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; (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 right arm in World War I. Fleisher also took up conducting.

After years of unsuccessful treatments for his disability, he 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:”

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:

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; (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; (Tickets may be purchased through links from that address.)

Studies: Safely making music in a pandemic

A London clinic tests singers, brass and woodwind players to measure the volume and velocity of the droplets and aerosol particles they emit, in one of the latest efforts to gauge the danger of infection – to fellow performers and audiences – of singing and playing during the coronavirus pandemic. The Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins takes readers into the medical-musical lab:

Meanwhile, the Incorporated Society of Musicians issues a guide to controlling the risks  of performing and teaching:

Click to access ISM-Literature-Review_July-2020_online-FINAL.pdf


Diversifying classical music

Speaking to The New York Times’ Zachary Woolfe and Joshua Barone, nine African-American artists – among them, Thomas Wilkins, the Virginia-born music director of the Omaha Symphony and former associate conductor of the Richmond Symphony – suggest ways that classical music, now dominated by white and East Asian performers, can more readily accommodate musicians of color:

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The Times’ Anthony Tommasini writes that a key to diversifying the ranks of orchestras is to abolish “blind auditions,” in which the race, sex and other visual characteristics of musicians cannot be seen by their auditors:

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Conductor Leonard Slatkin seconds Tommasini’s motion, and proposes a Slatkin Audition Process:

On Diversity

Review: Yim & Adamek

Susy Yim, violin
Magda Adamek, piano
July 16, Dominion Energy Center

In the second program of the Richmond Symphony’s Summer Series sampling of works by Beethoven, symphony violinist Susy Yim and Virginia Commonwealth University-based pianist Magda Adamek took on one of the composer’s best-known and most challenging recital works, the Sonata in A major, Op. 47, the “Kreutzer,” scored, according to its creator, “for piano and violin obliggato.”

That instrumental characterization applies most audibly to its central andante’s set of variations, in which the piano is usually the leading voice. The outer movements are more democratically apportioned between the two instruments.

Yim and Adamek delivered a “Kreutzer” that was moderate in tempo but fully animated in projection and expression. The violinist’s fairly lean tone and the pianist’s straightforward clarity produced an agreeable balance of voices and maintained coherence in even the densest passages.

David Fisk, the symphony’s executive director, came to Adamek’s rescue midway through the andante’s variations as the pages of her score curled, and continued his page-turning-and-flattening duty through the final movement, a tarantella that both players treated with cheerful animation.

Adamek opened the program with two of Beethoven’s bagatelles: the F major, Op. 33, No. 3, a a set of spare elaborations on a folksy sing-song theme; and the B minor, Op. 126, No. 4, a turbulent fast march more than vaguely recalling the “Turkish March” from the composer’s incidental music for “The Ruins of Athens.”

After watching and hearing the first Summer Series program as it happened, I chose to take in this one after the fact. Delayed viewing proved to be as satisfying as live viewing.

The video stream of the recital by Susy Yim and Magda Adamek may be accessed through July 22, 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; (Tickets may be purchased through links from that address.)