Letter V Classical Radio Nov. 20

noon-3 p.m. EST
1500-1800 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM
http://wdce.net

Vivaldi: Oboe Concerto in A minor, RV 461
Pauline Oostenrijk, oboe
Baroque Academy of Netherlands Symphony Orchestra/Jan Willem de Vriend
(Challenge Classics)

Beethoven: Quartet in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 6
Miró Quartet
(Pentatone)

Sibelius: “Tapiola”
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
(BIS)

Jacob ter Veldhuis (Jacob TV): Piano Concerto No. 2 (“Sky Falling”)
Ronald Brautigam, piano
Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic/Thierry Fischer
(Brilliant Classics)

Michael Colgrass: “Side by Side”
Joanne Kong, piano & harpsichord
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
(BMOP/sound)

Ravel: “La Valse”
Beatrice Rana, piano
(Warner Classics)

Stravinsky: Symphony in C major
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Louis Langrée
(Fanfare Cincinnati)

Haydn: Symphony No. 86 in D major
Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Fey
(Hänssler Classic)

Review: Richmond Symphony

Chia-Hsuan Lin conducting
with Eduardo Rojas, piano
Nov. 16, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Chia-Hsuan Lin, the Richmond Symphony’s associate conductor, whose work here generally is limited to pops and family programs, has made the most of opportunities that arose when Paolo Bortolameoli, one of the six aspirants to become the orchestra’s next music director, withdrew over the summer. Lin took over the concerts that he was to conduct this month.

After acquitting herself admirably in a Nov. 10 Metro Collection chamber-orchestra concert, Lin faced two formidable conducting challenges, Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor, in this subsequent Masterworks program. She rose to those challenges, and then some, in the first of two performances.

The Brahms Fourth is arguably the greatest – certainly the most interpretively daunting – symphony of the romantic era, an essay of extraordinary expressive gravity, full of complexities of form and gradations of pacing.

Romantic music has more than its share of tragedy – “oh, woe is me/she/he” is a pretty common mode of expression in the era’s concert and theatrical compositions; but the existentially tragic is rare. Not many composers treated “to be or not to be” as an open if not unanswerable question, as Brahms does in this work. Not many conductors and orchestras plumb its depths successfully, without overstating its emotions or glossing over its fine points of orchestration.

Lin, conducting from memory, and the orchestra’s musicians, playing with both passion and precision, brought out every quality one wants to hear in this music. Tempos were flexible, but the essential Brahmsian pulse never faltered. The internal details of the score, especially in its great outer movements, came through with clarity and in context. The slow movement’s poignant lyricism was fully voiced, and its continuity, which often eludes interpreters, was maintained. Stray small imperfections of execution or balance counted for little in a reading of intense concentration and unmannered sincerity.

I’ve heard the Brahms Fourth played in concert by half a dozen great orchestras, led by some of the most esteemed conductors of the past three generations. I’ve never heard a more compelling live performance than this one.

Much the same can be said of the orchestra’s treatment of the Bartók, at least technically. Lin and the ensemble of strings built the fugal theme that opens the piece with deliberation and inexorability, and gave its reprise appropriate weight at the close of the piece. In the inner sections, where percussion, piano, celesta and harp join strings voiced with spooky austerity, the musicians realized Bartók’s extraordinary range and variety of tone colors and textures, projecting the otherworldly, often ominous quality that has made this music a model for composers scoring supernatural and horror films. (Stanley Kubrick skipped the middlemen, using the adagio section in the soundtrack of “The Shining.”)

Lin ably guided the orchestra’s percussionists, celesta player Russell Wilson and pianist Daniel Stipe, as well as string sections divided and subdivided on either side of the stage, through Bartók’s complexities. The performance could have been a bit edgier, the music’s tension more overt, but technically it was all but faultless.

The Colombian pianist Eduardo Rojas, featured in Liszt’s Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, would qualify as the star of any other program. His treatment of what ordinarily comes across as a virtuoso warhorse very nearly made it a fitting companion of works as imposing as the Brahms and Bartók.

Pianists can play Liszt as a contemporary of Chopin, exploring nuances of tone and mood, or as a contemporary of Berlioz, reveling in rhetorical bursts and vivid, even garish, colors. Rojas generally took the Chopin route, playing Liszt’s lyrical material with delicacy and flexibilty, while applying the appropriate muscle and amplitude to the concerto’s big pianistic outbursts. He produced the momentum and waves of tone that listeners expect to hear in this showpiece, and illuminated its subtler eddies as well.

His encore, a solo-piano version of Astor Piazzolla’s famous tango “Oblivion,” similarly exposed subtleties of color and expression that too often are missed in this music.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Nov. 17 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$82. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

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Review: Daniel Hope

with Zurich Chamber Orchestra
Nov. 15, Camp Concert Hall, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond

The British violinist Daniel Hope is not affiliated with the Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists, being staged in Richmond next spring, and his performance at the University of Richmond was not part of the event, in which UR is one of the sponsors and venues.

Hope’s connection to Menuhin is more personal: As a youngster, he studied and performed with Menuhin. Eleanor Hope, his mother, was Menuhin’s assistant. In this concert, Hope was joined by Switzerland’s Zurich Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble long associated with Menuhin, in a program paying tribute to the old master, sampling a 3½-century range of repertory, from J.S. Bach and Antonio Vivaldi to Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt.

The program’s opening selection, Bach’s Concerto in D minor, BWV 1043, for two violins, strings and bass continuo, was recorded in 1932 by the teenaged Menuhin with his teacher, George Enescu, today remembered as a composer, but in his time a prominent violinist. This performance, with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra’s leader (concertmaster), Willi Zimmermann, joining Hope in the lead duo, clearly echoed the 87-year-old recording, with meaty, romanticized sonority and phrasing quite unlike the “historically informed” style of Bach performance today. The prominence of the orchestra’s lower strings thickened the sound texture so much that the continuo (rhythms) of the piece dominated through much of the performance.

A similar texture prevailed in Vivaldi’s Double Concerto in A minor, RV 522 (from the collection “L’estro armonico”), enhancing the melody of its slow movement and, gratifyingly, not sapping the energy of its feverishly energetic finale.

The interpretative stance of Hope and the sound of the 21-piece string orchestra, which he has served as music director since 2016, were much better suited to the Violin Concerto in D minor of the 12-year-old Felix Mendelssohn, a string orchestration of Béla Bartók’s “Romanian Folk Dances,” and contemporary pieces by Pärt, Glass and the Lebanese-French composer Bechara El-Khoury.

Mendelssohn’s youthful works often echo Bach as clearly as they anticipate their composer’s later romantic style, and Hope and the orchestra struck that stylistic balance adeptly, the violinist emphaszing the lyricism of the solo part and the orchestra playing with a crispness and transparency of texture that had eluded the players in the Bach concerto.

Their rich, robust collective tone was applied to fine effect in Bartók’s short suite of six dances, and in their accompaniment of Hope in El-Khoury’s “Unfinished Journey,” an homage to Menuhin introduced in 2009 (its title borrowed from that of Menuhin’s autobiography). El-Khoury’s rhapsodic work, audibly reflecting the composer’s Arab-Levantine roots, is remarkably similar in mood and effect to Ernest Bloch’s Hebrew rhapsody “Schelomo.” In time, I suspect audiences may often hear them paired in concert programs.

Pärt’s “Darf ich” (“May I”) and Glass’ “Echorus” were written for Menuhin and his protégé, violinist Edna Mitchell, and first performed by them in the 1990s. Both are brief and characteristic of their composers’ styles – the Pärt austere and contemplative, the Glass driven by a simple chord progression over a syncopated rhythm. Hope and the Zurichers gave fluently stylish accounts of both works.

* * *

This was the second concert I’ve heard since the acoustical renovation of Camp Concert Hall in the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center, and the first of an orchestral performance. If the Zurich ensemble’s sound typifies that of massed strings in this space, this hall could a tricky environment. Bass string projection was very strong, while higher-register tones were prone to congestion and a rather glassy quality. The fabric baffles on the side walls were not in use in this concert; employing them could soften those higher registers, but also could make the sound even more bassy.

Alsop ‘nearing the end’ in Baltimore

Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director who in September conducted the season-opening concerts of the Richmond Symphony (where she was associate conductor in the 1980s), sounds decidedly like she’s on the outs with Baltimore Symphony management and ready to leave the orchestra she has led since 2007.

“I’m nearing the end of my tenure here,” Alsop said during a session with a group seeking to stabilize the financially troubled orchestra. “I find this is a difficult institution to get air time in because we don’t talk about the art first. Nobody ever talks to me. Barely.”

Alsop, whose current Baltimore contract expires in 2021, said the orchestra has not exploited opportunities to fully develop artistic initiatives or expand its audience, The Baltimore Sun’s Mary Carole McCauley reports:

http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/bs-fe-bso-alsop-speaks-out-20191113-4wcfkcjsazfsphtppvqwkuiwae-story.html

Orchestral work ‘out of whack’

Writing for Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog, violinist Zeneba Bowers explains the decision that she and her husband, cellist Matt Walker, made to leave the Nashville Symphony, relocate to a small town in Italy, and build new careers doubling as performers and artistic consultants:

“Over my career in American orchestras, I’ve found that the proportion of pops to classical in my orchestra job has vastly shifted,” Bowers writes. “I always knew Pops would be a part of my career, and in the right proportion, I found it engaging and fun. But the proportions are well out of whack, at least for what I am willing to do. Compounding that issue is the fact that the concerts have gotten louder and louder, with seemingly no reasonable solution or end in sight.

“Maybe the tipping point was when I had to purchase lawn-mower-guy ear cans to use in addition to my earplugs, or maybe it was the first time I puked in the bushes in front of patrons after a concert from the concussive effects of extended exposure to extreme levels of sound. Or maybe it was just the first time that I realized that I counted down the days until the season was over, instead of what I used to do, count down the days until it began.”

A warning about the future of US orchestras from a musician’s perspective, worth reading in full:

http://slippedisc.com/2019/11/couple-quit-orchestral-life-amid-noise-and-disillusion/

Review: Richmond Symphony

Chia-Hsuan Lin conducting
with Neal Cary, cello
Nov. 10, Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

Beethoven’s Second Symphony is the stepchild of the nine, the least often played and, commonly, the most underrated. Unlike the First Symphony, it does not clearly echo the classical style of Mozart and Haydn. Unlike the Third (the “Eroica”), it is neither epic in length nor as overtly revolutionary in back-story (no Napoleonic inspiration) or expression. In many ways, though, the Second Symphony anticipates the “Eroica” and later works. The mature orchestral Beethoven begins here.

Chia-Hsuan Lin, the Richmond Symphony’s associate conductor, and the orchestra gave the Beethoven Second its due, and then some, in the second concert of the symphony’s Metro Collection series.

Lin’s attentive, unfussy direction produced a performance that was propulsive and rhetorically grand, with sharp accents, crisp articulation and unusually fine balances between winds and strings. (That latter quality is a challenge in these concerts, staged in a hall where winds typically overbalance a chamber-orchestra string complement.) Exchanges among sections were especially rewarding in the symphony’s slow movement, a musical essay with comparable complexity, if an entirely different spirit, to that of the “Marche funèbre” of the “Eroica.”

The balance problem arose at times in an otherwise richly expressive reading of Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, featuring Neal Cary, the symphony’s principal cellist, as soloist. The Schumann is very much on Cary’s wavelength, both in its broadly romantic expressive qualities and the tone this musician draws from his instrument.

Cary delivered a soulful reading that emphasized the concerto’s dark mood and its songful solo lines. The orchestra’s contributions were warm in tone; but the smallish string section lacked the tonal mass and sonic bloom that this score needs. And the strings’ relative weakness made wind contributions unnaturally prominent.

The fiddles’ performance of Elgar’s Serenade in E minor had that bloom, and showed a keen collective ear for the uniquely elegiac tone that this composer brings to his string compositions. Lin obtained deft treatments of the piece’s rhythmic theme, introduced in the first movement and reprised in the finale.

The program opened with the rarely performed overture to Mozart’s opera “Idomeneo.” One reason for its not being heard is that it lacks a real finale – in the opera, it segues into an aria; in concert, it simply peters out. A more telling reason is that its succession of rum-tum-te-tum gestures don’t add up to first-rate, or even second-rate, Mozart. Lin and the band made of it what could be made.