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);