Monday, November 17, 2008

Richmond Symphony: Stravinsky's Psalms

Maybe I was tired after a long week, or maybe the unexpected, chilly evening rain tempered my spirits, but Saturday's performance by the Richmond Symphony left me uninspired.

I was most eager to hear Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" (with the Richmond Symphony Chorus) and curious about Barber's "Second Essay for Orchestra"--both of which I did not know--and anticipated being happy enough with Schubert's 9th symphony. And of course, I wanted to form an opinion about Director Candidate #3, Steven Smith.

The performance was the least precise I've heard by the RSO for as long as I can remember--which isn't saying much, as I'm happy to forget failings, and furthermore, they've been doing a lot of bombastic music recently, and it's much easier to hide imperfections when you're playing loud and fast. Both the Barber and the Stravinsky are quite spare, even austere in parts, with simple, exposed lines that have to be both accurate and beautiful. (And if you're singing in the choir, for Dominum's sake, get your "laudate"s together. I felt peppered with "d"s and "t"s.)

Stravinsky set Psalms 38, 39 and 150 (in Latin) to music, scoring for an intriguingly dark orchestra: no violins or violas. There were also 5 flutes, 4 oboes and no clarinets (as opposed to the typical 3,2,3. I didn't take proper notes, but there were bassoons, Fr. horns, trumpets and a trombone, and timpani.)

Dark, but not dismal. The psalms' texts move from plea to relief to praise, and the music is powerful without being sentimental. I especially liked the fugues in the second movement, with the oboe and the flute taking long-legged steps, as up a rocky mountain--enormous intervals between notes, creating a melody unsingable but ethereal: "And he led me out of the lake of misery, and out of the mire. And he set my feet upon a rock, and directed my steps." (Photo: Adrien Siegel)

Never having heard the Barber or the Stravinsky before, I didn't have anything to compare Smith's direction to, but my general impression was one of dryness. No note was sustained any fraction of a second longer than strictly indicated (I imagine) and no extra decibels milked from the crescendos or pilfered from the decrescendos.

Smith didn't seem to be drawing the best out of the musicians, but perhaps I was imposing my own lackluster attitude on the performance.

I did hear rumors earlier in the week, however, that nobody liked rehearsing the Schubert. I'll tell you one thing: it's not nicknamed "Great" because it's an exceptional piece of music; it's "great" because it's so blasted long. Actually, I'll tell you another thing: C Major must have been on sale when Schubert wrote the thing, because he sure does throw around that C Major key like beads on Fat Tuesday.

But it's a fine piece, and even if I haven't figured out yet how it fit on the program with the other two, I'm glad to have heard it again.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Richmond's Pump House: Go When You Get the Chance!

On the most gorgeous of fall afternoons, I visited Richmond's historic Pump House, now part of the James River Park System. It's usually not open to the public, but park educator Lorne Field was giving tours last Saturday as part of the park system's effort to increase interest in restoring the building to serve as an interpretive center for the park.

We arrived barely half an hour before it was scheduled to be closed up again, and judging from the number of cars still there, people certainly are interested in the building.

I had no idea how impressive the Pump House is, nor how interesting its history is, nor even how extensive and beautiful the trails along the two surrounding canals are. (The park grounds are open to the public. Go now!: take the last right before the Nickel Bridge going south.)

You can see photos and get some history at the link above and more here, but briefly: the building was constructed in 1882, with additions in 1905, to pump water from the James River to the Richmond Reservoir, where it would run, mostly by gravity, into homes and businesses. The architecture of the building reflects the importance of a city water system. A dance floor built above the waterwheels and pumps reflects the inherent glamour of Public Works. (Really. Those Victorians were wild.)

Wealthy Richmonders would ride canal boats or carriages to dance parties, although when Richmond got its streetcars running all the way out to nearby Byrd Park, the riffraff started showing up, and the elegant dance pavilion got painted in multiple shades of blue and pink. The band probably started playing "Yes, We Have No Bananas," and in 1924, the Pump House ceased operations. (Okay, it wasn't the riffraff but the demand for city water beyond the pumps' capabilities.)

Turning the Pump House into an environmental and historical education center would be fabulous. It's a huge project and will require public and private funding... and, Lorne Field hopes, many volunteers with a preservationist vision.

As charming and funny as a dance floor above a water system is, it's a history that's almost exclusively white. The more significant history of the Pump House is its coexistence with the canal system and its role in improving public health.

Anyway, if you ever hear that they're giving tours of the Pump House again, Foxtrot on over.

Halloween is the New Christmas

Several years ago, I was complaining to a neighbor about the frivolity of Halloween and its high sugar content. "Nobody needs candy," I said, or something like that.

Marta said, "I love Halloween. I think it's great that one night out of the year, everyone gives something to their neighbors." (I paraphrase, of course, because my memory's not THAT great.)

She changed my life. I love Halloween more every year. I know the holiday has its devotees of the macabre and its lovers of the freedom a costume provides, but I'm charmed simply by the many tiny acts of unselfish generosity that happen all up and down the streets of my neighborhood. Actually, I've been starting to think that Halloween is more Christian than Christmas.

(Please don't talk to me about kids with one lousy bandanna and two bulging pillowcases. I don't want my idyllic vision littered with Chompo Bar wrappers.)

The other reason I've been loving Halloween more and more is that for three years now, we've had an exuberant parade through our neighborhood streets, thanks to Bread & Puppet, All the Saints, and revelers too numerous to mention, or to photograph, though you can see a few here from Tess at Flickr.

Witness to a Century

Last week I watched the pre-release version of "Witness to a Century," a documentary produced by the Virginia Historical Society and WCVE public television which will air Nov. 10 at 9 p.m. It features excerpts of interviews with a dozen or so Virginian centenarians, several of whom attended the screening at the VHS. Additionally, narration and photos lead viewers through the 20th century.

The interviewees' personal stories--which include simple recollections of using a hand-operated washing machine ("better than a washboard!") as well as accounts of housing and job discrimination-- are fascinating, but not particularly unique. The value of the project is in the sound and sight of the actual interviews. So much was said between the words, in the glance downward after a sentence, the pause before a carefully chosen phrase.

I love reading oral histories, but man--hearing and seeing them is so much better. If you, like I, are not much of a TV watcher and miss the documentary the first time around, you might be able to check it out of a library next year, since plans are in the works to sell it as a DVD.