2018 Classical Grammy Awards

For those of us who don’t know Bruno Mars from Bruno’s Pizza, classical winners from the Grammy Awards:

Best Orchestral Performance: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Barber: Adagio – Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck (Reference Recordings)

Best Opera Recording: Berg: “Wozzeck” – Roman Trekel (Wozzeck); Anne Schwanewilms (Marie); Houston Symphony & choruses/Hans Graf (Naxos)

Best Choral Performance: Gavin Bryars: “The Fifth Century” – PRISM Quartet & The Crossing/Donald Nally (ECM)

Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance: Schubert: “Death and the Maiden” – Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (Alpha)

Best Classical Instrumental Solo: “Transcendental” – Daniil Trifonov, piano (Deutsche Grammophon)

Best Classical Solo Vocal Album: “Crazy Girl Crazy: Music by Gershwin, Berg and Berio” – Barbara Hannigan, soprano; Ludwig Orchestra (Alpha)

Best Classical Compendium: “Higdon: All Things Majestic, Viola Concerto and Oboe Concerto” – Roberto Díaz, viola; James Button, oboe; Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero (Naxos)

Best Contemporary Classical Composition: Jennifer Higdon: Viola Concerto – Roberto Díaz, viola; Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero (Naxos)

Best Historical Album: “Leonard Bernstein – the Composer” – New York Philharmonic, et al./Leonard Bernstein (Sony Classical)

Producer of the Year, Classical: David Frost

Best Engineered Album, Classical: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Barber: Adagio – Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck (Reference Recordings) – Mark Donahue, engineer

Review: Leon Fleisher & Katherine Jacobson

Jan. 28, Virginia Commonwealth University

Leon Fleisher, who by his reckoning has been playing Steinway pianos for 84½ of his 89½ years, gave a new Steinway D its public christening before a near-full house at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Singleton Arts Center. He did so playing some pieces closely associated with the ups and downs of his long career, as well as some repertory that some listeners might not expect to hear from him.

Fleisher, the last prominent surviving pupil of Artur Schnabel, spent much of his early career concentrating on the Austro-German classical-to-romantic composers – Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms – whom Schnabel prominently advocated. In 1964, Fleisher was stricken with the neurological malady called focal dystonia, which robbed him of the ability to play with his right hand; he turned to the left-hand repertory (largely of modern vintage) and devoted most of his time to teaching and conducting. In the 1990s, following a then-new treatment for focal dystonia, he resumed performing with both hands.

In this concert, part of a 90th-birthday tour (he turns 90 on July 23), Fleisher began with sets of familiar short works by Bach, Debussy and Chopin, followed by one of the first great left-hand pieces, Brahms’ piano transcription of Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita in D minor, BWV 1004, for solo violin.

In the second half of the program, Fleisher played secondo to the primo Katherine Jacobson, of his wife and performing partner, in Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor, D. 940, and Ravel’s “La Valse.”

In the two-handed sets, Fleisher adopted measured tempos that allowed plenty of space for tone coloration and emphasis on dynamic contrasts – the latter aspect especially effective in “La puerta del Vino” from Debussy’s second book of Préludes and Chopin’s Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op. 50, No. 3.

The pianist’s slow-but-steady pacing added depth to Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat major, Op. 27, No. 2, and “Clair de lune” from Debussy’s “Suite bergamasque,” and gave Egon Petri’s arrangement of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” an unusually meditative affect.

The most familiar characteristics of Fleisher’s early playing – textual rigor, rhythmic and tonal precision, sharply etched phrasing – came through in his performance of Brahms’ Bach transcription, exposing both the dance roots of the piece and the prayerful qualities of Bach’s variations on the theme without emphasizing either, concentrating instead on the musical arc of the piece and letting its spiritual import land on the listener without “interpretive” assistance.

He took a similar approach in playing the bass lines of the Schubert and Ravel pieces while Jacobsen played the top melodic lines and the bulk of the musical ornamentation.

The two pianists gave a stirring and moody reading of the Schubert, doing their best to contour its overly lengthy and emphatic scherzo section. Their treatment of “La Valse” was rather metrical and curiously salon-like, almost pretty, with the music’s violent undercurrents underplayed.

Letter V Classical Radio Jan. 24

noon-3 p.m. EST
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WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM
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Daniel Auber: “Fra Diavolo” Overture
Orchestra Philharmonica del Teatro Communale Giuseppe Verdi, Trieste/
Arturo Basile
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Past Masters:
Beethoven: Sonata in A major, Op. 47 (“Kreutzer”)
Adolf Busch, violin
Rudolf Serkin, piano
(Biddulph)
(recorded 1941)

Schubert: Sonata in A minor, D. 784
Lucas Debargue, piano
(Sony Classical)

Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major
Francesca Dego, violin
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Daniele Rustioni
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Samuel Coleridge Taylor: “Symphonic Variations on an African Theme”
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Grant Llewellyn
(Argo)

Glinka: “Symphony on Two Russian Themes”
BBC Philharmonic/Vassily Sinaisky
(Chandos)

Past Masters:
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 3 in D major (“Polish”)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
(Warner Classics)
(recorded 1977)

Review: ‘To Damascus’

Jan. 19, Firehouse Theatre

“To Damascus” by the Richmond composer Walter Braxton, receiving its premiere over the next two weekends, is billed as an opera. It might better be described as a staged narrative song cycle whose narrative is elusive. (“Make you own meaning,” advises Joel Bassin, Firehouse Theatre’s producing artistic director and director of this production.)

As the title portends, the work’s text hinges largely on scripture (Psalms, mainly), liturgy and religious or spiritually infused poetry. It is staged in layered visual symbolism, some of it transparent – we are travelers; see our luggage? – more of it implied or outright opaque.

Five singer-actors, three principal, two supporting, are constantly in stylized motion, at work on mundane but somehow resonant chores – lacing shoes, folding clothes, sorting papers, preparing meals – usually while singing long-lined melodies that come across as soliloquies.

Musically, it’s useful to know that Braxton was a student of Robert Ward, the North Carolina-based composer whose work was informed by the mid-20th century American-romantic school whose best-known figure was Samuel Barber.

From start to finish, “To Damascus” calls to mind Barber’s “Knoxville, Summer of 1915,” in its tone of bittersweet wistfulness, its mildly sultry applications of tone color and its porch-swing andantino tempo. “Knoxville” clocks in at 16 minutes or so; if it were much longer, it would grow tedious.

“To Damascus” is much longer – about an hour and a half of slow-to-medium tempos with little rhythmic variation outside of a couple of waltzes.

Some turbulent emotions are at play not far beneath the surface of this work, but they’re never let loose.

Dramatically and musically, the piece peaks in a second act with the Kyrie and Gloria of the Catholic Mass at its core, framed by rather troubling visual effects.

The voices – tenor Michael David Gray, soprano Michele Baez and baritone Chase Peak as principals, with Elisabeth Carlton Dowdy and Imani Thaniel joining ensembles – were very fine, technically and expressively, singly and collectively, in the Jan. 19 performance. In this intimate theater space, Gray and Peak projected their texts effectively. In Baez’s very high-riding soprano part, tone inevitably trumped words.

Conductor Michael Knowles, leading a chamber orchestra of strings, winds and keyboard, kept things moving at Braxton’s prescribed pace.

The composer plays a recurrent cameo role, starting and ending each of three acts with a flourish at a light switch, periodically shaking heads with and embracing cast members.

Walter Braxton’s “To Damascus” repeats at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 20, 4 p.m. Jan. 21 and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 25-27 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. in Richmond. Tickets: $40. Details: (804) 355-2001; http://firehousetheatre.org

Review: Alexander Paley

Jan. 14, St. Luke Lutheran Church

Any classical concert that ends with a march “against the Philistines” is timely; considering the past week, especially timely.

That march, the finale of Robert Schumann’s “Carnaval,” Op. 9, concluded the Winter Weekend of pianist Alexander Paley, whose fall festival has been a fixture of Richmond’s musical scene for two decades.

Both “Carnaval” and Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, which opened the program, might have been composed with a pianist like Paley in mind, a master of the technical and expressive tour de force. His forceful technique – at its most forceful taxing the capacities of St. Luke Lutheran Church’s baby grand – was balanced by a sensitivity to finely woven strands of melody and bell-like tones, framed by silences and resonations.

Paley also displayed a gift for sustaining extended paragraphs of musical ideas, giving melodies the right degree of exposure to expose beauty without belaboring it, and placing recurring themes in context.

All those qualities are essential, more overtly in Schumann’s interlinked succession of mood and character portraits – a kind of “Pictures at an Exhibition” with pictures imagined rather than evoked; more subtly but perhaps even more importantly in the Liszt, whose Sturm und Drang and plentiful keyboard filagree elaborately dress up what at essence is a prayer.

In the fall programs of his festival, Paley likes to explore unknown or overlooked repertoire – this year’s edition, scheduled for Sept. 14-16, will be devoted to Russian piano and chamber music. As rewarding as those programs can be, they leave relatively little time for him to play standard repertory.

In returning this time to two old favorites, he did his audience – and quite likely himself – a favor.