 2008, has been named the new music director of the Boston Symphony.
Nelsons, who turns 35 in November, will conduct the Boston Symphony this summer at Tanglewood and in the coming fall and spring in Boston as music director-designate. He takes over the orchestra formally in the 2014-15 season.
The Boston post became vacant when James Levine, unable to conduct because of health problems, resigned in 2011.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
I’ve been prodded to comment – again – on coughing and other unwelcome noises at live classical events. OK, but the prodders may not get satisfaction this time around.
Extramusical distractions have been on the upswing in these parts since the first of the year. Turns out, though, that there may be sound medical reasons.
Over the winter, a doctor told me that “70 percent of the population has become allergic to Richmond,” thanks to an accumulation of pollen, mold and other environmental irritants over the past two or three years. The problem, this doctor said, is a succession of mild winters. Until we experience a long, hard freeze, preferably with a heavy snowfall, our respiratory woes will continue.
What I’ve been hearing in concert halls bears this out. There’s about as much sneezing as coughing, and I’ve heard a lot more of it coming from the stage. The people making music have the biggest stake in not disrupting performances with bronchial asides, so presumably their coughs and sneezes are involuntary.
More people seem to be bringing cough drops to concerts, and more are choosing the brands that are wrapped in wax paper rather than cellophane, so they can be unwrapped quietly. That eases the coughing problem. Sneezing comes on suddenly, and trying to suppress a sneeze can be noisier than the sneeze. So, that we’ll have to live with.
Not so very long ago, quite a few patrons did not consider the dimming of lights, or even the beginning of a performance, sufficient grounds for stopping a conversation. I’m hearing a lot less of that lately.
More people seem to be complying with requests to turn off cell phones and other electronic devices. Occasional bleeps and bloops still intrude, but not as many as I recall from five or 10 years ago – and no more around here than I keep reading about in supposedly more cultured places. (Cell-phone distractions apparently are endemic in New York, for example.)
I have noticed more squeaking seats and doors, random thuds and other hall noises this season. This is partly a maintenance issue. Attention, theater managers: Lubricate your moving parts! Also, remind your staff to keep quiet during performances. Theatergoers, meanwhile, should take care not to leave purses, umbrellas, drink cups, etc., where they may be noisily dropped.
And complainers, a little perspective, please. Coughing and other noises notwithstanding, there aren’t many public places quieter than a concert hall during a classical performance.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Grete Dollitz, whose “Hour With the Guitar” was a fixture of programming at Richmond’s public radio station WCVE-FM and its predecessor, WRFK-FM, for decades, has died at 88.
Dollitz, who emigrated with her family from Germany to the U.S. in the 1930s, was known not just for her classical-guitar program but also for imaginative and venturesome programs spanning a wide spectrum of classical music and for conducting insightful interviews with guitarists and other musicians.
Her deep, throaty, accented voice was one of the most recognizable on Richmond’s airwaves. The warm personality she projected through the microphone was not a broadcaster’s artifice – what you heard was who she was.
She retired from broadcasting last December.
WCVE’s Peter Solomon recalls Grete Dollitz:
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Steven Smith conducting
May 11, Richmond CenterStage
A substantially augmented Richmond Symphony this weekend is celebrating the centenary of the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet score “Le sacre du printemps” (“The Rite of Spring”). The orchestra, which usually numbers about 70 for these mainstage programs, exceeds 100 in this one; most of the guest musicians enlarge the woodwind and brass sections – including nine French horns, which I believe is a record for the symphony.
For a regional orchestra and its conductor, those extra numbers compound the challenge of Stravinsky’s score. In pretty short order, the musicians have to create an ensemble from a group in which one in three players are newcomers or occasional participants. That’s in addition to playing the notes, rendering the distinctive colors and negotiating the tricky balances and famously complex rhythms of this piece.
Most of the pressure falls on the conductor. Steven Smith, the symphony’s music director, coped very well indeed in the first of two weekend performances. His traffic control was exemplary; rarely was any solo instrument or instrumental choir too assertive or too reticent, and only in the brassiest or most heavily percussive passages were the strings overbalanced (as they often are at such times even in the biggest and best bands).
Smith’s most impressive achievement was coloristic. This “Le sacre” was almost pointilistic, with tone color of such clarity and nuance that one could mistake the score for a work of Ravel or Debussy. Principal bassoonist Thomas Schneider set a standard for color, phrasing and atmospherics that most every other wind soloist matched throughout the performance. Principal French horn player James Ferree and clarinetist Jared Davis also distinguished themselves on this score.
Tumultuous and violent sections of the piece must make a powerfully visceral impact – the scenario of the ballet, after all, revolves around frenzied fertility rites and human sacrifice. Smith and the musicians did not hold back, but their violent music-making was as well-crafted and deftly colored as their work in subtler passages.
In this program, titled “Musical Revolutionaries,” the Stravinsky is preceded by the Toccata and Ritornelli from Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” (1607), generally considered to be the first modern opera, and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, one of the first orchestral scores to treat its themes cyclically, in addition to being one of the earliest and greatest examples of abstract music as drama in sound.
The Monteverdi is being played in a modern orchestration using full symphonic forces, but one that fairly faithfully reproduces the instrumental timbres and performance style of the early Italian baroque.
The Beethoven Fifth, like Smith’s previous performances of the Seventh and Ninth symphonies, was given romanticized “big band” treatment, focusing more on great arcs of structure and accumulations of tone than on the sharp, startling accenting characteristic of “classical” Beethoven. Grandeur tends to trump energy in romantic-style Beethoven, and did so here, despite tempos (especially in the first movement) that were quite brisk.
The Beethoven is being played with as full a string complement as the Stravinsky. The resulting rich string tone may have contributed to a collective sonority, notably among the cellos and basses, that smoothed away the edges of phrasing and accenting.
The program repeats at 3 p.m. May 12 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$73 (widely discounted). Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); www.richmondsymphony.com
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
May 4, Virginia Commonwealth University
The Tokyo String Quartet, calling it quits this summer after a 43-year career, is not going away gently. Its farewell tour is an international affair, and some of the stops on that tour are pretty demanding. The group’s appearance last weekend at Virginia Commonwealth University, for example, included a day’s worth of workshops with local string players, culminating in an evening program of Beethoven, Bartók and Mendelssohn.
The ensemble is disbanding as its two remaining Japanese members, second violinist Kikuei Ikeda and violist Kazuhide Isomura, retire. The Tokyo’s performances in the season finale of VCU’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts sounded like a celebration of Ikeda and Isomura, the quartet’s two “inside” men, charged with illuminating the inner details of much of the quartet literature.
Isomura, especially, was a consistently prominent voice in all three of the program’s selections, Beethoven’s Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 (known as the “Serioso”); Bartók’s Quartet No. 6; and Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2. His rhythmic contributions were crisp and energetic in the Beethoven and Bartók; and he brought unusual warmth to the Mendelssohn.
The Beethoven suffered from odd balances, due in part to the rather reticent first violin of Martin Beaver, and in part to Clive Greensmith’s heavy, rather woolly sounding cello.
The Bartók, introduced in a richly moody viola solo by Isomura, received a finely detailed, expressively pointed reading, peaking in a highly concentrated burletta.
Collectively, the foursome was at its best in the Mendelssohn, balancing the work’s lyricism with its more turbulent expressive passages.
A prolonged ovation from a near-capacity crowd brought the Tokyo back for a brief encore, the menuetto from Mozart’s Quartet in D major, K. 499.
(Sorry for the lateness of this posting. I’ve been having computer issues.)
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Janos Starker, the Hungarian-born cellist known for his crystalline technique and unindulgent interpretations, has died at the age 88. Starker, onetime principal cellist of the Dallas and Chicago symphonies and Metropolitan Opera, had taught at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University since 1958.
Starker was one of the few recording artists whose career spanned the eras of 78-rpm and vinyl discs and digital recordings.
He also was known for his blunt observations on music and musicians, famously describing artists who displayed high temperament onstage as “making love to themselves.”
An obituary by Margalit Fox in The New York Times: