Rappers rise and fall

Two prominent awards to rap artists spotlight the ups and downs of this chronically controversial contemporary musical genre.

On the upside: The Pulitzer Prize for Music has been awarded to Kendrick Lamar for his album “DAMN,” a first for a rapper and one of the few times the prize has gone to a non-classical musician.

“It’s so poetic,” jazz violinist Regina Carter, who served on the Pulitzer jury, said of Lamar’s recording. “I felt like if you took his lyrics and put them in a book, it would be great literature,” Carter told David A. Graham in an interview published by The Atlantic:


(via http://www.artsjournal.com)

The prize is overdue recognition “[t]hat rap music is the most significant pop idiom of our time. It’s the sound of 21st century American life — a black art form with a black-and-white-and-everyone-else audience. The music is an implicit conversation about the conjoined legacies of slavery, segregation, police brutality and other hideous injustices that our society doesn’t care to solve. In that sense, rap music is the sound of a broken nation struggling to understand itself,” writes The Washington Post’s Chris Richards:


On the downside (way down): The Echo Award, Germany’s top prize for recorded music, was bestowed upon the rappers Fardid Bang and Felix Martin Andreas Matthias Blume, who performs under the name Kollegah. Their lyrics routinely disparage women and their song “0815” contains the line (translated to English) “my body is better defined than Auschwitz inmates.”

The prize was announced on April 12, Holocaust Day of Remembrance.

In protest, a growing number of previous Echo winners have returned their prizes: The Notos Quartet, pianist Igor Levit, pop musicians Marius Müller-Westernhagen and Kurt Voormann, and conductors Fabio Luisi, Daniel Barenboim, Christian Thielemann, Mariss Jansons, Enoch zu Guttenberg and Andreas Reiner. Christian Höppner, president of the German Cultural Cabinet, has resigned from the Echo Prize Ethics Commission.

“A prize that puts sales above everything, and in a live performance on Holocaust Remembrance Day makes a mockery of the victims of the Third Reich, is a symbol of a form of cynicism which we do not stand for,” reads a statement from Thielemann and the orchestra he directs, the Staatskapelle Dresden.

“[A]nti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, and the open contempt of allegedly weaker and more [discriminated upon] minorities are an abuse of freedom that we as a society can never tolerate, and we must stand united against such voices and not encourage them by giving them prizes and legitimising them,” Barenboim wrote in returning his award.

Adding tangible muscle to the widespread denunciations, the Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG) has suspended its recording deal with the rappers, Norman Lebrecht reports on his Slipped Disc blog:


UPDATE (April 25): As denunciations of the rappers’ prize proliferate – German Chancellor Angela Merkel joining the chorus – Germany’s Music Industry Association (BVMI) has abolished the Echo Awards, the Deutsche Welle broadcast service reports. “The Echo brand is so badly damaged that a complete new beginning is necessary,” BVMI says in a statement. The organization plans a new prize with a new name (and, one hopes, zero tolerance for the intolerable):


Review: Chamber Music Society

April 22, First Unitarian Universalist Church

The Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia closed out its 2017-18 season over the weekend with forays into Latin and Italian repertory, from Verdi and Boccherini to Astor Piazzolla and Gabriela Lena Frank.

Following a sampler of Latin American music on April 21 at the Richmond Public Library, the society’s final ticketed concert featured violinists Grace Park and Karla Donehew Perez, violist Amadi Azikiwe, cellist James Wilson (the society’s artistic director) and guitarist Adam Cockerham in a program of Verdi’s Quartet in E minor, Boccherini’s Quintet in C major (“La Ritirada di Madrid”), G. 453, and “Danzas Españolas” by Enrique Granados.

That reads like a mixed bag, and sounded even more so. Moreover, except for the Granados and the closing “Ritirada” (“Military Retreat”) movement of the Boccherini, the music rarely echoed its country of origin.

Verdi’s quartet, his only significant instrumental work, is quite audibly a bid by this master of Italian opera to make a place for himself in the ranks of composers of “abstract” European classical music – to be as German as the Germans. The quartet’s first movement is as involved an explication of sonata form as anything produced by Beethoven, Schumann or Brahms, and its fugal finale could be an outtake from one of Beethoven’s late quartets. Only in the inner movements do we clearly hear intimations of Verdi’s theatrical melding of lyricism and high drama.

The string players emphasized those Verdian qualities when the music allowed them to, and treated the rest of the work to an assertive and sonically hefty, if occasionally untidy, reading.

The ensemble, joined by guitarist Cockerham, sounded more attuned to Boccherini’s lighter, sunnier sound pallette, with deft interplay between violinists Park and Perez, their percolating brilliance contrasting nicely with richer tones from violist Azikiwe and cellist Wilson. The four fiddlers gave an appropriately Mozartian lilt to the first three movements of the quintet and more rhythmically pointed and sonically spatial treatment, enhanced by the guitar, to the retreat finale, music that Boccherini recycled from his better-known Quintet in C major, G. 324 (“La musica notturna della strade di Madrid”).

Authentically Spanish musical flavor pervades Granados’ “Danzas Españolas,” and Park and Cockerham made the most of its dance rhythms and its abundant atmospherics, the latter quality most pronounced in the central “Andaluza” movement. Their light touch in the concluding fandango, one of the least heavy-handed treatments of this dance in the classical literature, was especially gratifying.

Richmond to host 2020 Menuhin Competition

Richmond has been selected as the host city of the 2020 rounds of the Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists, an event that brings together young artists from around the world for what is billed as “the Olympics of the violin.”

Named for Yehudi Menuhin (1916-99), the eminent violinist, conductor and educator, the competition is open to violinists aged 22 and younger. This year’s competition, held in Geneva, drew 44 participants from 17 nations, culled from 317 applicants.

A panel of nine judges, headed by the American violinist Pamela Frank, named the 18-year-old Armenian violinist Diana Adamyan as the winner, with Nathan Mierdl, a 20-year-old Frenchman, in second place, and South Korea’s Hyunjae Lim, also 20, placing third.

The competition and festival, established by Menuhin in 1983, is staged every two years. Recent host cities have been London (2016), Austin (2014), Beijing (2012), Oslo (2010) and Cardiff (2008).

Announcement of Richmond’s winning bid came at the final concert of the Geneva competition. Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney and representatives of cosponsors of the city’s bid from the University of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University, the Richmond Symphony and Commonwealth Public Broadcasting were present for the announcement at Geneva’s Victoria Hall.

The Richmond event will run from May 14-24, 2020, with solo recitals, chamber-music programs and orchestral concerts at venues including the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, UR’s Modlin Arts Center and VCU’s Singleton Arts Center.

Events will be transmitted worldwide via online streaming, and some components will be recorded for telecasts on Commonwealth Public Broadcasting’s WCVE, potentially rebroadcast on other US and international outlets.

The Richmond Symphony will be the primary accompanying orchestra. The Sphnix Virtuosi, an ensemble composed of 18 young African-American and Latino musicians, will accompany the competition’s Junior Finals and participate in performances and workshops in local public schools.

Gordon Back, the Menuhin Competition’s artistic director, described Richmond as “the perfect location” for the event, citing the city’s “incredibly supportive community and its superb orchestra” as key factors in its selection.

“We hope that this festival will attract new visitors to our region and provide yet another indicator to the world that of our city’s status as a thriving cultural center,” said David Fisk, executive director of the Richmond Symphony.

“We are especially excited,” Mayor Stoney said, “for the opportunity the competition will provide to our aspiring young musicians in Richmond Public Schools to rub bows with the best, and perhaps inspire the next Yehudi Menuhin.”

Sponsors of the 2020 festival will need to raise $1.5-2 million to finance the event, tapping corporate and individual donors and foundations for support.

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Daisuke Yamamoto, violin
Neal Cary, cello
April 21, Dominion Energy Center

Location – location – location matters, and not just in real estate. How the instruments of a symphony orchestra are positioned on the stage profoundly affects the orchestra’s sound. The more delicate or precarious the internal balances of an orchestration, the more active the interaction of single instruments and cross-play of sections, the more important the positioning of instruments becomes.

The audience at this weekend’s Richmond Symphony Masterworks program is getting an object lesson in instrumental placement and its consequences in music where imbalances exact a high cost.

It has become standard practice for the symphony to seat its woodwinds in a low-to-medium-height stairstep arrangement of risers, and to place brass and percussion instruments on fairly high risers, while strings remain on the stage floor. This placement can make internal details and subtleties of a complex orchestration more audible; but it can also spotlight instruments, especially high-pitched ones such as trumpets, when they are supposed to be subsidiary.

That’s what happened, chronically, in performances of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”) and the “Suita Rustica” (1938) by the early modern Czech composer Vítězslava Kaprálová. Brass and percussion overpowered string sound, both in loud climaxes and in passages where they were supposed to be supportive or collaborative.

At least that’s how it sounded from the aural perspective of the first row of the Carpenter Theatre’s first dress circle (i.e., the second balcony section).

Were the risers to blame? That’s my suspicion. I’ve noticed this imbalance in previous concerts, but it was far more pronounced this time. It appeared that the symphony’s music director, Steven Smith, heard it, too, as he repeatedly signaled the brass to produce less volume.

It was a glaring drawback in what otherwise was an excellent performance of the Dvořák. Smith and the orchestra exposed many tonal and expressive details that often get lost in this familiar work, especially in its largo movement, home of the great “Goin’ Home” theme introduced by the English horn (here, played with austere beauty by Alexandra von der Embse). Tonal shading and stronger-than-usual accenting by the strings also were noteworthy, at least when they could be heard.

Imbalance of a different sort arose in Brahms’ Double Concerto in A minor, with the orchestra’s concertmaster, Daisuke Yamamoto, and principal cellist Neal Cary as the featured duo.

Yamamoto played with his customary fine-textured brilliance and great sensitivity in phrasing and collaborative playing with the cellist. This proved to be a challenge, as Cary produced unusually dark, bass-centered tone that didn’t project well outside the most assertive rhythmic chords. Even low-volume orchestral accompaniment tended to cover the cello.

The imbalances were most evident in the concerto’s first movement, especially in exchanges between the two featured instruments and fiery orchestral rebuttals. (Here, Brahms made musical argument argumentative as few other composers have.) The lyrical andante, in which the cello sets the singing tone, and the Hungarian-dance finale were more cohesive collaborative efforts.

The program’s opening work, Kaprálová’s suite on Czech folk themes (one of them a dance also used by Bedrich Smetana in his opera “The Bartered Bride”), is audibly indebted to the composer’s two biggest influences, Igor Stravinsky, whose “Petrouchka” was a particular fascination of hers, and Leoš Janáček, who was Kaprálová’s principal teacher.

Swinging between bumptiously brassy and percussive sections à la “Petrouchka” and more lyrical sections, spiced with tastes of Janáček’s tart string tone, “Suita Rustica” is a promising early bid at orchestral mastery by a composer who didn’t live to realize that promise. Just as she was winning recognition, Kaprálová died at 25 of tuberculosis.

Putting this piece on the same program as the Dvořák “New World” was a canny move, as both works filter folk themes through the prevailing compositional styles of their times – classical-romantic for Dvořák, modernist-neoclassical for Kaprálová.

Smith and the symphony treated “Suita Rustica” – being given one of its first performances in this country – as a discovery well worth making, and the audience gave it a warmer reception than unfamiliar music usually receives.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. April 22 in the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$80. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

Falletta to exit Virginia Symphony

JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra since 1991, will leave the Hampton Roads-based orchestra after it celebrates its 100th anniversary in the 2019-20 season.

Falletta, one of the most prominent female conductors in the US, will continue as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic. She also is an internationally active guest conductor.

With the Virginia Symphony, Falletta has made a number of recordings, notably of large-scale repertory such as Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and a recently issued Berlioz Requiem, as well as discs of works by Virginia composers Adolphus Hailstork and John Powell. Under her direction, the orchestra performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall and Washington’s Kennedy Center, and has been a performing anchor of the Virginia Arts Festival.

Rashod Ollison of The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk reports on Falletta’s impending departure:


Letter V Classical Radio April 18

The second of three samplers of new classical releases, with music by Mozart, Bruckner, Walton, Bach and Zelenka, plus four baroque arias sung by the remarkable Norwegian treble Aksel Rykkvin.

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

Bernstein: “Candide” Overture
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Christian Lindberg

Handel: “Diana cacciatrice” – March, “Alla caccia,” “Foriera la tromba”
Handel: “Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne” – “Eternal source of light divine”
Rameau: “Naïs” – “Je ne sais quel ennui me presse”
Albinoni: “La Statira” – “Vien con nuova Orribil guerra”
Aksel Rykkvin, treble
Mark Bennett, trumpet
MIN Ensemble/Lazar Miletic
(Signum Classics)

Jan Dismas Zelenka: Trio Sonata No. 3 in B flat major
Ensemble Berlin Prag

J.S. Bach: “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” Book 2 – Fugue in G minor, BWV 885
Brad Mehldau: “After Bach: Ostinato”
Brad Mehldau, piano

Walton: Partita for orchestra
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major, K. 595
Piotr Anderszewski, piano & director
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
(Warner Classics)

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E flat major (“Romantic”)
Gewandhaus Orchestra, Leipzig/Andris Nelsons
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Letter V Classical Radio April 11

The first of three programs sampling the season’s new classical recordings, with repertory ranging from Bach and Beethoven to Debussy and Respighi.

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

Handel: Concerto “à due cori” in F major, HWV 333
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/Gottfried von der Goltz
(Harmonia Mundi)

Beethoven: “15 Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme” in E flat major, Op. 35 (“Eroica Variations”)
Llŷr Williams, piano
(Signum Classics)

J.S. Bach: “The Art of Fugue,” BWV 1080 –
I. Contrapunctus I
VII. Contrapunctus 7 à 4, per augument et diminuit
XIX. Canon alla duodecima, in contrappunto all quinta
Accademia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone

Haydn: Quartet in G major, Op. 64, No. 4
Doric String Quartet

Respighi: “Vetrate di chiesa” (“Church Windows”)
Royal Liège Philharmonic/John Neschling

Debussy: Préludes, Book 2 – “Feux d’artifice”
Maurizio Pollini, piano
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Johan Halvorsen: Passacaglia in G minor (after Handel)
Antoine Bareil, violin
Stéphane Tétrault, cello

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor
Adam Laloum, piano
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Kazuki Yamada
(Sony Classical)

Review: Stile Antico

April 6, Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

Stile Antico, the acclaimed British vocal ensemble, offered Richmonders one of the first live performances of its new sampler of early music, “Queen of Muses,” surveying sacred and secular works composed for Elizabeth I of England.

As several members of the group observed in introductory remarks, Elizabeth was a demanding customer for music, being a musician herself and a monarch who, even more than most crowned heads, doted on flattery. That latter expectation was reflected mostly in the choices of celebratory or yearning texts in romantic songs and madrigals, although she clearly wasn’t averse to religious pieces that had God smiling on the queen and her realm.

The program alternated between sacred and secular pieces, about half sung by the full ensemble of 12 voices, the rest by groups of four to six, giving the program a welcome variety of moods and sound textures.

Helpfully, given the tricky resonance of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, most pieces were at medium-to-slow tempos, enabling the group to avoid the tonal congestion that can occur when faster pieces are performed in this space. (That hazard was audible in the opening selection, William Byrd’s “The sweet and merry month of May.”)

The program was not entirely English or English-accented, thanks to the inclusion of works by Alfonso Ferrabosco, an Italian who lived and worked in Elizabeth’s court (and may have combined his musical duties with espionage), and selections from the Winchester Partbooks, a collection of pieces commissioned from continental European composers by one of the queen’s most persistent and frustrated suitors, Erik XIV of Sweden.

The Italiante polyphony of Ferrabosco’s “Ad Dominum cum tribularer” contrasted nicely with the more austere texture of Thomas Tallis’ “Absterge Domine.” Tallis’ echoes of medieval style, in turn, contrasted with the more florid style of his student, Byrd, in “Attolite portas.”

Byrd, the greatest English composer of Elizabeth’s time, also had to be the most circumspect, being a Catholic in a Protestant court. His “Ne irascaris,” written for private worship, reads and sounds very much like a commentary on Protestantism, and as such must be among his most daring compositions. (Did his queen or her courtiers ever hear it?)

The Latin religious selections obviously fit this venue better than odes to romantic love, and had the additional advantage of skirting the sonic language barrier. Had lyrics not been included in the program book, it’s doubtful that many in the audience would have understood the texts of the secular pieces, especially the richly voiced madrigals, and so would missed some of the clever musical effects underlining words and phrases.

Stile Antico has won many critical plaudits for the refinement of its performances. That certainly was in evidence here; but so, refreshingly, was a more rustic quality, especially in low male voices, that lent authenticity to Pierre Sandrin’s “Doulce memoire” (one of the hit tunes of the Renaissance), Adrian Willaert’s raucous “Vecchie letrose” and John Dowland’s “Now I needs must part,” a strophic song that, in this rendition, sounded like vestigal Euro-pop.