Review: Yamamoto & Huang

Daisuke Yamamoto, violin
Michelle Huang, piano
July 30, Dominion Energy Center

In the fourth installment of the Richmond Symphony Summer Series, this year focusing on Beethoven, Daisuke Yamamoto, the orchestra’s concertmaster, joined Virginia Commonwealth University-based pianist Michelle Huang in two contrasting violin sonatas, the F major, Op. 24 (“Spring”) and the C minor, Op. 30, No. 2.

Yamamoto demonstrated his mastery of the Beethoven sonatas – and his formidable stamina – when he played all 10 of them with pianist Alexander Paley in a three-concert marathon during Paley’s 2017 Richmond music festival. This reprise of two sonatas was surely less taxing, but complicated by his having to play while wearing a mask.

The qualities of Yamamoto’s earlier Beethoven performances – well-focused and full-bodied but nuanced tone, close attention to accents, note values and dynamic variables, sensitive shaping of phrases and realization of these pieces’ range of moods – were just as pronounced this time around. This violinist clearly relishes playing these sonatas.

Pianist Huang was an able partner, secure in the considerable technical demands Beethoven’s poses in these works and consistently on the same interpretive wavelength as the violinist.

The piano, however, sounded recessed throughout these performances, resulting in imbalances between two instruments that Beethoven intended to be fully collaborative voices.

Worse, the online stream of this performance was plagued by audio breakup, persistent little stutters and patches of distortion in the sound. At first, I thought this was an issue with my internet service; but I continued to hear the deficiency in two computer restarts over two days, with no comparable problems hearing other online audio streams.

The video stream of the recital by Daisuke Yamamoto and Michelle Huang may be accessed through Aug. 5, and subsequent programs in the Richmond Symphony Summer Series, at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays through Aug. 13, are open to limited numbers of patrons in Dominion Energy Center’s Gottwald Playhouse and via online streams. Tickets: $12 per concert. Details: (804) 788-1212; (Tickets may be purchased through links from that address.)

Review: Slack & Keller

Schuyler Slack, cello
Ingrid Keller, piano
July 23, Dominion Energy Center

In the most musically substantive program so far in the Richmond Symphony Summer Series’ salute to the 200th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth, symphony cellist Schuyler Slack and University of Richmond faculty pianist Ingrid Keller contrasted two of the composer’s mature sonatas for their instruments.

The Sonata in A major, Op. 69, perhaps the most frequently performed of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas, is a work of his middle period, dating from 1808, when he was still writing in the standard classical sonata form but anticipating romanticism in his expressive language – notably, in this sonata, in emotive elaborations of its first-movement theme and in the slow introduction of its final movement.

The Sonata in C major, first of the Op. 102 set, vintage 1815, is characteristic of much of Beethoven’s later compositions in being forward-looking while also harking back to virtually antique models. Its oversized, three-part finale recalls the free-standing concert arias of Mozart, Haydn and other classical-period composers – an expressively wide-ranging aria, at that, whose solemn opening recitative evolves into a spirited, borderline comic tune that wouldn’t have sounded out of place if sung by Papageno in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

Serving this full plate of musical language, Slack and Keller generally opted for straightforwardly voiced, nicely balanced treatments of the the sonatas’ faster music and measured, soulful readings of more lyrical passages, with deft handling of these pieces’ multiple mood changes and extra attention given to pregnant pauses, especially in Op. 102, No. 1.

Keller noted in her introductory remarks that the she and Slack had an unusually ample three weeks of rehearsal time – presumably as a duo; undoubtedly each player spent more hours individually working on their demanding parts. Both sounded prepared to go well beyond mere rendering of the right notes at the right balances, especially in negotiating the multiple technical and spiritual currents of the later sonata.

Introducing this third of six summer recitals by musicians of the symphony, the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University, David Fisk, the orchestra’s executive director, noted that the streams of these programs, produced by Virginia Public Media, are being seen and heard by a larger and more geographically widespread audience, extending well beyond US borders.

Slack and Keller dedicated their program to memory of Betty Brown Allan, a cellist and founding member of the symphony, who died in May.

The video stream of the recital by Schuyler Slack and Ingrid Keller may be accessed through July 29, and subsequent programs in the Richmond Symphony Summer Series, at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays through Aug. 13, are open to limited numbers of patrons in Dominion Energy Center’s Gottwald Playhouse and via online streams. Tickets: $12 per concert. Details: (804) 788-1212; (Tickets may be purchased through links from that address.)

Studies: Safely making music in a pandemic

A London clinic tests singers, brass and woodwind players to measure the volume and velocity of the droplets and aerosol particles they emit, in one of the latest efforts to gauge the danger of infection – to fellow performers and audiences – of singing and playing during the coronavirus pandemic. The Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins takes readers into the medical-musical lab:

Meanwhile, the Incorporated Society of Musicians issues a guide to controlling the risks  of performing and teaching:

Click to access ISM-Literature-Review_July-2020_online-FINAL.pdf


Diversifying classical music

Speaking to The New York Times’ Zachary Woolfe and Joshua Barone, nine African-American artists – among them, Thomas Wilkins, the Virginia-born music director of the Omaha Symphony and former associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony – suggest ways that classical music, now dominated by white and East Asian performers, can more readily accommodate musicians of color:

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The Times’ Anthony Tommasini writes that a key to diversifying the ranks of orchestras is to abolish “blind auditions,” in which the race, sex and other visual characteristics of musicians cannot be seen by their auditors:

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Conductor Leonard Slatkin seconds Tommasini’s motion, and proposes a Slatkin Audition Process:

On Diversity

Review: Yim & Adamek

Susy Yim, violin
Magda Adamek, piano
July 16, Dominion Energy Center

In the second program of the Richmond Symphony’s Summer Series sampling of works by Beethoven, symphony violinist Susy Yim and Virginia Commonwealth University-based pianist Magda Adamek took on one of the composer’s best-known and most challenging recital works, the Sonata in A major, Op. 47, the “Kreutzer,” scored, according to its creator, “for piano and violin obliggato.”

That instrumental characterization applies most audibly to its central andante’s set of variations, in which the piano is usually the leading voice. The outer movements are more democratically apportioned between the two instruments.

Yim and Adamek delivered a “Kreutzer” that was moderate in tempo but fully animated in projection and expression. The violinist’s fairly lean tone and the pianist’s straightforward clarity produced an agreeable balance of voices and maintained coherence in even the densest passages.

David Fisk, the symphony’s executive director, came to Adamek’s rescue midway through the andante’s variations as the pages of her score curled, and continued his page-turning-and-flattening duty through the final movement, a tarantella that both players treated with cheerful animation.

Adamek opened the program with two of Beethoven’s bagatelles: the F major, Op. 33, No. 3, a a set of spare elaborations on a folksy sing-song theme; and the B minor, Op. 126, No. 4, a turbulent fast march more than vaguely recalling the “Turkish March” from the composer’s incidental music for “The Ruins of Athens.”

After watching and hearing the first Summer Series program as it happened, I chose to take in this one after the fact. Delayed viewing proved to be as satisfying as live viewing.

The video stream of the recital by Susy Yim and Magda Adamek may be accessed through July 22, and subsequent programs in the Richmond Symphony Summer Series, at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays through Aug. 13, are open to limited numbers of patrons in Dominion Energy Center’s Gottwald Playhouse and via online streams. Tickets: $12 per concert. Details: (804) 788-1212; (Tickets may be purchased through links from that address.)

Review: Crutcher & Kong

Ronald Crutcher, cello
Joanne Kong, piano
July 9, Dominion Energy Center

In its first live presentation in nearly four months, the Richmond Symphony opened its Summer Series, “Comfort and Joy,” marking the 200th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth, with a short program featuring Ronald Crutcher, the cellist and president of the University of Richmond, and his UR colleague, pianist Joanne Kong.

They played before a socially distanced audience of 34 and on a video-audio stream seen and heard during the live performance by more than 200. (Access to the stream remains open to paying customers for the next six days.)

This program focuses largely on Beethoven’s early works, with Crutcher and Kong playing Beethoven’s “Variations on ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’ from Mozart’s ‘Die Zauberflöte’ ” and the Sonata in G minor, Op. 5, No. 2, for cello and piano, and the pianist playing two of the composer’s bagatelles, Op. 126, No. 3, and Op. 33, No. 1, both in E flat major.

Both musicians, playing in masks, visibly and audibly relished the chance to resume live performance of music in Richmond, which has happened only a few times since the coronavirus pandemic struck the US in late winter.

Crutcher, who must balance his work as a performer with the duties of running a large academic institution, sounds to have used the months of relatively limited activity and mobility to hone his chops both technically and in musicianship, with especially gratifying results in the more lyrical sections of the variations and sonata.

The ever-reliable Kong, meanwhile, played her parts in the two works with cello and the two bagatelles with great clarity, adopting a rather light touch in music that harkens back to Mozart, explicitly in the variations and implicitly in the earlier of the bagatelles and in the sonata’s closing rondo movement.

Kong’s lyrical voice came through with profound affect in the Op. 126, No. 3 bagatelle, one of the last works that Beethoven wrote for the piano, as she emphasized the piece’s anthemic and elegiac qualities.

The video and audio quality of the stream, produced by VPM, is more than satisfactory, with the performance shot from multiple angles, good closeups of the performers and their instruments and few awkward transitions. No electronic transmission of a concert really takes you there; but this one comes close enough, and never allows production values to get in the way of the performance.

The video stream of the recital by Ronald Crutcher and Joanne Kong may be accessed through July 15, and subsequent programs in the Richmond Symphony Summer Series, at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays through Aug. 13, are open to limited numbers of patrons in Dominion Energy Center’s Gottwald Playhouse and via online streams. Subscriptions: $60; single tickets: $12. Details: (804) 788-1212; (Single concert tickets may be purchased through links from that address.)

Fisk leaving Richmond for Charlotte

David J.L. Fisk, executive director of the Richmond Symphony since 2002, has been named president and chief executive officer of North Carolina’s Charlotte Symphony. He will leave the Richmond Symphony on Aug. 31.

Michelle Walter, who preceded Fisk as the symphony’s chief administrative officer, will serve as interim executive director until a permanent replacement is hired. Aspen Leadership Group has been retained to conduct the search.

Fisk will ease the Richmond transition by serving through May 2021 as senior advisor to the Menuhin Competition for young violinists, scheduled to be held in Richmond that month with the symphony as a lead sponsor.

A native of the United Kingdom, Fisk was CEO of the Ulster Orchestra in Northern Ireland before coming to Richmond. During his years here, he led the orchestra through the tenures of two music directors, Mark Russell Smith and Steven Smith (no relation), and the selection of a third, Valentina Peleggi; five years of concerts in temporary venues while the Carpenter Theatre was undergoing renovation in the development of what is now Dominion Energy Center; the financial challenges of the 2008-10 recession and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic; and the development of several major community-outreach ventures, notably acquisition of the Big Tent portable outdoor concert stage.

Under Fisk’s leadership, the orchestra’s operating budget more than doubled, from $4 million in 2002 to $8.5 million in the current fiscal year, and the symphony’s endowment grew from $8 million to $18 million.

Fisk, a pianist, and his wife, soprano Anne O’Byrne, have frequently performed in chamber concerts with symphony musicians and other ensembles in the area.

“While I am excited by the opportunity now to lead the Charlotte Symphony, I will be forever grateful for the warmth and generosity we have found in RVA, and for the countless friendships formed, through the symphony’s work across the region, and as our children have grown up here. Our family will always think of Richmond as home!” Fisk said in a statement issued on the announcement of his departure.

“David has made a huge difference for the symphony, for our community, for the arts in Richmond and for arts organizations all across the Commonwealth,” said George L. Mahoney, president of the symphony board.