André Previn (1929-2019)

André Previn, the most wide-ranging musical polymath since Leonard Bernstein – a jazz pianist and Hollywood musician who became a leading conductor and composer – has died at 89.

Previn was born and began his education in Berlin. As the Nazis became increasingly violent in their suppression of Germany’s Jews, his family left for Paris in 1938, then resettled in Los Angeles.

Previn continued studies in piano and composition, and became a US citizen in 1943. He began writing music for films in the ’40s, eventually earning Academy Awards for composing and arranging the scores of “Porgy and Bess,” “My Fair Lady,” “Gigi” and “Irma La Douce.” He also was active as a jazz pianist in the ’40s and ’50s, playing with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Carter.

Having studied conducting with Pierre Monteux, Previn remade his career in the ’60s, becoming a concert pianist and conductor. He was named music director of the Houston Symphony in 1967, and followed Monteux as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1968, retaining the latter position until 1979. He also served as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic of London, and guest-conducted and recorded with many of the world’s leading orchestras.

Of his five wives, the best-known were jazz singer Dory Langan Previn, actress Mia Farrow and his last spouse, violinist Anne Sophie Mutter (they divorced in 2006). Previn composed several pieces for Mutter, including the Violin Concerto “Anne Sophie,” introduced in 2002.

His most widely performed work was “A Streetcar Named Desire,” an opera based on the Tennessee Williams drama, which was premiered by the San Francisco Opera in 1998 and since has been staged by many companies (including Virginia Opera in 2013).

An obituary by James Barron for The New York Times:

Virginia Opera 2019-20

Virginia Opera will stage Daniel Catán’s “Il Postino” (“The Postman”), a 2010 work based in part on the 1997 film “The Postman,” in a 2019-20 season that also will see productions of Puccini’s “Tosca,” Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” (“Cinderella”) and Verdi’s “Aïda.”

“Tosca,” sung in Italian with English captions, will open the season with performances on Oct. 4, 6 and 8 at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, Oct. 12 and 13 at the Center for the Arts of George Mason University in Fairfax, and Oct. 18 and 20 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center in Richmond. Directed by Lillian Groag, the production’s singers include soprano Ewa Plonka, bass-baritone Kyle Albertson and tenor Matthew Vickers.

“Il Postino,” sung in Spanish with English captions, will be performed on Nov. 8, 10 and 12 in Norfolk, Nov. 16 and 17 in Fairfax, and Nov. 22 and 24 in Richmond. Tenor Daniel Montenegro and tenor Scott Piper are among the cast members. Crystal Manich will make her directing debut with Virginia Opera.

“La Cenerentola,” sung in Italian with English captions, is scheduled for Jan. 31 and Feb. 2 and 4 in Norfolk, Feb. 15 and 16 in Fairfax, and Feb. 21 and 23 in Richmond. Soprano Alyssa Martin will sing in the title, joined by, among others, tenor David Walton, bass-baritone Dale Travis and baritone Joseph Lattanzi. Kyle Lang will be stage director.

“Aïda,” sung in Italian with English captions, will be staged on March 20, 22 and 23 in Norfolk, and March 27 and 29 in Richmond. Soorano Laquita Mitchell will sing the title role, with tenor Brian Cheney as Radamès and baritone Marco Nisticò, bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam and mezzo-soprano Leah Hunter in other roles. Groag will direct.

Adam Turner, the company’s artistic director, will conduct all four productions.

Subscription packages for the four operas are $68.20 to $400 in Norfolk, $70.08 to $387.84 in Richmond. Fairfax prices have not yet been announced.

For details, call Virginia Opera box offices at (757) 627-9545 in Hampton Roads, (804) 644-8168 in Central and Northern Virginia, or visit

Letter V Classical Radio Feb. 27

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

Hamish MacCunn: “The Land of the Mountain and the Flood”
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Grant Llewellyn

Past Masters:
Copland: Symphony No. 3
Berlin Philharmonic/Aaron Copland
(recorded 1970)

George Walker: “Lyric for Strings”
Chicago Sinfonietta/Paul Freeman

Tchaikovsky: Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11
St. Lawrence String Quartet
(EMI Classics)

Chopin: Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58
Charles-Richard Hamelin, piano

Hugo Wolf: “Italian Serenade”
Fine Arts Quartet
(Hänssler Classic)

Dominick Argento: “Casa Guidi”
Frederica von Stade, mezzo-soprano
Minnesota Orchestra/Eiji Oue
(Reference Recordings)

Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A major (“Italian”)
Vienna Philharmonic/John Eliot Gardiner
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Review: Third Coast Percussion

Feb. 23, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University

A percussion quartet is not a typical chamber ensemble, especially not on the schedule of a series like VCU’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts, whose usual attractions are string or string-with-piano groups playing mostly standard European classical-romantic repertory.

Third Coast Percussion, in sharp contrast, presented a program entirely devoted to contemporary works (the earliest from 1993), several of them composed by members of the quartet. That’s not unusual for such groups: As Third Coast’s Robert Dillon observed during the concert, virtually all of the repertory for percussion ensemble has been written in the past 80 years. And most of the instruments this group plays are either of fairly recent vintage – the modern marimba, for example, dates from the turn of the 20th century – or have been employed only recently in Western art-music.

Since its founding in 2004, this Chicago-based foursome – joining Dillon are Sean Connors, Peter Martin and David Skidmore – has become one of the most popular percussion ensembles and one of the most active in composing and commissioning new music, as well as adapting music originally for other instrumentation.

Third Coast Percussion’s VCU program featured three works by its members – “BEND” by Martin (formerly head of VCU’s percussion program), “Ordering-Instincts” by Dillon and two sections from “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities” by Skidmore; a collective work by the four, “Niagara” from the film score “Paddle to the Sea;” an arrangement of “Amazon River” from “Aguas de Amazonia” by Philip Glass (originally for piano); and recent pieces by Augusta Read Thomas, Mark Applebaum and Devonté Hymes.

Most were rooted in marimbas, although these resonant mallet-percussion keyboard instruments were frequently played in unconventional ways – tapped like drums, bowed like string instruments, even resonating in response to human breath. Martin’s “BEND” (2016) hinged on a number of these techniques, although mostly in sequence rather than in combination.

The marimba-centric works, notably Hymes’ “Perfectly Voiceless” (2018) and Glass’ “Amazon River,” generally featured recurring rhythmic patterns, often growing more complex as pieces progressed.

The two most novel offerings were Thomas’ “Prayer,” from her longer “Resounding Earth” (2012), for an assemblage of traditional Tibetan “singing bowls” singly producing brightly resonant tones and collectively creating densely chromatic overtones; and Applebaum’s “Aphasia” (2010), in which recorded vocal samples of words, numbers and sound effects are synchronized to physical gestures by live performers in what sounds like a high-tech re-creation of the faux-linguistic comedy routines of Peter Ustinov.

In several of the selections, video from an overhead camera helpfully clarified who was playing what and how. Kaleidoscopic animations accompanying Skidmore’s “Aliens” excerpts enlarged the experience of “Don’t Eat Your Young” and compounded the tension of “Torched and Wrecked.”

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
with Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello;
Amit Kavtheka, tabla;
Saili Oak & Lucy Fitz Gibbon, vocals
Feb. 22, Camp Concert Hall, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond

“South Asian Connections,” the third concert by the Richmond Symphony in the University of Richmond’s Tucker-Boatwright Festival, was a bit of a surprise: Music evoking Indian classical forms and styles sounded unexpectedly Western.

The program offered two works by Reena Esmail, “Avartan” and “Meri Sakhi ki Avaaz,” and the premiere of a third iteration of “Lalit – 2nd Prism” by Shirish Korde. Both composers are Americans of Indian ancestry: Esmail was born in Chicago; Korde, born in Uganda, came to the US in 1965. Both were schooled in Western composition (Korde in jazz as well), and have written extensively for Western instruments.

So, while Korde’s “Lalit” featured tabla (Indian hand drums) and Esmail’s “Meri Sakhi ki Avaaz” (“My Sister’s Voice”) hinged on Indian-style vocalization, listeners rarely heard symphonic instruments trying to impersonate Asian instruments, which had figured prominently in the orchestra’s two previous Tucker-Boatwright programs.

The sound of the sitar, the lute at the heart of Hindustani (North Indian) instrumental music, was echoed almost subliminally in “Avartan” as Russell Wilson plucked the strings inside his piano, and again in some of Esmail’s more rarified high-string timbres. Cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws, who with tabla player Amit Kavtheka formed the featured duo in Korde’s “Lalit,” carried on a exchange much like that heard in an Indian raga; but he played his cello very much like a cello.

Listeners versed in Indian music would have recognized the raga scale in “Avartan,” the idiomatic quality of Kavtheka’s extended tabla solo and call-and-response with the cellist in “Lalit,” and the Hindustani vocalizations of Saili Oak in “Meri Sakhi ki Avaaz;” but the overall tonality and musical progression of these pieces were thoroughly accessible to Western ears.

“Avartan” has an Idyll-like quality that would sound complementary with an English pastoral work of Vaughan Williams or Delius. “Lalit” at its most animated has an orchestral-jazzy tone that might accompany a car chase scene in an updated film noir.

“Meri Sakhi ki Avaaz,” which featured Lucy Fitz Gibbon, an operatic soprano, in duets with Saili Oak, was the most overt of the program’s meldings of Indian and Western music. The three-movement piece begins with an extended cross-cultural contemplation of the “Flower Duet” from Leo Delibes’ “Lakme,” one of the most familiar examples of Western musical orientalism (a recording of the Delibes opens and closes the section), then shifts to vocalizations in Indian forms, first slow, then sprightly and vocally florid.

This shift from one musical culture to another is gradual, and mitigated by Esmail’s choice of melodies and figures that don’t sound markedly alien to Western ears. The final section, in fact, could easily be recast as a pop song (assuming you could find pop singers able to negotiate its speedy, high-flying coloratura).

The orchestrations of these pieces are not especially challenging – lots of whole notes and repeated string figures, for example – but are sometimes surprising in the composers’ choices of registers. “Avartan,” for example, calls for a large cast of bass and baritone wind instruments; “Lalit” similarly is largely dark in orchestral tone.

The works of Esmail and Korde were performed alongside three of the five movements of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major (“Pastoral”), which received brisk but flowing readings by conductor Steven Smith and the orchestra. Unfortunately consistent imbalances between winds and strings – not uncommon in a hall that is famously kind to string tone, but in which winds and brass can easily over-project – detracted from fluent and nicely detailed playing by the symphony.

Steven Smith will conduct the Richmond Symphony in Reena Esmail’s “Avartan,” Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” Overture and the complete Sixth Symphony of Beethoven at 2 p.m. Feb. 23 at Brandermill Church, 4500 Millridge Parkway in Midlothian (tickets: $20), and 3 p.m. Feb. 24 at Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, 205 Henry St., in Ashland (tickets: $22). Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

Dominick Argento (1927-2019)

Dominck Argento, a leading American composer of music for the voice, has died at 91. Among his best-known compositions are the operas “Postcard from Morocco” and “The Aspern Papers” and the song cycles “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976, and “Casa Guidi,” which won a Grammy Award for best contemporary classical composition in 2004.

An obituary by Tim Page for The Washington Post:

Letter V Classical Radio Feb. 13

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

Beethoven: “Leonore” Overture No. 3
Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Bremen/Daniel Harding

Liszt: “Studies d’éxecution transcendentale,” S. 139 –
No. 7 (“Eroica”)
No. 8 (“Wilde Jagd”)
No. 9 (“Ricordanza”)
Daniil Trifonov, piano
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Wagner: “Siegfried Idyll”
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
(Channel Classics)

Dolores White: “Blues Dialogues”
Rachel Barton Pine, violin

Dvořák: “American Suite,” Op. 98
Radoslav Kvapil, piano

Florence Price: Symphony No. 3 in C minor
The Women’s Philharmonic/Apo Hsu
(Koch International Classics)

Borodin: Piano Quintet in C minor, Op. posth.
Alexander Mogilevsky, piano
Andrey Baranov & Géza Hozzu-Legocky, violins
Nora Romanoff, viola
Jing Zhao, cello
(Warner Classics)

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major
Joshua Bell, violin
Berlin Philharmonic/Michael Tilson Thomas
(Sony Classical)

Bates, Sparr among classical Grammy winners

Mason Bates’ “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” introduced at the Santa Fe Opera, has won a Grammy Award as Best Opera Recording. The opera by the Richmond-bred composer, the most popular contemporary opera with audiences in Santa Fe’s history, was recorded during its summer 2017 run and released last year on the Pentatone label.

D.J. Sparr, the Maryland-born composer-guitarist who was composer-in-residence with the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra from 2009 to 2011, is one of the artists featured on a Naxos disc, conducted by JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, of works by Kenneth Fuchs that won a Grammy for Best Classical Compendium.

This year’s Grammy Awards for classical performances:

* Best Orchestral Performance: Shostakovich: symphonies Nos. 4 and 11 (“The Year 1905”), Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons conducting (Deutsche Grammophon). (The set also won in the Best Engineered Album, Classical category.)

* Best Opera Performance: Mason Bates: “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” – Santa Fe Opera, Michael Christie conducting (Pentatone).

* Best Choral Performance: Lansing McLoskey: “Zealot Canticles” – The Crossing, Donald McNally directing (Innova).

* Best Chamber/Small Ensemble Performance: Laurie Anderson: “Landfall” – Laurie Anderson, vocals; Kronos Quartet (Nonesuch).

* Best Classical Instrumental Solo & Best Contemporary Classical Competition: Aaron Jay Kernis: Violin Concerto – James Ehnes, violin; Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot conducting (Onyx).

* Best Classical Solo Vocal Album: “Songs of Orpheus: Monteverdi, Caccini, D’India & Landi” – Karim Sulayman, tenor; Apollo’s Fire, Jeannette Sorrell conducting (Avie).

* Best Classical Compendium: Kenneth Fuchs: Piano Concerto (“Spiritualist”), “Poems of Life,” Electric Guitar Concerto (“Glacier”), “Rush” – Jeffrey Biegel, piano; Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, countertenor; Tim Hugh, cello; Timothy McAllister, alto saxophone; D.J. Sparr, electric guitar; Christine Pendrill, English horn; London Symphony Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta conducting (Naxos).

Review: Richmond Symphony

George Manahan conducting
with Daisuke Yamamoto, violin
Feb. 9, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Early in his career, New York musicians nicknamed conductor George Manahan “Mr. Rhythm” for his ability to beat markedly different time signatures with each arm – a very useful skill in certain classic repertory, such as Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” as well as a lot of contemporary and avant-garde music, a specialty of Manahan’s then and since.

In his return to conduct the Richmond Symphony, which he led as music director from 1987 to 1999, Manahan did not have to negotiate too many cross-rhythmic extremities; but his keen rhythmic sense proved quite handy in music ranging from the syncopated rondo of Antonin Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor to the fight scenes in Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid” Suite and Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Waterfront” Symphonic Suite.

Just as helpful was Manahan’s gift for balancing solo voices and instrumental choirs in complex orchestrations – no doubt honed in his other conducting specialty, opera. The Copland and Bernstein scores are peppered with such balancing acts among strings, winds, brass and percussion.

Another of this program’s selections, Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Musica Celestis” – originally the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1, heard here in his subsequent string orchestration – poses a different challenge in balancing fine threads and subtle colors of string tone.

To the surprise of no one who remembers his Richmond years, Manahan met most of those challenges with a seeming minimum of fuss, and his mastery spilled over to the musicians under his direction. Some of the most fervent applause at the end of the concert came from within the orchestra.

He deserved an ovation even before the concert began, for a singularly lucid and engaging pre-concert lecture and demonstration of the music to come. Back in the day, Manahan was celebrated for his deceptively easygoing explications, flipping through the conductor’s score as he spun piano reductions out of full orchestrations. He proved even better at this than I remember him being; I doubt that anyone since Bernstein could match him.

This Masterworks series program, devised last year for a guest-conducting date by Ankush Kumar Bahl, who withdrew when he was named one of the six finalists to become the symphony’s next music director, might have been crafted to play to Manahan’s strengths: All American scores except for the Dvořák (one of this conductor’s favorite concertos), and two of them written for dramatic scenarios.

The conductor and orchestra played up the atmospherics and drama of “Billy the Kid” and “On the Waterfront,” which, as Manahan noted in his pre-concert talk, share compositional traits that Bernstein’s music for Elia Kazan’s 1954 film absorbed from Copland’s 1938 ballet score. Their similarities in harmonic and rhythmic language came through in these performances, as did their differences in scenic settings (the Western prairie and New York waterfront) and contrasting applications of tone color (more pastels from Copland, more primary colors from Bernstein).

Daisuke Yamamoto, the symphony’s concertmaster, sounded rather belabored in the big opening movement of the Dvořák, whose violin solo awkwardly see-saws between the declarative and the lyrical, but hit his stride in the folkish melody of the concerto’s adagio and the cheerful Slavic dance of the finale. Manahan and the orchestra gave him warm, robust support throughout the concerto.

Warmth of a similar temperature was not as welcome in Kernis’ “Musica Celestis.” String tone was borderline lush in music that wants rarified impressionism. The celestial sounded earthbound.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$82. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);