James Levine (1943-2021)

James Levine, the longtime music and artistic director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, forced out in 2018 after investigations of sexual predation, has died at 77.

Levine conducted at the Met for 47 years and led more than 2,500 performances. He also was music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (2004-11), the Munich Philharmonic (1999-2004) and the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1973-93). He guest-conducted many of the leading US and European orchestras, and performed as a pianist.

The Cincinnati-born son of a onetime swing bandleader and a former actress, Levine studied at the Juilliard School and began his conducting career in the early 1960s as an assistant to George Szell at the Cleveland Orchestra. He made his Met debut in 1971, conducting Puccini’s “Tosca.”

His pursuit of younger men, although widely talked about in the classical-music world, was not the subject of public charges until 2017, when several men came forward to say he had pursued or harassed them decades earlier, when they were young musicians. An investigation for the Met in 2018 concluded that Levine had made unwanted advances and treated artists as “prey,” leading to his dismissal.

By that time, he had been largely absent from Met performances for several years due to failing health.

Levine’s private behavior was long shielded by his sterling reputation as a conductor and maestro of opera productions. His Met years, especially in the 1980s and ’90s, are considered a golden age for the company. The MET Orchestra, as it was styled for concert series, won acclaim as one of the finest symphonic ensembles in the US.

The conductor’s many opera recordings with the Met and other companies and symphonic recordings with the orchestras of Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Vienna and Berlin have been rated as reference versions of repertory ranging from Mozart to Mahler.

An obituary by The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini:

Conductor Kenneth Woods delivers a scorching assessment of Levine the man, the artist and the commodity: “an almost completely horrible person, with a single, tragic talent.” The comment thread following Woods’ essay is worth reading, too:

Classical Grammy winners

The Grammy Awards, a big deal in most genres of recorded music, are often perceived to be less prestigious in classical music, probably because the Grammy selection committees are composed of people in the classical recording business rather than the critics and academics who usually decide on classical-music awards.

It also doesn’t help that classical Grammys commonly are treated as step-children, coming in at the bottom of a long list (following the likes of regional roots music, children’s music and comedy on the The New York Times’ list).

There’s a decidedly modern/contemporary tilt to this year’s awards: The oldest compositions performed on any of the winning recordings are the four symphonies of Charles Ives. Six of the winners feature works written in this century.

The classical Grammy winners:

Best Orchestral Performance: Ives: complete symphoniesLos Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel (Deutsche Grammophon 4839502)

Best Opera Recording: The Gershwins: “Porgy and Bess”Eric Owens (Porgy), Angel Blue (Bess), Latonia Moore (Serena), Golda Schultz (Clara), Denyce Graves (Maria), Frederick Ballentine (Sportin’ Life), Alfred Walker (Crown), Ryan Speedo Green (Jake), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus/David Robertson (Metropolitan Opera 1000420118)

Best Choral Performance: Richard Danielpour: “The Passion of Yeshua”Hila Plitmann, soprano; J’Nai Bridges, mezzo-soprano; Timothy Fallon, tenor; Matthew Worth & Kenneth Overton, baritones; James K. Bass, bass; UCLA Chamber Singers; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus/JoAnn Falletta (Naxos 8.559885-86)

Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance: “Contemporary Voices” (Shulamit Ran: Quartet No. 3 [“ Doom, Shards, Memory”]; Jennifer Higdon: “Voices;” Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Quintet for alto saxophone and string quartet)Pacifica Quartet; Otis Murphy, alto saxophone (Çedille 90000196)

Best Classical Instrumental Solo: Christopher Theofanidis: Concerto for viola and chamber orchestraRichard O’Neill, viola; Albany Symphony/David Alan Miller (Albany 1816)

*Best Classical Solo Vocal Album: Ethel Smyth: “The Prison”Sarah Brailey, soprano; Dashon Burton, bass-baritone; Experiential Chorus & Orchestra/James Blachly (Chandos 5279)

Best Classical Compendium: Michael Tilson Thomas: “From the Diary of Anne Frank” & “Meditations on Rilke”Isabel Leonard, narrator; Sasha Cooke; mezzo-soprano; Ryan McKinny, bass-baritone; San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas (SFS Media 2193600792)

Best Contemporary Classical Composition: Christopher Rouse: Symphony No. 5 Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero (Naxos 8.559852)

Best Engineered Album: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 (“Babi Yar”)Alexey Tikhomirov, bass; Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Muti (David Frost & Charlie Post, engineers; Silas Brown, mastering engineer) (CSO Resound 9011901)

Producer of the Year: David Frost

*Ethel Smyth’s “The Prison” is a vocal symphony that won the Grammy in the Best Classical Vocal Solo Album category. Go figure . . .

Lou Ottens (1926-2021)

Lodewijk Frederik (“Lou”) Ottens, the longtime technical director of the Dutch electronics firm Philips who led the teams developing the tape cassette in the early 1960s and the compact disc in the early ’80s, has died at 94.

Ottens insisted that cassettes and CDs be small enough to fit “pocketable” players, The Washington Post’s Harrison Smith writes in an obituary:


A year of solitude . . . and then what?

One year ago, on March 8, 2020, I concluded that evening’s episode of Letter V Classical Radio on WDCE, the University of Richmond radio station, with J.S. Bach’s “Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother.” I can’t claim that the selection was prescient. I didn’t know that it would be the last time my radio show aired until who knows when (if ever), or that the outbreak of COVID-19 would become the most widespread pandemic in more than 100 years.

Coming home after that show, broadcast the day after I attended the Richmond Symphony program that secured Valentina Peleggi’s appointment as the orchestra’s new music director, marked the beginning of my lockdown – a separation from the wider world, interrupted rarely by visits to doctors and skittish dashes in and out of grocery stores and pharmacies.

This year of solitude hasn’t been as traumatic for me as it has been for so many. I’m used to keeping my own company – and that of Fritz, a cat who by now can’t conceive of life without affection-on-demand. I live on a sufficient retirement income, and in a comfortable home with plenty to read and hear and see to ward off boredom or stupor. I have a private deck overlooking a lake, so I can enjoy the outdoors without risking exposure to people who don’t take precautions.

I know only a few people who’ve contracted the virus, and no one close to me has died of it.

I’m lucky, and I try never to forget that.

Still, I miss the world with me in it. Phone calls and e-mails to family and friends, online shopping, performances experienced virtually on a computer screen, and the rest of the “new normal” are a lousy substitute for the old normal. Understanding that sustaining the old normal could be fatal to you or someone else doesn’t make the new necessity – a better term, I think – any more desirable.

Anxiety over the virus may ease in time. (“May” = anxiety; that’s going to linger.) More and more of us will be vaccinated – I got my first shot last week – and life more or less as we knew it may resume by the summer or fall.

Or will it?

How long will it take to get over all the obsessions we’ve fallen into during the pandemic? Will we become chronic hoarders of food and paper products? Will a stash of surgical gloves and N95 masks be as common as a drawer full of Band-Aids?

Much less trivially, will we continue to keep our distance – physically, emotionally, socially, economically, politically – as the virus recedes? We’ve seen how easily caution can turn into suspicion and then into hostility.

It’s nice to envision a post-COVID society that’s free and fun, something like the Roaring ’20s following the flu pandemic of 1918-20. Remember, though: The 1920s also saw the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan well beyond its Old-South spawning ground, along with other descents into ethnic and religious bigotry, anti-science and junk-science mania, a toxic brew of isolationism and hyper-nationalism, and growing economic dislocation and disparity. The ’20s set the world stage for the ’30s and beyond, full of horrors that no decent person would want to see repeated.

History doesn’t repeat itself, or even rhyme; but there’s plenty of current-day evidence that the pandemic has changed us, individually and socially, in ways that we haven’t begun to come to terms with.

On top of that, pre-COVID, we already were facing colossal challenges from climate change, technology-driven transformations of the economy, delivery of information (and disinformation), personal privacy (or lack thereof) and so many other aspects of life and work, and growing perceptions that the systems we’ve depended on, from pothole-filling to foreign policy, have become sclerotic and destined to fail.

Maybe the über-rich guys seeking to colonize Mars are on to something . . .

OK, enough of that. I’m old enough to bank on having already died by the time our self-induced Armageddon comes to pass.

I worry more parochially – and more pertinently in this space – about the post-pandemic state of classical music, especially close to home.

The Richmond Symphony, the largest local musical organization, appears to be at some tentatively reassuring point on the spectrum between surviving and thriving. Recovery may be more challenging for Virginia Opera, with its higher production and multi-city logistical costs. (The travails of the big kahuna of US opera, the Metropolitan in New York, couldn’t be encouraging to smaller fry.)

Richmond’s principal presenters of touring chamber-music artists, the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University, are sheltered somewhat by being educational institutions that are either well-heeled (UR) or big, state-supported and arts-intensive (VCU).

Other local recital presenters, such as the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia, the Richmond Chamber Players and the Repertoire Recital Series of the Richmond chapter of the American Guild of Organists, are leaner operations with (so far) dedicated audiences and donors. The area’s choral groups are leaner still, with unpaid singers and modestly/minimally paid directors and accompanists. Semi-pop-up endeavors such as Classical Revolution RVA presumably will pop back up when conditions permit.

VPM, the local public-broadcasting entity, has been producing online streams of symphony concerts and recitals, and its crew is getting good at it. VPM streams of other local classical performances are an enticing prospect.

Less promising is the number of classical musicians who’ve left the profession and may not return. Among proliferating bits of evidence: An internationally prominent solo artist is on food stamps; a number of colleges are cutting their music programs; a shockingly high percentage of musicians have given up in Germany, where state support of the arts is vastly more generous than in this country. I haven’t seen comparable data for US musicians, but I fear it would be a depressing number.

Will pent-up hunger for live music run up against a famine of still-active musicians? Especially seasoned 30- and 40-somethings working at the highest artistic level, many of them over-achievers since early childhood, who could earn much higher incomes in other lines of work?

How many music lovers have developed new listening habits that will endure? If you have high-speed internet and high-quality speakers or headphones hooked up to your computer, you can enjoyably access a vast trove of live performances at no cost or for fees much lower than the price of a ticket (assuming you could travel and obtain a ticket for, say, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra or the Vienna State Opera).

Sure, watching and hearing a concert or opera onscreen is nothing like attending a performance in person. Still, if you look at what television-streaming has done to the movie business, you have to wonder what music-streaming is going to do to live music – especially big-ticket live events, where at-home vs. in-person price and access disparities probably would be widest.

Recordings are the outlet for many music lovers, especially as they age and mobility becomes an issue. Some have spent fortunes on home audio-video systems – there are, no kidding, $100,000 turntables – and have amassed large collections of records, tapes, CDs, DVDs and, now, downloads and streams, to be enjoyed at home, whenever they choose, in whatever they care to wear (or not).

Increased at-home listening and viewing have prompted many to upgrade their equipment (I recently bought a computer monitor roughly the size of the TV screens I watched until I was 50), and may have acclimated many music lovers to levels of artistry that they may not experience in their local concert halls and opera houses. Physical perspectives are different, too: Video streams show musicians, notably conductors and pianists, as most concertgoers never see them.

Other changes:

Onstage social distancing of musicians has boosted lighter-limbed music for chamber orchestra that’s rarely played in mainstage concerts. Listeners, while missing the sonic punch of 80 musicians playing at full tilt, also may find that one of Haydn’s “Paris” or “London” symphonies makes a refreshing change from yet another go at the Brahms First.

Streaming offers the opportunity to present contemporary, early music or other special-interest works without concert presenters fretting about filling seats for repertory other than Beethoven and Rachmaninoff.

Video productions also have induced (or forced) more musicians to learn how to talk to listeners about music – that’s still very much a work in progress – and have opened up all kinds of opportunities to attract and educate new audiences.

Notions of what music rates being described as “classical” and how it should be presented already were changing, and those changes are sure to accelerate. (It’s high time for a piano recital program of Chopin, Debussy and Thelonious Monk.)

The two-hours-in-the-dark, overture-concerto-symphony, Mozart-Schubert-Shostakovich-quartets models of concert presentation may become unfashionably retro. The traditional concert space already was giving way to different spaces, used at different times, for different durations, and for not exclusively musical content.

Opera may cease being consistently “grand,” with lavishly costumed singers on an ornate set up there and the audience out here, but could be dramatically enhanced if/when it becomes more intimate. The most engrossing opera performance I’ve seen in recent years was Capitol Opera Richmond’s 2018 production of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” whose mixture of singing, dancing and tableaux was staged throughout the sanctuary of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church – wildly impractical to try in a normal theater.

Pandemics are transformative. The bubonic plague in the 14th century hastened the end of feudalism and the flowering of the Renaissance in Western Europe. Without anticipating anything near the toll of the Black Death from COVID-19, we can safely bet that this pandemic will bring on significant and lasting cultural change, and we can hope that it’s change for the better.

Even in the hidebound, or at least habit-prone, culture of classical music.

Review: Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with Gabriela Martinez, piano
March 6, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Symphonic-composer flavors of the year or decade come and go, but the real measure of a conductor’s mettle was, is and will remain Beethoven. By that score, Valentina Peleggi makes her for-real debut as music director of the Richmond Symphony in this month’s Masterworks program.

The program’s pairing of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major with the Symphony No. 4 in B flat major could be heard as Beethoven’s homages to his mentor, Haydn, in the symphony, and one of his prime inspirations, Mozart, in the concerto. Or as the composer who premiered the concerto in 1795 maturing into the composer who introduced the symphony in 1807. However heard, these works pose a reasonably comprehensive test of a conductor’s grasp of Beethoven’s classical musical architecture and his proto-romantic expressive sensibility.

Peleggi, I’m happy to report, not only gets Beethoven but also brings her own personality to this music without getting in its way.

In the second of three weekend performances, which I saw and heard via the online stream produced by VPM, Peleggi and orchestra gave Gabriela Martinez, the soloist in the concerto, stylish yet extroverted accompaniment, complementing the pianist’s classical poise garnished with Chopinesque tonal nuance.

Martinez’s tone turned rather brusque in rhythmic passages, which sapped much of the playfulness from the concerto’s final movement; but she compensated with an almost prayerful rendering of the central largo, which the pianist and conductor paced as a true largo – very slowly – without bogging down.

In introductory remarks, Peleggi described Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony as “a hymn of life” driven by “a primordial beat” – an improvement, I’d say, on Schumann’s purported characterization of the work as “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants” (those being the Third [“Eroica”] and Fifth symphonies).

The conductor’s hymn-singing proved to be brisk and lusty – even the symphony’s adagio moved right along – and her beat never flagged, except in an old-school downshifting of tempo in the scherzo’s trio section. The performance’s rhythmic energy plus tonal mass made for a winning combination.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. March 7 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$82 (limited seating); access to online stream: $30 (viewable through April 20). Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

Review: Wu Han, David Finckel, et al.

Wu Han, piano
David Finckel, cello
Arnaud Sussman, violin
Paul Neubauer, viola
streamed via Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond

In the first of four performances from New York’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center offered online by the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center, the ensemble’s co-directors, pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel (who are also spouses), played Beethoven’s Sonata in F major, Op. 5, No. 1, and were joined by violinist Arnaud Sussman and violist Paul Neubauer in Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25.

The performances, recorded in what appears to be a home music room with a forest in full bloom outside its glass doors, were high-definition, audially, visually and interpretively.

Han and Finckel have played Beethoven sonatas on several occasions locally, and this performance was quite similar to their past performances – assertive and robust, classical in pacing and stylistic touches, romantic in richness of tone production. The duo nicely sustained momentum and made structural sense of the big first movement, and brought out the folk-dance quality of the rondo that concludes the sonata.

The collective tone usually produced by the society’s ensembles – what I like to call “New York standard” – is best suited to sonically big-boned, expression-rich romantic scores such as Brahms’ Op. 25, and this foursome made quite a meal of the piece, leaning into songfulness of the andante and lyrical sections of the quartet’s outer movements, emphasizing the quicksilver-ish atmospherics of its intermezzo and romping through the Hungarian-rondo finale.

Throughout both performances, instrumental voices were well-deliniated (especially useful in the Brahms) and balances well-maintained (tricky at times in the Beethoven). In the Brahms, group sound at high volume bordered on the congested at times, perhaps because of the intimacy of the space and closer-than-concert-stage proximity of the musicians.

The performance is accessible through 7 p.m. March 8. Other streamed recitals by Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center artists begin at 7 p.m. March 12 and 26 and April 2 and 9. Access is free; registration is required. Donations to the Modlin Center are requested. Details: (804) 289-8980; http://modlin.richmond.edu

Menuhin Competition 2021 goes virtual

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, the Menuhin Competition for young violinists, being staged in May in Richmond, will be virtual event, Lacey Huszcza, executive director of the Richmond Symphony, has announced.

The competition and local co-sponsors are finalizing the schedule of competition rounds and concerts and means of public access.

Those who purchased tickets for Menuhin events last year will be contacted by the symphony with details and options.

The enslaved virtuoso

Thomas Wiggins, born blind and enslaved in Georgia in 1849, was a musical prodigy, able to play any piece on the piano after hearing it just once. By the 1880s, he reputedly had 7,000 pieces in his repertory.

Sold at age 10 to an impresario who billed him as “Blind Tom, Eighth Wonder of the World,” Wiggins became one of the most popular concert performers in 19th-century America. A top attraction in Richmond and other Southern cities in the 1860s, he subsequently toured widely in the US and Europe. Estranged from his post-emancipation handlers, he quit concert life around 1890 and died in obscurity in 1908.

Wiggins composed a number of memorable solo-piano works, some of them generations ahead of their time in compositional technique.

The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini writes about pianist Jeremy Denk’s discovery of Wiggins’ music. Included with the article are John Davis’ 1999 recordings of 14 of Wiggins’ solo-piano works – the disc that sparked modern-day interest in his music – and a video from the Caramoor Festival, in which Denk and composer George Lewis discuss this remarkable figure in American musical history and Denk plays Wiggins’ extraordinary tone poem “The Battle of Manassas:”

March calendar

Valentina Peleggi conducts the Richmond Symphony in an all-Beethoven program, including the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, with Gabriela Martinez as the soloist, and the Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, at 7 p.m. March 5, 8 p.m. March 6 and 3 p.m. March 7 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$82 (limited seating); access to online stream of March 6 concert: $30 (viewable for 30 days). Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

The University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center launches a series of online concerts from New York’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, with pianist Wu Han, violinist Arnaud Sussman, violist Paul Neubauer and cellist David Finckel playing Beethoven’s Sonata in F major, Op. 5, No. 1, for cello and piano and Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25, at 7 p.m. March 5; pianist Gilbert Kalish, soprano Lisette Oropesa and other society members in Schubert’s “The Shepherd on the Rock,” George Crumb’s “Three Early Songs” and Brahms’ Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60, at 7 p.m. March 12; and clarinetist David Shifrin, pianist Gloria Chien and other society artists in Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581, Luigi Bassi’s “Concert Fantasia on Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’ ” and Duke Ellington’s “Clarinet Lament,” at 7 p.m. March 26. Access is free; registration is required. Donations to the Modlin Center are requested. Details: (804) 289-8980; http://modlin.richmond.edu

UR’s faculty organist, Bruce Stevens, will present a live-stream program of works by Buxtehude, Sweelinck, J.S. Bach, Hindemith, John Knowles Paine and others on the Beckerath organ in Cannon Memorial Chapel at 3 p.m. March 28. No audience will be admitted. The recital stream, available until May 28, can be accessed at http://modlin.richmond.edu

The Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia’s “Let Go,” with poet Roscoe Burnems reciting his works and baroque violinist Christina Day Martinson, baroque cellist James Wilson and harpsichordist Carsten Schmidt playing selections from Heinrich Biber’s “Rosary” sonatas, will not be staged before a live audience because of ongoing pandemic restrictions. An online performance will be accessible from March 28. Access price and procedure to be announced. Details: (804) 304-6312; http://cmscva.org

JoAnn Falletta conducts the Virginia Symphony Orchestra in an online virtual concert opening its season, a program including the premiere of Tidewater-based composer Adolphus Hailstork’s Adagio for strings, an orchestration of the adagio from his String Quartet No. 1; Richard Strauss’ Horn Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, with Jacob Wilder, the orchestra’s principal French horn player; and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A major (“Italian”), at 7:30 p.m. March 3. Online access is free, via http://tickets.virginiasymphony.org/4884?utm_source=wordfly&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=On-DemandRegistrationforOpeningNight!&utm_content=version_A. . . . Members of the orchestra will perform in “Open Doors: Emotions in Music,” a program of chamber works by Beethoven, Dvořák, Puccini and Florence Beatrice Price, with discussions by the musicians and members of Tidewater Music Therapy and interactive features, at 2 p.m. March 13 at Ferguson Arts Center of Christopher Newport University in Newport News. Tickets: $12. Details: (757) 892-6366; http://virginiasymphony.org

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