Met retiree warns of ‘destructive spiral’

Violinist Ira Lieberman, a former member of the Virginia Commonwealth University music faculty and music critic of the Richmond Times-Dispatch who went on to play for 36 seasons in New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, urges US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to intercede with the management of the Met, to head off “a destructive spiral, as its union workers, unpaid since April, are threatened with a lock-out, already begun with its stagehands.

“A large percentage of the Met orchestra has already moved away from New York because they can no longer pay their rent or mortgage,” Lieberman writes. “Though their plight is no different from that of countless Americans, if the Met’s people are replaced with novices when a contract is finally agreed on, the edifice they inhabit will have become a mediocre sham.”

The full text of Lieberman’s letter, posted on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog:

Neglected and well worth exploring

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Peter Dobrin, fresh from a first hearing of the original scoring of Florence Beatrice Price’s Piano Concerto in D minor, wonders how much more worthwhile music by black, female and other long-marginalized composers might be languishing “in an attic or a music library or maybe hiding in plain sight:”

There is indeed a great deal to (re)discover, not just during Black History Month and not just in a “bubble” of recently kindled interest, as Dobrin describes the past few years’ revival of Price’s music, and a lot of it is not exactly hiding, as it has been available for some years on recordings.

If I were programming a neglected work by Price, it would be her Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, a no less attractive and musically more substantial work than her Piano Concerto. You can hear it on a recording by violinist Er-Gene Khang, with Ryan Cockerham conducting the Janáček Philharmonic, on a disc (Albany 1706) that also includes Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and Cockerham’s “Before, It Was Golden.”

William Grant Still, long known as the dean of African-American composers, is most commonly represented on concert programs by his First (“Afro-American”) Symphony, a finely crafted piece that ranks among the best of classical Americana – but not, to my ears, his best symphony. That would be his Second (“Song of a New Race”), which is stylistically more present-tense (the present in question being the mid-20th century) and more venturesome in orchestration. It can be heard, along with William Levi Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony” and Duke Ellington’s orchestral tone poem “Harlem,” on a disc (Chandos 9226) by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi conducting. (If forced to recommend just one recording of orchestral music by black composers, I would choose this one.)

James P. Johnson, the pioneer of the post-ragtime “stride” piano style that greatly influenced George Gershwin, Fats Waller and others in the 1920s and ’30s, is best-known as the composer of “Charleston,” the greatest dance hit of the ’20s. Johnson also wrote a number of orchestral pieces, notably the Concerto “Jazz-a-Mine,” a musical “answer” to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” That concerto, along with Johnson’s “Harlem Symphony,” his symphonic poem “Drums” and other works, can be heard on a disc (MusicMasters/Musical Heitage Society 5172763) by pianist Leslie Stifelman and the Concordia Orchestra, Marin Alsop conducting.

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who will play the Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 5, No. 2, of Joseph Boulogne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the Guadeloupe-born French contemporary of Mozart, in Richmond Symphony concerts in April, recorded that work, as well as concertos by the Afro-Caribbean-French Chevalier J.J.O. de Meude-Monpas and the Afro-Cuban-French Joseph White and the Romance in G major of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, with Daniel Hege conducting the Encore Chamber Orchestra (Çedille 90000 035).

Coleridge-Taylor is one of the most distinctive composers of African descent. Born in London to a father from Sierra Leone and an English mother and schooled in Britain, Coleridge-Taylor was a contemporary of Edward Elgar and wrote in a similarly high-romantic idiom, but with some echoes of his ethnic roots. Instructive introductions to his music are his Piano Quintet in G minor and Clarinet Quintet in F sharp minor, available on two recent recordings: a disc by Britain’s Nash Ensemble (Hyperion 67590), which also includes his Ballade, and a disc by the Catalyst Quartet (Azica 71336) with the Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear and Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, in the quintets, plus the composer’s “Five Fantasy Pieces” for quartet.

All of these recordings are available as digital downloads as well as discs; and you can find much of this music, in these or other recordings or from live performances, on YouTube.

For starters

In a conversation with Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times chief classical music critic, Gilbert Cruz, editor of the Times culture department, notes his “lack of knowledge about classical music and opera” (which explains a lot about the papers cultural coverage) and seeks guidance for newcomers. You may be surprised at Tommasinis choice of at-home listening for a beginner:

Review: Richmond Symphony

Kazem Abdullah conducting
with Orion Weiss, piano
& Samuel Huss, trumpet
Feb. 6, Dominion Energy Center

“Russian Treasures,” this month’s Richmond Symphony Masterworks program, offers two gems – Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C major for string orchestra – preceded by one choice piece of costume jewelry, Mily Balakirev’s “Islamey.”

Guest conductor Kazem Abdullah, who recently completed a five-year run leading the municipal musical establishments of Aachen, Germany, obtained cogent, stylish readings of all three works. His interpretive imprint was most pronounced in the Tchaikovsky serenade, which sounded even more sonically plush and lyrical than it usually does thanks to moderate tempos, judicious pauses and phrasing that seemed to breathe as a singer would.

Some of that same quality came through in the Shostakovich, which in the hands of Abdullah clearly (and rather unusually) echoed strains of Russian romanticism, notably in the strings’ treatment of the big melody of the first movement, while pianist Orion Weiss projected the composer’s more energetic, nervy and intermittently witty modern style.

Weiss’ brightly emphatic pianism was echoed by Samuel Huss, the symphony’s principal trumpeter, in his instrument’s prominent role. (The piece originally was intended to be a trumpet concerto.) The exchanges between these two lead voices were consistently animated and complementary, although not consistently balanced in projection – at least in the audio of the online stream of the performance, in which the trumpet sounds markedly louder than the piano.

Balakirev’s “Islamey,” normally heard in its original, famously challenging version for solo piano, loses none of its virtuosic busy-ness in a chamber-orchestra arrangement crafted by the British pianist-composer Iain Farrington, but it does lose some of its Russian romantic sound-character. This arrangement for strings, winds and percussion enlarges the palette of tone colors and features more sophisticated wind writing than that heard in most mid-19th century Russian orchestral writing, giving this version a more Russo-French tonal profile.

In all three works, conductor Abdullah and the symphony musicians proved attentive to detail without losing focus on the bigger musical pictures. The orchestra’s strings produced a well-knit and robust collective voice despite the distance between the musicians.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$82 (limited seating). Access to online stream: $30 (accessible through March 23). Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

February calendar

The Richmond Symphony, with guest conductor Kazem Abdullah, presents “Russian Treasures” in its next Masterworks program, 7 p.m. Feb. 5, 8 p.m. Feb. 6 and 3 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Pianist Orion Weiss and Samuel Huss, the symphony’s principal trumpeter, are featured in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor. The program also includes Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C major for strings and an orchestration of Balakirev’s “Islamey.” Tickets: $10-$82 (limited seating); access to online stream of Feb. 6 concert: $30. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

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Other ensembles and presenters in Virginia and DC offer online streams of archived and current performances. Check their websites for current offerings.