Library of Congress adds 25 recorded ‘classics’

Each year, the Library of Congress adds 25 “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” titles to its National Recording Registry. This year’s inductees range from collections of music by Yiddish performers, recorded between 1901 and 1905, and of American Indians, recorded from 1929 to 1939, to a 1952 episode of the television series “Gunsmoke” and Robert F. Kennedy’s speech following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

Headline hit songs added to the register this year are Cab Calloway’s ”Minnie the Moocher” (1931); “Soul Man” (1967), the rhythm and blues anthem by Sam and Dave; Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” (1958), one of the earliest mainstream Latino songs to make the pop charts; “Mississippi Goddam” (1964), Nina Simone’s bitter response to the killings of civil-rights activists in the Deep South; and “Sweet Caroline” (1969), an early signature tune by Neil Diamond.

Other inductees include the satirical “Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Vol. 1: the Early Years” (1961), the original Broadway cast recording of “Hair” (1968), rapper Jay-Z’s 2001 album “The Blueprint,” and “Schoolhouse Rock!: the Box Set” (1996), an anthology of tunes from the children’s television series.

Two classical sets made this year’s list of classics: The first recordings of the six solo-cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach, made by Pablo Casals in 1938-39, and the 1963 debut recording of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” led by the composer. (Casals recorded the suites in London and Paris; Britten’s recording was made in Britain.)

The Washington Post’s Travis M. Andrews reports on the Library of Congress’ latest batch of recorded classics:

A complete list of titles in the National Recording Registry can be found here:

Letter V Classical Radio March 20

On the first day of spring, music suiting the season by Vivaldi, Beethoven, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Copland, Stravinsky and the University of Richmond’s Benjamin Broening.

noon-3 p.m. EDT
1700-2000 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Vivaldi: “The Four Seasons” – “Spring”
Midori Seiler, violin & direction
Akademie für alte Musik Berlin
(Harmonia Mundi)

Tchaikovsky: “The Seasons,” Op. 37b –
“Song of the Skylark” (March)
“Snowdrop” (April)
“Bright Nights of May” (May)
Alexander Paley, piano

Schumann: Symphony No. 1 in B flat major (“Spring”)
The Hanover Band/Roy Goodman
(RCA Red Seal)

Debussy: “Printemps”
Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Past Masters:
Copland: “Appalachian Spring”
Columbia Chamber Ensemble/Aaron Copland
(Sony Classical)
(recorded 1973)

Benjamin Broening: “Arioso/Doubles”
Arthur Campbell, clarinet
Benjamin Broening, computer program

Beethoven: Violin Sonata in F major, Op. 24 (“Spring”)
Pamela Frank, violin
Claude Frank, piano
(Music & Arts)

Stravinsky: “Le sacre du printemps”
Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Menuhin winner scores Avery Fisher grant

The Chinese-born, Boston-based Angelo Xiang Yu, 2010 winner of the Menuhin Competition for young violinists, is one of this year’s recipients of $25,000 career grants from the Avery Fisher Artist Program, joining the JACK Quartet, pianist Henry Kramer and the piano duo of Christina and Michelle Naughton:

The next rounds of the Menuhin Competition will be held in Richmond from May 14 to 20, 2020. Winners will perform with the Richmond Symphony and the Sphinx Virtuosi in the finale of the symphony’s Masterworks series on May 23 and 24.

Letter V Classical Radio March 13

noon-3 p.m. EDT
1700-2000 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Berlioz: “Benvenuto Cellini” Overture
Staatskapelle Dresden/Colin Davis
(RCA Red Seal)

Past Masters:
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major
Sviatoslav Richter, piano
London Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin
(recorded 1961)

Janáček: Violin Sonata
Jessica Lee, violin
Reiko Uchida, piano

Past Masters:
Honegger: “Rugby”
Orchestre National de l’ORTF/Jean Martinon
(Warner Classics)
(recorded 1971)

J.S. Bach: “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046
Ensemble Caprice/Matthias Maute

Past Masters:
Bartók: “Contrasts”
Joseph Szigeti, violin
Benny Goodman, clarinet
Béla Bartók, piano
(recorded 1940)

Jan Dismas Zelenka: Sinfonia à 8 concertanti in A minor
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/Gottfried von der Goltz
(Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)

Mozart: Serenade in C minor, K. 388 (“Nacht Musique”)
Harmonie de l’Orchestre des Champs Élysées/Philippe Herreweghe
(Harmonia Mundi)

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6 in B minor
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Chicago Symphony musicians on strike

Musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have gone on strike, following the failure of 11 months of contract negotiations.

The orchestra’s management proposed a contract that would raise musicians’ base pay, currently $159,000 a year, to $167,094 by the proposed pact’s third year, and would maintain medical, dental and life insurance coverage.

Pensions, however, would be converted from “defined,” or covered by the orchestra, to direct contributions from the players. Management says that required contributions to the pension fund have grown from $803,000 two years ago to $3.8 million this year.

Management and musicians have issued statements outlining their positions, reproduced on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog:

Riccardo Muti, the orchestra’s music director, has issued a statement supporting the musicians, whose spokesmen said before calling the strike that management proposals had “some encouraging aspects” but don’t come close to addressing our fundamental concerns,” the Chicago Tribune’s Howard Reich reports:

UPDATE (March 17): The orchestra administration says “[a] new agreement has not yet been reached, and the parties have not scheduled any further sessions at this time” (via Slipped Disc):

UPDATE (April 4): Chicago Symphony management and musicians will resume negotiations on April 5. The orchestra’s events have been canceled through April 9, the Chicago Tribune’s Howard Reich reports:

Classical music = ‘sinister civility’

Writing for The American Scholar, the San Francisco-based critic Theodore Gioia examines the film industry’s habit of linking evil characters and violent actions to classical music – often classics, such as J.S. Bach’s “Air on a G String” and the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, that aren’t at all ominous in mood.

Gioia asserts that film-makers are stoking a “current cultural psyche” that associates intelligence, sophistication and formality with calculated villainy. “Evil is a byproduct of brainpower. The implication is that aesthetic sophistication and psychopathic violence spring from the same mentality, a decadent hyperintelligence that becomes so cultivated that it savors homicide as a refined pleasure like [b]aroque cello.”

Classical music once had a robust niche in popular culture (the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera,” the Looney Tunes cartoons, Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”), but since the 1960s has become a “a kind of shorthand for sneering affluence and institutionalized elitism.”

Portraying villains as classical aficionados strikes “a chord of Everyman angst deep in the American subconsciousness: a vein of populist paranoia that suspects the shiny trappings of high society – galas, gowns, orchestras – exist to disguise the brutal source of its wealth. Decorum is an accomplice to depravity. . . . [T]he symphony becomes the sound of that sinister civility,” Gioia writes:


Review: Eighth Blackbird

March 7, Camp Concert Hall, University of Richmond

This season’s Tucker-Boatwright Festival at the University of Richmond might have been designed with Eighth Blackbird in mind. The festival’s theme is “Beyond Exoticism.” Its programs contrast traditional, often stereotyped representations of “other” – i.e., non-European – cultures with more recent “expression beyond difference” in art works that embrace “ethnic ambiguity and aesthetic complexity.”

Eighth Blackbird has been on this path for much of its 23-year history. The group’s programs often feature works adhering (more or less) to traditions of Western chamber music alongside pieces that draw both substance and form from vernacular cultures throughout the world.

In this program, the ensemble – violinist Yvonne Lam, cellist Nick Photinos, flutist Nathalie Joachim, clarinetist Michael Maccaferri, pianist Lisa Kaplan and percussionist Matthew Duvall – sampled music with Icelandic, Balkan, Afro-Caribbean and American popular stylistic influences.

The most compelling offerings, to my ears, were “Stay on It” by Julius Eastman, a gay African-American composer and pianist who struggled for recognition in his lifetime, died young in 1990, and only in the past few years has been appreciated for developing an art-music grown from popular roots; the premiere of “Four Rain-begging Songs,” British composer Alex Mills’ flute-and-clarinet duo loosely based on Balkan folk tunes; and “Madam Bellegarde” by Eighth Blackbird flutist Joachim, a wistfully melodic piece based on a song sung by her Haitian grandmother.

“Stay on It,” now regarded as one of Eastman’s classics, played here in a sextet transcription by pianist Kaplan, builds an insistently rhythmic riff, which might be described as Afro-Caribbean transplanted to urban American, into a fantasia that arcs toward violent intensity, then unexpectedly downshifts into almost baroque decorousness, then gives way to a gentle, almost resigned postscript. The ensemble made an urgent narrative of Eastman’s music, proving especially effective in bringing out its contrasts of mood and sound texture toward the end.

Joachim, playing flute and piccolo as well as vocalizing, and Maccaferri, playing B flat and bass clarinets, emphasized the novel tones and wind-playing techniques that give Mills’ song set its distinctive character. The ethnic roots of the first three songs are not easily detected; only in the dance-like finale does the piece clearly echo Balkan music.

Joachim’s affection is palpable in “Madam Bellegarde,” and the song on which the piece is based – first heard in a recording by her grandmother, later sung by Joachim – is a fertile source for a set of tuneful, playful variations for an ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin and cello.

Other works on this stylistically wide-ranging program:

– Angélica Negrón’s “Quimbombo,” an updated Caribbean festival, prismatically voiced for an ensemble of flute, violin, cello and percussion.

– Viet Cuong’s piano-flute-clarinet-percussion quartet “Electric Aroma,” which draws its title from a verse by Pablo Picasso – “an electric aroma a most disagreeable noise” – effectively rebutted in an attractively percolating fast tango.

– Jonathan Bailey Holland’s “The Clarity of Cold Air,” a winter tonescape with a few surprisingly warm episodes, inhaling and exhaling like a decidedly unfrozen organism.

– Fjóla Evans’ “Eroding,” a naturalistic evocation of an Icelandic glacier grinding a chasm in the land. The piece’s tonal character is a vivid acoustic echo of the mid-20th-century electronic sound-montage style known as musique concrète.

– Nina Shekhar’s “ice ’n’ SPICE,” music voicing the childhood memory of eating her father’s scorchingly spiced chicken masala with green chilies and easing the burn with ice cubes, in which the sextet veers between spare, open-textured strands of high-register tone and densely textured, frenetic passages.

Letter V Classical Radio March 6

In the last hour, remembering André Previn, the most stellar musical polymath of his generation, who died last week at 89, with three recordings featuring Previn as conductor, solo pianist and chamber musician.

noon-3 p.m. EST
1600-1900 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Past Masters:
Dvořák: “Carnival” Overture
London Symphony Orchestra/István Kertész
(recorded 1965)

Chausson: Concerto in D major for violin, piano and string quartet
Isabelle Faust, violin
Alexander Melnikov, piano
Salagon Quartet
(Harmonia Mundi)

Mendelssohn: “Rondo capriccioso” in E major, Op. 14
Jan Lisiecki, piano
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Pancrace Royer: “La Vertigo”
Jean Rondeau, harpsichord

Scriabin: “Le Poème de l’extase”
Anatol Ugorski, piano
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Martinů: Symphony No. 6 (“Fantasies symphoniques”)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek

Past Masters:
Vaughan Williams: “The Wasps” Overture
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
(RCA Red Seal)
(recorded 1971)

Poulenc: Sextuor for piano and winds
André Previn, piano
Elizabeth Mann, flute
Steve Taylor, oboe
David Shifrin, clarinet
Dennis Godburn, bassoon
Richard Todd, French horn
(RCA Red Seal)

Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F major
André Previn, piano & conductor
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Review: Chamber Music Society

Roman Rabinovich, piano
Diana Cohen, violin
Jason Amos, viola
James Wilson, cello
March 3, Perkinson Recital Hall, University of Richmond

Johannes Brahms was a pianist, and rarely a reticent one, to judge by his music for the instrument – especially the chamber music for piano and strings. Playing the piano’s prominent role in this music without overbalancing, not to say bowling over, strings requires keen ears and careful gradations of volume and sonority.

In Brahms’ piano quartets in G minor, Op. 25, and C minor, Op. 60, the pianist takes on another responsibility: Sustaining the music’s pace and pulse. Both works boast a wealth of lush, at times swooning, melodies, tempting string players to wallow in high-romantic lyricism. Doing so robs the music of momentum, and can even turn certain movements into a succession of episodes.

In an all-Brahms program staged by the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia, pianist Roman Rabinovich knew when to let his three string-playing colleagues sing, and when to prompt them to dance, march and gallop. He showed an unerring sense of tempo early on, in the opening allegro non troppo of Op. 60, which in too many performances tends to lumber, and great sensitivity for balances between piano and strings throughout both quartets.

Rabinovich also favored sharp, hair-trigger accents and finely spun melodic lines, characteristics that were echoed in the playing of violinist Diana Cohen, violist Jason Amos and cellist James Wilson. All three brought almost pointillistic detail and songfulness without excess to their parts. This was typified by the cello introduction to the andante of Op. 60 by Wilson (who is artistic director of the society), and the exchanges among the three later in the movement.

The ensemble’s treatment of Op. 25, the best-known of Brahms’ three piano quartets, played up the work’s rhetorical flourishes – notably the march-like anthem tune in the middle of the andante – and explored this music’s varied shades of tone color, especially in darker timbres.

The closing “Rondo alla Zingarese” of Op. 25, Brahms’ most vivid evocation of “gypsy” song and dance, rollicked and surged memorably in this performance. The group adopted an unusually speedy tempo, and the string players articulated their parts with the abandon – and some of the rawness – of folk fiddlers. Untidy as it was at times, it was nonetheless thrilling music-making.

Review: Shanghai Quartet

with David Finckel, cello
& Wu Han, piano
Feb. 28, Camp Concert Hall, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond

Thirty years ago, the Shanghai Quartet began its residency at the University of Richmond, which continued until 2003. Since the group’s departure to establish a residency at Montclair State University in New Jersey, the Shanghai has continued to perform at UR, which it considers its “second home,” each season.

For this informal anniversary program, the Shanghai – violinists Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violist Honggang Li and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras – joined by pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel, co-directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, presented two of the towering masterpieces of the chamber literature, Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81, and Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D. 956.

Both received intricately, almost clinically, detailed, richly expressive and consistently dynamic readings that emphasized the lyrical content of these works over their dance underpinnings.

This interpretive stance was more successful in the Schubert, in which the string players rode the composer’s melodic currents and played up the quintet’s contrasts of light and dark moods. Finckel, playing the second cello part, underlined those contrasts. Exchanges between the Li brothers’ first violin and viola also were key components of this unhurried, affectionate yet stirring performance.

The Dvořák sang beguilingly, but seemed too studied when it danced, as if the musicians were watching their steps more than responding to the music’s flow.

Wu Han laid a fine foundation in brightly glowing, emphatic but never intrusive piano lines. The Shanghai string players, notably cellist Tzavaras and violist Li, treated the quintet’s wealth of melody lovingly, and were tightly focused on the piece’s intricate rhythmic details.

Those details, while revealing elements of the piece that go unheard in many performances, too often detracted from the essential rhythmic character of dance passages, such as the scherzo and the fast central section of the dumka.

The violins and viola also sounded with peculiarly hard, fibrous tones, which happily did not recur in the Schubert.