Review: Alexander Paley Music Festival

Alexander Paley & Pei-wen Chen, pianos
Amiram Ganz, violin
Sept. 28-29, St. Luke Lutheran Church

The 21st season of Alexander Paley’s Richmond music festival was devoted to French music of the late-romantic and impressionist periods. Following performances by Paley of solo-piano works by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel in first program (which I could not attend), the pianist was joined by violinist Amiram Ganz in the violin sonatas of Camille Saint-Saëns and Ravel, and then by Paley’s wife and duo/four-hands piano partner, Pei-wen Chen, in duo works by Ravel and Cécile Chaminade.

Ganz, a native of Uruguay who studied alongside Paley at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory in the 1970s and has performed regularly with the pianist over the years (including in the first Richmond Paley festival in 1998), proved to be a fluent interpreter in the markedly contrasting idioms of Saint-Saëns and Ravel.

The violinist brought to Saint-Saëns’ sonatas No. 1 in D minor, Op. 75, and No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 102, both warmth and a declamatory tone suited to a composer who melded Beethovenian classical form with romantic sensibility. He found a better vehicle in the first sonata’s dramatic expressive sections and greater abundance of melody, while dealing straightforwardly with the second sonata’s more formulaic classical essaying.

Ganz really excelled in the two Ravel sonatas, striking the right balance between echoes of romantic style and anticipation of impressionist harmonic language in the early Sonata in A minor (known as the “Posthume” because it was not published in Ravel’s lifetime), and realizing the wide range of expression and style, from dense-packed modernism to blues to Ravel’s updated twist on old-time virtuoso pyrotechnics, in the more familiar Sonata in G major.

Paley was consistently on Ganz’s interpretive wavelength, although his energy and intensity and the sonic character of his favored Blüthner piano produced some imbalances between violin and piano, notably in the turbulent outer movements of the Saint-Saëns D minor. Balances and tonal inflections were admirable, though, where they counted for most, in the Ravel sonatas.

Bright-toned pianos in a bright acoustical setting exacted considerable costs in the final program. Paley and Chen, playing a pair of Blüthners, produced painfully brittle and often congested tone in Ravel’s two-piano version of “La Valse,” a work whose harmonic density and explosive climaxes carry more weight in the orchestral version and more clarity in the solo-piano version.

The same problems arose at high volumes in the duo’s treatments of the malagueña and feria sections of Ravel’s “Rapsodie espagnole,” a work better-known in the orchestral version that was introduced shortly after this two-piano version. Paley and Chen compensated with exceptionally sensitive projection of the atmospherics of the “Prélude à la nuit” and the sensuously rhythmic habanera section.

For many listeners, the discovery of these concerts was Chaminade, a long-lived (1857-1944) Parisian composer and pianist who, despite being a contemporary of modernists remained a romantic in style.

Paley and Chen played two Chaminade’s major two-piano works, the ”Valse Carnavalesque,” Op. 73, and “Duo symphonique,” Op. 117. The former, true to its title, is festive and full of swirling pianistic effects. The latter is somewhat sterner stuff, with materials treated in cyclical form à la César Franck, but still full of decorous keyboard effects exchanged by the two instruments. They, and an encore of Chaminade’s Spanish-accented “La Sévillane,” received animated and affectionate treatment from the two pianists.

Virginia Opera CEO retiring at end of season

Russell P. Allen will retire as Virginia Opera’s administrative chief at the end of the 2019-20 season, the company has announced. Allen served as Virginia Opera’s general manager from 1994 to 2000 and returned as president and CEO in 2011. In the interim years, he was the chief administrative officer of Atlanta Opera.

Virginia Opera has set up a transition committee to recruit a successor.

In a statement, Allen said: “In everyone’s life there comes a time when moving on to the next phase of one’s life is a logical transition. As I start this 15th year of service, I feel grateful, honored, and privileged that my last season is Virginia Opera’s 45th anniversary season – truly a time for celebration.”

The company’s current season opens with Puccini’s “Tosca,” Oct. 4, 6 and 8 at Norfolk’s Harrison Opera House, Oct. 12 and 13 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax, and Oct. 18 and 20 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center in Richmond.

Domingo and Met part company

Plácido Domingo, who first sang at the Metropolitan Opera 51 years ago, has withdrawn from a production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” the day before its first performance, saying in a statement that his participation in the dress rehearsal was “my last performance on the Met stage.”

Domingo, who has faced a number of accusations of sexual harassment and an investigation by the Los Angeles Opera, where he is artistic director, “agreed to withdraw,” as a statement from the Met put it, after his appearance in “Macbeth” sparked “a growing outcry” among Met employees, The New York Times’ Michael Cooper reports:

Letter V Classical Radio Sept. 25

In the second hour, a conversation with pianist Alexander Paley and violinist Amiram Ganz in advance of their performance in the coming weekend’s Paley Music Festival in Richmond. In the third hour, remembering Christopher Rouse, the eminent American composer who died on Sept. 21.

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

Berlioz: “Rob-Roy Macgregor” Overture
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Alexander Gibson

Antonio Casimir Cartellieri: Concerto in B flat major
Dieter Klöcker & Sandra Arnold, clarinets
Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra/Pavel Prantl

Chopin: “Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante” in E flat major, Op. 22
Daniil Trifonov, piano

conversation with pianist Alexander Paley & violinist Amiram Ganz
with works TBA by Mozart, Brahms, Enescu

Andrew Anderson: Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor
Australia Piano Quartet

Christopher Rouse: “Rapture”
Helsinki Philharmonic/Leif Segerstam

Borodin: String Sextet in D minor
Nash Ensemble

Review: Richmond Symphony

Marin Alsop conducting
with Inmo Yang, violin
& Richmond Symphony Chorus
Sept. 21, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

In 1988, the Richmond Symphony offered a first professional chance for a young female violinist-turned-conductor who had been turned down by other ensembles. Marin Alsop went on to lead a succession of ever-more-prominent orchestras on three continents. Today, she is one of the leading US conductors of her generation.

Alsop returns to Richmond for the first time since her two-year tenure here in the opening concerts of the symphony’s 2019-20 Masterworks series, launching an eventful season in which the orchestra will audition five candidates to become its next music director and conclude by playing co-host to the 2020 Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition.

The conductor shares the spotlight with Inmo Yang, the 24-year-old Korean violinist fresh off a rapturously received recital last weekend in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts. Yang, winner of the 2015 Paganini Competition in Italy, is featured in that composer’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, a piece whose virtuoso twists and turns almost compensate for its excessive length and musical shortcomings.

In the first of two weekend performances, Yang ignited all the quick-fingered technical fireworks packed into this concerto, but was even more impressive in his ability to coax tonal warmth and genuine expression from what often comes across as a succession of dazzling fiddle tricks separated by orchestral tutti that sound like third-rate Rossini. Yang’s shaping of phrases and subtleties of timbre often brought to mind a coloratura soprano making the most of a bel canto aria, and his treatment of fast passages and virtuoso flourishes conveyed real joy.

Rewarded with a roaring ovation, the violinist offered more Paganini, the Caprice No. 14 for solo violin, as an encore.

Alsop opened the program with a rarity, Alexander von Zemlinsky’s setting for chorus and orchestra of Psalm 13 (“How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord?”). The composer, best-known as the principal teacher of Arnold Schoenberg, was a prolific composer of concert works for voices and orchestra, written in the large-scale, late-romantic style of his contemporaries Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss.

His treatment of the Psalm is rather literal, beginning as a dark and thick-textured lament – a kind of chanted chord progression in its choral writing – that gradually brightens as the text reaches its hopeful conclusion (“I will sing to the Lord, because he hath dealt bountifully with me”). Zemlinsky, oddly, breaks the textual flow with an elaborate and turbulent orchestral section leading into the finale.

The conductor maintained reasonably good balance between the Richmond Symphony Chorus and an often busy orchestration, not an easy feat as choral sound tends to be recessed as the singers are placed behind the orchestra on the Carpenter Theatre stage.

Alsop chose a seemingly odd pairing of masterpieces for the program’s second half: Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” and Stravinsky’s 1919 concert suite from “The Firebird,” the 1910 ballet score that established him as a major composer.

Conducting both works without a score, Alsop looked to be devoting much of her attention to obtaining the desired articulation and balances among string sections, at times at the expense of balances between strings and winds. Woodwinds were unusually prominent in the Brahms – not unpleasantly so, nor even inauthentically so, as Brahms’ source, the “St. Antoni Chorale” from a Feld partita (outdoor serenade) by Haydn, was originally for a wind ensemble.

Orchestral sections were better balanced in the Stravinsky, and string sound, unexpectedly, was warmer. Alsop drew out the colors and sound effects of the score quite vividly, conveying the ballet’s story line – a Russian folk tale on the culturally widespread “phoenix rising” theme – as effectively in sound as it might have been in words. The orchestra’s winds and brass played their prominent roles to the hilt.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Sept. 22 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$100. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

Christopher Rouse (1949-2019)

Christopher Rouse, the prominent US composer who won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1993, has died at 70. A Baltimore native and resident, Rouse was best-known for his orchestral music, often characterized as “neo-romantic” but drawing inspiration from genres as diverse as South Asian indigenous music and rock. His Sixth Symphony is due for its premiere next month by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

An obituary by The Baltimore Sun’s McKenna Oxenden:

Rise and fall of the critics

Tim Page, a former music critic at The New York Times and the Washington Post (winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his criticism at the Post), pens a heartfelt elegy to a now almost defunct trade. “[T]here are likely no more than 20 Americans who still make most of their living writing in newspapers about classical music,” reflecting mass media’s increasingly “minimal interest in presenting any sort of intellectual record of a given place,” Page observes in an essay for the Depauw University School of Music’s 21CM website:

Page is recalling what in fact was a brief golden age of American music criticism.

Fifty years ago, there probably weren’t many more than 20 full-time classical critics at US newspapers, most of them working in the same large cities whose papers still employ critics. Added to them were what we’d now call “gig-economy” critics, a smallish coterie of writers who could sustain reasonable incomes by contributing to music magazines and writing program notes for concert presenters, liner notes for recordings and guidebooks for non-specialist readers to this highly specialized field.

There were very few full-time newspaper staffers covering arts and entertainment, either as reporters or critics. Papers outside major cities, circa 1960, typically had one or two general-assignment writers, mostly concentrating on movies and other popular entertainment, and a cast of free-lance stringers writing critiques of “high” art. Typically, they were academics or people schooled in an art form but making their livings in non-artistic fields. They were not expert in reporting and news-writing; the factual quality and readability of their work, and the depth of knowledge behind their work, were, to put it charitably, variable.

In Richmond and similarly sized cities – especially those on main railroad routes when rail was the dominant mode of travel – the only published documentation of the tour engagements of major musicians, actors and other artists were reviews by free-lancers, whose compensation was little more than a free ticket and the satisfaction of seeing their names in print. These are the writers who tell you how it was to hear the likes of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Arturo Toscanini, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington performing in places like Richmond.

For professional critics, the journalistic dam broke around 1970. Rock and other pop-music concerts drew ever-larger crowds to newly built arenas and a proliferation of nightclubs. At the same time, orchestras, opera companies, theater and dance troupes in smaller cities evolved from amateur to semi-professional to professional status, assuming more prominent roles in communities’ social and economic self-perceptions.

As cities began to promote themselves as cultural destinations, and their businesses began to use cultural amenities to recruit talent and draw clients, their newspapers naturally devoted more space and staff to cultural coverage. Full-timers were hired to cover arts and pop music, and those formerly covering movies and television part-time became full-timers.

It lasted for about a generation. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, newspapers’ revenues began to be squeezed by competition from digital media and the decline of classified and retail advertising, and reductions of newspapers’ staffs reflected the old employment practice of last-in, first-out. Critics were among the first to go. Those of us who could retired; those who couldn’t were reassigned to more traditional news beats or laid off.

Today, print coverage of arts and entertainment is pretty much like what it was 50 or 60 years ago – except that there are far fewer arts magazines and most major papers devote less staff and space to fine arts and more to pop culture. Digital coverage of the arts is considerable, but most writers in this medium work for little or no money. This, too, will diminish when people like me, former full-time newspaper critics now running blogs or doing podcasts, finally call it quits.

I’m not looking to pack it in any time soon; but when I eventually, inevitably do, I wonder how or whether classical music in Richmond and cities like it will be documented. Maybe as it was in most places before the rise of mass media, in personal diaries and published reminiscences.

Review: Chamber Music Society

Sept. 15, Perkinson Recital Hall, University of Richmond

The Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia’s 2019-20 season programming hinges on contrasts between the musical past and present. Such contrasts can be unexpectedly revealing – remember the surprising kinship between Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet and Osvaldo Golijov’s “Dreams of Prayers of Isaac the Blind” in a 2018 program? Or they can be jarring exercises in “and now for something completely different.”

This program tended toward the latter. A pairing of Satie’s “Gnoisienne” No. 1 for solo piano and Debussy’s “Syrinx” for solo flute, followed by John Adams’ “Road Movies” for violin and piano, followed in turn by Brian Raphael Nabors’ “Énergie” for flute and electronics, was then-to-now chronological but lacked any perceptible thread of stylistic or expressive evolution.

An intermission mercifully separated those pieces from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50, an epic-length high-romantic work that has nothing at all in common with what preceded it.

While the parts added up to no coherent sum musically, the program was nonetheless satisfying in its displays of virtuosity and/or musicianship.

Pianist Roman Rabinovich, returning after memorable performances of two Brahms piano quartets last season, delivered sensitive, stylish readings of the Satie and the radically different Adams. Violinist Diana Cohen met Adams’ formidable demands of technique and stamina – all the more impressive as she is at an advanced stage of pregnancy – and with Rabinovich realized the work’s cinematic quality and pop-culture evocations. Flutist Mary Boodell was a fluent voice for Debussy’s moody atmospherics and Nabors’ combination of lyricism and animation.

Nabors, a 28-year-old composer from Alabama, speaking by phone with James Wilson, the Chamber Music Society’s artistic director in a pre-concert conversation, suggested that “Énergie” speaks to today’s concerns about environmental degradation; his translation of energy into French is an indirect reference to the Paris climate accords.

His brief tone poem, however, does not explicitly evoke the natural world or humanity’s effect on it. The electronic track, which accompanies a live flutist, begins with massive, atonal effects not unlike the sound of a glacier “calving” and gradually evolves into a vaguely Caribbean-sounding rhythm track, while the flute develops a tune that, in this context, sounds a hopeful, positive note.

Pianist Rabinovich, violinist Cohen and cellist Wilson were impassioned advocates for the Tchaikovsky, a lengthy elegy to and biography-in-sound of his friend and mentor Nikolai Rubinstein. The heart of the piece is a theme-and-variations set with each variation representing a stage in Rubinstein’s life, from youth to death. A somber main theme, developed in the trio’s first movement, returns to be treated with obsessively accumulating passion in the finale.

This arrangement of materials requires performers to take great care in creating and maintaining a musical-narrative arc, a task this threesome of musicians accomplished impressively. Rabinovich’s apportioning of volume and intensity was especially effective in punctuating the story line. The string players enhanced that with characterful gradations of nostalgic and mournful lyricism.

Notably in the Tchaikovsky, and at times in other selections, the musicians found themselves coping with an unsympathetic sonic environment. Since its renovation several years ago, Perkinson Recital Hall’s formerly warm, mellow acoustic has turned hard-edged and rather cold, tending to project instrumental sound in clinical detail. In this performance, piano sound louder than forte gave off distracting sympathetic tones, while higher registers of violin and flute often turned glassy or grating.

Letter V Classical Radio Sept. 18

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

John Adams: “Short Ride in a Fast Machine”
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal/Kent Nagano

Bartók: Piano Quintet in C major
Alexander Lonquich, piano
Barnabás Kelemen, violin
Lawrence Power, viola
Nicolas Altstaedt, cello

Brahms: Scherzo in E flat minor, Op. 4
Jonathan Plowright, piano

Nielsen: “Maskarade” –
Act 2 Prelude
“Dance of the Cockerels”
Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Ulf Schirmer

Janáček: “Jenůfa” Suite
(arrangement by Manfred Honeck & Tomáš Ille)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
(Reference Recordings)

Past Masters:
Richard Strauss: “Der Rosenkavalier” waltzes
(arrangement by Rudolf Kempe)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Rudolf Kempe
(Warner Classics)
(recorded 1973)

Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major
Christian Tetzlaff, violin
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Robin Ticciati

Debussy: “Jeux”
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Jonathan Nott

Conducting stars from the east

In recent days, we get closer looks at and performance critiques of two of the most remarked-upon conductors in recent years, Teodor Currentzis and Kirill Petrenko.

The New York Times’ Michael Cooper profiles Currentzis, whose alt-classical persona “looks more CBGB than Carnegie Hall,” as he leads performances and after-hours musical happenings in Perm, the city in the foothills of the Russian Ural mountains where he has been artistic director of the state opera company, while also leading his period-instruments orchestra MusicAeterna:

The New Yorker’s Alex Ross, meanwhile, recounts early hearings of Petrenko as he takes over direction of the Berlin Philharmonic, hearing in the conductor’s work “a straight-ahead rightness” in interpretation while worrying that his choices of repertory to date represent a “retrenchment” from the commitment to contemporary music shown by his predecessor, Simon Rattle:

Currentzis, born in Greece, was educated and has so far pursued his career in Russia. Petrenko, born in Russia, emigrated to Austria in teenage and has risen professionally in Germany. This kind of border-hopping resonates locally: Of the five candidates to become the Richmond Symphony’s next music director, one, Valentina Peleggi, is an Italian currently working in Brazil; another, Farkhad Khudyev, is a native of Turkmenistan who has worked in Britain and the US. A sixth candidate, Paolo Bortolameolli, who withdrew over the summer, is the Chilean-born associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.