Damien Geter launches symphony residency

Singer and composer Damien Geter has embarked on a three-year residency with the Richmond Symphony, to include premieres of two works, concert program curation and community outreach.

“Many of my earliest musical memories and my love for classical music came from sitting in the Richmond Symphony concert hall as a young person,” the 42-year-old Chesterfield County native said in a statement announcing his residency. “This was the place that set the foundation for me as an artist – it feels like a homecoming.”

In addition to working with the orchestra, Richmond Symphony Chorus and Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra, Geter plans to interact with the area’s young composers and members of the community in varied settings.

Geter’s compositions blend classical forms with musical styles of Black Americans and others in the African Diaspora. Among his recent works are “Cantata for a Hopeful Tomorrow,” introduced by the Washington Chorus; “An African American Requiem,” premiered by the Resonance Ensemble and Oregon Symphony; “The Justice Symphony,” written for the University of Michigan; and his Quartet No. 1 (“Neo Soul”), which Richmond Symphony members played in last summer’s Chamberfest and will reprise on Nov. 5 at the Sipe Center in Bridgewater.

In 2025, Virginia Opera will stage the premiere of Geter’s and librettist Jessica Murphy Moo’s “Loving v. Virginia,” based on the couple whose 1967 case led the US Supreme Court to overturn laws against interracial marriage.

A graduate of Indiana State University and alumnus of the Austrian American Mozart Festival and Aspen Opera Center, Geter has been serving as interim music director and artistic advisor of Oregon’s Portland Opera and artistic advisor of the city’s Resonance Ensemble.

A bass-baritone, he has performed with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Chicago Opera Theatre, Portland Opera and other companies, and has been a vocal soloist in a number of orchestral concerts, including performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Richmond Symphony last season.

Geter also has a string of acting credits, including roles in NBC’s “Grimm,” Netflix’s “Trinkets,” and stage productions of the musicals “In the Heights” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Valentina Peleggi, the Richmond Symphony’s music director, said that Geter’s residency offers “the possibility to a new generation of composers to grow and develop through a solid and long-lasting relationship with the symphony that they can call home, coupled with sharing the excitement of the process of musical creation, bringing a deeper understanding of the composition process to a wider audience.”

The ‘joyously seditious’ Gilbert & Sullivan

Writing for The Guardian, the British actor Michael Simkins credits his addiction to the comic operettas of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan for “my love of classical music in general and grand opera in particular.”

“Gilbert’s barbed satire and Sullivan’s glorious pastiches have always been joyously seditious,” Simkins writes. “The blinkered certainties of the class system are deftly lampooned . . . the absurdities of cultural and political trends are revealed in all their transient folly . . . the aspirations of Great Britain as a global superpower [have] never been more deftly skewered . . . . If the operas illuminate how we still like to see ourselves, it’s in a distinctly bilious yellow.”

As to their influence on songwriting and musical theater, “No less a lyricist than the great Johnny Mercer once wrote ‘We all come from Gilbert,’ while Sullivan’s influence has been acknowledged by composers from Noël Coward and Ivor Novello through to Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber.”

For all that, Simkins writes, “I still find myself occasionally having to defend their reputation. ‘All that tiddle-om-pom-pom stuff,’ say sneering detractors of this very English art form; a classical music professional – and choral specialist – admitted to me recently that he’d ‘never really considered them.’ That’s his loss.”


Virginia Opera is staging “The Pirates of Penzance,” one of the best-loved Gilbert & Sullivan shows, Nov. 4-6 at Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, Nov. 12-13 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax and Nov. 18 and 20 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center in Richmond. Details: http://vaopera.org/the-pirates-of-penzance/

Stradivari’s good chemistry

Writing for the online magazine Ludwig van Toronto, Anya Wassenberg summarizes research by an Italian team into the coating and varnish applied to the classic violins made by Antonio Stradivari. The treatment of wood that produces the remarkable sound of these instruments has been one of music’s enduring mysteries.

Chemically analyzing samples from two Stradivari instruments, the Toscano of 1690 and the San Lorenzo of 1718, the researchers identified a layer of protein coating, perhaps an animal-based glue, between the wood and an exterior layer of varnish. The coating and varnish mixed with each other and with the wood after application.

“The system of applying the coatings was complex, and involved extremely thin layers of a few micrometers each,” Wassenberg writes.

Her article, with a link to the study, published by the American Chemical Society:

THE SCOOP | Italian Researchers May Have Solved Stradivarius’ Secret To Exemplary Sound

(via http://www.artsjournal.com)

Classical Revolution RVA revisits Mozart

The performing cooperative Classical Revolution RVA will stage its annual Mozart Festival from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 29 at various locations in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood.

Among the performers are the Rosette String Quartet, the jazz/pop/classical band Sweet Potatoes Music, Ninja Strings and TJVikings Marching Band. Members of the cooperative and guests, conducted by Naima Burns, will perform in an evening concert of Mozart concertos, and singers will join the troupe for an afternoon coffee concert with a scene from the comic opera “Così fan tutte.”

Coinciding with Halloween weekend, the festival also will feature a costume contest and concert in the graveyard of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Events for children and families, food and beverages, and panel discussions also are scheduled.

Most events are free, donations accepted.

For the complete festival lineup, visit: http://www.classicalrevolutionrva.com/events

An artist in exile

Mikhail Voskresensky, an 87-year-old pianist, longtime chair of the piano department at the Moscow Conservatory, is one of hundreds of thousands of Russians who have fled the country since Vladimir Putin launched his war on Ukraine.

Given Voskresensky’s prominence as an artist and teacher, he ought to be one of the more publicized musical refugees – on a par with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich after his emigration from the Soviet Union in 1974, or, more recently, Valentyn Sylvestrov, the 85-year-old Ukrainian composer now sheltering in Berlin.

Voskresensky, however, is not well-known outside of Russia, and rarely was allowed to perform abroad. The authorities soured on him after he refused to pass messages to Soviet intelligence officers while on tour in the US in the early 1960s, Franklin Foer writes in The Atlantic. “It took 13 years for the state to forgive his reticence and permit him a tour of the West.”

After the invasion began, Voskresensky was shocked at associates’ support of Putin’s war. “Since we started it, we have no choice but to win it,” a friend told him. He decided that “I’m guilty if I live in this society,” the pianist told Foer. “I had this feeling that was ethically hard to live with.”

Foer recounts the pianist’s lengthy and bureaucratically fraught escape from Russia, first to Turkey, then to Italy, on the way to a teaching engagement at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. As the festival’s president, Alan Fletcher, “tracked Voskresensky’s progress from afar, he distracted himself by watching ‘The Third Man,’ because he felt as if he had been transported into a Cold War noir,” Foer writes.

Voskresensky and his family now live in an apartment in New York’s Bronx borough. Opportunities to teach await paperwork from immigration authorities. Steinway offered him a piano, but movers couldn’t get it up a narrow staircase. He makes do with a Yamaha electric on loan.

“I never wanted to be a political person,” he tells Foer. “I’m a man of the arts.”


Review: Emerson String Quartet

Oct. 23, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University

In August 2021, the Emerson String Quartet announced its coming retirement, which will mark a generational turning of the page.

The Emerson, founded in 1976 at New York’s Juilliard School, soon set a standard for US quartets, producing a collective sound that is room-filling, even in fairly large spaces, and adopting a straightfoward interpretive stance that can accommodate most of the quartet literature, with especially rewarding results in the works of moderns such as Bartók and Shostakovich.

The group’s impact on audiences and fellow musicians has been substantial and consistent, thanks to a heavy touring schedule over the decades, plenty of teaching and coaching, also to good timing: The foursome hit their musical stride just as the introduction of digital sound and compact discs led to a boom in classical recordings. The Emerson made many, and quite a few have been reference versions since they were released.

The quartet – violinists Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist Paul Watkins – is spending this season on an extensive, international farewell tour. The group’s performance in the Rennolds Chamber Concerts at Virginia Commonwealth University, its fifth appearance in the series, was an early stop on the tour.

Its Richmond program – Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E flat major, Op. 12; Ravel’s Quartet in F major, George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings” and Dvořák’s Quartet in A flat major, Op. 105 – is one of the more conservative prepared for the tour, but proved varied enough in expression and sound texture to make lasting last impressions. Chief among them, well-integrated, enveloping string tone, at times almost orchestral in scale when heard in a space the size of VCU’s 500-seat Vlahcevic Concert Hall.

The rewards of the group’s unmannered approach to music-making were most gratifying in the Mendelssohn and Dvořák quartets, early and late products of the romantic era and, in a way, opposite sides of the romantic coin.

The Mendelssohn quartet, his first, written when he was 20, is an unrequited-love letter, a smolderingly passionate, yearning work that stretches without quite breaking away from classical form. The Dvořák, the last quartet he completed, may be his most classical, not without soulful melodies and folksy dance rhythms, but mainly focused on building musical structures from declarative motifs, as Beethoven did. In the Mendelssohn, the heart moves the mind; in the Dvořák, the mind rules the heart.

The Emerson’s treatment of the two works made that contrast clear, but not italicized or overplayed. The ensemble, with Drucker playing first violin, brought out the sweet lyricism of Mendelssohn’s tunes with rich but never cloying string sonority. In the Dvořák, with Setzer as the leader, the group’s tone was more assertive, at times almost angular, but still attuned to romantic expressiveness and the composer’s evocation of Czech folk song and dance.

The foursome turned to the comfortably lyrical Dvořák in an encore, “I Wander Often Past Yonder House,” the seventh in his “Cypresses” set of songs arranged for string quartet.

The French school of string tone production, texture and coloration – of which the Ravel quartet is exhibit A in the chamber literature – is not the easiest of fits for musicians who come out of most US schooling and mainstream performing tradition. They generally play with warmer, more rounded tone and richer ensemble sound than the French, whose tone is leaner, more focused with tighter vibrato, more differentiated among instruments in an ensemble, altogether more sinewy.

In this performance of the Ravel, the Emerson met the French style a bit more than halfway, bolder and brawnier than a French quartet typically would sound, as impulsive in attack but less fleet in pacing, suitably sensitized to the score’s intricate weave of sound textures and wide palette of tone colors.

Walker, longest-lived of the first great generation of Black American composers (he died at 96 in 2018), is most widely known for his “Lyric for Strings,” dating from 1946. Like Samuel Barber’s more familiar Adagio, written about 10 years earlier, it was originally the slow movement of a string quartet, later expanded to a string orchestration. Both are elegiac in tone, Walker’s more biographically, in remembrance of his grandmother.

Playing Walker’s original version, the Emerson inevitably sounded starker and more expressively pointed than one would hear in the orchestration, but no less emotionally impactful.

Review: Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with Jennifer Koh, violin
Oct. 22, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Violinist Jennifer Koh was a silver medalist in the 1994 Tchaikovsky Competition. That might lead listeners to expect her to deliver a traditional Russian interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major – robust tone, plush lyricism and technical brilliance, echoing past masters such as David Oistrakh and Nathan Milstein.

Koh also is known for her mastery of a decidedly different strain of violin music, the solo sonatas and partitas of J.S. Bach, and for her advocacy of living composers working in varied contemporary styles.

All of those creative and re-creative paths converged in Koh’s performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto with the Richmond Symphony. Her reading of the piece was high-romantic, with flexible, songful phrasing of its big tunes, thrilling displays of fiddle technique and dynamism; but it was not the big, fat, swooning Tchaikovsky that has long been the default approach of Russified American violinists.

In the first of two weekend performances, Koh played with a rather lean, highly focused tone that directed the ear to the finer strands of the solo part, but without underplaying this music’s passion and rhetorical sweep – a rare combination of almost clinical attention to detail and a spontaneous outpouring of expression.

The symphony and its music director, Valentina Peleggi, underlined the violinist’s reading of the concerto, playing both supportively and collaboratively.

In the second half of the program, the conductor and orchestra tuned to a wildly contrasting wavelength in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 6 in E minor.

Vaughan Williams, whose 150th birthday is being celebrated this year, is best-known for his English-pastoral style, typified by works such as “The Lark Ascending” and “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.” (The symphony will play the latter in January concerts.) His Sixth Symphony, while bearing some melodic and harmonic vestiges of that gentler style, is much sterner, more explosive stuff.

Written during and just after World War II, the Sixth is one of the composer’s most challenging works for both musicians and listeners, aggressively brassy and percussive in its opening allegro and scherzo, lyrically somber in its slow(-ish) central movement, desolately rarified in a lengthy, fugal epilogue.

In pre-concert remarks, Peleggi noted that none of the symphony’s musicians had previously played the Vaughan Williams Sixth – no doubt adding to the challenge of performing it, but also bringing a sense of discovery to their interpretation.

To say that the conductor and orchestra rose to the occasion is putting it mildly. The music’s blockbuster moments busted every conceivable block, and its darker and more otherworldly sequences plumbed great depths.

The concentration with which the strings played the epilogue was riveting (and would have been more so without frequent bronchial contributions from the audience); the mass of sound from brass and percussion was potent without turning coarse; and the work’s numerous wind and string solos were arrestingly expressive and atmospheric.

The program opened with “The Block,” Carlos Simon’s musical response to Romare Howard Bearden’s 1971 painting/montage of a street scene in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. Simon, one of the most prolific and widely performed contemporary Black composers, matches Bearden’s busy, primary-colored image with an infectiously rhythmic, vividly colorful score. Peleggi and the orchestra gave it a punchy, rollicking reading.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $15-$85. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://richmondsymphony.com

To mask or not to mask?

Updated Oct. 19

You may have noticed that this month’s calendar cops out on the issue of masking and other Covid-19 safety protocols at musical events, instead directing readers to presenters and venues. Barring future emergencies, that’s how I plan to proceed.

I’m not being lazy . . . well, not too lazy.

The contents of Letter V’s monthly events calendars are drawn primarily from websites, secondarily from season brochures, and occasionally from e-mail and phone exchanges.

During the height(s) of the pandemic, most arts organizations’ websites prominently displayed safety measures – although some educational institutions were frustratingly opaque. Over time, advisories have become harder to find, and if/when found have offered “optional” advice. (“If you don’t feel well, don’t attend.” Duh.)

The ups and downs of Covid-19 infection rates and vaccines’ efficacy have been going on long enough (and confusingly enough) that it’s now down to individual, situational decisions on how cautious to be in public indoors. If I’m infected, how vulnerable am I to increased severity or complications? How vulnerable are the people around me likely to be? How closely packed is the audience? How long will we be seated together? How big and well-ventilated is our shared space?

Those questions apply not just to Covid-19 but also to flu and other seasonal infections. Masking in crowded indoor spaces during cold-weather months may be a healthy and considerate long-term practice.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is to carry a mask to events. If the hall’s staff is masked, I’ll mask up, too. I’ll also wear a mask when I’m in close proximity with many others – especially if there’s a lot of coughing and sneezing. When attending an event at a new or infrequently visited venue, I’ll be more likely to don my mask. And I’ll watch for local or regional surges in communicable, airborne infections of all kinds.

UPDATE: As of Oct. 24, four major New York presenters, the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall and New York City Ballet, will drop masking requirements for their audiences, Norman Lebrecht reports on Slipped Disc:

New York drops face masks – for good

Kherson conductor killed by Russians

Yuriy Kerpatenko, conductor of several ensembles in Russian-occupied Kherson, has been killed Russian soldiers. The killing followed Kerpatenko’s refusal to lead an Oct. 1 concert “intended by the occupiers to demonstrate the so-called ‘improvement of peaceful life’ in Kherson,” the Ukrainian culture ministry said.

Kherson, in southern Ukraine, was the first major city seized by Russian troops after Vladimir Putin launched the invasion in February. In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces have advanced on the city, raising prospects of encirclement of its occupiers and a cutoff of supply lines from Russian-occupied Crimea. On Friday, Russian authorities urged civilians to leave Kherson, a move that Ukrainians have charged is a call for “deportation” to Russia.

“The tragic irony of this is that talk about the superiority of Russian culture, its humanism,” Semyon Bychkov, a Russian émigré who is chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, said in an interview with The Guardian. “And here they murdered someone who is actually bringing beauty to people’s lives. It is sickening.

“The bullets don’t distinguish between people,” Bychkov said. “It didn’t make me feel worse that this man was a conductor, it just confirmed the pure evil that’s been going on even before the first bombs fell on Ukraine.”


Meanwhile, Andrey Reshetin, a violinist and director of an early music festival in Russia, has volunteered to join the invasion force, Norman Lebrecht reports on his Slipped Disc website. Reshetin is quoted as saying that cultural authorities “didn’t give a penny of money to the festival, destroying all my work. And since the basis of my work is service, I go where I need to serve.”

Early music violinist enlists to fight against Ukraine

This year’s MacArthur musical ‘geniuses’

Three musicians are among 25 recipients of this year’s John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowships, nicknamed “genius grants.” They will receive $800,000 over the next five years to pursue studies and projects of their choosing.

MacArthur fellowships went to these musicians:

– Martha Gonzalez: A 50-year-old ethnomusicologist, specializing in Mexican traditional and vernacular music, who teaches at Scripps College in Claremont, CA, and is the lead singer, songwriter and percussionist of the Los-Angeles-based band Quetzal.

– Ikue Mori: A 68-year-old, Japanese-born percussionist and electronic-music composer who has worked with punk-rock, free-jazz and experimental ensembles in New York since the late 1970s.

– Tomeka Reid: A 44-year-old, classically trained jazz cellist and composer, based in Chicago, who has worked with composer Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and others in experimental and free-jazz genres.