Letter V Classical Radio Oct. 30

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

Debussy: “Tarantelle Styrienne and Sarabande”
(orchestration by Maurice Ravel)
Ulster Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier

Jennifer Higdon: Viola Concerto
Roberto Díaz, viola
Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero

Brahms: Clarinet Sonata in F minor, Op. 120, No. 1
(orchestration by Luciano Berio)
Karl Heinz Steffens, clarinet
Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie/Daniel Raiskin

Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor
Bertrand Chamayou, piano
Orchestre National de France/Emmanuel Krivine

Schumann: Symphony No. 2 in C major
London Symphony Orchestra/John Eliot Gardiner
(LSO Live)

Marc Mellits: Quartet No. 5 (“Waniyetu”)
Debussy Quartet
(Evidence Classics)

Beethoven: Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2 (“Razumovsky”)
Ebène Quartet

Caroline Shaw: “Valencia”
Attacca Quartet

Review: Richmond Symphony

Roderick Cox conducting
with Brandie Sutton, soprano
Oct. 26, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Roderick Cox, first of the five candidates auditioning to become the Richmond Symphony’s next music director, opened and closed his program in the mainstage Masterworks series with contrasting samples of Russian romanticism.

Tchaikovsky’s “The Tempest” Fantasy-Overture, his second go at a Shakespearian tone poem after the success of his “Romeo and Juliet,” is a rather explicitly narrative succession of episodes, some turbulent, some pixie-ish, given loose continuity by an earnest love theme.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, the composer’s last work, echoes the high romanticism of Tchaikovsky and his late-19th-century contemporaries, but filters those resonations through rhythms, coloristic touches and harmonies that no Russian romantic (except, perhaps, Mussorgsky) would have dreamed of.

In both works, Cox crafted big, bold orchestral tonescapes with vivid outbursts from brass and percussion, clearly etched wind solos and choirs and robust, often lush contributions from the strings – with extra weight from cellos and basses. Altogether, his orchestral sound was Russian in scale, but with the precision and refinement with which Western musicians mediate Russian tonal brawn.

In the Rachmaninoff, Cox and the symphony players nicely offset the starkly rhythmic main theme of the first movement with an interlude that, in classical formulation, would be a trio – a mini-fantasia of deftly voiced, delicately balanced wind solos and duets. In the central movement, a dark waltz, Cox brought out the needed melancholy without loss of momentum. The slow-boil energy of the waltz – likely, an homage to Ravel’s “La Valse” – came through, and served as an effective prelude to the work’s surging, Spanish-accented finale.

Brandie Sutton, a rich-toned, highly expressive soprano, presented contrasting works of her own: The aria “Depuis le jour” (“Since the Day”) from Gustave Charpentier’s opera “Louise” and Samuel Barber’s setting of James Agee’s prose-poem “Knoxville, Summer of 1915.”

The Charpentier aria is clearly a showpiece for this singer. She conveyed its romantic sentiment (“[M]y soul enchanted still by that first kiss”) with ardor bordering on ecstasy, lavishing a rounded and expertly inflected tone that carried consistently over the aria’s substantial orchestration.

Her treatment of the Barber was similarly operatic, helpful as she was singing in front of a full-sized orchestra, but not always attuned to the composer’s moody, impressionistic treatment of Agee’s wistful, nostalgic text. A gentle score got a pretty heavy workout.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Oct. 27 in Jarman Auditorium of Longwood University, 201 High St. in Farmville. Tickets: $20. Details: (434) 395-2000; richmondsymphony.com

Raymond Leppard (1927-2019)

Raymond Leppard, the English-born American conductor who was one of the pioneers of the early music revival in the 1950s and ’60s and went on to lead a number of modern orchestras, including the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, where he was music director from 1987 to 2001, has died at 92.

In addition to preparing modern performing editions of 17th-century operas – Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea,” Francesco Cavalli’s “La Calisto” and “L’Ormindo” – Leppard composed film scores for “Lord of the Flies” and “Alfred the Great” in the 1960s.

In his book “Authenticity in Music” (1988), Leppard took issue with early music performance practices of later generations of scholar-performers.

(Leppard’s 1967 Philips recordings of movements from Handel’s “Concerti a due Cori” with the English Chamber Orchestra are used as theme music on Letter V Classical Radio.)

An obituary by The New York Times’ Daniel J. Wakin:

Letter V Classical Radio Oct. 23

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

Johann Bernhard Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 2 in G major
Thüringer Bach Collegium/Gernot Süssmuth

Dana Wilson: “Hungarian Folk Songs”
Formosa Quartet

José António Carlos de Seixas: Harpsichord Concerto in G minor
Andreas Staier, harpsichord & direction
Orquestra barocca Casa da Música
(Harmonia Mundi)

Elgar: “In the South (Alassio)”
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko

Past Masters:
Bloch: “Schelomo”
Janos Starker, cello
Israel Philharmonic/Zubin Mehta
(recorded 1969)

Nielsen: “Helios” Overture
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
(Sony Classical)

Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major
Leonidas Kavakos, violin & direction
Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
(Sony Classical)

Schubert: Impromptu in F minor, D. 935, No. 4
Maria João Pires, piano
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Review: Ian Bostridge & Brad Mehldau

Oct. 20, Camp Concert Hall, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond

Ian Bostridge, the British tenor who ranks among the premier exponents of art-song at work today, is introducing “The Folly of Desire,” a song cycle by Brad Mehldau, best-known as a jazz pianist, in tour performances this season, including this one at the University of Richmond.

Melhdau’s settings of poems by Shakespeare, Goethe, William Blake, W.H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, e e cummings and Bertolt Brecht, exploring gradations of desire and fulfillment – love to lust, comfortable to risky, consensual to transgressive – was written for Bostridge, and exploits the singer’s singular span of register (near-countertenor to near-baritone) and extraordinary range of vocal colors and expressive characters.

The styles of these songs are comparably broad, and often unexpected – Goethe’s “Ganymed” as a torch song, Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” as a verismo outburst, cumming’s “the boys i mean are not refined” as quasi-boogie-woogie, Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” as a prayer. Bostridge showed clear affection for and immersion in them all.

Commanding as his voice was, especially in the intimate space of Camp Concert Hall, and clear as his diction was, Bostridge could not always be heard clearly. Mehldau is an accomplished and expressive pianist, but the accompanist’s role – or, perhaps more accurately, the role of partner to an unamplified voice – did not sound to come naturally to him.

Balances were better, gratifyingly, in “Dichterliebe” (“The Poet’s Love”), Robert Schumann’s song cycle on verses by Heinrich Heine. This set is one of Bostridge’s longtime specialties, and his fluency in both the melodies and the German texts was evident throughout the 20 songs. Mehldau showed a fine sense of Schumann’s romantic piano style, and rarely overbalanced the tenor.

In both cycles, Bostridge looked and sounded intent on vocally acting the texts as well as singing the tunes, an untypical but not unwelcome approach to art-song. His acting occasionally veered into over-acting, and his restless stage presence – rarely still except when leaning into the piano – was a curious visual counterpoint to love songs.

Following the two song cycles, Bostridge and Mehldau offered an encore of “These Foolish Things,” the Jack Strachey-Eric Maschwitz song made famous by Billie Holliday.

Review: Richmond Symphony

Roderick Cox conducting
with David Lemelin, clarinet
Oct. 20, Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

Roderick Cox, winner of the 2018 Georg Solti Conducting Award and first of five candidates auditioning this season to become the Richmond Symphony’s next music director, made a very positive first impression leading the orchestra in a program of Mozart, Copland and Dvořák.

Cox was joined at center stage by David Lemelin, the symphony’s principal clarinetist, in Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, a 1947 work, written for jazz great and sometime classical clarinetist Benny Goodman, in a style that veers from an ambiguously lyrical first movement recalling the composer’s 1930s and ’40s “Americana” works (only more indoorsy in mood) to a solo cadenza and final movement that echo the modernist and jazz-inflected music that Copland produced in the ’20s.

Lemelin negotiated these contrasting strains stylishly and with notable continuity in tone production – not too rich (Copland was no romantic) but far from acerbic even at his most intense. His ear for blues inflections, subtly expressed (Copland was not Gershwin) was evident in the final movement.

Cox led the symphony’s strings, harp and piano with the clear beat and sensitivity to coloristic and dynamic details that he would demonstrate throughout the program. Pianist Russell Wilson, a veteran jazz musician, contributed significantly to the style and mood swings of later sections of the Copland concerto.

Cox’s treatment of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E flat major, K. 543, suggested that he is sympathetic to some aspects of “historically informed performance” of classical-period music, notably brisk tempos and sharp accents. He wasn’t HIP enough to go for minimal string vibrato, though.

The conductor obtained finely articulated playing from the strings and robust, pointed contributions from winds, brass and timpani in a performance that enlarged the sound-scope of this music and made it sound more gutsy and less elegant – a clearer pre-echo of Beethoven – than the standard-issue Mozart of decades past.

The program opened with an animated, sonorous and nicely detailed account of Dvořák’s Serenade in D minor, Op. 44, an homage to the Harmonie (wind-band) music of the classical period that enlarges forces from the traditional wind octet to 10 winds, cello and double-bass that recasts the old-time marches, airs and dance tunes in romantic style with a pronounced Czech accent.

Music-director candidate Roderick Cox returns to conduct the Richmond Symphony, with guest soprano Brandie Sutton, in a program of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Barber and Charpentier at 8 p.m. Oct. 26 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets in Richmond, and 3 p.m. Oct. 27 in Jarman Auditorium of Longwood University, 201 High St. in Farmville. Tickets: $10-$65. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); richmondsymphony.com

Review: Virginia Opera ‘Tosca’

Adam Turner conducting
Oct. 18, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center, Richmond

The spinto voice, combining the qualities of lyric and dramatic sopranos, is a wondrous instrument, usually heard in its prime only at major opera houses – and even there, on very special occasions. To hear a spinto tour de force in a production by a regional company is an exceptional occasion.

Virginia Opera’s production of Puccini’s “Tosca” rises to that height thanks to Ewa Płonka, a Polish soprano who boasts a voice of immense power, keenly focused pitch and a remarkable balance of warm sensuality and shattering intensity. She is portraying the fiery Roman diva Floria Tosca for the first time in this production. She sounds as if she has been singing the role for years.

She also looks to have been inhabiting this character for some time. Playing the charismatic, commanding diva as if born to the part, Płonka just as naturally conveys the yearning and vulnerable side of Tosca, the heart and soul bared in the role’s two greatest arias, “Non la sospiri la nostra casetta” (“Our little house in the country is waiting”) in Act 1 and “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” (“Living for art, living for love”) in Act 2.

In the first of two Richmond performances of this first production in Virginia Opera’s 45th season, Płonka moderated her projection without diminishing her vocal presence to complement the ringing but less voluminous tenor of Matthew Vickers, singing the role of Tosca’s lover, the painter-turned-freedom fighter Mario Cavaradossi. Vickers played up the energy and earnestness of the character, and was nicely paired, both vocally and physically, in duets with Płonka.

Kyle Albertson, as Baron Scarpia, the master oppressor of a tyrannical regime ruling Rome at the turn of the 19th century, exuded both the ominous stolidity and cynicism needed in this role, often with the kind of understatement that personifies “the banality of evil” (to borrow Hannah Arendt’s characterization of Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust). Albertson’s bass-baritone could be as room-filling as Płonka’s soprano; but he usually projected with some reserve, and in doing so compounded the menace of his character.

Among the supporting cast, mostly members of Virginia Opera’s Herndon Foundation Emerging Artists Program, the standout was bass-baritone Andrew Simpson, showing impressive range in the roles of the desperate fugitive Cesare Angelotti in Act 1 and the solemnly humane prison jailer in Act 3. Bass-baritone Joshua Arky, returning to the Carpenter Theatre after a May appearance with the Richmond Symphony as Zuniga in Bizet’s “Carmen,” was vocally resonant, while suitably squirrely in character, as the sacristan in Act 1 of this production.

Lillian Groag, directing her 25th Virginia Opera production – her first was a “Tosca” in 1993 – crafted a straightforward performance that kept the focus on principal characters and kept melodramatic gestures within the stylistic bounds of the music and its time.

The Virginia Opera Chorus, prepared by its new director, Brandon M. Eldredge, was characterful if somewhat underpowered vocally in the big liturgical scene concluding Act 1. The company’s artistic director and chief conductor, Adam Turner, leading a pit orchestra of Virginia Symphony members, delivered a richly colorful and atmospheric account of Puccini’s orchestral score, although a few of its most assertive and turbulent passages overpowered voices.

Virginia Opera’s production of “Tosca” repeats at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 20 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $25-$130. Details: (866) 673-7282; vaopera.org

Letter V Classical Radio Oct. 16

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

Irving Fine: “Toccata concertante”
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose

J.S. Bach: “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046
Akademie für alte Musik Berlin
(Harmonia Mundi)

Martinů: Piano Concerto No. 2
Rudolf Firkusny, piano
Czech Philharmonic/Libor Pešek
(RCA Red Seal)

Beethoven: Quartet in B flat major, Op. 130
Danish String Quartet

Schumann: Variations in E flat major, WoO 24 (“Ghost Variations”)
Igor Levit, piano
(Sony Classical)

Anton Arensky: Chamber Symphony (“In Memory of P.I. Tchaikovsky”)
(string-orchestra arrangement of Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 35)
Amsterdam Sinfonietta/Candida Thompson
(Channel Classics)

Scriabin: Sonata No. 5 in F sharp minor, Op. 53
Stephen Hough, piano

Past Masters:
Ravel: “Daphnis et Chloé” Suite No. 2
Orchestre de Paris/Charles Munch
(Warner Classics)
(recorded 1968)

Letter V Classical Radio Oct. 9

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

Gluck: “La corona” Sinfonia
Warsaw Chamber Opera Orchestra/Tomasz Bugaj

Jan Ladislav Dussek: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 41
Hanuš Bartoň, piano
Quartet Apollon
(Studio Matous)

Richard Strauss: “Four Last Songs”
Jessye Norman, soprano
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Kurt Masur

Wagner: “Lohengrin” – Act 1 Prelude
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Andrés Orozco-Estrada
(RCA Red Seal)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E flat major (“Eroica”)
Sinfonia Grange au Lac/Esa-Pekka Salonen

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor
Jan Lisiecki, piano & direction
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Maximilian Steinberg: Variations for orchestra, Op. 2
Göteborgs Symfoniker/Neeme Järvi
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Weber: “Turandot” – Overture & March
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Antoni Wit

Review: Dover Quartet

Oct. 6, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University

The Dover Quartet, performing in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts series, offered a subtly didactic pairing of two German string quartets on either side of the romantic-modernist divide.

Brahms’ Quartet No. 3 in B flat major, Op. 67, and Hindemith’s Quartet No. 3 in C major, Op. 16, were composed 45 years apart (1875 and 1920, respectively) and are largely dissimilar in tonal character; but both are constructed in much the same way, elaborating on melodic cells and figures that sound to be introductions to or internal parts of otherwise unstated tunes.

George Bernard Shaw famously charged that Brahms wrote “a string of incomplete dance and ballad tunes following one another with no more organic coherence than the succession of passing images reflected in a shop window.” Shaw was wrong about organic coherence – Brahms certainly knew how to construct beginnings, middles and ends – but the critic was spot-on in his observation on how melodic material appears, apparently in progress, and disappears before resolution in many of Brahms’ works, including this quartet.

Hindemith’s cells of tunes likewise come and go in his Third Quartet, and run a gauntlet of chromatic harmonies; but the coherence of this piece is strikingly similar to that of the Brahms.

The Dover – violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and cellist Camden Shaw – essayed both pieces with clarity and a tonal warmth that underlined the similarities of the composers’ sound pictures. Also striking was the group’s integration of silences into musical arguments.

Pajaro-van de Stadt was a robust and highly lyrical voice in the third, agitato movement of the Brahms, which amounts to a miniature viola sonata, while cellist Shaw projected an unusually resonant bass voice in both quartets.

The group’s treatment of the Hindemith stressed its peculiar contrast of romantic form and expressive techniques with modernist harmonic touches.

The ensemble opened the program with Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546, one of the composer’s most explicit homages to J.S. Bach and other baroque masters – so true to the idiom that many listeners might flunk a blindfold test on who composed the work. The Dover’s presentation of the adagio was starkly expressive, and its explication of the fugue was an expert balancing act in exposing distinct instrumental voices.