Review: Watkins & Bax

Paul Watkins, cello
Alessio Bax, piano
Feb. 23, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University

Paul Watkins, best-known in this country as the cellist (since 2013) of the Emerson String Quartet, is also an active soloist in chamber and orchestral concerts, a conductor (music director of the English Chamber Orchestra, among other gigs) and teacher. It may seem that he’s overworked professionally, but he certainly showed no evidence of that in the latest installment of VCU’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts.

Performing with Alessio Bax, a widely lauded Italian-born pianist now based in New York, Watkins ranged from Bach and Beethoven to Rachmaninoff, with a substantial detour into the contemporary – a piece by his younger brother, the prominent Welsh composer Huw Watkins.

The cellist’s and pianist’s collaborative gifts were generously displayed in Beethoven’s Sonata in C major, Op. 102, No. 1, and Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G minor, Op. 19. While Beethoven is sometimes credited with inventing the cello sonata, his five do not consign the piano to accompanying roles; nor does Rachmaninoff in his one sonata for these instruments. Who would expect that of the piano titans of their times?

Both composers share the wealth of technical and expressive challenges, and provide plenty of interplay, between the two instruments. The two sonatas contrast in tone – Beethoven is rather gruffly cheerful, although with some outbursts; Rachmaninoff more darkly soulful and generally more refined – giving the performers the chance to adopt a wide range of voices and characters.

The cellist and pianist played both sonatas with unaffected brilliance, making especially fine work of the Rachmaninoff by not succumbing to the temptation to over-interpret it. Watkins and Bax kept the music’s full heart securely in its chest, never letting it migrate to their sleeves.

Watkins alone showed comparable range in J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008, and his brother’s Prelude for solo cello, written in 2007.

Bach’s six suites for solo cello are, collectively, considered the highest summit that cellists climb, and Watkins negotiated the D minor with near-faultness technique, exploiting every opportunity that the composer gives the performer to sing and dance with the instrument. He also gave full voice and expresive range to Huw Watkins’ deceptively titled prelude, no miniature but a sarabande scaled up to a tone poem.

Watkins and Bax opened their recital milking abundant good cheer from the young Beethoven’s set of variations on “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen” (“Men who feel the call of love”) from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” and offered Rachmaninoff’s familiar Vocalise as an encore.

VCU’s new-ish Steinway, inaugurated two years ago by Leon Fleisher, is a marvelous-sounding instrument, and the university’s Vlahcevic Concert Hall is famously kind to piano sound. I can’t recall it sounding better than it did with Bax at the keyboard. His crystalline tone production and judiciously graded dynamism brought out all the instrument’s best qualities.

While he wasn’t underemployed in this program, VCU needs to bring Bax back for a solo recital, the sooner the better.

Letter V Classical Radio Feb. 23

7-10 p.m. EST
0000-0300 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Henriette Renié: “Ballade fantastique”
Emmanuel Ceysson, harp

Scriabin: Symphony No. 4 (“La poème de l’extase”)
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Dmitri Kitaenko
(RCA Red Seal)

Ravel: “Shéhérazade”
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano
Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Vassilis Tsabropoulos: “Trois Morceaux après des hymnes byzantins”
Anja Lechner, cello
Vassilis Tsabropoulos, piano

Osvaldo Golijov: “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind”
David Orlowsky, clarinet
Vogler Quartett
(Sony Classical)

Krzysztof Penderecki: “La Follia” for solo violin
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Pēteris Vasks: Cello Concerto No. 2 (“Presence”)
Sol Gabetta, cello
Amsterdam Sinfonietta/Candida Thompson
(Sony Classical)

Messiaen: “Les Offrandes oubilées”
Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich/Paavo Järvi

Berlioz: “Lélio” – “Fantaisie sur ‘La Tempête’ de Shakespeare”
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
(RCA Red Seal)

Summoning Beethoven’s ‘imaginary orchestra’

John Eliot Gardiner, the British conductor whose historically informed English Baroque Soloists and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique have opened several generations of ears to music as it’s believed to have been heard in 18th and 19th centuries, greets the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth by presenting the nine symphonies through Feb. 24 at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

In a talk with The New York Times’ Zachary Woolfe, Gardiner recalls his early exposure to the “Wagnerian,” romantic-style Beethoven interpretations of Wilhelm Furtwängler, discovery of the leaner, more dynamic Beethoven of Arturo Toscanini, and ultimate realization that as the composer’s hearing deteriorated, he was writing for an “imaginary orchestra,” audible only in his imagination.

If you’ve ever wondered why Gardiner gave his 19th-century style orchestra a French name, he notes that the first competent performances of the Beethoven symphonies were given after the composer’s death not Vienna, but by the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire in Paris. “For the first time they were rehearsed properly, with clear phrasing, articulations and unified bowings for the string players,” the conductor says. “Our model, if we had a model at all, was this Paris orchestra.”

Fire disrupts vinyl record making

A fire earlier this month has destroyed the manufacturing plant of a firm that produces the lacquer-coated aluminum master discs from which vinyl records are pressed, potentially slowing the growth of a once-retro, now increasingly popular medium for recorded music.

The destruction of the Apollo Masters factory in Banning, CA,, which has made about three-quarters of blank lacquers used in recent years, leaves only one supplier, the Japanese firm MDC, which is at peak capacity and is not accepting additional work, the Los Angeles Times’ Randall Roberts reports:

“Blanks are only needed for new, previously unpressed albums,” Roberts notes. Production of existing titles should not be affected.

In 2019, vinyl records accounted for about 4 percent of US sales of recorded music – nearly 19 million albums. Vinyl’s share has been growing faster than that of any medium other than digitally streamed music.


Letter V Classical Radio Feb. 16

Early moderns: Composers, with one foot in the past and the other in the future, exploring new possibilities in harmony, tone color and rhythm.

7-10 p.m. EST
0000-0300 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Hindemith: “Neues vom Tage” Overture
BBC Philharmonic/Yan Pascal Tortelier

Ravel: “Miroirs” – IV. “Alborada del gracioso”
Bertrand Chamayou, piano

Richard Strauss: “Salome” – “Dance of the Seven Veils”
Wiener Philharmoniker/André Previn
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Debussy: “Danses sacrée et profane”
Lavinia Meijer, harp
Amsterdam Sinfonietta
(Sony Classical)

Bartók: “The Miraculous Mandarin” Suite
New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert
(New York Philharmonic)

Ives: Symphony No. 3 (“The Camp Meeting”)
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
(SFS Media)

Scott Joplin: “Magnetic Rag”
Alan Feinberg, piano

Villa-Lobos: “Rudepoêma”
Marc-André Hamelin, piano

Silvestre Revueltas: “Sensemayá”
Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen
(Sony Classical)

Janáček: “In the Mist”
Jan Bartoš, piano

Szymanowski: Violin Concerto No. 1
Nicola Benedetti, violin
London Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Berg: Sonata in B minor, Op. 1
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Schoenberg: “Friede auf Erden,” Op. 13
Rundfunkchor/Kent Nagano
(Harmonia Mundi)

Richmond Symphony 2020-21

In the debut season of a yet to be selected music director, the Richmond Symphony will mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth with three of his signature symphonies and the 50th anniversary of the Richmond Symphony Chorus with several major choral works.

The season also will feature an exceptionally diverse array of repertory by women and composers of color, most of whom are at work today.

The symphony’s Metro Collection chamber-orchestra series will expand to a second venue, staging three concerts in 2021 at the 352-seat Jimmy Dean Theater in the new Baxter Perkinson Center for the Arts in Chester. The series will continue at Blackwell Auditorium of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, where four concerts are scheduled.

Guest soloists for 2020-21 include violinist Rachel Barton Pine, playing Barber’s Violin Concerto; pianist Aaron Diehl, in Gershwin’s Piano Concerto; violinist Melissa White, in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5; pianist Gabriela Martinez, in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1; and JIJI, a Korean classical guitarist who won the 2016 Concert Artists Guild International Competition, playing Hilary Purrington’s “Harp of Nerves,” a guitar concerto premiered by JIJI in 2017.

Featured symphony principals are concertmaster Daisuke Yamamoto, performing as soloist and leader in a program centered on two of Bach’s “Brandenburg” concertos, and principal bassoonist Thomas Schneider, playing a concerto attributed to Rossini.

The Symphony Chorus, directed by Erin Freeman, will perform in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation,” Dvořák’s Te Deum and Fauré’s Pavane, as well as Handel’s “Messiah” and the “Let It Snow!” holiday pops program.

In addition to pieces by nine prominent contemporary composers – Purrington, Caroline Shaw, Anna Clyne, Jessie Montgomery, Andy Akiho, Valerie Coleman, Guillaume Connesson, Melinda Wagner and Richmond-born Zachary Wadsworth – the symphony’s 2020-21 classical concerts will feature works by two icons of African-American music, William Grant Still and Duke Ellington, and infrequently programmed music by Luigi Boccherini, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Francis Poulenc and the 19th-century French composer Louise Farrenc.

Repertory staples scheduled for the season, in addition to the Beethoven Ninth and the Bach “Brandenburgs,” are Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh symphonies, Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony (No. 4), Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony (No. 3), Sibelius’ Third Symphony, Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony” (No. 1) and selections from his “Romeo and Juliet” ballet music, Ravel’s “Bolero,” Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” suites, Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” and Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto.

On the Symphony Pops schedule are a 30th-anniversary reprise of “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony;” a jazz program with Virginia Commonwealth University-based trumpeter Rex Richardson marking the centenaries of Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck along with a new work by Richmond native Trey Pollard; singers Capathia Jenkins and Tony DeSare in a salute to two of the great American voices, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra; and “Let It Snow!”

The Lollipops family series will feature the Latin Ballet of Virginia in a program celebrating Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), the Mexican holiday tribute to departed family and friends; the Really Inventive Stuff troupe’s “The Life and Times of Beethoven;” Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf;” and the return of the popular seasonal film-with-music “The Snowman.”

Conductors of the concerts will be announced after the new music director is named.

Season ticket subscriptions are now on sale. (Adult prices are listed below.) For details, call the symphony’s ticket services office at (804) 788-1212 or visit

Single tickets will go on sale on Aug. 1.

Dates, venues and programs for the symphony’s 2020-21 season:

full-orchestra mainstage programs
Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons at Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets
8-concert subscriptions: $185-$553
4-concert subscriptions: $93-$284

Sept. 19 (8 p.m.)
Sept. 20 (3 p.m.)
William Grant Still: “Festive Overture”
Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F major
Aaron Diehl, piano
Jessie Montgomery: “Coincident Dances”
Duke Ellington: “Black, Brown and Beige” Suite

Oct. 17 (8 p.m.)
Andy Akiho: “Oscillate”
Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219 (“Turkish”)
Melissa White, violin
Sibelius: Symphony No. 3 in C major

Nov. 14 (8 p.m.)
Nov. 15 (3 p.m.)
Louise Farrenc: Overture No. 1 in E minor
Fauré: Pavane in F sharp minor, Op. 50
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor (“Choral”)
soloists TBA
Richmond Symphony Chorus

Jan. 16 (8 p.m.)
Valerie Coleman: “UMOJA, Anthem for Unity”
Villa-Lobos: “Bachianas brasileiras” No. 4
Grieg: “Peer Gynt” suites Nos. 1 & 2
Ravel: “Bolero”

Feb. 6 (8 p.m.)
Barber: “Toccata Festiva”
Dvořák: Te Deum
Richmond Symphony Chorus
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 in C minor (“Organ”)
organist TBA

March 6 (8 p.m.)
March 7 (3 p.m.)
Guillaume Connesson: “Maslenitsa”
Prokofiev: “Romeo and Juliet” (selections)
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor
Gabriela Martinez, piano

April 17 (8 p.m.)
April 18 (3 p.m.)
Anna Clyne: “Abstractions”
Barber: Violin Concerto
Rachel Barton Pine, violin
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor

May 15 (8 p.m.)
May 16 (3 p.m.)
Haydn: “The Creation”
soloists TBA
Richmond Symphony Chorus

* * *

chamber-orchestra programs
Saturday evenings at Jimmy Dean Theater, Baxter Perkinson Center for the Arts, 11801 Center St., Chester
Sunday afternoons at Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, 205 Henry St., Ashland
4-concert Sunday subscriptions: $70
3-concert Saturday subscriptions: $53

Oct. 25 (3 p.m.)
Rossini: “L’Italiana in Algeri” Overture
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A major (“Italian”)
Rossini (attr.): Bassoon Concerto
Thomas Schneider, bassoon
Boccherini: Symphony in D minor, Op. 12, No. 4 (“La casa del diavolo”)

Jan. 23 (7:30 p.m.)
Jan. 24 (3 p.m.)
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 in D major (“Classical”)
Wagner: “Siegfried Idyll”
Caroline Shaw: “Entr’acte”
Poulenc: Sinfonietta

Feb. 20 (7:30 p.m.)
Feb. 21 (3 p.m.)
Daisuke Yamamoto, violin & direction
J.S. Bach: “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046
Melinda Wagner: “Little Moonhead”
J.S. Bach: “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048
Stravinsky: Concerto in E flat major (“Dumbarton Oaks”)

April 24 (7:30 p.m.)
April 25 (3 p.m.)
Zachary Wadsworth: “Variations on an Unheard Theme”
Hilary Purrington: Guitar Concerto (“Harp of Nerves”)
JIJI, guitar
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A major

* * *

Friday evening at Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center
single tickets: $30-$60

Dec. 4 (7:30 p.m.)
Handel: “Messiah”
soloists TBA
Richmond Symphony Chorus

* * *

light classical, jazz and holiday programs
Saturday evenings (Sunday afternoon repeat for “Let It Snow!”) at venues listed
4-concert subscriptions: $92-$270

Oct. 3 (7 p.m.)
Altria Theater, Main and Laurel streets
George Daugherty conducting
“Warner Bros. Presents ‘Bugs Bunny at the Symphony,’ 30th Anniversary Edition”

Dec. 5 (8 p.m.)
Dec. 6 (3 p.m.)
Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center
“Let It Snow!” holiday program
Richmond Symphony Chorus

Feb. 27 (8 p.m.)
Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center
“Bird and Brubeck Turn 100”
Trey Pollard: new work for trumpet and orchestra
works TBA by Charlie Parker & Dave Brubeck
Rex Richardson, trumpet

April 10 (8 p.m.)
Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center
“Frank and Ella: a Night of Jazz”
Capathia Jenkins & Tony DeSare, vocalists

* * *

family programs
Saturday mornings at Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center
4-concert subscriptions: $48 (adult), $34 (ages 3-18)

Oct. 31 (11 a.m.)
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Celebration (in English and Spanish)
Latin Ballet of Virginia

Nov. 28 (11 a.m.)
“The Snowman,” film with live orchestra accompaniment

Jan. 30 (11 a.m.)
“The Life and Times of Beethoven”
Really Inventive Stuff, featuring Professor Nigel Taproot

May 8 (11 a.m.)
Prokofiev: “Peter and the Wolf”
narrator TBA

* * *

casual concerts with selections from the following weekends’ Metro Collection programs
Thursday evenings at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, Overbrook Road at Ownby Lane
4-concert passes: $40 (seating limited)

Oct. 22 (6:30 p.m.)
Jan. 21 (6:30 p.m.)
Feb. 18 (6:30 p.m.)
April 22 (6:30 p.m.)

Review: Richmond Symphony

Laura Jackson conducting
with Daisuke Yamamoto, violin
& Molly Sharp, viola
Feb. 9, Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland

Before she was a conductor, Laura Jackson was a violinist, and it showed as she led the Richmond Symphony in a Metro Collection chamber-orchestra concert at Randolph-Macon College. In the second week of her audition to became the symphony’s next music director, Jackson assembled a string-centric program.

The centerpiece was Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in E flat major, K. 364, for violin and viola, featuring the orchestra’s concertmaster, Daisuke Yamamoto, and principal violist, Molly Sharp. The two were contrasting but complementary voices, playing with a winning combination of brilliance and warmth.

Their performance reached its peak in the work’s central andante, a virtual operatic duet, mildly bittersweet in tone, that Yamamoto and Sharp projected with abundant but not overindulgent lyricism. In the faster outer movements, they displayed fine fiddle technique as well as high-spirited spontaneity. Jackson and the orchestra gave the duo animated support.

The conductor drew sharply detailed and well-balanced playing from the symphony strings in Benjamin Britten’s “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge,” a technically and expressively wide-ranging work introduced in 1937.

Bridge, Britten’s principal teacher, was one the early 20th-century British composers attuned both to the country’s oldest musical traditions – folk songs and dances, modal church music – and to then-current musical styles, especially French impressionism. Britten’s set of variations acknowledges that foundation and builds on it in the starkly expressive, rather angular voice that would define his mature style.

Jackson’s grasp of the stylistic cross-currents in this fascinating piece, and her skill in conveying that fluency to the symphony musicians, made the Britten the most persuasive case the conductor has made for her candidacy.

(Long-ish pauses for page-turning between variations make the “Bridge Variations” a prime orchestral candidate for on-screen digital scores whose pages can be advanced with the tap of a foot.)

Jackson obtained comparably fine results in Gabriela Lena Frank‘s “Concertino Cusqueño,” a piece that updates the old European concerto grosso form and transports it to the highlands of Peru.

Frank, a onetime classmate of the conductor, has written a number of pieces evoking the indigenous music of Peru, her mother’s homeland. This work grows out of a theme melding an old Inca-Iberian hymn tune with the timpani motif that opens Britten’s Violin Concerto – in effect, inviting Britten to visit a Peruvian village.

Frank’s colorful and complex orchestration is full of novel touches from the beginning, when the tune is introduced in a duet by piccolo and bass clarinet, through numerous interactions of winds, strings and percussion, negotiating many rhythmic twists and turns. It’s an orchestral showpiece, and received showpiece treatment by Jackson and a large crew of musicians who barely fit onto the stage of Randolph-Macon’s Blackwell Auditorium.

The program concluded with the “Romanian Folk Dances” of Béla Bartók, a miniature suite drawn from material collected during the Hungarian composer’s expeditions to the Balkan countryside in the early 1900s. Bartók’s orchestration is true to his source material, well-documented in field recordings he made in his travels. Jackson and the orchestra, notably clarinetist David Lemelin, made such enticing work of the suite that its brevity – barely more than five minutes – was more frustrating than usual.