Review: Lano & Yefimova

Erin Lano, French horn
Maria Yefimova, piano
Aug. 13, Dominion Energy Center

The final program of the Richmond Symphony Summer Series, this year focusing on Beethoven during the composer’s 250th anniversary year, was a mixture of works by Beethoven; two of his most prominent contemporaries, Luigi Cheubini and Franz Schubert; and a composer of the next generation greatly influenced by Beethoven, Robert Schumann.

A mixture by necessity: As Erin Lano, a French horn player in the symphony, observed, Beethoven didn’t write a recital’s worth of music for her instrument. His only work for solo horn was the early Sonata in F major, Op. 17. Lano and pianist Maria Yefimova supplemented that piece with arrangements of two horn sonatas by Cherubini and of art-songs (a medium in which Beethoven didn’t excel) by Schubert and Schumann, topped off with Yefimova playing the first movement of one of Beethoven’s greatest piano sonatas, the C major, Op. 53 (“Waldstein”).

The Beethoven horn sonata, not surprisingly, found Lano most audibly in her comfort zone – the piece, written in 1800 for the Bohemian virtuoso Giovanni Punto, is standard fare for all horn soloists. She played it with a gratifying combination of declarative aplomb and songfulness. She brought a similar balance of qualities to two songs from Schumann’s song cycle “Myrthen,” Op. 25, “Widmung” and “Die Lotosblume;” but delivered a more labored reading of Schubert’s familiar “An die Musik.”

Yefimova, a pianist on the faculty of the College of William and Mary, gave a fluent account of the “Waldstein” movement, playing from memory with fine technique and a sure sense of the music’s structure and expressive force.

Lano and Yefimova opened the program with two brief horn sonatas by Cherubini, as arranged in 1954 by Johannes Wojciechowski (originally for horn and strings), pieces that echo the vocal music for which the composer was best-known, played by this duo with suitable theatricality.

The recital marked the last public appearance by David Fisk as the symphony’s executive director. After 18 eventful and productive years in the post, Fisk leaves Richmond at the end of the month to become executive director of the Charlotte Symphony.

The video stream of the recital by Erin Lano and Maria Yefimova may be accessed through Aug. 19. Tickets: $12. Details: (804) 788-1212; http://www.richmondsymphony.com/ticketing/seasonsubscriptions/summer-recital-series-subscription/ (Single tickets may be purchased via links on that page.)

Robert Murray (1936-2020)

Robert Murray, the violinist and longtime teacher at Virginia Commonwealth University, has died at 83.

A native of South Bend, IN, who grew up in Janesville, WI, Murray was a US Navy veteran and a graduate of the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago and Indiana University. Among his teachers were Rudolf Kolisch and Tadeusz Wronski.

He played in the Orlando and Nashville symphonies – during the latter stint, doubling as a recording studio musician – as well as the Chicago Chamber Orchestra and Amici della Musica Chamber Orchestra and Bach Festival Orchestra in California, before joining the VCU music faculty in 1978. He also had taught at the University of Northern Colorado, Baylor University and the Red Lodge Music Festival in Montana.

Murray made his New York debut at Town Hall in 1975. At VCU, he was a member of the Smetana Trio, one of modern Richmond’s pioneering chamber-music ensembles, with pianist Landon Bilyeu and cellist Frantisek Smetana, and performed with Ardyth Lohuis in a violin-and-organ duo, one of the few of its kind. He was an occasional substitute player in the Richmond Symphony.

He was a recording engineer and producer, and made a number of recordings for Raven, Musical Heritage Society and other labels. Among them were Telemann’s 12 fantasias for solo violin, the violin sonatas of Saint-Saëns, the first recordings of Anton Rubinstein’s four violin sonatas, the Fifth Violin Sonata of Leo Sowerby (which Murray had premiered) and a series of discs of violin-and-organ works with Lohuis.

Symphony announces revised fall schedule, adding online concert streams

The Richmond Symphony has announced revised programming and ticketing for its fall 2020 Masterworks concerts, and added online live streams of the performances.

Programs lasting about 80 minutes without intermissions will be staged on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets.

George Manahan, the former symphony music director who has been serving as its music advisor, will conduct the September season-opener, “A Century of American Sound.” Valentina Peleggi, the symphony’s newly appointed music director, will conduct the next two programs, “Hymn to New Beginning” in October and “Metamorphosen” in November.

Admission to the concerts will be limited to fewer than 400 patrons, with distanced seating and what the orchestra describes as “stringent health and safety protocols,” including temperature checks and a requirement to wear masks. Tickets will go on sale on Sept. 1, with ticket prices to be announced.

Saturday concerts will be live-streamed, and will be available for viewing for 30 days after the performances. Access to streams cost $55 for all three programs, or $21.50 for each concert. Only one ticket per household is required.

Here’s the schedule:

Sept. 18 (7p.m.)
Sept. 19 (8 p.m.)
Sept. 20 (3 p.m.)
George Manahan conducting
Adolphus Hailstork: “American Fanfare”
Joseph Turrin: “Jazzalogue” No. 1
Jessie Montgomery: “Banner”
Gershwin: “Rhapsody in Blue” (chamber-orchestra arrangement by Iain Farrington)
Aaron Diehl, piano
Copland: “Appalachian Spring” (complete ballet score for 13 instruments)

Oct. 16 (7 p.m.)
Oct. 17 (8 p.m.)
Oct. 18 (3 p.m.)
Valentina Peleggi conducting
Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219 (“Turkish”)
Melissa White, violin
Vaughan Williams: “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”

Nov. 13 (7 p.m.)
Nov. 14 (8 p.m.)
Nov. 15 (3 p.m.)
Valentina Peleggi conducting
works TBA by Schubert, Wagner, Richard Strauss

Play to those who pay

The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini addresses the “dismaying ageism” of a cultural commentariat that sees the death spiral of classical music in statistics showing the average ages of audiences for symphony concerts and opera in their 50s and 60s. “Classical music should do its best to cultivate new listeners – to be accessible to anyone who might want to participate,” he writes. “But having an aging audience is not necessarily dire.”

Tommasini points to what he suspects is the real issue: “For some time now, I’ve seen the main challenge of engaging new classical music audiences – of all ages – as related to diminishing attention spans in an era of nonstop connectivity. . . . [A]n audience at a concert has to settle in and really pay attention to a performance that, for all the dynamic involvement of the musicians, offers only so much visual stimulation. Classical music should embrace this reality and promote performances as rare opportunities to disconnect, at least for a while, from the digital life outside.”

There’s another angle to this discussion – an issue I kept trying to raise in the waning years of my newspaper career. Editors had grown obsessed with cultivating a younger readership, often at the cost of alienating older, longtime readers. They ran head-on into reality: Most people under 30 didn’t, don’t and won’t read newspapers – a reality compounded by the rise of digital media. At the same time, they turned off many older readers who, not incidentally, command an outsized share of disposable income and whose interests aren’t addressed by most commercial television and other non-print media. They kissed off the affluent audience that they had in order to court a less affluent audience that they weren’t going to get, and plunged into a competition for advertising that they weren’t going to win. The consequences land on your doorstep (or not) every morning.

Few entities in the entertainment and leisure sphere have been hit harder in the coronavirus pandemic than classical-music organizations and presenters. Some major ones have effectively put themselves out of business for the duration. Others are staging concerts with sharply reduced live attendance and/or presenting performances online. (The Richmond Symphony plans to try both approaches this fall.) All are urging patrons to contribute whether or not they get any music for their money.

Who’ll keep them going, and buy tickets when “normal” life resumes? Old folks.

Review: Jang & Wilson

Jeanette Jang, violin
Russell Wilson, piano
Aug. 6, Dominion Energy Center

In the penultimate program of the Richmond Symphony Sumer Series’ salute to Beethoven, two of the symphony’s musicians, violinist Jeanette Jang and pianist Russell Wilson, sampled two composers at work around the turn of the 19th century – Beethoven and Schubert – echoing the past as they found their voices.

Both composers, a decade or so apart, were students of Antonio Salieri, and stylistic descendants of Mozart and Haydn. Beethoven additionally owed a debt to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the mid-18th century master of sophisticated musical structures and abrupt expressive and dynamic shifts.

Jang and Wilson opened their program with Schubert’s Sonatina in D major, D. 384, a straightforward, lightweight work by a 13-year-old composer already demonstrating the lyrical gifts he would exploit so memorably in maturity.

Wilson followed that with the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C major, Op. 2, No. 3, often cited as the composer’s first truly virtuosic solo-piano work. The pianist brought out both the quick-fingered filagree of the movement and its robust, declarative bass lines, and sustained continuity in music that often defies linearity.

The gem of the program was Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in G major, Op. 30, No. 3, music representing classical style in full bloom with buds of romanticism, its cheerful outer movements bracketing a slow minuet rooted in one of the composer’s most bittersweet tunes.

In that slow movement, Jang and Wilson adopted an unusually measured tempo that gave extra soulfulness to the tune and extra expressive edge to its elaborations. Their treatment of the sonata’s perpetual-motion finale was brisk, technically secure and as thoroughly collaborative as any duo could be.

Audio breakups, so pronounced in the video stream of the July 30 concert by violinist Daisuke Yamamoto and pianist Michelle Huang that the symphony posted a substitute video (see the Aug. 4 post below for the link, which is operative until the end of the month), again cropped up in this performance, but were minor by comparison.

The video stream of the recital by Jeanette Jang and Russell Wilson may be accessed through Aug. 5, and the final program of the Richmond Symphony Summer Series, at 6:30 p.m. 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; http://www.richmondsymphony.com/ticketing/seasonsubscriptions/summer-recital-series-subscription/ (Single tickets may be purchased via links on that page.)

Leon Fleisher (1928-2020)

Leon Fleisher, the patriarch of US pianists, has died at 92.

A pupil of Artur Schnabel, Fleisher seemed destined to inherit his teacher’s mantle as a master of Austro-German classical and romantic music. His recordings of Beethoven and Brahms concertos, made with conductor George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as a number of solo recordings, have been considered reference versions since they were released in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

In 1964, Fleisher contracted focal dystonia, a neurological condition that causes involuntary muscle contractions and loss of control over movement, and lost the ability to play with his right hand. He continued teaching – he had joined the faculty of Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory in 1959, and later taught at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts – and began performing the repertory for piano left-hand, much of it written for the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his arm in World War I. He also took up conducting.

After years of unsuccessful treatments for his disability, Fleisher found a regimen that worked and was able to resume performing with two hands in 1995. He often played as a duo pianist with his wife, Katherine Jacobson.

After restarting his two-handed career, Fleisher performed at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center in 2006 and with Jacobson inaugurated a new Steinway in a 2018 Rennolds Chamber Concerts program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

An obituary by Allan Kozinn for The New York Times:

An obituary and appreciation by Anne Midgette, former music critic of The Washington Post and co-author of Fleisher’s memoir, “My Nine Lives:”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/leon-fleisher-sublime-pianist-with-one-hand-or-two-dies-at-92/2020/08/02/c7c98f90-527d-11e6-b7de-dfe509430c39_story.html

A historic space ‘sings’ once more

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decision to resume use of Istanbul’s Byzantine-era cathedral, Hagia Sophia, as a mosque, ending an 86-year period in which it was a museum, provoked an international outcry. One consequence of the conversion of the 1,500-year-old structure for Islamic prayer is dampening of the vast interior’s singular acoustics.

The New York Times’ Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim reports on efforts by Stanford University art historian Bissera Pentcheva and Jonathan Abel, a Stanford colleague working at the university’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, to electronically replicate the complex reverberance of choral music that was created when Hagia Sophia was the center of Orthodox Christianity.

The work of Pentcheva and Abel led to a recording, “Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia,” by Cappella Romana, a Portland, OR-based ensemble led by Alexander Lingas, that presents Byzantine liturgical music as it’s believed to have sounded in the medieval cathedral. Samples of this remarkable venture in musical archaeology are included with the article:

“Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia,” on CD plus Blu-Ray discs or in several digital file formats, may be ordered from: http://cappellaromana.org/product/lost-voices-of-hagia-sophia-medieval-byzantine-chant/

Tracks from the recording also may be heard on YouTube.

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; http://www.richmondsymphony.com/ticketing/seasonsubscriptions/summer-recital-series-subscription/ (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; http://www.richmondsymphony.com/ticketing/seasonsubscriptions/summer-recital-series-subscription/ (Tickets may be purchased through links from that address.)