You get what you pay for (or not)

Years ago, I got ferocious reader backlash after observing in a review of a recital by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax that the audience seemed more enthusiastic about being in the same room as the artists than intent on hearing the Brahms sonatas they were playing.

Robert Battey may be in for the same kind of feedback after his review for The Washington Post of Ma, Ax and violinist Leonidas Kavakos, playing trios of Schubert and Brahms at the Kennedy Center, especially as Battey compared their performance unfavorably with that of the far less well-known Vienna Piano Trio, playing Brahms, Haydn and Schoenberg at the Library of Congress:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/glamour-trio-ax-kavakos-and-yo-yo-ma-produce-thunder-at-kennedy-center/2018/02/25/7fc68c16-1a4f-11e8-9de1-147dd2df3829_story.html

There are fans and there are listeners, and while there is some overlap, those constituencies and their motivations are quite distinct. So, in these cases, were their investments: The Ma-Kavakos-Ax concert commanded ticket prices of $75 to $300; tickets for Library of Congress concerts are rather laborious to acquire, but free if you can get them.

Reviewers generally get complimentary tickets. Battey’s readers paid, either with money or with time and effort. In DC over the weekend, it appears that time and effort trumped money, at least for listeners.

Review: Chamber Music Society

Nurit Pacht, violin
Khari Joyner, cello
Philip Bush, piano
Feb. 25, University of Richmond

The Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia paired Beethoven and Ravel in two weekend performances. A seeming odd couple: The colossus of Viennese classicism and the master of French impressionist tone painting.

Not so odd, in fact, in the second of the weekend’s performances, featuring Beethoven’s “Archduke” Piano Trio in B flat major, Op. 97, and Ravel’s Piano Trio, works that were written exactly a century apart (the Beethoven in 1814, the Ravel in 1914) and that encapsulated the musical languages and sensibilities of their creators.

This program, presented at the University of Richmond’s Perkinson Recital Hall, featured artists known for their versatility. Substituting for Areta Zhulla, who canceled her Richmond gig after being named the new first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, violinist Nurit Pacht came packing a modern violin after playing a period instrument in baroque concerts by the Chamber Music Society in December.  Pacht was joined by Khari Joyner, a young cellist whose career overlaps classical music and jazz, and Philip Bush, a veteran pianist as well-known for working in contemporary music (with Steve Reich for two decades) as for playing traditional chamber repertory.

Those biographies promised fresh perspectives on familiar scores, and the trio consistently delivered in performances of keen rhythmic acuity, fine tonal balances and attention to often-overlooked sonic and stylistic details.

On the balance front, Bush was remarkably successful in projecting prominent parts – neither Beethoven nor Ravel are known for reticent piano music – without crowding the strings.

Pacht and Joyner also played in high relief, the cellist with robust and strategically lyrical bass lines, the violinist with varying tones of brilliance and finely etched atmospherics.

In the andante cantabile of the “Archduke,” Pacht and Joyner played soulfully while deftly avoiding sentinentality. In the preceding scherzo, all three musicians brought out the structural and expressive touches with which Beethoven anticipated so much of the romantic style of subsequent generations.

Fine as this reading of the “Archduke” was, it paled alongside the trio’s performance of the Ravel, clarifying the work’s complex rhythms, wide palette of tone colors and extraordinary range of stylistic references, from high-romanticism in the first movement to Basque dance in the Pantoum and an almost medieval chant in the Passacaille.

Ravel’s exuberant finale, played to the hilt, won Pacht, Joyner and Bush a well-deserved ovation.

Review: Richmond Symphony

Feb. 23, Kingsway Community Church, Midlothian

Of all the adjectives applied to classical music, “cheerful” generally ranks pretty low on the list. That says more about what classical musicians choose to program, and what their audiences choose to hear, than what composers have chosen to produce. Even the most serious of them have their sunny, witty side; and more a few than are remembered mainly for music of exuberance and good humor.

Steven Smith has built this weekend’s Richmond Symphony program around such music – a wildly diverse assortment of pieces, ranging from the second suite from Handel’s “Water Music” to Darius Milhaud’s evocation of a raucous nightclub, “Le boeuf sur le toit” (“The Bull on the Roof”) and excerpts from William Walton’s “Façade,” music written to accompany Edith Sitwell’s dada-esque poetry for what may have been the weirdest-ever after-dinner entertainment in an English country house.

The acoustics of Kingsway Community Church’s sanctuary favored winds, brass and percussion, and the placement of trumpeters Brian Strawley and Daniel Lewis and French horn players James Ferree and Roger Novak at floor level on either side of the orchestra gave their instruments extra prominence in the Handel. They exploited that sonic advantage with brilliant, expertly ornamented performances of their parts, stylishly seconded by the strings and woodwinds.

Winds and percussion were nearly as vivid a presence in the Milhaud, a ballet score driven by the frenetic dance rhythms of the Brazilian carnival and 1920s “hot” jazz, and in the satirized folk and ballroom dances of Walton’s “Façade” Suite No. 2.

The orchestra’s strings projected warmth in George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings,” a more overtly expressive cousin of Samuel Barber’s Adagio (the two pieces were written written with 10 years of each other), and captured the misty atmospherics of the central andante of Albert Roussel’s Concerto for small orchestra, Op. 34, a work from 1920s Paris that echoes composers, most audibly Debussy and Stravinsky, who had set the city’s musical tone in previous decades.

Schubert’s “Overture in the Italian Style,” D. 591, is a young composer’s game try at imitating the style of Rossini, whose operas were all the rage in early 19th-century Vienna. Smith and the band nicely balanced Schubert’s innate tunefulness with his not-quite-idiomatic overlay of Rossinian flourishes.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Feb. 25 at Blackwell Auditorium, Randolph-Macon College, 205 Henry St., Ashland. Tickets: $22. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

Letter V Classical Radio Feb. 21

noon-3 p.m. EST
1500-1800 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM
http://wdce.net

Joseph Martin Kraus: Symphony in C minor
Basel Chamber Orchestra/Giovanni Antonini
(Alpha)

Ryan Cockerham: “Before, It Was Golden”
Er-Gene Kahng, violin
Janáček Philharmonic/Ryan Cockerham
(Albany)

Handel: Jubilate, HWV 279 (“Music for the Peace of Utrecht”)
Nicki Kennedy, soprano
William Towers, countertenor
Julian Podger & Wolfram Lattke, tenors
Peter Harvey, bass
Netherlands Bach Society/Jos van Veldhoven
(Channel Classics)

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major
Norman Krieger, piano
London Symphony Orchestra/Philip Ryan Mann
(Decca)

David Lang: “This Was Written by Hand”
Andrew Zolinsky, piano
(Cantaloupe)

Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Fantasia for cello and orchestra
Claes Gunnarsson, cello
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Thord Svedlund
(Chandos)

Past Masters:
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B flat major
Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell
(Sony Classical)
(recorded 1959)

Review: Gil Shaham & Akira Eguchi

Feb. 18, University of Richmond

Violinist Gil Shaham, returning to town for a recital with pianist Akira Eguchi at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center, pulled off one of the most elusive feats in classical music: thrilling non-specialist listeners with a piece of contemporary music.

The piece was Avner Dorman’s Sonata No. 3 (“Nigunim”), which Shaham and his pianist sister, Orli, commissioned and introduced in 2011. The sonata’s title refers to a vein of Jewish song, sacred or secular, that “ascends beyond words and conveys a deeper spiritual message,” the composer writes, observing that “a Nigun sung in Yiddish will reach and affect someone who only speaks Arabic and vice versa.”

“Nigunim,” drawing on Jewish musics from Eastern Europe and the Balkans to North Africa and Central Asia, casts its material in a modern tonal language that emphasizes virtuosity and expressiveness. It is a perfect vehicle for Shaham’s fiddle technique and musicality. The violinist and pianist played with audible affection for this music, ranging idiomatically from its dance rhythms to its introspective, prayerful tunes, and earned loud cheers after its dazzling high-speed finale.

Shaham and Eguchi made nearly as persuasive a case for an even newer work, Scott Wheeler’s Sonata No. 2 (“The Singing Turk”) (2017), a sonically prismatic take on music from the “Turkish” operas that were in vogue in the 18th and 19th centuries. Wheeler casts the “Aria of Roxelana” from Paul César-Gilbert’s “The Three Sultanas” is a bittersweet soliloquy, framed by more playful takes on arias from Handel’s “Tamerlano” and Rossini’s “Il Turco in Italia.”

The program opened with Fritz Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro “in the Style of Pugnani,” one of the famed violinist’s bogus “discoveries” of early music that fooled even scholars in pre-historically informed times. Shaham doted on Kreisler’s deception, giving the prelude convincing faux-baroque treatment before indulging in the latter-day pyrotechnics of the allegro.

More standard fare filled the concert’s second half. Shaham began with a fluent and sonically brilliant, if not quite in current baroque fashion, rendition of J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006, last of the composer’s six great suites for solo violin.

Then, Shaham and Eguchi took on César Franck’s Sonata in A major, playing this violin-recital staple with focused tone and fine expressive range, bringing out the Wagnerian ecstasy of its allegro molto movement and the proto-impressionism of its recitative-fantasia.

Review: Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

Feb. 17, Virginia Commonwealth University

The Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, performing in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts series on its farewell US tour, etched in high relief several staples of the wind-quintet repertory and at least one curiosity.

The staples were Carl Nielsen’s Wind Quintet, one of the many quintets of Anton Reicha (the D major, Op. 91, No. 3) and Paul Hindemith’s “Kleine Kammermusik” (“Little Chamber Music”) No. 2.

The curiosity, at least on this side of the Atlantic, was “Five Sacred and Profane Dances” by Henri Tomasi, a French composer who wrote extensively for winds and brass.

Nielsen’s quintet, dating from 1922, serves as a kind of overture to the late period of the Danish composer’s working life, when his music became increasingly quirky, angular and harmonically adventurous. The quintet, written for his friends in the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, is couched as a conversation among the five instruments – a conversation that grows especially animated as a churchy chorale tune is run through a decidedly un-churchy set of variations.

The Berliners – flutist Michael Hasel, oboist Andreas Wittmann (doubling on English horn), clarinetist Walter Seyfarth, bassoonist Marion Reinhard and French horn player Fergus McWilliam – played the Nielsen with the fluency of long familiarity, liberally garnished with energetic spontaneity.

They conveyed much the same spirit in the Hindemith, one of the composer’s better balances of compositional rigor and good cheer, and in the Tomasi suite, a 1948 opus modeled after and expanding upon Claude Debussy’s “Danses sacrée et profane.”

Tomasi frames his sacred and profane dances with pastoral, wedding and war dances. Weirdly, his wedding dance sounds more eventful, even eruptive, than his war dance – at least it did in this performance.

Reicha was the father of the wind quintet, and a prolific parent, siring no fewer than 24 of them in nine years (1811-20). Op. 91, No. 3, dating from 1818-19, is late-classical in style, sometimes sounding like a miniaturization of a Haydn symphony. That similarity was played up in the Berliners’ exuberantly assertive reading.

Letter V Classical Radio Feb. 14

For Valentine’s Day, high romance – including his-and-hers piano concertos by Robert and Clara Schumann.

noon-3 p.m. EST
1500-1800 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM
http://wdce.net

Tchaikovsky: “Romeo and Juliet” Fantasy-Overture
Czech Philharmonic/Semyon Bychkov
(Decca)

Nielsen: “Hymnus amoris”
Inga Nielsen, soprano
Poul Elming & Arne Elkrog, tenors
Per Høyer, baritone
Jørgen Ditlevsen, bass
Copenhagen Boy’s Choir
Danish National Radio Choir
Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
(Chandos)

Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor – IV: Adagietto
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
(SFS Media)

Clara Wieck Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor
Francesco Nicolosi, piano
Alma Mahler Sinfonietta/Stefania Rinaldi
(Naxos)

Past Masters:
Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor
Stephen Kovacevich, piano
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis
(Philips)
(recorded 1970)

Past Masters:
Wagner: “Tristan und Isolde” – Prelude and “Liebestod”
Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell
(Sony Classical)
(recorded 1962)

Rimsky-Korsakov: “Scheherazade”
Orchestre de l’Opéra Bastille/Myung-Whun Chung
(Deutsche Grammophon)