Leon Redbone (1949-2019)

Leon Redbone, the singer and guitarist known for stylish revivals of classic American vaudeville and blues, has died at 69. Redbone, born in Cyprus as Dickran Gobalian, began performing in the 1960s in Canada. He retired due to ill health in 2015.

Redbone was famed for biographical opaqueness and personal idiosyncracy. I got a taste of that first-hand when I interviewed him at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto in the 1970s. He agreed to the interview provided that I not take notes or record the conversation. Subsequently, passersby found me scribbling feverishly as I sat under a tree.

“A statement on Redbone’s website confirmed his death, though it did so with a sweet bit of humor and joking that he was actually 127 years old,” Jon Blistein writes in Rolling Stone:

Leon Redbone, Cult Singer Who Helped Revive Ragtime, Dead at 69

Baltimore Symphony cancels summer programs

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, whose management and musicians are at loggerheads over a proposal to reduce the orchestra’s season from 52 to 40 weeks per year, which management says is necessary to ease long-running financial shortfalls, has suddenly canceled its summer programs, The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette reports:


Letter V Classical Radio May 29

The third of three programs sampling new classical recordings, with music by Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Elgar, Ravel and Mieczyslaw Weinberg.

noon-3 p.m. EDT
1700-2000 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Elgar: “Enigma Variations”
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko

Ravel: “Le Tombeau de Couperin”
(arrangement by Joachim Schmeißer)
Albrecht Mayer, oboe
Bamberger Symphoniker/Jakub Hrůša
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major
Tianwa Yang, violin
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Antoni Wit

Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Fantasy, Op. 52, for cello and orchestra
Anastasia Kobekina, cello
Berliner Symphonieorchester/Kevin John Edusei

Beethoven: Sonata in A flat major, Op. 110
Jonathan Biss, piano
(JB Recordings)

Saint-Saëns: Quartet No. 1 in E minor, Op. 112
Quatuor Girard
(B Records)

Schubert: “Ständchen,” D. 957, No. 4
(transcription by Franz Liszt)
Khatia Buniatishvilli, piano
(Sony Classical)

‘Better to leave five years too early than five minutes too late’

Alan Gilbert, the former New York Philharmonic music director, now starting his tenure with the NDR Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, discusses conductors’ optimal longevity with orchestras, balancing new music with old, gender equity in programming and much else in an interview with the online classical-music magazine Van:


Letter V Classical Radio May 22

The second of three programs sampling new classical recordings, with chamber and orchestral works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Nielsen, Peter Schickele, Caroline Shaw and John Adams.

noon-3 p.m. EDT
1700-2000 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Peter Schickele: “Spring Forward”
David Shifrin, clarinet
Miró Quartet

J.S. Bach: Concerto in C minor for oboe, violin, strings and bass continuo, BWV 1060R
Xenia Löffler, oboe
Isabelle Faust, violin
Akademie für alte Musik Berlin/Bernhard Forck
(Harmonia Mundi)

Caroline Shaw: “Plan and Elevation”
Attacca Quartet

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major
Jae-Hyuck Cho, piano
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Adrien Perruchon
(Sony Classical)

John Adams: “Roll Over Beethoven”
(transcription by Preben Antonsen)
Christina & Michelle Naughton, pianos
(Warner Classics)

Nielsen: Wind Quintet
Les Vents Français
(Warner Classics)

Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550
NDR Radiophilharmonie/Andrew Manze

Review: Richmond Symphony ‘Carmen’

Steven Smith conducting
May 18, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Steven Smith concluded his tenure as music director of the Richmond Symphony without the usual onstage formalities, opting instead for high drama in a concert presentation of Bizet’s “Carmen.” Concert opera is an unusual choice of leave-taking for a symphonic conductor, but not a unique one for this orchestra: Edgar Schenkman, its first music director, led Puccini’s “Tosca” in his 1971 farewell performance.

Denyce Graves, the Washington-born mezzo-soprano who has made Carmen one of her signature roles, was joined by a cast of singers from Virginia Opera, the Richmond Symphony Chorus and the Greater Richmond Children’s Choir in a condensation of “Carmen” whose dramatic intensity more than compensated for the absence of sets, costumes (other than Graves’ gypsy garb) and theatrical lighting.

Smith and the orchestra he has molded over the past decade were as stellar as any of the singers. Outside major opera houses with large orchestra pits, the potent and richly colorful orchestration that Bizet created for “Carmen” rarely comes across with its full impact. In this performance, the orchestra was a real presence as a scene- and mood-painter, as the composer surely intended it to be. Instruments, especially woodwinds, conveyed as much character as the singers.

A particular fascination in this performance was seeing and hearing what Graves made of a role she has played so many times, this time without the intervention of a stage director. Her own Carmen conveys sensuality not so much as an essence of the character but as a liberating force. She will have her way not just with men, but despite them. This vividly empowered Carmen suits Graves’ formidable voice and physical presence.

That voice proved a bit brassy for the “Habañera” that introduces the character in Act 1, better suited to the animated “Chanson Bohème” opening Act 2, and best in confrontational scenes and her most fevered duets with Don José, her hopelessly smitten lover and eventual nemesis.

Sean Panikkar, as Don José, was Graves’ vocal and dramatic match in those scenes, boasting a ringing, focused tenor voice and arresting stage presence that promise a stellar career. Similarly bright prospects seem in store for Will Liverman, who brought a commanding yet flexible bass voice to the role of Escamillo, the toreador for whom Carmen jilts Don José.

The rest of the cast was in fine voice and convincing character. April Martin, Melissa Bonetti, Logan Webber and John Tibbetts were an animated quartet of gypsy revelers and schemers, Martin and Bullock especially so in their ensemble numbers with Graves’ Carmen. Joshua Arky as Zuniga, Don José’s commanding officer, and Phillip Bullock, as the guardsman Moralès, sang and acted their smaller roles to good effect. Sarah Tucker was, to my ears, miscast as Micaëla, the young hometown girl whose affection for Don José is returned luke-warm; her strongly projected soprano voice conveyed little of the shyness and vulnerability of the character.

The Richmond Symphony Chorus was very much a co-star in this show, bringing lusty collective tone and genuine characterization to their crowd-scene roles. The women were gloriously riotous as the cigarette-factory girls relating the (unseen) Act 1 fight scene between Carmen and her co-worker Manuelita.

The late James Erb, founder of the Symphony Chorus, once told me that he often sought more “operatic,” or dramatically infused, character and projection from the ensemble. He would have been gratified to hear this performance, prepared by his successor, Erin Freeman.

The Greater Richmond Children’s Choir, prepared by its director, Crystal Jonkman, was in good voice, but a bit too vocally well-scrubbed to portray Bizet’s gang of street urchins. The ensemble, even though placed at the front of the stage arrayed around the conductor, was at times overpowered by the orchestra, one of the performance’s few instances of imbalance between voices and instrumentation.

Smith has demonstrated secure command of complex scores and combinations of orchestra and voices numerous times in his conducting career here. This “Carmen,” certainly among the highlights of his tenure, was more celebratory than valedictory.

The orchestra he leaves is in prime performing shape, disciplined in ensemble and flexible in style, capable of timbral refinement as well as sonic power. The Richmond Symphony punches well above its weight among American orchestras, and Smith deserves much of the credit for that. For that, and no less for his imaginative programming, he will be sorely missed.

As Smith leaves the symphony, so do two of its most long-tenured musicians: Paul A. Bedell, its principal double-bassist, and Catherine Hubert Foster, who for many years served as principal second violinist, subsequently as a section player.

Menuhin Competition schedule announced

The Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition, a biennial event for violinists aged 21 and younger staged since 1983, has announced the schedule for its next round, which will bring 44 competitors to Richmond in May 2020.

Concerts will feature the Richmond Symphony, the Sphinx Virtuosi chamber orchestra and the competition’s jurors and past winners, as well as jazz violinist Regina Carter and her quartet and the folk fiddlers Mark and Maggie O’Connor, at various venues in the Richmond area. Other guest performers include conductors Jahja Ling and Andrew Litton and violinist Elena Urioste.

Several concerts are incorporated into the symphony’s Masterworks and VCU’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts series.

Among the programming highlights are the premiere of a work for violin and string orchestra by the Richmond-bred Mason Bates, who has become of the most widely heard contemporary composers in the US, and a recital juxtaposing Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata with readings from Rita Dove’s “Sonata Mullatica: a Life in Five Movements and a Short Play,” poems on the life and career of George Bridgetower, an English violinist of Afro-Caribbean descent who joined Beethoven in the first performance of the “Kreutzer.”

Concerts also will feature staples of the repertory, including Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” Saint-Saëns’ “Introduction and Rondo capriccioso,” Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy,” and movements from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major and Lalo’s “Symphonie espagnole.”

Ticket prices and other details will be announced later.

Co-hosts of the 2020 competition are the symphony, Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Richmond, the Community Idea Stations (operator of WCVE public radio and television) and the City of Richmond.

Jurors of the 2020 Menuhin Competition are violinists Pamela Frank (chair); violinist-conductor Joji Hattori (vice-chair); violinists Noah Bendix-Bagley, Ray Chen, Aaron Dworkin, Ning Feng and Soyoung Yoon; cellist Ralph Kirshbaum; and pianist Anton Nel.

In addition to concerts and competition rounds, competitors and jurors will participate in outreach activities with local institutions.

The competition’s schedule of events:

May 14 (7:30 p.m.)
Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets
Opening Gala Concert:
Richmond Symphony
Jahja Ling conducting
Shostakovich: “Festive” Overture
Saint-Saëns: “Introduction and Rondo capriccioso”
Christian Li, violin
Sarasate: “Carmen Fantasy”
Chloe Chua, violin
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major
Soyoung Yoon, violin
Rimsky-Korsakov: “Capriccio espagnol”

May 15-18 (10 a.m.-1:30 p.m.; 2:15-5:30 p.m.)
Camp Concert Hall, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond
May 15-16: Junior competition 1st round
May 17-18: Senior competition 1st round

May 15 (7:30 p.m.)
Thomas Dale High School, 3626 W. Hundred Road, Chester
Geneva Competition 2018 Junior Prizewinners’ Concert:
Chloe Chua & Christian Li, violins
Gordon Back, piano
program TBA

May 16 (7:30 p.m.)
Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets
Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra
Daniel Myssyk conducting
Ning Feng, violin
program TBA

May 17 (7:30 p.m.)
Vlahcevic Concert Hall, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University, Park Avenue at Harrison Street
Jurors’ Showcase (Rennolds Chamber Concerts):
Beethoven: Cello Sonata in A major, Op. 69
Ralph Kirshbaum, cello
Anton Nel, piano
Bloch: “Baal Shem: Three Pictures of Hassidic Life”
Noah Bendix-Bagley, violin
Gordon Back, piano
Schumann: Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44
Pamela Frank, violin
Joji Hattori, viola
Ralph Kirshbaum, cello
Anton Nel, piano

May 18 (7:30 p.m.)
November Theater, Virginia Repertory Center, 114 W. Broad St.
Regina Carter Quartet
concert in memory of Joe Kennedy Jr.

May 19 (10 a.m.-1:30 p.m.; 2:20-5:30 p.m.)
Vlahcevic Concert Hall, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University, Park Avenue at Harrison Street
Junior competition semi-finals

May 19 (7:30 p.m.)
Perkinson Recital Hall, North Court, University of Richmond
Ning Feng, violin
Anton Nel, piano
speaker TBA
Beethoven: Violin Sonata in A major, Op. 47 (“Kreutzer”), with readings from Rita Dove’s “Sonata Mullatica: a Life in Five Movements and a Short Play”

May 20 (10 a.m.-1:30 p.m.; 2:20-5:30 p.m.)
Vlahcevic Concert Hall, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University, Park Avenue at Harrison Street
Senior competition semi-finals

May 20 (7:30 p.m.)
Byrd Theatre, 2908 W. Cary St.
Mark & Maggie O’Connor, fiddles/violins & guitar

May 21 (10 a.m.-noon; 12:30-2:30 p.m.; 3-5:00 p.m.)
Academic Learning Commons, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1000 Floyd Ave.
Master classes by competition jurors

May 21 (7:30 p.m.)
Camp Concert Hall, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond
Sphinx Virtuosi
Jessie Montgomery: “Starburst”
George Walker: “Lyric for Strings”
Astor Piazzolla: “Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas” (“The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”)
Elena Urioste, violin
Johan Svendsen: Romance, Op. 26
Joji Hattori, violin
Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson: Sinfonietta No. 2 for strings (“Generations”) – III: “Alla Burletta”
Michael Abels: “Delights and Dances”

May 22 (3:30 p.m.)
location TBA
Aaron Dworkin, speaker
Ron Crutcher, interlocutor
“The Danger of a Single Story: The Importance of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in the Arts and their Role in Society”

May 22 (7:30 p.m.)
Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets
Junior Finals:
Sphinx Virtuosi
5 Junior finalists
Mason Bates: work TBA for violin and string orchestra (premiere)
violinist TBA
Vivaldi: “The Four Seasons”
violinists TBA

May 23 (7:30 p.m.)
Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets
Senior Finals (Richmond Symphony Masterworks):
Richmond Symphony
Andrew Litton conducting
4 Senior finalists
Lalo: “Symphonie espagnole” (without 3rd movement)
violinists TBA
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor
violinist TBA
Wieniawski: Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor
violinist TBA

May 24 (7:30 p.m.)
Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets
Closing Gala Concert (Richmond Symphony Masterworks):
Richmond Symphony
Sphinx Virtuosi
Andrew Litton conducting
Michael Abels: “Delights and Dances”
Vivaldi: “The Four Seasons” (excerpts)
Junior & Senior winners, violins
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major – I: Allegro moderato
Ray Chen, violin
Falla: “Sombrero de tres picos” (“The Three-Cornered Hat”) Suite No. 2

Letter V Classical Radio May 15

The first of three samplers of new classical recordings, with works by Bach, Haydn, Mendelssohn and Dukas; new music by Danny Elfman and Jonathan Leshnoff; and the 1893-94 version of Gustav Mahler’s “tone poem in the form of a symphony,” originally titled “Titan,” ultimately his Symphony No. 1 in D major.

noon-3 p.m. EDT
1700-2000 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Haydn: Symphony No. 65 in A major
Kammerorchester Basel/Giovanni Antonini

Jonathan Leshnoff: Guitar Concerto
Jason Vieaux, guitar
Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrera

Dukas: “Villanelle”
Richard Watkins, horn
Julius Drake, piano
(Signum Classics)

Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor
Jan Lisiecki, piano
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Danny Elfman: Piano Quartet
Philharmonic Piano Quartet Berlin
(Sony Classical)

J.S. Bach: Aria variata in A minor, BWV 989 (“alla Maniera Italiana”)
Tamara Stefanovich, piano

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major (“Titan”)
(Hamburg/Weimar version, 1893-94)
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
(Harmonia Mundi)

Review: Lara St. John & Matt Herskowitz

May 12, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University

Violinist Lara St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz performed in the finale of Virginia Commonwealth University’s current season of the Rennolds Chamber Concerts, a largely French program centered on the contrasting violin sonatas of César Franck and Maurice Ravel.

Yes, Franck was Belgian and his Violin Sonata in A major was introduced in Brussels, but the composer spent most of his career in Paris and exerted considerable influence on other late-19th and early 20th century French composers. Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major is not totally French in flavor, with its central slow movement echoing American blues.

St. John, a veteran Canadian violinist, and Herskowitz, an American-born, Montreal-based pianist whose career has centered on jazz, made rather brittle work of the Franck sonata, conveying little of the tonal richness and expressive depth of the piece. They were more fluent in the impressionist pastels of the first movement of the Ravel; the violinist treated the bluesy slides of the central movement quite broadly, and played the perpetual-motion finale as the virtuoso showpiece that it is.

The duo’s experience in exploring the music of Eastern Europe came through in their reading of Béla Bartók’s Rhapsody No. 2, as they reveled in the quirky rhythms and tonal inflections of Hungarian and other Balkan folk dances on which the piece was based.

St. John and Herskowitz played two of the pianist’s arrangements of favorite tunes by George Gershwin. They emphasized the sensuality of a slow-tango treatment of “But Not for Me,” and skittered through cross-rhythms in an elaborate take on “I Got Rhythm.”

Their program concluded with Martin Kennedy’s “Czardashian Rhapsody,” a witty reworking of Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” No. 2.

Brought back for an encore, St. John and Herskowitz obliged with Fritz Kreisler’s “Caprice Viennois.”

This season finale, scheduled as a substitute for a September 2018 concert canceled because of Hurricane Florence, was a matinee – a preview of the 2019-20 Rennolds season, most of whose concerts will move to Sunday afternoons.

Symphony Youth Orchestra Program offerings

Auditions for the 2019-20 season of the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra Program will be held on May 21 and 28 and June 4 at Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets.

The program’s four orchestras and wind ensemble offer performance opportunities for young string, woodwind, brass, harp and percussion players at various skill levels, with weekly rehearsals, coaching and master classes with Richmond Symphony musicians, chamber music, mentoring and social activities.

Financial assistance is available for eligible musicians.

Ensembles perform in fall, winter and spring concerts, and the Symphony Youth Orchestra, the program’s senior ensemble, in a Side-by-Side Concert with the Richmond Symphony.

For information on audition requirements, fees and registration, visit http://www.richmondsymphony.com/community/audition-dates-application/

* * *

The Youth Orchestra Program and Virginia Commonwealth University will offer “String Odyssey,” an Orchestra Project summer camp, for young string musicians in grades 2-12, from June 23 to 29 on the VCU campus, and “Odyssey Jr.,” a half-day string camp for players in grades 2-5, from July 8 to 12 at Dominion Energy Center.

The registration deadline for “String Odyssey” is May 24; for “Odyssey Jr.,” June 14.

For more information, visit http://orchestraprojectrva.com/