Youth competition winners

The Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra Program has announced the winners of its 2021 Digital Competition.

Among Camerata Strings competitors, violinist Isaac Wilson was in first place, violinist Aidyn Ellis-Otovo was in second place, and violinist Thomas Do received honorable mention.

In the Youth Concert Orchestra running, flutist Erin Clark won first place.

Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra winners include violinist Lira Masuda and flutist Camille Ryder, tied for first place; violinist Victoria Duell, second place; harpist Adelaide Gill, third place; violinist Marianna Wolpert, honorable mention; and clarinetist Benjamin Eubanks, most improved player.

Review: Richmond Symphony

Chia-Hsuan Lin conducting
with Kevin Zhu, violin
April 17, Dominion Energy Center

The final program of the Richmond Symphony’s Masterworks series in a season sorely tried by pandemic-driven limitations, and gratifyingly mounted despite them, contrasted early and late realizations of 18th-century classical style.

Led by Chia-Hsuan Lin, the symphony’s associate conductor, the program opened with two works by Joseph Boulogne, his Symphony No. 2 in D major (written as the overture to his opera “L’amant anonyme” [“The Anonymous Lover”]) and his Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 5, No. 2, the latter featuring Kevin Zhu as the soloist.

Boulogne, born on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe to an aristocratic French colonial planter and his wife’s enslaved maid, brought in youth to France for his education, known in adulthood as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was one of the most fascinating figures of his time – a champion fencer, prominent soldier, sometime diplomat/intelligence operative and active socialite in addition to being a celebrated violinist and orchestra leader and active composer.

Boulogne was the first prominent musician of African ancestry to compose European classical music. His pioneer’s role in the history of black classical musicians, however, is misunderstood in a key sense: Unlike later generations of black composers, whose works echoed musical traditions of Africa or the African diaspora in the New World, Boulogne was a musician of entirely European outlook, writing in the early classical or “rococo” style that prevailed in the mid-1700s. There is no racial or cultural distinction between his music and that of contemporaries such as François-Joseph Gossec, Johann Christian Bach and the younger Joseph Haydn (whose six “Paris” symphonies were commissioned and first conducted by Boulogne).

Zhu, the 20-year-old Chinese-American winner of the International Paganini Competition and earlier a prizewinner in the Yehudi Menuhin Competition for young violinists, currently studying with Itzhak Perlman at the Juilliard School, proved to be an ideal exponent for the Boulogne concerto, whose emphasis on tonal beauty and decorously elaborate touches of fiddle technique might have been crafted with Zhu and his instrument (the 1722 “Lord Wandsworth” Stradivarius) in mind.

In the concerto’s opening movement, Zhu ably balanced classical stylishness with uninhibited voicing of the rich melodic content that Boulogne brought to this music. That balance was even more welcome in the central slow movement, where the solo violin’s singing tone and subtle displays of technique are paramount, and in the cheerful, dancing rondeau that concludes the piece.

Zhu followed the concerto with an encore: a vividly accented, technically dazzling performance of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 in A minor – an enticing preview of the violinist’s ambitious project to play the full set of Paganini solo-violin caprices in concerts.

In the Boulogne concerto, Lin and the orchestra’s strings gave Zhu solid support in the “big band” style in which classical-era works were commonly heard before period instruments and historically informed performance practices began to influence modern orchestral playing. Sonorities were rich, tempos moderate, dynamics evened-out, accents more blunt than sharp-edged.

This approach effectively underplays early classical works, whose affect and momentum need more assertive projection. It also reduced the impact of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, performed in the program’s second half.

K. 550 is a rarity among Mozart symphonies not only in its being the only one of his later symphonies in a minor key, but also one of the few in which expressiveness and tone color are more essential than musical form. It is the most dramatic and characterful of the symphonies, and needs to sound deeply felt as much as, or even more than, well-played.

In this performance, heard in the online stream of the April 17 concert, the conductor and orchestra were slow to rise to Mozart’s emotional temperature. Form and lyrical lines outweighed expression and dark moodiness in the first movement. The andante, not the most memorable of Mozart’s symphonic slow movements, sounded even more routine and forgettable here. The performance didn’t really ignite until the third-movement menuet, where this work’s underlying turbulence and intimation of menace finally came through.

This was the first symphony concert since the onset of the pandemic to employ full-size string sections, which at least partly explains the richer sonorities than in performances with reduced string sections heard earlier in the season.

The more populated stage also may account for less transparent – at times, rather congested – orchestral sound realized by the VPM audio engineers for this stream.

Daisuke Yamamoto, the symphony’s concertmaster and one of the area’s most prominent musicians of Asian descent, opened the evening reading a pointed statement decrying increasing violence against Asians and Asian-Americans during the pandemic.

“Growing up in Georgia, I’ve often felt the sting of racism and blame associated with being Asian in America,” Yamamoto said. “When people chip away at your heritage, little by little, you start to lose a part of your identity and become lost. . . .

“As a father-to-be, I want my daughter to grow up in a world where she will be understood and accepted for who she is. I do not want her to endure the verbal abuse and bullying I and many other Asians have experienced growing up.”

Yamamoto’s remarks drew sustained applause.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. April 18 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$82 (limited seating); access to online stream of April 17 concert: $30 (viewable through June 1). Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

April calendar

The University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center continues its series of online-streamed concerts by members of New York’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with a program, featuring violinist Arnaud Sussman, of J.S. Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 4 in G major, BWV 1049, and Chausson’s Concert in D major, Op. 21, for violin, piano and string quartet, beginning at 7 p.m. April 2. . . . The society’s artistic directors, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, will lead performances of Geminiani’s Sonata in C major, Op. 5, No. 3; Haydn’s Quartet in F major, Op. 50, No. 5 (“Dream”); and Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” Suite at 7 p.m. April 9. The streams remain accessible for seven days after performance dates. Access is free; registration is required. Details: (804) 289-8980; http://modlin.richmond.edu

The Richmond Symphony, led by Chia-Hsuan Lin, its associate conductor, will play Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, and two works by Joseph Boulogne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, his Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 11, and Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 5, No. 2, the latter featuring violinist Kevin Zhu (replacing the previously announced guest violinist, Rachel Barton Pine), at 7 p.m. April 16, 8 p.m. April 17 and 3 p.m. April 18 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$82 (limited seating); access to online stream of April 17 concert: $30 (viewable through June 1). Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

Virginia Opera and the Richmond Symphony, Adam Turner conducting, stage Leonard Bernstein’s one-act opera “Trouble in Tahiti” at 4 p.m. May 1 at Dogwood Dell, Byrd Park, in Richmond. The cast includes Marissa Simmons as Dinah, Eric McConnell as Sam and Symone Harcum, Andrew Turner and Nicholas Martorano as the boys-and-girl trio. Kyle Lang is the stage director. Admission is free; reservations are required. Details: (804) 644-8168; http://vaopera.org

The Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia, in partnership with the Richmond Public Library’s Gellman Room series, presents flutist Mary Boodell, violinist Jesse Mills, pianists Rieko Aizawa and Ingrid Keller, writer Angela Lehman and host James Wilson performing from their homes in Richmond and New York in “A Musical Aviary,” a free program of works by Saint-Saëns, Somei Satoh, Howard Swanson and Jean Sichler in an online stream at 2 p.m. May 1. Access: http://rvalibrary.org/events/gellman-concerts . . . The society also presents clarinetist David Lemelin, violinists Meredith Riley and Christopher Whitley, violist Fritz Gary and cellist Khari Joyner in live performances of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581; Carlos Simon’s “An Elegy: Cry from the Grave;” and a quartet arrangement of Bartók’s “Romanian Folk Dances” at 4 p.m. May 2 at Trinity Lutheran Church, 2315 N. Parham Road. Tickets: $5-$30. Details: (804) 304-6312; http://cmscva.org

Alcee Chriss, winner of the 2017 Canadian International Organ Competition, will play transcriptions of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Liszt’s “Orpheus,” as well as works by J.S. Bach, Schumann, Reger, Boëly, Rachel Lauren and Florence Price in a recital at 7:30 p.m. April 30 at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, 1627 Monument Ave. Masks are required and seating will be distanced. Admission is by reservation, at (804) 359-2463 or by clicking “Register for Alcee Chris Recital” at http://www.grace-covenant.org/music-ministry The recital also will be live-streamed and archived for later access at http://www.grace-covenant.org

The online stream of violinist Cho-Liang Lin and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra playing the first four of J.S. Bach’s “Brandenburg” concertos may be accessed for the next 30 days. Tickets: $25. . . . The VSO, conducted by Matthew Kraemer and joined by cellist Nicholas Canellakis, plays Haydn’s Symphony No. 100 in G major (“Military”), Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor and Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” Suite No. 1 at 7:30 p.m. April 9 at the Ferguson Arts Center of Christopher Newport University in Newport News and 2:30 p.m. April 11 at the Sandler Arts Center in Virginia Beach. . . . Shizuo Kuwahara conducts the orchestra, with guest pianist Andrew von Oeyen, in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C major for strings, at 7:30 p.m. April 23 at Ferguson Arts Center in Newport News and 7:30 p.m. April 24 at Chrysler Hall, 215 St. Paul’s Boulevard, in Norfolk. . . . Benjamin Rous conducts the VSO in John Adams’ “Shaker Loops” and Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 in C major, K. 425 (“Linz”) at 7:30 p.m. April 30 at Ferguson Arts Center in Newport News and 2:30 p.m. May 1 at Sandler Arts Center in Virginia Beach. Ticket information: (757) 892-6366; http://virginiasymphony.org

Hampton Roads’ Virginia Arts Festival presents:. The eminent Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain, joined by an international cast of percussionists – Pezhham Akhavass, Marcus Gilmore and Abbos Kosimov – at 7:30 p.m. April 13 at Bank Street Stage, 440 Bank St., Norfolk. Tickets: $105-$140 (pods of 3 or 4 patrons; limited availability). . . . The celebrated American bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green with members of Virginia Opera and the Virginia Symphony, Adam Turner conducting, at 7:30 p.m. April 17 at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk. Tickets: $26.25-$55 (limited seating). Details: (757) 282-2822; http://vafest.org

The Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg presents pianist András Schiff in an online streamed recital program – J.S. Bach’s “Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue” in D minor, BWV 903, and “Capriccio on the Departure of his Beloved Brother,” BWV 992; Beethoven’s Sonata in D minor, Op. 31 No. 2 (“Tempest”) and Sonata in E flat major, op. 81a (“Les Adieux”); and Schumann’s Arabeske in C major, op. 18 – at 7:30 p.m. April 1. Access: $10. Details: (540) 231-5300; http://artscenter.vt.edu

Other ensembles in Virginia and the Washington area are presenting series of streamed and archived programs. Check the websites of organizations and presenters for details and access procedures.

James Levine (1943-2021)

James Levine, the longtime music and artistic director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, forced out in 2018 after investigations of sexual predation, has died at 77.

Levine conducted at the Met for 47 years and led more than 2,500 performances. He also was music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (2004-11), the Munich Philharmonic (1999-2004) and the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1973-93). He guest-conducted many of the leading US and European orchestras, and performed as a pianist.

The Cincinnati-born son of a onetime swing bandleader and a former actress, Levine studied at the Juilliard School and began his conducting career in the early 1960s as an assistant to George Szell at the Cleveland Orchestra. He made his Met debut in 1971, conducting Puccini’s “Tosca.”

His pursuit of younger men, although widely talked about in the classical-music world, was not the subject of public charges until 2017, when several men came forward to say he had pursued or harassed them decades earlier, when they were young musicians. An investigation for the Met in 2018 concluded that Levine had made unwanted advances and treated artists as “prey,” leading to his dismissal.

By that time, he had been largely absent from Met performances for several years due to failing health.

Levine’s private behavior was long shielded by his sterling reputation as a conductor and maestro of opera productions. His Met years, especially in the 1980s and ’90s, are considered a golden age for the company. The MET Orchestra, as it was styled for concert series, won acclaim as one of the finest symphonic ensembles in the US.

The conductor’s many opera recordings with the Met and other companies and symphonic recordings with the orchestras of Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Vienna and Berlin have been rated as reference versions of repertory ranging from Mozart to Mahler.

An obituary by The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini:

Conductor Kenneth Woods delivers a scorching assessment of Levine the man, the artist and the commodity: “an almost completely horrible person, with a single, tragic talent.” The comment thread following Woods’ essay is worth reading, too:

Classical Grammy winners

The Grammy Awards, a big deal in most genres of recorded music, are often perceived to be less prestigious in classical music, probably because the Grammy selection committees are composed of people in the classical recording business rather than the critics and academics who usually decide on classical-music awards.

It also doesn’t help that classical Grammys commonly are treated as step-children, coming in at the bottom of a long list (following the likes of regional roots music, children’s music and comedy on the The New York Times’ list).

There’s a decidedly modern/contemporary tilt to this year’s awards: The oldest compositions performed on any of the winning recordings are the four symphonies of Charles Ives. Six of the winners feature works written in this century.

The classical Grammy winners:

Best Orchestral Performance: Ives: complete symphoniesLos Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel (Deutsche Grammophon 4839502)

Best Opera Recording: The Gershwins: “Porgy and Bess”Eric Owens (Porgy), Angel Blue (Bess), Latonia Moore (Serena), Golda Schultz (Clara), Denyce Graves (Maria), Frederick Ballentine (Sportin’ Life), Alfred Walker (Crown), Ryan Speedo Green (Jake), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus/David Robertson (Metropolitan Opera 1000420118)

Best Choral Performance: Richard Danielpour: “The Passion of Yeshua”Hila Plitmann, soprano; J’Nai Bridges, mezzo-soprano; Timothy Fallon, tenor; Matthew Worth & Kenneth Overton, baritones; James K. Bass, bass; UCLA Chamber Singers; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus/JoAnn Falletta (Naxos 8.559885-86)

Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance: “Contemporary Voices” (Shulamit Ran: Quartet No. 3 [“ Doom, Shards, Memory”]; Jennifer Higdon: “Voices;” Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Quintet for alto saxophone and string quartet)Pacifica Quartet; Otis Murphy, alto saxophone (Çedille 90000196)

Best Classical Instrumental Solo: Christopher Theofanidis: Concerto for viola and chamber orchestraRichard O’Neill, viola; Albany Symphony/David Alan Miller (Albany 1816)

*Best Classical Solo Vocal Album: Ethel Smyth: “The Prison”Sarah Brailey, soprano; Dashon Burton, bass-baritone; Experiential Chorus & Orchestra/James Blachly (Chandos 5279)

Best Classical Compendium: Michael Tilson Thomas: “From the Diary of Anne Frank” & “Meditations on Rilke”Isabel Leonard, narrator; Sasha Cooke; mezzo-soprano; Ryan McKinny, bass-baritone; San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas (SFS Media 2193600792)

Best Contemporary Classical Composition: Christopher Rouse: Symphony No. 5 Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero (Naxos 8.559852)

Best Engineered Album: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13 (“Babi Yar”)Alexey Tikhomirov, bass; Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Muti (David Frost & Charlie Post, engineers; Silas Brown, mastering engineer) (CSO Resound 9011901)

Producer of the Year: David Frost

*Ethel Smyth’s “The Prison” is a vocal symphony that won the Grammy in the Best Classical Vocal Solo Album category. Go figure . . .

Lou Ottens (1926-2021)

Lodewijk Frederik (“Lou”) Ottens, the longtime technical director of the Dutch electronics firm Philips who led the teams developing the tape cassette in the early 1960s and the compact disc in the early ’80s, has died at 94.

Ottens insisted that cassettes and CDs be small enough to fit “pocketable” players, The Washington Post’s Harrison Smith writes in an obituary:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/lou-ottens-dead/2021/03/10/2acec574-81c7-11eb-ac37-4383f7709abe_story.html

A year of solitude . . . and then what?

One year ago, on March 8, 2020, I concluded that evening’s episode of Letter V Classical Radio on WDCE, the University of Richmond radio station, with J.S. Bach’s “Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother.” I can’t claim that the selection was prescient. I didn’t know that it would be the last time my radio show aired until who knows when (if ever), or that the outbreak of COVID-19 would become the most widespread pandemic in more than 100 years.

Coming home after that show, broadcast the day after I attended the Richmond Symphony program that secured Valentina Peleggi’s appointment as the orchestra’s new music director, marked the beginning of my lockdown – a separation from the wider world, interrupted rarely by visits to doctors and skittish dashes in and out of grocery stores and pharmacies.

This year of solitude hasn’t been as traumatic for me as it has been for so many. I’m used to keeping my own company – and that of Fritz, a cat who by now can’t conceive of life without affection-on-demand. I live on a sufficient retirement income, and in a comfortable home with plenty to read and hear and see to ward off boredom or stupor. I have a private deck overlooking a lake, so I can enjoy the outdoors without risking exposure to people who don’t take precautions.

I know only a few people who’ve contracted the virus, and no one close to me has died of it.

I’m lucky, and I try never to forget that.

Still, I miss the world with me in it. Phone calls and e-mails to family and friends, online shopping, performances experienced virtually on a computer screen, and the rest of the “new normal” are a lousy substitute for the old normal. Understanding that sustaining the old normal could be fatal to you or someone else doesn’t make the new necessity – a better term, I think – any more desirable.

Anxiety over the virus may ease in time. (“May” = anxiety; that’s going to linger.) More and more of us will be vaccinated – I got my first shot last week – and life more or less as we knew it may resume by the summer or fall.

Or will it?

How long will it take to get over all the obsessions we’ve fallen into during the pandemic? Will we become chronic hoarders of food and paper products? Will a stash of surgical gloves and N95 masks be as common as a drawer full of Band-Aids?

Much less trivially, will we continue to keep our distance – physically, emotionally, socially, economically, politically – as the virus recedes? We’ve seen how easily caution can turn into suspicion and then into hostility.

It’s nice to envision a post-COVID society that’s free and fun, something like the Roaring ’20s following the flu pandemic of 1918-20. Remember, though: The 1920s also saw the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan well beyond its Old-South spawning ground, along with other descents into ethnic and religious bigotry, anti-science and junk-science mania, a toxic brew of isolationism and hyper-nationalism, and growing economic dislocation and disparity. The ’20s set the world stage for the ’30s and beyond, full of horrors that no decent person would want to see repeated.

History doesn’t repeat itself, or even rhyme; but there’s plenty of current-day evidence that the pandemic has changed us, individually and socially, in ways that we haven’t begun to come to terms with.

On top of that, pre-COVID, we already were facing colossal challenges from climate change, technology-driven transformations of the economy, delivery of information (and disinformation), personal privacy (or lack thereof) and so many other aspects of life and work, and growing perceptions that the systems we’ve depended on, from pothole-filling to foreign policy, have become sclerotic and destined to fail.

Maybe the über-rich guys seeking to colonize Mars are on to something . . .

OK, enough of that. I’m old enough to bank on having already died by the time our self-induced Armageddon comes to pass.

I worry more parochially – and more pertinently in this space – about the post-pandemic state of classical music, especially close to home.

The Richmond Symphony, the largest local musical organization, appears to be at some tentatively reassuring point on the spectrum between surviving and thriving. Recovery may be more challenging for Virginia Opera, with its higher production and multi-city logistical costs. (The travails of the big kahuna of US opera, the Metropolitan in New York, couldn’t be encouraging to smaller fry.)

Richmond’s principal presenters of touring chamber-music artists, the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University, are sheltered somewhat by being educational institutions that are either well-heeled (UR) or big, state-supported and arts-intensive (VCU).

Other local recital presenters, such as the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia, the Richmond Chamber Players and the Repertoire Recital Series of the Richmond chapter of the American Guild of Organists, are leaner operations with (so far) dedicated audiences and donors. The area’s choral groups are leaner still, with unpaid singers and modestly/minimally paid directors and accompanists. Semi-pop-up endeavors such as Classical Revolution RVA presumably will pop back up when conditions permit.

VPM, the local public-broadcasting entity, has been producing online streams of symphony concerts and recitals, and its crew is getting good at it. VPM streams of other local classical performances are an enticing prospect.

Less promising is the number of classical musicians who’ve left the profession and may not return. Among proliferating bits of evidence: An internationally prominent solo artist is on food stamps; a number of colleges are cutting their music programs; a shockingly high percentage of musicians have given up in Germany, where state support of the arts is vastly more generous than in this country. I haven’t seen comparable data for US musicians, but I fear it would be a depressing number.

Will pent-up hunger for live music run up against a famine of still-active musicians? Especially seasoned 30- and 40-somethings working at the highest artistic level, many of them over-achievers since early childhood, who could earn much higher incomes in other lines of work?

How many music lovers have developed new listening habits that will endure? If you have high-speed internet and high-quality speakers or headphones hooked up to your computer, you can enjoyably access a vast trove of live performances at no cost or for fees much lower than the price of a ticket (assuming you could travel and obtain a ticket for, say, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra or the Vienna State Opera).

Sure, watching and hearing a concert or opera onscreen is nothing like attending a performance in person. Still, if you look at what television-streaming has done to the movie business, you have to wonder what music-streaming is going to do to live music – especially big-ticket live events, where at-home vs. in-person price and access disparities probably would be widest.

Recordings are the outlet for many music lovers, especially as they age and mobility becomes an issue. Some have spent fortunes on home audio-video systems – there are, no kidding, $100,000 turntables – and have amassed large collections of records, tapes, CDs, DVDs and, now, downloads and streams, to be enjoyed at home, whenever they choose, in whatever they care to wear (or not).

Increased at-home listening and viewing have prompted many to upgrade their equipment (I recently bought a computer monitor roughly the size of the TV screens I watched until I was 50), and may have acclimated many music lovers to levels of artistry that they may not experience in their local concert halls and opera houses. Physical perspectives are different, too: Video streams show musicians, notably conductors and pianists, as most concertgoers never see them.

Other changes:

Onstage social distancing of musicians has boosted lighter-limbed music for chamber orchestra that’s rarely played in mainstage concerts. Listeners, while missing the sonic punch of 80 musicians playing at full tilt, also may find that one of Haydn’s “Paris” or “London” symphonies makes a refreshing change from yet another go at the Brahms First.

Streaming offers the opportunity to present contemporary, early music or other special-interest works without concert presenters fretting about filling seats for repertory other than Beethoven and Rachmaninoff.

Video productions also have induced (or forced) more musicians to learn how to talk to listeners about music – that’s still very much a work in progress – and have opened up all kinds of opportunities to attract and educate new audiences.

Notions of what music rates being described as “classical” and how it should be presented already were changing, and those changes are sure to accelerate. (It’s high time for a piano recital program of Chopin, Debussy and Thelonious Monk.)

The two-hours-in-the-dark, overture-concerto-symphony, Mozart-Schubert-Shostakovich-quartets models of concert presentation may become unfashionably retro. The traditional concert space already was giving way to different spaces, used at different times, for different durations, and for not exclusively musical content.

Opera may cease being consistently “grand,” with lavishly costumed singers on an ornate set up there and the audience out here, but could be dramatically enhanced if/when it becomes more intimate. The most engrossing opera performance I’ve seen in recent years was Capitol Opera Richmond’s 2018 production of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” whose mixture of singing, dancing and tableaux was staged throughout the sanctuary of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church – wildly impractical to try in a normal theater.

Pandemics are transformative. The bubonic plague in the 14th century hastened the end of feudalism and the flowering of the Renaissance in Western Europe. Without anticipating anything near the toll of the Black Death from COVID-19, we can safely bet that this pandemic will bring on significant and lasting cultural change, and we can hope that it’s change for the better.

Even in the hidebound, or at least habit-prone, culture of classical music.

Review: Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with Gabriela Martinez, piano
March 6, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Symphonic-composer flavors of the year or decade come and go, but the real measure of a conductor’s mettle was, is and will remain Beethoven. By that score, Valentina Peleggi makes her for-real debut as music director of the Richmond Symphony in this month’s Masterworks program.

The program’s pairing of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major with the Symphony No. 4 in B flat major could be heard as Beethoven’s homages to his mentor, Haydn, in the symphony, and one of his prime inspirations, Mozart, in the concerto. Or as the composer who premiered the concerto in 1795 maturing into the composer who introduced the symphony in 1807. However heard, these works pose a reasonably comprehensive test of a conductor’s grasp of Beethoven’s classical musical architecture and his proto-romantic expressive sensibility.

Peleggi, I’m happy to report, not only gets Beethoven but also brings her own personality to this music without getting in its way.

In the second of three weekend performances, which I saw and heard via the online stream produced by VPM, Peleggi and orchestra gave Gabriela Martinez, the soloist in the concerto, stylish yet extroverted accompaniment, complementing the pianist’s classical poise garnished with Chopinesque tonal nuance.

Martinez’s tone turned rather brusque in rhythmic passages, which sapped much of the playfulness from the concerto’s final movement; but she compensated with an almost prayerful rendering of the central largo, which the pianist and conductor paced as a true largo – very slowly – without bogging down.

In introductory remarks, Peleggi described Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony as “a hymn of life” driven by “a primordial beat” – an improvement, I’d say, on Schumann’s purported characterization of the work as “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants” (those being the Third [“Eroica”] and Fifth symphonies).

The conductor’s hymn-singing proved to be brisk and lusty – even the symphony’s adagio moved right along – and her beat never flagged, except in an old-school downshifting of tempo in the scherzo’s trio section. The performance’s rhythmic energy plus tonal mass made for a winning combination.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. March 7 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $10-$82 (limited seating); access to online stream: $30 (viewable through April 20). Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://www.richmondsymphony.com

Review: Wu Han, David Finckel, et al.

Wu Han, piano
David Finckel, cello
Arnaud Sussman, violin
Paul Neubauer, viola
streamed via Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond

In the first of four performances from New York’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center offered online by the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center, the ensemble’s co-directors, pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel (who are also spouses), played Beethoven’s Sonata in F major, Op. 5, No. 1, and were joined by violinist Arnaud Sussman and violist Paul Neubauer in Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25.

The performances, recorded in what appears to be a home music room with a forest in full bloom outside its glass doors, were high-definition, audially, visually and interpretively.

Han and Finckel have played Beethoven sonatas on several occasions locally, and this performance was quite similar to their past performances – assertive and robust, classical in pacing and stylistic touches, romantic in richness of tone production. The duo nicely sustained momentum and made structural sense of the big first movement, and brought out the folk-dance quality of the rondo that concludes the sonata.

The collective tone usually produced by the society’s ensembles – what I like to call “New York standard” – is best suited to sonically big-boned, expression-rich romantic scores such as Brahms’ Op. 25, and this foursome made quite a meal of the piece, leaning into songfulness of the andante and lyrical sections of the quartet’s outer movements, emphasizing the quicksilver-ish atmospherics of its intermezzo and romping through the Hungarian-rondo finale.

Throughout both performances, instrumental voices were well-deliniated (especially useful in the Brahms) and balances well-maintained (tricky at times in the Beethoven). In the Brahms, group sound at high volume bordered on the congested at times, perhaps because of the intimacy of the space and closer-than-concert-stage proximity of the musicians.

The performance is accessible through 7 p.m. March 8. Other streamed recitals by Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center artists begin at 7 p.m. March 12 and 26 and April 2 and 9. Access is free; registration is required. Donations to the Modlin Center are requested. Details: (804) 289-8980; http://modlin.richmond.edu

Menuhin Competition 2021 goes virtual

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, the Menuhin Competition for young violinists, being staged in May in Richmond, will be virtual event, Lacey Huszcza, executive director of the Richmond Symphony, has announced.

The competition and local co-sponsors are finalizing the schedule of competition rounds and concerts and means of public access.

Those who purchased tickets for Menuhin events last year will be contacted by the symphony with details and options.