Letter V Classical Radio Jan. 1

The annual Habsburg Sock Hop, our more expansive take on the traditional Viennese New Year’s program – Strauss waltzes, of course, but also works reflecting dance traditions of the lands lying east of Vienna along the Danube.

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

Johann Strauss II: “On the Beautiful Blue Danube”
Anima Eterna Orchestra/Jos van Immerseel
(Zig Zag Territories)

Minuet in D minor, D. 89, No. 3
Minuet in C major, D. 89, No. 5
(arrangements by Oscar Strasnoy)
Isabelle Faust & Anne Katharina Schreiber, violins
Danusha Waskiewicz, viola
Kristin von der Goltz, cello
Lorenzo Coppola, clarinet
Javier Zafram bassoon
Teunis van der Zwart, horn
James Munro, double-bass
(Harmonia Mundi)

Joseph Lanner:
“Die Schönbrunner Walzer”
Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
(Sony Classical)

Richard Strauss: “Der Rosenkavalier” Suite
(arrangement by Artur Rodzinski)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
(Reference Recordings)

Alexander Moyzes: “Gemer Dances”
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Ondrej Lenárd

Liszt: “Hungarian Rhapsody” No. 19 in D minor
(“Csárdas nobles de Kornél Ábrányi”)
Leslie Howard, piano

Past Masters:
trad.: “The Peacock”
Kodály: “Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song” (“The Peacock”)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/István Kertész
(recorded 1969)

Bartók: “Romanian Dances”
(arrangement by Christos Farmakis)
(Orchid Classics)

Enescu: Violin Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op. 25
(“Dans le caractère populaire roumain”)
Diana Tishchenko, violin
Zoltán Fejérvári, piano
(Warner Classics)

Pancho Vladigerov: “Bulgarian Dances,” Op. 23, Nos. 3-5
Rousse Philharmonic/Nayden Todorov

Johann Strauss II: “Roses from the South”
London Philharmonic/Franz Welser-Möst
(Seraphim Classics)

Letter V Classical Radio Dec. 25

In our final program of 2019, surveying some of the year’s most noteworthy classical recordings, from virtuoso piano concertos by Rachmaninoff and Saint-Saëns to solo and chamber works by Bach, Schubert, Debussy, Shostakovich and Caroline Shaw.

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

Ethel Smyth: “The Wreckers” Overture
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo

Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major (“Egyptian”)
Bertrand Chamayou, piano
Orchestre National de France/Emmanuel Krivine

Debussy: Cello Sonata in D minor
Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello
Javier Perianes, piano
(Harmonia Mundi)

Schubert: Impromptu in C minor, D. 899, No. 1
András Schiff, fortepiano

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor
Daniil Trifonov, piano
Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Shostakovich: Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Op. 108
Pavel Haas Quartet

Handel: Concerto grosso in D major, Op. 6, No. 5
Akademie für alte Musik Berlin/Bernhard Forck

Beethoven: Sonata in F major, Op. 10, No. 2
Igor Levit, piano
(Sony Classical)

J.S. Bach: Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 – V. Ciaccona
Thomas Zehetmair, violin

Caroline Shaw: “Ritornello 2.sq.2.j.a.”
Attacca Quartet

Beethoven in Paley’s winter mini-festival

Alexander Paley and his wife and four-hands piano partner, Pei-wen Chen, will feature music of Beethoven in the winter edition of Paley’s Richmond music festival, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 9 and 10 at St. Luke Lutheran Church, 7757 Chippenham Parkway.

In the Jan. 9 program, the duo will play a four-hands arrangement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by Carl Czerny. Most widely known to posterity as the author of instructional studies for the piano, Czerny was a pupil of Beethoven’s who premiered several of his works and whose reminiscences were among the first biographical treatments of the composer.

On Jan. 10, Paley will play Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”) and the “Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio” in G major, Op. 129, better-known as “Rage over a Lost Penny,” along with Liszt’s “Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata” and Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5, Op. 53.

Admission is by donation.

For more information, call (804) 665-9516 or visit http://paleymusicfestival.org

Review: Chamber Music Society

Dec. 16, Holy Comforter Episcopal Church

The six concertos that Johann Sebastian Bach submitted to Christian-Ludwig, the margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, in 1721, are among the most familiar works of baroque music – too familiar, too often treated as background sound in upper-middlebrow settings and circumstances.

A cast of musicians mustered by the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia thrust three of the “Brandenburg” concertos into the foreground, casting them as eventful chamber works rather than as comfy-cozy chamber-orchestra music. With supportive ripeno strings reduced to one-to-a-part, musical textures were markedly more transparent, and solo and concertante voices projected far more prominently.

The “Brandenburgs” framed the premiere of “Palaces of Memory” by Zachary Wadsworth, a Richmond-born composer now based at Williams College in Massachusetts. Wadsworth, who describes the piece as an homage to Bach, sprinkles quotations of several of the master’s works into his composition.

Had copyright laws extended back to the 18th century, “I’d worry about Bach filing an infringement suit,” Wadsworth said in introductory remarks. A class-action suit, maybe, considering the jig à la Handel, a sighing, Zelenka-like wind passage and other bits recalling assorted Bach contemporaries in several not-at-all-neo baroque sections of the piece.

This isn’t a baroque-revival pastiche, though. Rather like one of those European buildings designed in gothic style but over time turned into architectural hybrids as baroque decorative elements and structural appendages were added, Wadsworth’s score is rooted in an austere theme that seems to echo medieval chant; its evocations of Bach, et al., are celebratory interjections in an otherwise contemplative narrative.

Wadsworth said he wrote “Palaces of Memory” to be played on pre-modern instruments, and their individual sounds and collective texture served to emphasize the music’s contrasts of gothic and baroque.

The Chamber Music Society ensemble, whose roster included performers from leading US early music troupes, ordered this sampling of “Brandenburgs” cannily. The program opened with the Concerto No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047, an exuberant work centering on exchanges among trumpet, oboe and recorder. Then the musicians turned to the Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050, probably the best-known and most “orchestral” of the six, with its interplay of violin, flute and harpsichord in outer movements and long, virtuosic harpsichord cadenza in the middle.

Following the Wadsworth premiere, the program closed with the “Brandenburg” that James Wilson, the Chamber Music Society’s artistic director, said is his favorite of the set: The Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049, upbeat but more sparely textured than Nos. 2 and 5, focused on the contrast between a pair of lyrically voiced recorders and an assertive, virtuosic violin.

The concert’s featured virtuosos – trumpeter Mary Bowden in the Concerto No. 2, harpsichordist Carsten Schmidt in No. 5 and violinist Christina Day Martinson in No. 4 – made the most of their moments; but the real stars of these “Brandenburgs” were Bach himself, and a group of musicians audibly intent on bringing out every strand of his musical fabrics and taking every opportunity to play expressively and to complement one another.

Letter V Classical Radio Dec. 18

A Christmas program that’s wide-ranging in chronology, geography and style, centering on the “Christmas portion” of Handel’s “Messiah” – Part 1 and “Hallelujah” – as recorded in 2009 by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and its longtime director, Stephen Cleobury, who died last month.

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

Lorenzo Zavateri: Concerto in D major, Op. 1, No. 10 (“Pastorale”)
Francesco Colletti & Andrés Gabetta, violins
Cappella Gabetta
(Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)

Saint-Saëns: “Oratorio de Noël”
Antonia Bourve, soprano
Gundula Schneider, mezzo-soprano
Sabine Czinczel, alto
Marcus Ullmann, tenor
Jens Hamann, baritone
Romano Giefer, organ
Rastatt Vocal Ensemble
Les Favorites/Holger Speck

John Tavener: “The Lamb”
Monteverdi Choir/John Eliot Gardiner

Arvo Pärt: Magnificat
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Kaspars Putniņš

Handel: “Messiah” – Part 1 & “Hallelujah”
Ailish Tynan, soprano
Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano
Allan Clayton, tenor
Matthew Rose, bass
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
Academy of Ancient Music/Stephen Cleobury
(Warner Classics)

Hieronymus Praetorius: “Magnificat quinti toni”
(Signum Classics)

Dmitry Stepanovich Bortnyansky: Sacred Concerto No. 4
(Psalm 66: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all”)
Russian State Symphonic Cappella/Valery Polyansky

Michel Richard Delalande: “Simphonie de Noël”
Marc-Antoine Charpentier: “A la venue de Noël”
Louis-Claude Daquin: “Une jeune pucelle”
Michel Corrette: “Quand Dieu naquit à Noël”
Daquin: Noël en Dialogue: “Or, nous dites, Marie”
Corrette: “Les bourgeois de Châtres”
Maîtrise de Radio France
Les Musiciens de Saint-Julien/François Lazarevitch

trad.: “Wayfaring Stranger”
trad.: “Fulfillment”
trad.: “A Virgin Most Pure”
William Billings: “Boston”
anon.: “Shepherds Rejoice”
Jeremiah Ingalls: “Lovely Vine”
trad.: “Adeste fidelis”
trad.-Lowell Mason: “Joy to the World”
Jesse Lepkoff, flute
William Hite, tenor
Boston Camerata/Joel Cohen

Letter V Classical Radio Dec. 11

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

Barber: “The School for Scandal” Overture
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Yoel Levi

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488
Richard Goode, piano
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Reynaldo Hahn: Quartet in A minor
Quatuor Parisii

Delius: “A Dance Rhapsody” No. 1
Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera/Charles Mackerras

Granados: “Valses poéticos”
Benjamin Grosvenor, piano

Dvořák: Violin Concerto in A minor
Rachel Barton Pine, violin
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Teddy Abrams

Rossini: “William Tell” Overture
Filarmonica della Scala, Milan/Riccardo Chailly

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B flat major
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Tugan Sokhiev
(Sony Classical)

‘Porgy and Bess’ meets call-out culture

Judith Anne Still, daughter of the pioneering African-American composer William Grant Still (1895-1978), strives to revive her father’s music, which deserves to be heard much more than it is.

His “Afro-American” Symphony (No. 1) has maintained a foothold in the repertory for generations, and he wrote four more. His Symphony No. 2 in G minor (“Song of a New Race”) is one of the neglected masterpieces of American music, the most successful synthesis of African-American musical tradition and symphonic form that I’ve heard. Still composed nine operas, a long list of ballet and choral scores and many chamber and piano works.

His voluminous catalogue of compositions can be viewed here:


His daughter’s worthy campaign, alas, takes a distractingly negative turn. In comments that have been posted on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog (http://slippedisc.com/2019/12/afro-american-composer-wants-porgy-banned-from-the-stage/), she asserts: “It’s time for the racially defamatory opera ‘Porgy and Bess’ to abdicate the stage. George Gershwin . . . and other white composers stole the music, songs and dances of the prolific Afro-Americans and made millions from them.”

“Porgy and Bess” was an obvious target for what’s nowadays known as “call-out culture” long before that term was coined, and Judith Anne Still is not the first black musical figure to call it out. To cite just one of numerous examples: The late Camilla Williams, the great Virginia-born soprano who portrayed Bess in its first operatic recording in 1951, refused to perform in a staged production, objecting to stereotyped characterizations and the libretto’s pseudo-Gullah dialect.

DuBose Heyward, the white South Carolinian who wrote “Porgy,” the novel on which the opera is based, and subsequently wrote the opera’s libretto, was celebrated in his day for positive portrayals of black characters in his works. That, however, was a pretty low bar to vault in the 1920s and ’30s, and black characters “have come a long way from the way we were portrayed back then,” Williams told me in an interview for an article published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1998. (A still longer way, one hopes, 21 years later.)

Eighty-four years after its premiere, “Porgy and Bess” is a cultural relic. That could be said of many operas. Substitute misogyny for racism and you could fault most of the standard operatic repertory. Xenophilia is a not infrequent shortcoming, too (looking at you, Richard Wagner).

Cultural appropriation, the other issue that Judith Anne Still raises, has been a fact of cultural life for all of recorded history.

Music does not recognize racial, ethnic or national boundaries. The only culture that hasn’t borrowed opera from Europeans is Chinese. European classical instruments and forms are freely adopted (and adapted) by composers of non-European ancestry. In folk and popular music, everyone steals from everyone else all the time, and always has.

The music of African-Americans is a special case, as are the musics of indigenous Americans and East European Jews and Romani (aka Gypsies), in that a dominant group has appropriated from oppressed people without credit, compensation or entree to the musical mainstream, and often belittles while it mimics the “other.” American blackface minstrelsy of the 19th and early 20th centuries is an especially grotesque example of this.

While in some respects “Porgy and Bess” is only a few steps up from minstrelsy, it remains widely recognized as a masterpiece of music drama, even regarded as a template for truly American opera. It’s also a cash cow for opera companies: The Metropolitan Opera just added extra performances of its current production, and welcomes the extra revenue. Thanks to Ira Gershwin’s dictum, still in effect in the US, that its black characters must be played by black singers and actors, it has been a professional springboard for many.

Tarnished as its crown may be, this opera’s not for abdication.

Review: Richmond Symphony ‘Messiah’

George Manahan conducting
with Richmond Symphony Chorus & soloists
Dec. 6, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Leave it to George Manahan, a man of the theater, to remind listeners that George Frideric Handel was a man of the theater.

Manahan, who has worked primarily in opera – lately, as music director of Portland Opera in Oregon – since leaving Richmond in 1998 after 12 years as the symphony’s music director, conducted this year’s performance of “Messiah” with the energy and extroversion you’d expect to experience in an operetta or musical.

Even in the oratorio’s most reverent numbers, such as the alto aria “He was despised” and the soprano aria “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” tempos were straight-ahead and phrasing was stripped of emotive flab. And when Handel summons good cheer or high passion – the chorus “For unto us a child is born” on one hand, the tenor aria “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron” on the other – voices were crisply exclamatory, musical characterizations vivid and pacing generally brisk. Discreet applications of baroque ornamentation did not break musical flow.

Those used to hearing “Messiah” worshipfully rendered in church at Christmas or Easter may have found this performance jarringly upbeat; but even those folks, I suspect, couldn’t resist the sheer aplomb of the production. And those who long for a less liturgical, more dramatic reading of the oratorio were gratified. (The performance would been more dramatically nuanced had 15 mostly contemplative numbers from parts 2 and 3 not been excised.)

The Richmond Symphony Chorus, prepared by Erin Freeman, was in especially fine form, both in vocal technique and character. The massed voices rang out satisfyingly in big choruses such as “And the Glory of the Lord,” “Hallelujah!” and “Worthy is the Lamb,” but the ensemble was at least as impressive in well-defined part-singing in less showy numbers and in a cappella passages.

Richmond Symphony performances of “Messiah” are commonly unsettled stylistically, neither truly baroque nor pseudo-romantic. The orchestra is scaled down to the dimensions of a mid-18th century band, with a bass continuo section of low strings, bassoons, harpsichord and organ, and plays with period-appropriate spare vibrato and ornamenting of phrases. The chorus of 100 or so voices is oversized by period standards. The soloists engaged for these performances usually are opera singers, with luck having some background in baroque opera, but almost always operatic in their treatments of Handel’s arias.

So it was this time. The solo quartet – soprano Suzanne Karpov, mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko, tenor Alexander McKissick and baritone Aleksey Bogdanov – treated most of their recitatives and arias as dramatic orations or soliloquies. Karpov and Mesko exploited the subtleties of their numbers to inject some emotive shading, most effectively in the alto aria-turned-duet “Come unto Him, all ye that labor,” while McKissick and Bogdanov were emphatic and stentorian. The Russian-born baritone, who sounded more like a bass, was a darkly formidable vocal presence – almost as if Scarpia had got religion.

Manahan melded these differently attuned forces into an ensemble conveying much of the style and more of the spirit of “Messiah.” His attention to the continuo section, producing warm, gutsy tonal undergirding to solo numbers, to well-defined, characterful sectional playing and singing, and to careful gradations of choral volume, gave this performance more musical dimension than is usually heard in this annual event.

Manahan is serving as music advisor to the symphony as it auditions prospective music directors this season, and may conduct the orchestra several times next season as the new music director makes the transition into the Richmond post. His alert, accomplished music-making is always welcome.

Letter V Classical Radio Dec. 4

Remembering Mariss Jansons, the esteemed Latvian-born conductor who died last weekend, with some of the most memorable recordings made with the three orchestras with which he was most closely associated: the Oslo Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra of Munich.

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

Beethoven: “Egmont” Overture
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Mariss Jansons
(RCO Live)

Bartók: “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta”
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Mariss Jansons
(RCO Live)

Enescu: “Romanian Rhapsody” No. 1
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
(BR Klassik)

Sibelius: “Finlandia”
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
(BR Klassik)

Debussy: “La Mer”
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Mariss Jansons
(RCO Live)

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9 in E flat major
Oslo Philharmonic/Mariss Jansons
(Warner Classics)

Rossini: “La gazza ladra” (“The Thieving Magpie”) Overture
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Mariss Jansons
(RCO Live)

Haydn: Symphony No. 104 in D major (“London”)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
(Sony Classical)

Stravinsky: “The Firebird” Suite
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
(BR Klassik)

NY Philharmonic launches hall renovation

After a false start four years ago, the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center have launched a $550 million project to rebuild the orchestra’s venue, David Geffen Hall, long derided as a cavernous space with mediocre acoustics.

The new plan calls for extension of a terraced stage into a hall with about 2,200 seats (500 fewer than the present capacity) surrounding the stage, all seats less than 100 feet from the orchestra. Deborah Borda, the philharmonic’s president, says the reconfiguration will produce “a much more real, visceral reaction” of listeners to performances.

The projected completion date is March 2024, The New York Times’ Michael Cooper and Robin Pogrebin report (the picture is an artist’s rendering of the redesigned hall):